Tag Archives: Oscilloscope Laboratories

Relaxer

Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, Pavel Juráček and more!

CarmenFirst Name: Carmen (1982)
Détective (1985)
Hélas Pour Moi (1993)
Kino Lorber

The standard line about Jean-Luc Godard is that he’s never come close to replicating the string of masterpieces he made in his astonishingly productive 1960s output. The ’70s get the militantly political works that dare you to find a shred of anything resembling “entertainment” while the past few decades are afforded a series of perversely playful essay experiments.

It’s a stretch to call the ’80s and early ’90s a lost era for Godard, but there’s relatively little appreciation for his return to narrative filmmaking as only Godard could imagine it. In upgrading three of the four films from Lionsgate’s DVD box set, Kino offers an excellent way to rediscover three key works of the period. In each, Godard refracts myth and genre, deconstructing ideas about storytelling and ideas about some of his previous films, which Détective and First Name: Carmen seem especially in dialogue with.

First Name: Carmen considers the filmmaker, with Godard starring as a version of himself who’s “all washed up,” annoying the staff at a hospital where he’s staying for no identifiable reason. His niece Carmen (Maruschka Detmers) convinces “Uncle Jean” to lend her the use of his house for a film she’s making, but it’s all a ruse in service of several shakily conceived robbery and kidnapping plots.

In adapting Bizet’s opera, Godard reimagines the tale of passion and doom as one of strictly doom, as Carmen’s affair with a security guard, Joseph (Jacques Bonaffé), is defined by disconnection from the start, even as he ties himself to her in an attempt to prevent her from robbing a bank.

The only real passion here is a string quartet practicing (Beethoven — not Bizet), their music soundtracking a series of mechanically performed violent and sexual encounters. The music frequently gives way to cacophonies of noise, Uncle Jean somewhere behind the scenes fiddling to get the feeling right.

First Name: Carmen is archly meta, Godard puncturing the films’ traditional pleasures — a lovely scene of Joseph mourning, his outstretched hand in front of TV static, dissipates amid one of the soundtrack’s strangest mash-ups. Like many of Godard’s films, it’s challenging to put your finger on just why this works so well, but First Name: Carmen becomes a beguiling tale of loss wrapped in a jokey structure without a hiccup. It’s a great film.

DetectiveThe other two offerings don’t quite achieve the same heights, particularly Détective, which never coheres into more than a tossed-off genre riff in its two-headed story about a pair of detectives (Jean-Pierre Léaud and Laurent Terzieff) attempting to solve a murder and an unscrupulous boxing trainer (Johnny Hallyday) trying to stay ahead of his debts in the same hotel. Less overtly self-reflexive than First Name: Carmen, the film still feels like blatantly artificial, every half-understood plot twist piled up on each other in a personal competition to devise the shaggiest noir story ever.

In Hélas Pour Moi, Godard refashions the Greek myth of Alcmene and Amphitryon into a bleak meditation on what it means to be human. Legend has it that a god came to earth and inhabited the body of Simon (Gérard Depardieu) in order to seduce his wife, Rachel (Laurence Masliah), and experience carnal pleasure for the first time. In scenes full of portent, shot by cinematographer Caroline Champetier with a stillness one doesn’t usually associate with Godard, the relationship progresses.

Or does it? After Depardieu quit the film midway through production, Godard fashioned a frame story about a publisher (Bernard Verley) trying to reconstruct the story of Simon and Rachel, if it even happened. Though much of the film is inscrutable, the Simon and Rachel flashbacks have a kind of mystical aura that carries them through. Not so for the scenes set in the publisher’s present, which are very much of the earthly variety, him trudging through a series of baffling anecdotes with little hope of connecting the dots. The dichotomy between heaven and earth is a wide gap, and as the god who visited ultimately decides, it’s not one he’d like to bridge.

Helas Pour MoiAll three Kino discs are outfitted with a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer, and each represents a big upgrade from the previous DVD set. Clarity and fine detail are stunning in all three transfers, with the heavy-on-natural-light Hélas Pour Moi the standout. In this presentation, it’s tempting to call it Godard’s most beautiful film.

Each transfer offers a film-like appearance, with perfectly rendered grain and pops of color (yellow hotel bathrobes in Carmen; a red and blue neon sign advertising cassettes in Détective). Some light speckling occurs, most noticeably in Carmen, but it’s hard to imagine these films looking better on the format. DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 tracks (mono on Carmen, stereo on the others) are uniformly excellent, offering clean showcases for a variety of aural trickeries.

Each disc includes an audio commentary and a booklet essay, while Carmen also includes Godard’s 1982 short Changer d’image.

RelaxerRelaxer (2018)
Oscilloscope Laboratories

The latest film from Joel Potrykus confirms it: The man knows how to create worlds that have a genuine lived-in shittiness. There’s no whiff of artfully arranged faux-squalor. From the fluorescent hell of the mortgage office in Buzzard (2014) to the haunted cabin in the woods of The Alchemist’s Cookbook (2016) to the skin-crawling rot of the apartment in Relaxer, the milieu is always uncomfortably real.

These locations are fertile grounds for Potrykus’ twisted fantasies and their refractions of toxic masculinity. In Relaxer, the decay of the film’s only location acts as a hilariously grotesque salute to end-of-millennium American culture. In this version of 1999, the Y2K apocalypse hastens, and Potrykus greets it with a blast of ’90s anti-nostalgia.

Joshua Burge, who channeled uproarious and troubling levels of impotent rage in Buzzard and Potrykus’ first feature, Ape (2012), delivers his best performance yet as Abbie, a pathologically committed figure, determined to complete any challenge — and weather as much abuse as necessary along the way — from his shithead older brother, Cam (David Dastmalchian). The first one we see involves drinking nearly an entire gallon of milk. The results are predictable. The route there isn’t.

Cam has one more challenge: Beat the nigh-mythical Level 256 on Pac-Man, and don’t leave the couch for any reason until it’s completed. Abbie accepts. Now-disgraced gamer Billy Mitchell’s offer of $100,000 to anyone who can accomplish the feat is a factor, but Abbie’s motivations are ultimately much more personal. He’s not getting up from that couch.

Relaxer feels like the culmination of Potrykus’ films thus far, pushing the slacker ideal to its absolute breaking point and luxuriating in the grotesque like never before. Between spilled sour milk, guzzled cherry Faygo and progressively more disgusting fluids of other varieties, the film has a sticky tactility I might not get over.

Potrykus refashions a bit from Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel as a scatological nightmare and reimagines Chaplin eating his shoe in The Gold Rush as a cringe-inducing grace note. Burge, who bears a striking resemblance to Buster Keaton, essentially transforms into a silent film star by the film’s end, every gesture performed by Abbie’s increasingly atrophied body focused on one quixotic goal. It’s disturbing. It’s funny in ways you never saw coming. It’s the Platonic ideal of a Joel Potrykus film.

Oscilloscope’s Blu-ray offers a 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer with exceptional clarity and excellent reproduction of the film’s generally muted look. A stereo DTS-HD Master Audio track is pretty dynamic and lively in parts. Extras include a Potrykus audio commentary, a collection of behind-the-scenes footage split between high-quality digital and camcorder-like footage, rehearsal footage with Potrykus and Burge, promos, and a kind of challenge to the viewer: 2001-era footage of Potrykus and his friends puking at a “milk party.”

One SingsOne Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977)
The Criterion Collection

The feminist films of  Agnès Varda take many shapes, but whether she was working in a mode of documentary realism or sunnily lacerating satire, she never had time for sentimentality. That’s especially apparent in One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, which treats both the separation of its main characters and their fight for abortion rights in Europe as perfectly surmountable obstacles. When the women in Varda’s sort-of-musical face a problem — sudden abandonment by romantic partners, friendship-testing distances, political resistance — they simply do what needs to be done to get past it.

That matter-of-factness can make One Sings, the Other Doesn’t resonate somewhat less than more formally playful Varda films, but the film’s depiction of female friendship is undeniably moving.

Teenaged Pauline (Valérie Mairesse) reconnects with Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard), an older friend whose pregnancy has put her in dire straits. Pauline helps come up with the money to pay for an abortion, and a loose bond becomes an unbreakable connection, even as circumstances keep the two apart for a decade. When they reunite, each has deepened their involvement in the feminist cause: Pauline now goes by Pomme, and performs with a political all-women band, while Suzanne has opened a family planning clinic.

There’s a fundamental optimism to One Sings, the Other Doesn’t and its affirmation of feminism as liberation for women of all walks of life. Its generosity and openness is wonderful.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer is sourced from a 2K restoration of the original camera negative. The image occasionally leans into the teal-zone, with some slightly unnatural cold hues as a result, but image clarity, fine detail and grain resolution are excellent. The same restoration is featured on the Artificial Eye Region B Blu-ray set, and the transfers look basically identical.

Extras include Katja Raganelli’s on-set documentary and two Varda shorts: Réponse de femmes and Plaisir d’amour en Iran, which briefly expounds on an underdeveloped thread in One Sings. Also included: a trailer, an insert with an essay by Amy Taubin and notes from Varda, and a separate booklet that recreates sections of the 1977 press book.

RookieA Case for a Rookie Hangman (1969)
Second Run

The last film Czech director Pavel Juráček would make in his sadly abbreviated career, A Case for a Rookie Hangman reads like a handbook for how to anger an authoritarian regime. And it did, as the film went basically unreleased and Juráček was blackballed from the industry for the rest of his life.

Loosely adapting a segment of the third part of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Juráček uses the setting of the kingdom of Balnibarbi and the island of Laputa floating above to plunge a far-from-heroic Gulliver (Lubomír Kostelka) into a series of intractable conflicts. The government is incomprehensibly rigid, the people are ready to coalesce into an angry mob at a moment’s notice and Gulliver can’t convince anyone he’s not Oscar, the owner of a pocket watch he acquired shortly before being plunged into this mess. Oscar is, naturally, a rabbit in clothing (an obvious nod to Carroll) that Gulliver ran over in his car.

The slipperiness of Juráček’s free-floating storytelling is mitigated somewhat by chapter headings that delineate the episodic tumbling some. A perhaps sturdier guidepost is the emotional state of Gulliver, who keeps seeing flashes of the young woman he once loved who drowned. Kostelka communicates a dazed anguish in his performance, and Juráček visualizes the disorientation with a number of clever shots — most notably one in which a house’s floorboards suddenly turn elastic.

Second Run’s Blu-ray features a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer sourced from the Czech Film Archive’s 4K restoration. This is a very pleasing transfer, with healthy levels of fine detail, solid grayscale separation and impressively mitigated damage, with reel change marks left intentionally intact. The 2.0 LPCM mono track is quite clean.

Second Run’s extras nearly turn this into a “Complete Directed Works of Juráček” set, with only his debut feature, Every Young Man (1966) absent. (Juráček’s career as a writer produced more well-known works, with films like Daises and Ikarie XB 1  also available from Second Run.) Here, we get two shorts, Cars Without a Home and Black and White Sylva, along with short feature Josef Kilián (1963), an absurdist piece about a man’s struggle to return a cat to the location he borrowed it from. An episode of the Projection Booth podcast discussing Juráček’s career is offered as a kind of audio commentary, while the booklet essay by Michael Brooke does a deep dive into the film and its place in Juráček’s brief career.

LilyAll About Lily Chou-Chou (2001)
Film Movement

Films about youth don’t come much more honest than Shunji Iwai’s All About Lily Chou-Chou, in which teenagers’ unvarnished exuberance and surprising capacity for cruelty collide. As a document of the early Internet age, the film taps into the way obsessions became communally turbocharged, with the film’s characters coalescing around their love for singer Lily Chou-Chou. Visualizing an online forum, the film shows breathless comments and usernames flying across the screen, many exalting Lily and the “Ether,” the creative aura fans have ascribed to her art.

In the offline world, Iwai maintains a similar feel, his weightless camera work and Lily’s ethereal music (provided by Takeshi Kobayashi and Salyu) contributing to the dreamlike state. But the realities are much darker here, as friends Shūsuke (Shugo Oshinari) and Yūichi (Hayato Ichihara) have a falling out that involves the formation of a gang and a prostitution ring. The violence and brutality that follow are shocking, but the film never abandons the dreaminess.

Frequently, Iwai returns to a grassy field where a character listening on headphones drifts away on Lily’s music. Music is a genuine balm — but it has its limits, as does a community based around a common interest, as the film’s gut-punch of a final sequence makes clear.

The 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer on Film Movement’s Blu-ray is limited by the source, shot primarily on the Sony HDW-F900 digital camera, then brand-new technology. The film’s vibrant colors are mostly true, and detail is solid when the light allows for it. Expected macroblocking isn’t too bad, apart from several moments during the film’s midway excursion to Okinawa where a switch in viewpoint (and camera) results in totally smeared, degraded images. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is dynamic and offers an excellent showcase for the music.

Extras include an oddly described “making-of featurette” — actually an 86-minute documentary on the online origins and the production of the film. The included booklet features a director’s statement and an essay by Stephen Cremin.

Wanda

Blu-ray Review Round-up: Films by Barbara Loden, Alex Cox, Jindřich Polák and more!

HighwayHighway Patrolman (1991)
Kino Lorber Studio Classics 

Exiled from Hollywood after not-a-biopic Walker, the iconoclastic Alex Cox took his talents to the Mexican film industry, making the third in a string of westerns, Highway Patrolman. Unlike Walker and Straight to Hell, it’s a fairly conventional film — at least by Cox’s standards. Bitter satire and cockeyed surrealism sit at the edges of Highway Patrolman, rather than its center.

But Cox excels in this mode also, and this picaresque about Pedro (Roberta Sosa), a rookie cop eager to be corrupted in a remote border town assignment, veers from deliriously funny to relentlessly bleak. Cox employs a long-take approach full of elegantly designed shots as Pedro progresses from nervous kid to embittered professional. Sosa traverses a convincingly weathered path, from a naïve greenhorn whose attempted shakedown of a farmworker (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez) results in their marriage to a man whose code of honor demands he care for a desperate prostitute (Vanessa Bauche) and avenge a wronged partner (Bruno Bichir).

Cox balances his contempt for authority figures with a genuine care for his protagonist, even when he gleefully abuses his power, and Cox’s tonal control is evident in the way he makes digressions into the supernatural (like a visit from Pedro’s dead father) feel of a piece with the film’s more straightforward elements.

Kino’s Blu-ray sports a Cox-approved 1080p, 1.85 transfer sourced from a new 4K restoration, and it’s easily the best the film has looked on home video. The image retains the dusty quality of the photography, while showcasing strong levels of fine detail and film-like depth. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is reasonably clean.

Kino continues their upgrades of Cox films that were released on DVD by the now defunct Microcinema label. Many of the extras from that DVD release are ported here, including an audio commentary from Cox and producer Lorenzo O’Brien and a couple making-of featurettes. A newly filmed intro by Cox is also included, along with his debut short film, Sleep is For Sissies.

Here’s hoping the Cox upgrades continue with a release of the wonderfully weird Three Businessmen.

KhrustalyovKhrustalyov, My Car! (1998)
Arrow Academy

Alexei German was not a prolific filmmaker, leaving behind only five solo directorial efforts upon his death in 2013, which also saw the release of his final film, the staggering sci-fi epic Hard to Be a God. But in that film and his penultimate one, Khrustalyov, My Car!, there’s such an abundance of ideas, one feels the films’ frameworks struggling to contain it all.

Featuring some of the most maximalist mise-en-scène one will ever lay eyes on, Khrustalyov hurls itself at the viewer, densely packed, deep-focus frames of activity overwhelming the eye and the mind. German wallows in his oppressively intricate scenic design, and if literal shit is the common thread in Hard to Be a God, it’s spit in Khrustalyov, whose title card is accompanied by a kid hocking a loogy onto a mirror. The expectoration continues apace, German’s love of grotesquerie acting as metaphor for authoritarianism.

It’s commonplace to comment on the impenetrability of German’s films, and there are frequent stretches of the film that would likely require a thorough knowledge of Stalinist-era Russia to grasp. On the other hand, the basic plot is simple — military doctor General Klensky (Yuri Tsurilo) finds himself targeted by an anti-Semitic scheme — and the film’s pervasive sense of dread and paranoia is so strong, one would have to try to lose the emotional thread.

German balances that relentless pessimism with a sly sense of humor that runs the gamut from bodily function juvenilia to surreal grace notes. The film requires careful attention and earns it in equal measure. It’s like a firehose turned on full blast that you can’t pull your face away from.

Arrow’s Blu-ray features a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer sourced from a new 2K restoration, and it’s incredible how good the film looks. Alternating between shadowy blacks and blown-out whites, the film presents obvious visual challenges, but fine detail and clarity remain consistent strong points throughout the transfer. Damage has been almost completely eradicated. The LPCM 2.0 track handles the soundtrack — as dense as the images it accompanies — with decent fidelity and no apparent issues.

Arrow’s collection of extras are especially impressive when one considers this is a film most labels would pass on in any form. A new audio commentary features programmer and disc producer Daniel Bird, while critic Eugénie Zvonkine’s video essay explores German’s style and historian Jonathan Brent’s featurette looks at the real-life history of Stalin’s plot. The set also includes two archival interviews with German and an extensive 60-page booklet with essays and contemporary reviews. Everything is housed in a sturdy slipbox with a fold-out poster. It’s a stellar package.

IkarieIkarie XB 1 (1963)
Second Run 

Much of the enjoyment in Jindřich Polák’s Ikarie XB 1 comes from placing it in the continuum of science-fiction cinema. The geometric set design clearly influenced the look of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and in adapting Stanislaw Lem (the film is loosely based on The Magellanic Cloud), it anticipates the shattering emotional toll of space travel depicted in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, even if the outlook is considerably sunnier here. I was even reminded a touch of a scene in Claire Denis’ High Life, where a man going mad in space is an existential threat like no other.

Polák, who co-wrote the film with Czech New Wave luminary Pavel Juráček, clearly saw his film’s place in the sci-fi continuum, at one point introducing a clunky Robby the Robot-like figure before cheekily undermining its usefulness as a relic from the past.

At the same time, the film is undeniably quaint in its own way, with the spaceship’s large co-ed crew spending its leisure time at a kitschy dance party as unlikely in the year 2163 as that robot. And though the shadowy black-and-white photography depicts a crew racked by both emotional uncertainty and mysterious sickness (not to mention the appearance of nuke-equipped ship full of fossilized humans), the film’s underlying tone never quite embraces the darkness. The ahead-of-its-time design elements mingle with a very of-its-time utopian optimism, making for a fascinating signpost in the history of sci-fi.

Second Run’s 1080p, 2.35:1 Blu-ray transfer is sourced from the Czech National Film Archive’s 4K restoration. The transfer is solid, with good grayscale separation and an exceptionally clean image. Some occasional softness and minor quality fluctuations do pop up, but it’s a nice-looking transfer overall. A 2.0 mono uncompressed track offers a strong showcase for Zdeněk Liška’s multivalent score.

In upgrading to Blu-ray, Second Run offers several new extras, including the opening and ending to the dubbed US cut, Voyage to the End of the Universe, which added a gimmicky reveal, and 1963 short film The Most Ordinary of Occupations, directed by Josef Korán. Carried over from the DVD: Critic Kim Newman’s appreciation and the extensive booklet essay by Michael Brooke.

WandaWanda (1970)
Criterion Collection 

It’s been almost a decade since the UCLA Film & Television Archive restoration of Barbara Loden’s one and only feature film. It trickled out to a few theaters then, but the film has been difficult to see for much of its lifespan, and like many rarities, it’s been breathlessly acclaimed.

Now available from Criterion, the film isn’t one that screams “masterpiece” at first blush, with an aimless looseness that seems endemic to a good portion of New Hollywood films of the era. But it’s a film I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since seeing it, primarily for a reason that contemporary critics savaged it for: The overwhelming passivity of Wanda, played by Loden herself, a woman who gets roped into a misbegotten robbery scheme by a viciously petty criminal, Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins).

It feels incorrect to call Wanda the protagonist, as she’s a woman with only the barest hints of personal agency. Loden’s performance is a masterwork of smallness, portraying a person who’s believed every awful thing said about her in a lifetime. One of the film’s most striking scenes is a long shot of Loden, a tiny speck of white trudging across a pockmarked coalfield. But even in close-up, she somehow seems to only occupy the tiniest corner of a frame, and her face communicates the feeling that she’d prefer to disappear altogether. Loden, whose career was largely otherwise centered on supporting sexpot roles, turns in one of the most fearlessly unglamorous performances you’ll ever see.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is sourced from UCLA’s 2K restoration of the 35mm blowup of the 16mm elements. Fans of grain will love this transfer, as it’s here in all its glory, perfectly rendered in a film-like appearance that never dips into digital noise. Some minor speckling and dirt remain, but the restoration has cleaned up things nicely. A lossless mono track has no apparent issues, though the film’s audio is obviously limited by its low budget.

Criterion’s extras present a compelling portrait of an artist whose death from cancer at 48 cut short a fascinating career. Katja Raganelli’s 1991 documentary I Am Wanda features an elegiac interview with Loden from the year she died. Archival interviews from an AFI event (audio only) and The Dick Cavett Show from 1971 focus on the production of Wanda. Loden’s 1975 educational short The Frontier Experience is also included, along with the re-release trailer and an insert essay by critic Amy Taubin.

BeckyBecky Sharp (1935)
Kino Lorber Studio Classics 

On one hand, Rouben Mamoulian’s Becky Sharp is mainly notable for its historical relevance as the first three-strip Technicolor feature film. On the other hand, it’s such a weird literary adaptation, it’s worth recommending on its own merits.

There’s no reason an 84-minute adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s voluminous novel Vanity Fair should work, and Becky Sharp, which was based on a theatrical adaptation, doesn’t. But it’s strangely invigorating to watch Miriam Hopkins plunge the class satire into straight-up screwball comedy, her Oscar-nominated performance as striving Becky Sharp underlined in marker with an “ain’t I a stinker?” mischievousness.

Hopkins’ ebullience makes up for the anonymous quality of the men Becky uses in her onward march of social mobility. The roughly interchangeable aristocrats are about as essential to this telling as the geopolitics, in which Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo acts as mere wallpaper. Mamoulian, a generally terrific director of early sound films, shoots listless scene after listless scene, with Hopkins going off like a firecracker in the middle of each.

Kino’s 1080p, 1.37:1 Blu-ray features a transfer sourced from a new 4K restoration of the 35mm nitrate negative and positive separations. It’s not always apparent if the restoration’s color inconsistencies are due to a not-quite-dialed-in Technicolor process from the early days of the technology or the difficulty of restoring three-strip Technicolor.

Either way, be prepared for a lot of image fluctuation and color inconsistencies most obviously seen in the sickly green or pink pallor that will overtake the image from time to time. There are moments when the image exhibits that gorgeous three-strip saturated look, and the fine detail and clarity of the image are quite good. Considering the atrocious quality of the previously available public domain DVDs (Alpha’s transfer is streaming on Prime Video, for a taste of the horror), Kino’s Blu-ray qualifies as a minor revelation. The disc also includes an audio commentary from historian Jack Theakston.

ColumbusColumbus (2017)
Oscilloscope Laboratories

Columbus is the debut feature from Kogonada, best known for his video essays, many of which have appeared as extras on Criterion discs. Like those essays, the film is stylish to a fault — and it starts to feel like a fault after dozens of impeccably composed, artfully asymmetrical wide shots of the modernist architecture of Columbus, Indiana. Coupled with a script that feels just as hermetically sealed, much of the dialogue either subtext-explicating or pointedly aloof, and the effect is a bit suffocating.

Fortunately, the performances frequently transcend the film’s trappings. Haley Lu Richardson as Casey and John Cho as Jin each bring deep wells of unspoken frustration and desire as they strike up a fast friendship, accompanied by the film’s tour of the city’s surprising architecture. She’s an aimless recent graduate, her ambitions muffled by care for and obligation to her mother who’s recovering from a drug addiction. He’s drifted into this remote place after his renowned professor father suddenly fell ill, and obligation is about the only thing keeping him here.

Kogonada’s brand of rigorously structured humanism isn’t totally convincing, but Richardson and Cho (and Parker Posey, in a small but perfectly shaped performance as Jin’s father’s assistant) give the film the kind of emotional reverberation that ensures the film is more than an exquisitely hollow bauble.

Oscilloscope’s Blu-ray features an excellent 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer, with a subtle but effective 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. (A 2.0 track is also offered.) Extras include selected-scene commentary from Richardson and Cho, a handful of deleted scenes, an outtakes/making-of short film from the director and the trailer.

wendy2

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

WendyWendy and Lucy (2008)
Oscilloscope Laboratories

There’s a scene in Kelly Reichardt’s first masterpiece, Wendy and Lucy, when Michelle Williams’ Wendy is apprehended by a self-righteous teenager working at a small-town Oregon grocery store. She’s trying to shoplift a few cans of barf diet for dogs, Lucy, who’s tied up outside. He hauls her back to the manager’s office, with an indignant quaver in his voice. “The rules apply to everyone equally,” he says. Reichardt, who’s quite possibly the greatest working American filmmaker, keeps the camera on Williams, whose hardened gaze flickers for a moment of incredulity at this statement. The rules apply to everyone equally? Like hell they do.

Wendy and Lucy is one of the most affecting portraits of working-class disaffection in American film. A life on the margins is acutely felt in Reichardt’s images of a gas-station bathroom, a desolate parking lot, a quieted port town, the inside of a busted Honda Accord. There’s beauty too: a stranger who’s kind for no reason other than being kind or the relationship one has with a dog. Lucy, played by Reichardt’s own dog, is a symbol of unadulterated good in a world that takes very little notice of her owner, a woman chasing opportunity in Alaska, if she can only get there.

Reichardt’s eye for striking, unexpected compositions reveals the strangeness in ordinary life and the inner turmoil that’s often hiding underneath a placid surface. There have been a lot of great performances in Reichardt films, particularly in her most recent film, Certain Women, which would have made Lily Gladstone a major star in a just world. But Williams is her ideal collaborator, a performer who pulls back the veil on an inner life with the slightest of gestures. Wendy and Lucy is often described as a small film but it’s not; it’s an expansive one, every character movement and pillow shot of Pacific Northwest terrain building to a devastating emotional climax.

After months of kicking myself for not picking up Soda’s UK Reichardt Blu-ray box before it went OOP, I’m grateful to Oscilloscope for upgrading Wendy and Lucy. (Now we could just use an Old Joy upgrade stateside.) The 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer is very pleasing, significantly improving on the DVD’s handling of the 16mm grain, which looks natural and well-supported here. Colors are true and clarity is strong. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is excellent. Some retrospective extras would have been welcome for a film of this stature, but nothing new is added from the DVD. The intriguing selection of experimental films by Reichardt’s Bard College colleagues remains a great bonus feature though.

Oscilloscope Laboratories / 2008 / Color / 1.78:1 / 80 min / $32.99

PersonalPersonal Problems (1980-1981)
Kino Lorber

A fascinating work of collaboration and experimentation, the “meta-soap opera” Personal Problems is a landmark of Black independent filmmaking, resurrected from the ashes of deteriorating video tape with a new restoration from Kino. Conceived by Ishmael Reed, Steve Cannon and director Bill Gunn, the two-part film/television hybrid casts a restless eye on a family led by the irrepressible Johnnie Mae (Vertamae Grosvenor), an emergency room nurse in Harlem.

Consisting of direct-to-camera address, kitchen-sink domestic strife, musical interludes, nature interludes, juicy if undecipherable gossip and what seems like the whole range of human emotions, Personal Problems contains multitudes. It’s compelling and enervating in almost equal parts. Gunn’s curious video camera always seems to be in the right place to catch a moment, and the smearing inherent in the format lends both a verité-like realism and an otherworldly effect.

Part one, which revels in Gunn’s unusual cutting a little more, features an indelible performance from Grosvenor, whose Johnnie Mae is caught in a love triangle with her emotionally inconsistent husband (Walter Cotton, one of the project’s other originators) and a musician (Sam Waymon, Nina Simone’s brother). Though Personal Problems possesses the building blocks of soap-opera drama — affairs, unwelcome family members, unexpected death — it’s not organized around them. Though the film would benefit from staying centered on Johnnie Mae’s experiences, as Grosvenor is easily its standout actor, it’s approach is far too diffuse to be satisfied by that.

In part two, the focus tightens some with a very long scene set at a wake, and the complaints of a grieving family member become as grating to the viewer as they do the characters. One longs for the “unfocused” escape the first part would have provided. Personal Problems doesn’t play by the rules of narrative though — even rules it seemed to be following just minutes earlier. One can only imagine what a full season of this would have looked like.

Kino’s Blu-ray offers a 1080p, 1.33:1 image that is obviously limited by the capabilities of the 3/4” U-matic tape Personal Problems was shot on. But taking the smearing, ghosting and interlacing as a feature not a bug, it’s easy to appreciate the relative clarity of the image. Hiss is persistent, if not omnipresent, and the audio is pretty clean otherwise, taking into account the intentionally muffled sound of some overlapping dialogue. The disc is also a carefully assembled special edition, with preliminary video and radio versions, deleted scenes, cast and crew interviews, Q&A from the restoration premiere and a booklet with essays by Reed and author Nicholas Forster.

Kino Lorber / 1980-1981 / Color / 1.33:1 / 164 min / $29.95

MatterA Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Criterion Collection

Before viewing the new Criterion disc, it had been a while since I’d seen A Matter of Life and Death, and in my memory, it was mid-lower tier Powell and Pressburger, which is hardly faint praise given the high quality of the pair’s output. But still, it wasn’t major in my recollection. Well, that was a stupid thought.

The new 4K restoration of the three-strip Technicolor is certainly a factor — those reds, my god — but I’m not sure how I missed the reality that this is just a perfect movie, a fantasy in which the universe’s most ecstatic pleasures are earthly delights. The inversion of the expected — heaven’s scenes are in black and white, earth’s are in color — is a brilliant conceit. When WWII RAF pilot Peter Carter (David Niven) cheats death by surviving a jump from his burning plane, he emerges from the sea reborn into an idyllic paradise. Who can fault him for thinking he died and went to beachfront heaven? (Meanwhile, in the strict environs of the real thing, his dead buddy is bending the rules simply by waiting for him to arrive.)

When Peter realizes he hasn’t died, and he can actually pursue a relationship with the woman he fell for over the radio in his presumed final moments, he grabs the opportunity wholeheartedly, as does June (Kim Hunter), the American radio operator. And if love weren’t enough of a reason to exult in living, how about friendship, as offered by the magnanimous Dr. Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey, never more rakishly charming).

When the forces of heaven try to correct their accounting to atone for Peter’s accidental survival, the trio must mount a defense. A Matter of Life and Death seamlessly shifts from ebullient love story to wry celestial courtroom drama as metaphor for US-Britain-European relations, which might be the most ringing endorsement of Pressburger’s screenwriting adroitness there is. Powell, Pressburger, cinematographer Jack Cardiff and production designer Alfred Junge made so many capital-G Great films, it’s almost mind-boggling. To think I once thought A Matter of Life and Death wasn’t among them? Stupid.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 Blu-ray presentation of the 4K restoration is remarkable, showcasing exceptional depth, astounding color and perfectly clean black and white images. The three-strip Technicolor restoration is impeccable, with none of the color inconsistencies that were present on the old Sony DVD release. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is exceptionally clean. A stunning disc for a stunning film. Ported over from the Sony DVD are Ian Christie’s audio commentary and a Martin Scorsese introduction. Newly filmed are an interview with Thelma Schoonmaker and a featurette on the film’s visual effects. A 1986 episode of The South Bank Show features Powell, while short doc The Colour Merchant focuses on Cardiff’s career. A restoration demonstration and an insert with an essay by critic Stephanie Zacharek are also included.

Criterion Collection / 1946 / Color/Black and white / 1.37:1 / 104 min / $39.95

RoccoRocco and His Brothers (1960)
Milestone Films

Is Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers a work of neorealism or melodrama? Certainly, the film sits somewhere at the intersection of the two, but for me, the film can be most appreciated for its bravura emotional flourishes. It may depict hardscrabble lives, but it does so with the same operatic charge given to the depiction of aristocracies in Senso and The Leopard.

The apparent neatness of the structure, in which each of the five brothers of a working-class Italian family is afforded a delineated section, belies the film’s messy sprawl, which Visconti luxuriates in. The intra-country fractures are writ small, playing out in the conflicts of a family who moves north to Milan.

The major players, brothers Simone (Renato Salvatori) and Rocco (Alain Delon), clash over their dispositional differences — Simone is a pugilist inside and outside of the ring, Rocco is sensitive — and their shared interest in Nadia (Annie Girardot), a prostitute who both brothers use and abuse in different ways. While Simone’s actions are far more egregious, Rocco’s attempts to play savior aren’t necessarily any better for Nadia, or for the family at large.

While all five brothers are constantly trying and failing to live up to the expectations of their religious, domineering mother (Katina Paxinou), it’s Rocco who takes on the biggest burden, and perhaps sets himself up for the most failure. Visconti raises the stakes expertly, every small disappointment or minor fit of rage a stepping stone toward the ultimate tragedy to come. The tragedy is both deeply personal and emblematic of the violent cultural and class shifts in postwar Italy. Looking at it from that perspective, the divide between melodrama and neorealism isn’t so obvious.

Milestone’s Blu-ray release features a 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer sourced from the same 4K restoration as the earlier UK Masters of Cinema release. Largely, this is an excellent transfer, full of impressive levels of fine detail and excellent grayscale reproduction. Image density and clarity can be inconsistent due to the condition of the elements, but the restoration has largely mitigated the damage that’s to blame for this. Overall, the film looks great, and the 2.0 uncompressed mono audio is solid, given the expected limitations of Italian post-sync dubbing of the era.

Milestone has wisely given the nearly three-hour film its own disc, shared just with the Martin Scorsese introduction. Disc two features a newly filmed interview with Caterina d’Amico, daughter of screenwriter Suso Cecchi d’Amico, as well as archival cast and crew interviews, a brief selection of outtakes and a restoration demonstration.

Milestone Films / 1960 / Black and white / 1.85:1 / 177 min / $39.95

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

It can be difficult to keep up or catch up with South Korean filmmaker Hong Sangsoo, both because of his prolific output (he’s made about two-dozen features in just over two decades) and because many of his early films aren’t easily available in quality English-friendly versions. Arrow kicks off what is hopefully an outpouring of Hong Blu-ray upgrades with a twofer of early films in a US/UK release.

Though one could probably find thematic echoes in most pairs of Hong films, these two are well-suited to be presented together. In both, mirror images of two men reveal their unique brands of misogyny. In Woman is the Future of Man, Hong’s approach is blunt and acrid. Two friends, Lee Munho (Yoo Jitae) and Kim Hyeongon (Kim Taewoo), reunite and discover in their reminiscing that they dated the same woman, Park Seonhwa (Sung Hyunah). Munho seems to be the boorish, ostentatious antithesis to the meek Hyeongon, but flashbacks to their past interactions with Seonhwa complicate this idea. When they decide to go find her in the present, their fundamental similarities become even more apparent.

Tale of Cinema is more melancholy and beguiling, and its aims aren’t as immediately apparent. The emotionally damaged Jeon Sangwon (Lee Kiwoo) clings to the attention of Choi Youngshil (Uhm Jiwon), going so far as to convince her to overdose on sleeping pills with him in a suicide pact. Some of the drama feels a bit overdetermined, and Hong’s typical even-keeled stylistic approach is replaced with a more mobile, zooming camera. The reason becomes apparent in the film’s second half, which introduces a metafictional wrinkle and a new character: the blissfully oblivious Kim Dongsoo (Kim Sangkyung), a source of plenty of cringe comedy in his interactions with Youngshil and others, and a way for Hong to tease out an examination of the divide between film and real life.

Both films share a disc in Arrow’s release, which features two solid 1080p, 1.85:1 transfers. Visuals in both can be a little flat, but clarity and sharpness are strong. Digital manipulation doesn’t appear to be an issue. 2.0 and 5.1 DTS-HD tracks are available for both films, offering clean if understandably sedate dialogue-heavy presentations. Extras include introductions by Tony Rayns and Martin Scorsese, a making-of for Woman and cast interviews for both films. Trailers, galleries and a booklet with an essay by critic Michael Sicinski are also included.

Arrow Academy / 2004/2005 / Color / 1.85:1 / 88 min/89 min / $39.95

PeterBlack Peter (Černý Petr, 1964)
Second Run

Miloš Forman’s debut feature is mostly a modest affair, with a gentler satiric tone than his later Czech films, but its pleasures are numerous, from its wry depiction of the frustrations of teenaged life to the sense that its protagonist’s aimlessness could result in the film going in just about any direction. Perhaps it’s a stretch to call Black Peter unpredictable, but when sullen Petr (Ladislav Jakim) leaves the grocery store where he works to follow a customer he suspects of shoplifting, one could easily see the film following his detours through the streets for the rest of its running time.

Instead, the film’s episodic structure sees Petr trying to please his imperious boss, who extols the integrity of his customers while urging Petr to watch them closely for any suspicious behavior, and clumsily wooing the girlfriend (Pavla Martínková) of an acquaintance. He jockeys for social positioning with another teenager, Čenda (Vladimír Pucholt), who first comes across as a boorish asshole before we realize how pathetic he is. And naturally for a Forman film, there’s a wide disconnect between generations; Petr’s imperious father (Jan Vostrčil) doesn’t need much of a reason to berate his son, and his haranguing makes for the film’s most overt “fuck you” to authority with its final freeze-framed image.

Second Run’s region-free Blu-ray marks a vast improvement over the old Facets DVD (a statement that probably always goes without saying). Sourced from the Czech National Film Archive’s 4K restoration, the 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer displays excellent depth and healthy fine detail. A few shots have some inconsistent softness, but it’s minor. Damage is limited to a few isolated incidents. The 2.0 uncompressed mono soundtrack is clean and clear. A nice slate of extras accompanies the film: a typically detailed Michael Brooke audio commentary, a new interview with Martínková and an archival Forman interview about the production of the film. A booklet features an essay on Forman and the film by Jonathan Owen.

Second Run / 1964 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 90 min / £19.99

 

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

MosesAaron_still4

Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Straub-Huillet, F.W. Murnau, Juraj Herz and more!

CasaCasa de Lava (1994)
Grasshopper Film

Pedro Costa’s second feature Casa de Lava is a reimagining of Jacques Tourneur’s atmospheric horror classic I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and Costa is a filmmaker more than equipped to pick up Tourneur’s visual mantle. One of the premier creators of sensual, alluring imagery in modern film, Costa has become a wizard of digital filmmaking, coaxing breathtaking images from cheap digital cameras in In Vanda’s Room (2000), Colossal Youth (2006) and his latest, Horse Money (2014), all examinations of the effects of colonialism on Cape Verdean people.

While those three films are all bewitching in their own ways, Costa’s shot-on-film efforts reveal a filmmaker equally capable of creating striking moments with more traditional tools. Set in the almost alien volcanic landscapes of a Cape Verde island, the film tells the story of a Portuguese nurse, Mariana (Inês Medeiros), who accompanies Leão (Isaach De Bankolé) back to his hometown after a construction workplace accident leaves him in a coma. Instead of finding family or friends willing to take over as caretaker, Mariana discovers a community that doesn’t seem to recognize him. As its source inspiration would imply, the man who was once Leão may not even be really here.

Costa’s film is hazily dreamlike, drifting between vignettes as Mariana delivers doses of medication to the community, meets a French woman who was drawn to the island decades earlier (Edith Scob) and observes the island’s musical traditions. Medeiros’s performance has a searching quality, becoming entranced by the beauty of the country and its people and frustrated by her inability to understand Leão’s condition. Her blazingly bright red dress, an unchanging outfit that further reinforces the fuzzy temporal nature of the situation, is framed as a shock of color against the black volcanic rock of the island. It’s a reminder that she steadfastly remains an outsider in this place, both because of an unwillingness to understand (“Speak Portuguese,” she frequently tells the Creole-speaking islanders) and an inability to. Costa’s enigmatic movie challenges our own inabilities to understand, and its beauty makes us want to try.

As a fledging label, Grasshopper Film has quickly become one of the most exciting distributors in the US in just a few years. Its Casa de Lava Blu-ray sports a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer, and is the first US release of the film. By and large, this is a solid transfer, with much better clarity and detail than the Second Run DVD. The transfer isn’t perfect, as viewed on a large screen, some haloing and edge fuzziness are visible. There’s also what appears to be a mastering error at the 1:06:49 mark, with a brief horizontal line of interference that appears over Mariana’s face. The uncompressed mono track is clean and clear throughout.

The extras are mostly ported from the Second Run disc, which is worth hanging onto for its exclusive Costa interview. The Grasshopper disc ports a featurette on Costa’s production texts, an interview with cinematographer Emmanuel Machuel and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s booklet essay. New to this edition is an additional booklet essay from Darlene J. Sadlier, excerpted from a volume on the Portuguese diaspora.

Grasshopper Film / 1994 / Color / 1.66:1 / 105 min / $34.95

MosesMoses and Aaron (1974)
Grasshopper Film

Released by Grasshopper just after Casa de Lava, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s adaptation of Arnold Schoenberg’s unfinished opera is an apt companion piece, given Costa’s love for Straub-Huillet (and his 2001 documentary about the pair, Où gît votre sourire enfoui?). It’s also an encouraging sign to see some of these old New Yorker Films titles finally getting released, and this Blu-ray is tremendously better than what was made available on the endlessly delayed New Yorker disc.

Bringing their famously austere style to Schoenberg’s intense telling of the Exodus story, Straub-Huillet set nearly the entire film in an unadorned amphitheater. Many of the film’s compositions are similarly spartan, but there’s a tension between what’s shown and what exists just out of frame. The film opens with a shot of Moses (Günter Reich) from behind, admonishing the Israelites to follow a new God and come out of Egypt. Every cut, like the one that reveals the Israelites, is deliberate, and every camera movement, like the pan up and across the desert sky that follows the film’s opening shot of Moses, serves to place the performative aspects of the film in a more mystical context.

Even for an opera neophyte like myself, it doesn’t take much to get on the film’s wavelength, which feels far more frenzied than the concrete nature of Straub-Huillet’s images might suggest. When Moses ascends Mount Sinai to receive the law, Aaron (Louis Devos) leads the people into a more hedonistic way of living, complete with choreographed dancing. Throughout, there’s a tension between the two leaders’ disparate ways of thinking and conceptions of God, a contradiction that’s acutely felt in Straub-Huillet’s telling.

Sourced from a new 2K restoration, Grasshopper’s 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer is absolutely gorgeous, with exceptional clarity, a stable grain structure and healthy levels of fine detail. The uncompressed mono soundtrack offers an excellent, forceful showcase for the music.

Three bonus Straub-Huillet films easily tip this over into essential disc territory: shorts Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg’s “Accompaninment to a Cinematographic Scene” (1972) and Machorka-Muff (1962), along with their feature debut Not Reconciled (1964), an adaptation of Heinrich Böll’s novel Billiards at Half-past Nine that examines the effect of the rise of Nazism on a family. Also included is an insert with an essay by Ted Fendt. Also of note: A small logo on the cover that says “The Straub-Huillet Collection”; let’s hope this is just the first release of many.

Grasshopper Film / 1974 / Color / 1.33:1 / 107 min / $34.95

DesertDesert Hearts (1985)
The Criterion Collection 

There’s a fascinating cut in Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts, a landmark in the depiction of gay women onscreen, when buttoned-up Columbia professor Helen Shaver (Vivian Bell) and small-town free spirit Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau) share their first kiss. Before it happens, the two are enjoying a lakeside walk, discussing Cay’s recent breakup with a casino manager, and feeling the tentative push-pull of an attraction that’s been building since they first met.

Then: A thunderclap and a sudden cut to the pair returning to the car, drenched by an unseen downpour. This kind of elision isn’t common in Deitch’s film, which has a languorous feel, scenes bookended by slow wipes or dissolves. This abrupt cut evokes the frisson of Helen’s overwhelming attraction suddenly overtaking her reservations, and a tender kiss through a rolled-down car window ensues.

Based on Jane Rule’s 1964 novel Desert of the Heart, Deitch’s film notably chronicled a lesbian love story that didn’t end in some kind of implicit comeuppance via tragedy. Its characters are archetypes — the starched-shirt professor who’s come to Reno to finalize a divorce, the carefree young woman who’s her emotional opposite (introduced driving backwards down the highway) and the maternal figure (Audra Lindley) torn between tradition and compassion.

The opposites-attract beats are familiar but not stuffy in this telling, thanks to performances from Bell and Charbonneau that feel truly collaborative in their give and take. Almost instantly, you can feel these two are on the same wavelength, Cay pushing and prodding and Helen resisting but not wanting her to stop. The film is set in 1959, when such a relationship would have to stay in the shadows, but Deitch avoids heavy-handed signifiers of social disapproval — we don’t need them — and focuses on the internal conflicts of two women trying to figure themselves out while knowing, even if only tentatively, that they want to be together.

It’s a lovely, emotionally rich film, and Criterion has given it a release to match. The 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is sourced from a 4K scan of the 2K restoration by Criterion and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, and there’s no question this is the best the film has looked since those first prints were exhibited. Every detail of Robert Elswit’s gorgeous Western photography is immaculate, and the image is a grain-lover’s paradise, with perfectly rendered, film-like grain structure. The natural color palette is consistent and stable, and fine detail remains excellent even in dim, smoky casino interiors. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is perfectly clean, handing dialogue and the Patsy Cline-heavy country soundtrack well.

Extras include a Deitch audio commentary ported over from the 2007 Wolfe DVD release and three new interview featurettes: Deitch with Jane Lynch, whose expressive love for the film is contagious; Deitch with Bell and Charbonneau (though mostly interviewed separately); and Deitch with Elswit and production designer Jeannine Oppewall. Two excerpts from a 1994 documentary give us a brief look at the book’s author, Jane Rule. A trailer and an insert with an essay by critic B. Ruby Rich are also included.

Criterion Collection / 1985 / Color / 1.85:1 / 92 min / $39.95

DawsonDawson City: Frozen Time (2017)
Kino Lorber

There’s a recurring event in Bill Morrison’s documentary/fantasia Dawson City: Frozen Time, where reels of highly flammable nitrate film are responsible for a devastating fire. The infernos are like signposts in this historical record, marking moments of seemingly inevitable destruction as time marches on. Morrison has always had a deep respect for celluloid and the decay that is its inextricable partner. His 2002 film Decasia found transcendence in the decay, as he partnered with it to refashion and repurpose archival footage.

Dawson City: Frozen Time has more trappings of a traditional documentary, packaged inside a not terribly elegant frame story about the discovery of hundreds of reels of silent film footage, buried beneath an old ice rink in the Yukon. Talking-head interviews with two historians bookend the film (and it’s worth it for an adorable payoff), but the film feels more on Morrison’s turf once he delves into history, using both archival photographs and unrelated, but thematically correct, clips from the rediscovered footage to tell the story of the Yukon gold rush — and all its voracious appetites, rights of indigenous peoples be damned — and the aftermath, where a town that was the end of the line for movie distribution simply dumped the reels when they were finished.

Morrison is an exceptional editor, cutting between the real and the fictional and setting them on equal footing. By giving us glimpses of these rediscovered films — some of which are ringed with the nitrate decay that Morrison seems to revel in — he illuminates history and complicates it. There’s an unspoken assertion that these pieces are only a fraction of what has been lost, and our histories will always be incomplete. That makes the improbable resurrection of all these included bits of film all the more thrilling.

Kino’s Blu-ray sports a 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer that’s well-equipped to re-create all the celluloid glory, and there’s a pleasing clarity and detail to many of the shots, despite obvious damage. Everything shot recently looks fine, if a little flat, but the textures of the rediscovered film bits make this well worth the Blu-ray purchase. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is a showcase for Alex Somers’ sweeping score. Morrison isn’t shy about using music to evoke emotion, but the elegiac, eerie score is so irresistible, it’s hard to mind.

Extras include half a dozen reels from the Dawson City discovery, a featurette on the preservation of the films and a brief interview with Morrison. A trailer and a booklet with essays by Lawrence Weschler and Alberto Zambenedetti are also included.

Kino Lorber / 2017 / Color / 1.33:1 / 120 min / $34.95

CrematorThe Cremator (Spalovač mrtvol, 1968)
Second Run

The mood is set immediately in Juraj Herz’s The Cremator, a shattering work of surreal horror and one of the great films about the creep of fascism. In a dizzying prologue full of jagged cuts and oddly composed close-up frames, Herz introduces Karel Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrušínský) and his wife (Vlasta Chramostová) and two children (Jana Stehnová, Miloš Vognič). Kopfrkingl strikes a nostalgic tone, reminiscing in front of the leopards about how he and his wife first met there many years ago.

It’s the first time of many that his disposition will be opposed by the filmmaking, which drains the scene of even any potential for warm feelings, culminating in a mirrored fisheye shot of the group — a warped family portrait that will be visually rhymed by more fisheye shots in several climactic horrors.

Hrušínský’s performance should be in the pantheon of all-time horror turns. As the hygiene-obsessed cremator, he oozes smarm, constantly evangelizing about cremation as the ideal method for dealing with human remains. Why should one rot in the ground when a cleansing fire has the whole process finished in a mere 75 minutes? With his near-constant grooming and seemingly one-track mind, Kopfrkingl is clearly an odd person, but Hrušínský keeps elevating the discomfort, and soon his feelings about purity and rightness aren’t relegated to funereal procedures, but have entered the world of the living. The timing is convenient; Czechoslovakia is about to be overtaken by Nazis.

Herz walks a fine line between the hideous and the hideously entertaining, infusing this disturbing story with a streak of black comedy, and it’s his formal control that unites every tonal jackknife. Every frame and cut of the film has purpose, building to a conclusion that’s no less of a shock to the system because of its inevitability.

Second Run’s new region-free Blu-ray features a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer, sourced from a new HD scan by the Czech National Film Archive. Though there are quite a few marks on the source material, the transfer is absolutely gorgeous, with deep, rich blacks and impressive clarity throughout. Viewed on a nearly 100-inch projected screen, the fine detail and film-like grain reproduction are fantastic. The LPCM mono track shows some limitations, but handles the evocative score by Zdenek Liska nicely.

The Blu-ray ports over the Quay Brothers introduction from the Second Run DVD release, and adds several new features: an exhaustively biographical audio commentary track from Kat Ellinger, an episode of the Projection Booth podcast played over the film like a commentary track and Herz’s debut short, The Junk Shop (1965), made just before The Cremator. A booklet with an essay by Daniel Bird is also included.

Second Run / 1968 / Black and white / 1.66:1 / 95 min / £19.99

Last LaughThe Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann, 1924)
Kino Lorber

If there are narrative nits to pick with F.W. Murnau’s key work of the silent era, The Last Laugh, it’s hard to dispute the importance of the film’s look and approach. On one hand, it’s not difficult to imagine a film with more emotional heft, jettisoning the hermetic nature of the film’s alternate-reality epilogue and including it as an unannounced fantasy for the main character, Emil Jannings’ put-upon doorman. On the other hand, the film’s flurry of imagery, captured by Murnau’s newly nimble camera, and its usage of Jannings’ towering physicality supersedes the narrative limitations.

In The Last Laugh, Murnau essentially forgoes intertitles to tell the simple story of a doorman’s precipitous fall from his position at a luxury hotel. The work is just barely above menial, but Jannings takes immense pride in his station and the elaborate uniform that accompanies it. Could any performer imbue a puffed-up chest or a beaming grin with as much meaning as Jannings?

The specifics of his performance make his ensuing demotion to bathroom attendant all the more heart-wrenching. A spry, almost impish manner is transformed nearly instantly to something stolid; Jannings shock and disappointment is crystallized, and every reaction and movement seems to play out in half-time. Murnau uses Jannings brilliantly, both in wider shots that show his physical transformation and close-ups that reveal a face frozen in a horrified rictus. This is an elemental portrait of the indignities foisted on the working class, and even its underdeveloped depiction of the disappointments of domestic life and its awkwardly deployed conclusion can’t detract from that.

Kino’s 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer is sourced from a 2001/2002 restoration of the German cut by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, which pieced together four different sources. This is the same basis for the Last Laugh disc in the superb Region-B locked Masters of Cinema Early Murnau set, and the two transfers look basically the same. Despite the varied provenance, the film looks excellent, with impressive detail beneath the overlying damage and a fairly consistent level of sharpness and clarity. Grayscale separation is nice, with reasonably rich black levels and stable whites. Two scores are presented in 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks: Giuseppe Becce’s original 1924 score, orchestrated by Detlev Glanert in a 2003 recording, and a brand new, peppier option from the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra.

The Kino shares one extra with the MoC: a 40-minute making of. Exclusive to the Kino: an audio commentary by historian Noah Isenberg and a bonus DVD that includes the international export cut of the film (a third set of cameras shot a cut intended for the American market as well). This is a nice curiosity to have, but the unrestored image is so murky, it mostly acts to foster more gratitude for the restoration of the original cut.

Kino Lorber / 1924 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 90 min / $29.95

KediKedi (2017)
Oscilloscope Laboratories

If you’re a cat person — and if you’re not, have you really given them a chance? — Kedi is like, well, catnip. Seriously, I’m not sure how you wouldn’t enjoy this 80-minute dopamine activator, which documents the lives of Istanbul street cats, who enjoy a laid-back symbiosis with their human cohabitators. Some are closer to our traditional notions of pets, but many symbolize the true essence of cathood: amiable independence.

Cats are characters in Kedi — among the featured players are devoted mother Sari (also known as Yellowshit), polite deli-meat lover Duman and jealous lover Psikopat — and director Ceyda Torun and cinematographers Charlie Wuppermann and Alp Korfali do a remarkable job following a dozen or so cats through their daily routines as if they were willing participants in the making of the documentary.

And while Kedi doesn’t display the ambitious structural or formal gambits that many of the year’s best documentaries do, it does act as a fascinating anthropological document without becoming overbearing about it. In its micro-focus on the lives of specific cats, Torun’s wandering eye falls on a number of humans, some as reflective and enigmatic as the cats seem to be.

These vignettes reveal human/feline relationships that have developed in meaningful ways for man and beast. For some people, it offers a caretaking responsibility that distracts from the hardships of life. For others, they see the cats as the caretakers, establishing some sense of order or purpose in their own life.

The film often uses wide aerial shots as bumpers, providing a broader view of the beautiful city of Istanbul. But its fundamentally intimate perspective — and the voices of ordinary people only represented here because of their proximity to certain cats — gives the film a feeling of possessing essential truths about the way people, and their precious companions, really live.

Oscilloscope’s Blu-ray presents the film in a sharp 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer full of vibrant color and fine detail, with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that fills in the sounds of the city. A commentary track with Torun, Wuppermann and editor Mo Stoebe features some wistful reminiscence to go along with your own awws at the kitties, while a “commentary track” featuring some of the film’s feline stars is perfect for eliciting bewildered looks from your own cats. A making-of featurette, deleted and extended scenes and a trailer are also included.

Oscilloscope Laboratories / 2017 / Color / 1.78:1 / 80 min / $32.99

 

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.

 

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.

1928: Buster Keaton in "Steamboat Bill, Jr."

Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Jess Franco, Ousmane Sembène & more!

FoxFox and His Friends (1975)
Criterion Collection

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Fox and His Friends, made midway through his short but incredibly prolific career, unfolds like a brutal car crash in slow motion. It’s almost immediately evident what is going to happen to the naïve carnival worker Fox (played by Fassbinder himself with a startling lack of guile), but there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it, least of all the oblivious protagonist.

The cynicism runs bone-deep in this portrait of transactional bourgeoisie gay culture. A compulsive lotto-player, Fox finally sees his persistence pay off after he wins 500,000 marks. But Fassbinder completely elides the actual discovery of his win. It’s possibly the only moment of unsullied joy for Fox within the film’s borders, and it might as well not exist.

Shortly after his big win, Fox is introduced to a group of upper-class friends by Max (Karlheinz Böhm), an antiques dealer he’s picked up by at a public restroom, and soon he’s become enamored with Eugen (Peter Chatel). Sensing an opportunity, Eugen starts seeing Fox and then asks for money. He doesn’t wait long and he doesn’t start small, securing a 100,000-mark loan for his company before convincing Fox to buy an apartment and fill it with lavish furniture and décor from Max’s shop.

As usual, Fassbinder shoots interior spaces with an eye toward their oppressive and distancing effects, and Fox and Eugen’s apartment, stuffed from floor to ceiling with ornate accessories, is an especially overwhelming place. Fox never seems aware of his new friends’ capacity for manipulation, but his alienation is palpable, even if his carefree personality deflects it on the surface. Even one of his favorite spots — a dive bar that Eugen et al sneer at — is eventually transformed into a space where he no longer feels at home.

This is depressing, harrowing and emotionally penetrating stuff, and Fassbinder never lets up. The indignities persist for Fox up through the film’s final shot. He gets one final gut-punch, and so do we.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is sourced from a new 4K digital restoration by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, and it looks essentially identical to the Arrow Region B Blu-ray, sourced from the same restoration. Fine detail is excellent, grain is well-supported and colors are stable and vibrant, with a slight yellowish warm hue to them. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is limited by the dullness of the post-dubbed dialogue, but there are no major hiss or noise issues.

While Arrow’s disc included an informative commentary track from Hamish Ford, Criterion’s disc offers more quantity, including two newly filmed interviews. Filmmaker Ira Sachs offers an appreciation of the film and Fassbinder’s place within queer cinema, while actor Harry Baer, who played Eugen’s ex, reminisces about making the film and sadly notes that only three of the principals are still living. Two brief archival excerpts are offered: Fassbinder talks about the film’s politics and composer Peer Raben discusses the cabaret-influenced score. A trailer and an insert with an essay from former Criterion staff writer Michael Koresky round out the supplements.

Criterion Collection / 1975 / Color / 1.37:1 / 124 min / $39.95

OrloffDr. Orloff’s Monster (1964)
Redemption

Before he became notorious as an insanely prolific director of horror films of, let’s say, dubious quality, Jess Franco emerged with his breakthrough, The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962). Two years later, Orlof was back with an additional f in Dr. Orloff’s Monster, a film that references Orloff all of once. Cash-in implications of the title aside (it’s also known as the not-quite-accurate-either The Mistresses of Dr. Jekyll), this not-sequel is certainly of interest.

A stock horror template is given some dimension via moody lighting and a pervasive sense of melancholy that seems to especially afflict the film’s murderous creature, Andros (Hugo Blanco, caked in crusty face makeup), a reanimated corpse who does the bidding of Dr. Jekyll (Marcelo Arroita-Jáuregui). That bidding is mostly limited to strangling prostitutes and cabaret performers.

Meanwhile, Jekyll’s niece Melissa (Agnès Spaak) returns to the family castle, where she’s alternately puzzled and creeped out by her Aunt Inglud (Luisa Sala) and Uncle Jekyll. Melissa wants to know more about her family history, particularly her father who died when she was young, but there isn’t much information forthcoming.

Even at just 84 minutes long, Dr. Orloff’s Monster is relentlessly shaggy, luxuriating in lengthy nightclub scenes that are punctuated with brief bits of horror. The plot is mostly coherent, but that’s due more to its simplicity than any facility for visual storytelling. Franco seems to have no regard for spatial awareness, cutting haphazardly and mangling almost any sense of suspense. The murder scenes are miserably blocked.

That doesn’t mean Franco had no sense of visual style; it’s here in spades, from foggy graveyards to smoky clubs, often shot at unusual canted angles. Franco never had the polish or psychological depth of a Jacques Tourneur or Georges Franju, but Dr. Orloff’s Monster proved he could make a brand of atmospheric horror of his own.

Redemption/Kino’s Blu-ray presents Dr. Orloff’s Monster in a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer that generally follows in the footsteps of their other releases of 1960s Franco films. The image is a little contrast-y, but is overall decently sharp and detailed. Tram lines, scuffs and scratches are all here, but nothing too egregious. Audio options are two DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtracks, one in French and one in English. Both feature persistent low-level hiss, and the English dialogue is performed considerably more histrionically at points.

Extras include a typically studious audio commentary from Tim Lucas and 11 minutes of silent footage —almost exclusively of the nudie variety — that was excised from some cuts of the film. Theatrical trailers round out the disc.

Redemption / 1964 / Black and white / 1.66:1 / 84 min / $29.95

GeneralThe General (1926) and Three Ages (1923)
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) and College (1927)
Kino Lorber

Kino goes back to the Buster Keaton well with two new double-feature releases, sourced from 2K restorations by Lobster Films. Generally, these releases improve upon the previous Kino Blu-rays, but Region A Keaton fans may want to wait for the forthcoming releases from Cohen Media, who have restored some Keaton titles in 4K, and will be sourcing additional 4K restorations from Cineteca Bologna. (More info about that in this helpful NitrateVille thread.)

Undoubtedly, Kino wanted to get these new editions out there before they are likely to be superseded by the Cohen releases, but to their credit, they’ve made them relatively affordable ($29.95 for a two-disc Blu-ray set). With no firm release date yet for the Cohen Blu-rays, these refreshed releases could be worth a first-time purchase, though it probably doesn’t make much sense to upgrade from the old Kino Blu-rays until one gets a look at what Cohen has in store. (Eureka also has a Masters of Cinema Region B box set with The GeneralSherlock Jr. and Steamboat Bill, Jr. coming sometime this year.)

Each set pairs a Keaton masterwork with a lesser title, releasing these films in different configurations than previously available. The General, Steamboat Bill, Jr. and College were all released as standalones, while Three Ages was paired with Sherlock Jr. (another masterpiece Kino no longer has the rights to).

The General isn’t just one of the greatest comedies ever made; it’s one of the best Civil War films, and his final independent silent feature Steamboat Bill, Jr. features Keaton’s most astonishing collection of risky stunts, culminating in an incredible cyclone sequence. While the stale D.W. Griffith parody of Three Ages wears out its welcome in a repetitive triptych, the trend-chasing College maintains a lot of slapstick charm despite its derivative nature.

SteamboatTransfer-wise, these new 2K restorations offer some noticeable upgrades, although I have mixed feelings about The General. Kino’s old disc presents the film with a slight sepia tint, and there are some hefty scratches and blotches throughout. The new disc features a much cleaner image and gets rid of the tint. But while the new transfer is unquestionably more stable, it’s also quite a bit darker, with heavy contrast obscuring some details. Some might prefer the transfer with less damage, but Kino’s old disc is often a more pleasurable viewing experience.

With the other three films, the new transfers are clear winners. Three Ages gets the biggest boost, and is now presented in 1080p instead of 1080i. While nitrate deterioration still plagues the film, the image is often much sharper, with clearer detail visible beneath the damage. The elements limit how good this film can look, but this a significant step up over the cloudy old transfer.

Steamboat Bill features a more stable image, with better fine detail and a tighter grain structure. Whites that looked slightly blown out on the old disc are better here. College is still afflicted with a fairly persistent softness, but damage has been mitigated greatly.

Audio and extras-wise, these discs are significantly different. At least one new score has been made available for each film, while all but College have at least one removed. The General loses some featurettes, but gains an audio commentary by historians Michael Schlesinger and Stan Taffel. Thankfully, the Orson Welles and Gloria Swanson introductions have been retained.

Three Ages adds a Keaton-starring Alka-Seltzer commercial and Candid Camera segment and retains the excerpt of Griffith’s Man’s Genesis (1912), while dropping two featurettes.

Steamboat Bill feels the deepest cut, losing a complete alternate version of the film comprised of different angles and takes, as well as vintage song recordings, a making-of featurette and a montage of Keaton stunts. Added are a Schlesinger/Taffel commentary track, an introduction from Lobster Films’ Serge Bromberg and a different Alka-Seltzer commercial.

College fares the best, losing no extras (a Rob Farr commentary track, locations featurette and 1966 industrial film The Scribe — Keaton’s final film role) and adding several more: a Bromberg intro, a Lillian Gish intro and 1928 collegiate two-reeler Run, Girl, Run, starring Carole Lombard.

The General and Three Ages: Kino Lorber / 1926, 1923 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 79 + 64 min / $29.95
Steamboat Bill, Jr. and College: Kino Lorber / 1928, 1927 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 69 + 65 min / $29.95

Girl AsleepGirl Asleep (2016)
Oscilloscope Laboratories

Many reviews of cloying/charming Australian film Girl Asleep have focused on its influences, and the Variety pull-quote on the Blu-ray’s back cover sums up most of those observations, mentioning Wes Anderson, Napoleon Dynamite and Where the Wild Things Are. OK, fine. The hermetically framed opening shot certainly recalls some of Anderson’s, though the film’s formalist touches tend to diminish. And yes, there are aggressively weird family members and costumed creatures in the woods, so sure, those other two are represented.

This can be a lazy way to review movies, but Girl Asleep invites it with its pastiche of other, more original ideas. Before it was a film, Girl Asleep was a stage production at Adelaide’s Windmill Theatre, and the company’s artistic director Rosemary Myers directs the film adaptation. Like a lot of fringe theater, there’s more emphasis on the “imaginative” than the dramaturgically sound. There are fun costumes, kitschy production design and a winking disco dance number, but does that add up to much of a movie?

When the film does work, it’s mostly due to its appealing performances, particularly from Bethany Whitmore as shy protagonist Greta and Harrison Feldman as the gawky, kindhearted Elliott, who befriends her when she moves to a new school in a new town. Elliott and Greta become fast friends, but she doesn’t have much luck in her other relationships, enduring torment from a trio of mean girls and disinterest from older sister Genevieve (Imogen Archer).

When her well-meaning but clueless parents (Amber McMahon and screenwriter Matthew Whittet) throw her a 15th birthday party, Greta is forced to come out of her shell, but it’s not long before she’s been plunged into an allegorical dreamscape where she must confront her worst fears. Regular teenage awkwardness and discomfort probably doesn’t warrant such heavy-handed metaphorical inquiry.

Girl Asleep comes to Blu-ray from Oscilloscope, whose 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer faithfully reproduces the golden-amber tones of the film’s late-1970s setting. The image is sharp, and fine detail is excellent. Brightly colored costumes, especially yellows and blues, pop, while detail remains strong in shadowy scenes. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is crisp and dynamic.

The most enjoyable bonus feature is one unrelated to the film, except for having been packaged with Girl Asleep theatrically. Amy Nicholson’s documentary short Pickle (2016) details one couple’s indefatigable ability to care for a host of unusual pets, and the inevitable deaths that follow. Also included: a standard making-of doc, a separate interview with Myers that features some overlap, a promo video for Windmill Theatre Company and a trailer.

Oscilloscope Laboratories / 2016 / Color / 1.33:1 / 77 min / $32.99

RevengeRevenge of the Blood Beast (1966)
Raro Video

Gruesome occult horror and slapstick don’t really make for a logical pairing, but that doesn’t stop Michael Reeves (Witchfinder General) from trying to fuse the two in his feature debut Revenge of the Blood Beast, a tonal mishmash that mostly holds together thanks to Reeves’ steady directorial hand.

Barbara Steele is striking as always as Veronica, a woman honeymooning in Transylvania who becomes possessed by the spirit of an ancient witch after a car crash into the lake where she was drowned by the townspeople centuries ago. Unfortunately, this means Steele is largely absent for the majority of the film, replaced by a man in hideous hag makeup.

Her milquetoast husband Philip (Ian Ogilvy) must try to reverse the curse, aided by a descendant of Count von Helsing (John Karlsen, a perma-twinkle in his eye) who was previously just a bit of annoying local color as Philip and Veronica passed through town.

Revenge of the Blood Beast has everything you could want in a movie, provided your list consists only of leering, rapist hotel clerks (Mel Welles, playing the unsubtly named Groper), gags about Communists (there’s a visual hammer-and-sickle joked wedged into a brutal death scene) and car chases featuring bumbling cops (apparently shot by the second unit without Reeves’ knowledge or initial approval).

Still, even though the comedy (or attempts at it) never feels congruous with the mission to defeat a bulbous, bloodthirsty beast on a rampage, Revenge of the Blood Beast is an entertaining enough Euro-horror jaunt.

Raro’s 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer of Revenge of the Blood Beast is surprisingly strong, with stable color reproduction, healthy amounts of detail and a well-supported grain structure that isn’t afflicted with any obvious digital manipulation. Skin tones are natural, while colors like blood red and the yellow of von Helsing’s car are fairly vibrant. Audio is presented in a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio English soundtrack that seems to betray the weakness of the source due to its low volume and low-level hiss. Despite a claim on the packaging, there is no Italian soundtrack included.

The major extra is a 30-minute audio interview with Steele about her career that plays over still images and is interspersed with clips from the film.  An included booklet features an essay by Nocturno that explores Reeves’ career, tragically cut short by his overdose death at age 25.

Raro Video / 1966 / Color / 2.35:1 / 79 min / $29.95

Black GirlBlack Girl (1966)
Criterion Collection

Ousmane Sembène’s seminal Black Girl, his debut feature and a watershed work of art for African cinema, makes its way to Region A Blu-ray from Criterion. In 2015, the BFI released the film in a fantastic dual-format set (reviewed here), but Criterion has improved on it with its Blu-ray release, including a transfer sourced from the same World Cinema Project 4K restoration and adding a number of valuable new bonus features.

Excerpted from my previous review of the BFI’s disc:

Mbissine Thérèse Diop stars as Diouana, a young woman who takes a job working for a rich French couple (Anne-Marie Jelinek, Robert Fontaine), moving from her home in Dakar to the Mediterranean resort city of Antibes. Diouana anticipates a life of caring for the couple’s children and exploring a brand new country. Instead, she’s saddled with additional cooking and cleaning responsibilities and her sightseeing is limited to the car ride from the boat to the house when she first arrives. As Diouana says in one of her flat, resigned voiceovers, France is merely a kitchen, a living room and a bedroom to her.

Sembène’s politically charged film runs on an engine of focused righteous anger, its characters emblematic of a poisonous symbiosis. The couple’s fundamental misunderstanding of Diouana’s humanity is ugly and patronizing — to them, she’s simply a task-oriented automaton or an exotic trinket to show off to “less-cultured” friends. Diouana is a woman isolated, stripped of any agency and relegated to an even more inconsequential position than her life back in Senegal, shown through flashbacks.

Her alienation is strikingly realized by Sembène, who frames her pinned against lily-white backgrounds. The couple’s living spaces are notably unadorned; one wall is home only to a tribal mask given to them as a gift from Diouana when they first met. Soon, it will become an object of struggle as she engages in a futile fight to reclaim at least a portion of her identity, cultural, personal or otherwise.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is the equal of the BFI’s, displaying the same excellent levels of fine detail, clarity and grayscale separation, while the uncompressed mono French audio is clean and unaffected by damage.

Criterion’s disc emerges as the winner on the supplement front, particularly thanks to two new scholarly interviews packed with a wealth of information.

Samba Gadjigo puts Sembène’s work into the context of African cinema at the time, which was basically nonexistent outside of French-controlled film productions. There was no film infrastructure, and Gadjigo details how Sembène worked from scratch to create his early films that challenged dominant paradigms.

Manthia Diawara contributes a deep analysis of Black Girl, discussing Sembène’s approach to enlightening his viewership. Diawara argues that Sembène took a fundamentally intersectional approach, understanding that gender, race and class conventions would all have to be challenged to bring about change.

Also exclusive to Criterion’s release: a newly filmed interview with star Diop, who explains her serendipitous entry into the movies, and a brief excerpt of a 1966 interview with Sembène about his surprise Prix Jean Vigo win for Black Girl.

Overlapping with the BFI disc: Sembène’s debut short, Borom Sarret (1963), also sporting a new 4K restoration; a brief alternate color sequence that Sembène dropped (presented here as a standalone, not integrated into the film like on the BFI disc); and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Diawara’s 1994 documentary Sembène: The Making of African Cinema.

A trailer and an insert with an essay by critic Ashley Clark are also included.

Criterion Collection / 1966 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 59 min / $39.95

 

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.

cat-people

Blu-ray and DVD Review Round-Up: Films by Fritz Lang, Orson Welles, Jacques Tourneur & more!

cat-peopleCat People (1942)
The Criterion Collection

We’ve been waiting for years for Warner Brothers to start licensing out some of their holdings in the Blu-ray era, and now that the purse strings have loosened — even if only a little — Criterion has given us some major releases, including The New World with all three cuts and the forthcoming McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People is another hugely welcome upgrade and (presumably? hopefully?) only the first in a series of upgrades of the films in Warner’s essential Val Lewton horror DVD box set.

Cat People was Lewton’s first horror production for RKO, and it’s a compact, stunning combination of spooky voodoo mumbo-jumbo and of potent interpersonal dread. Serbian immigrant Irena (Simone Simon) has sincere beliefs about the ancient curse she believes is afflicting her, but her concerns are equally rooted in her simultaneous longing for and fear of human connection. In Tourneur’s dramatically lit tableaux, domestic spaces are a haunt of shadows, and anxiety thrives in these dark places of the heart and mind.

Irena’s fear that she will turn into a vicious predatory cat if she has sex with a man (in this case, her new husband Oliver, played by Kent Smith) is treated with a light touch in DeWitt Bodeen’s screenplay. There are examinations of its roots in Serbian mythology and Irena’s mental state, but the why is not belabored, despite an undeniably immense psychosexual subtext.

Instead, Tourneur and Lewton bring to the fore the throat-tightening, alienating feel of helpless terror with some of the most incredible black-and-white images every committed to celluloid. Cat People is renowned for its influential decision to keep its predator mostly off-screen, relying on the power of suggestion in a way studio horror films hadn’t done much to that point.

But the images that do make it on the screen are staggering, especially two key sequences: when Irena’s romantic rival Alice (Jane Randolph) goes for a swim, and the reflected rippling on the wall seems to be encroaching, and several scenes where Oliver and Alice work late in their office, the illuminated surfaces of their drafting tables looking like potential portals to another dimension.

With a film so dependent on the subtleties of light and shadow, a high-def upgrade is especially welcome, and Cat People looks phenomenal in Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer, sourced from a new 2K restoration. Fine detail is abundant and grayscale separation is incredibly nuanced. Damage is almost completely nonexistent, with a few very minor dips in clarity seen here and there, but overall, the transfer represents a major visual upgrade. The uncompressed mono soundtrack has no obvious issues.

Although Cat People was released on laserdisc by Criterion back in the day, they haven’t carried over that edition’s most substantial supplement, an audio commentary by Bruce Eder, instead opting for the Gregory Mank track that was included on Warner’s DVD release. Excerpts from an archival interview with Simon are also on that track. Also carried over from Warner’s box set is Kent Jones’ feature-length doc Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows. Alongside a 1979 interview with Tourneur, Criterion also provides a new interviewer with cinematographer John Bailey (who shot Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake), who discusses Nicholas Musuraca’s work and legacy. A trailer and an insert with an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien are also included.

Criterion Collection / 1942 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 73 min / $39.95

shopThe Shop on the High Street (Obchod na korze, 1965)
Second Run

The Holocaust film has become a subgenre so afflicted with questionable sentimentality and morally dubious motivations that it’s easy to forget that there are fiction films that find a way to meaningfully grapple with the worst atrocity of the last century. One of those films is Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos’ The Shop on the High Street, better known in the US as The Shop on Main Street.

Unlike many of the popular Slovak films of the era, The Shop on the High Street is more rooted in a classical filmmaking style, which seems a likely factor in its Oscar win for best foreign language film. Obviously, classical doesn’t mean stodgy, and The Shop on the High Street remains a bracing experience, disarming viewers initially with its finely honed comic sensibility and low-key approach before revealing the way hatred works as a rapidly advancing poison and the easy complicity that soon arises.

At the film’s center are two remarkable performances, both working to make us intimate with the characters and their inner lives. Jozef Kroner stars as Tóno, an unambitious carpenter in a small Slovakian town who’s appointed “Aryan controller” of a modest shop. The shop’s owner is Rozália, a nearly senile and deaf Jewish widow who assumes Tóno is there to help her run the store, not take it and its profits over.

There is much about the film that is moving — Tóno and Rozália’s relationship evolves to a place of sweet interdependence — and much that is devastating — the film’s penultimate sequence uses handheld camerawork in a way that is righteously confrontational, but it’s the aforementioned comedy that is such a key component to the film’s success.

By all accounts, Tóno is a man who just wants to live his life in peace, though the societal striving of his wife (Hana Slivková) and the political standing of his brother-in-law, the Nazi-affiliated town commander (František Zvarík) make that difficult. There are many minor notes of comic exasperation here that are exquisite.

That extends to Tóno’s first meeting with Rozália, not so much a failure of understanding on her part as a failure of communicating on his. The futility is funny, and then the film juxtaposes that futility with the march of tyranny that’s not monolithic, but is enabled by thousands of small choices. Suddenly, none of this is funny at all.

Second Run’s all-region Blu-ray release is the first in the world for The Shop on the High Street, and the 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer is a nice improvement over Criterion’s old DVD release, even if the film still looks a bit rough around the edges. The transfer is sourced from a high-def master prepared by the Czech National Film Archive, and the elements are afflicted with a fair amount of marks and scratches, particularly in exterior scenes. Interior scenes are mostly clean, and the image is largely detailed and stable. The 2.0 uncompressed mono soundtrack has some background noise and a couple minor drop-outs, but handles the dialogue and Zdenek Liska’s nerve-jangling score quite well.

The major extra is a very detailed appreciation from historian Michael Brooke, who packs a ton of information into his 40-minute piece, which discusses the real-life history, the film’s production and its themes, and the subsequent careers of the major players. Also on the disc are images from the US press book, accessible as a click-through feature. A booklet with an essay by Peter Hames rounds out the bonus material.

Second Run / 1965 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 125 min / £19.99

mountainsPeople of the Mountains (Emberek a havason, 1942)
Second Run

Second Run’s other August release is on the opposite end of the popularity spectrum (no, it did not win any Oscars), but it’s exactly the kind of title that makes Second Run such an invaluable label, ensuring exposure for films that aren’t obvious canonical entries. This one is on DVD only.

The debut feature from Hungarian filmmaker István Szőts, People of the Mountains did not find favor with the Hungarian government, and in the included essay by Hungarian cinema specialist John Cunningham, he details the thorny political context the film was released into, including the dispute between Hungary and Romania over the occupation of Transylvania.

Still, even without detailed knowledge of these countries’ histories, People of the Mountain is a fascinating formal document. Second Run’s copy makes comparisons to Jean Renoir and John Ford, and notes how Vittorio De Sica and Cesare Zavattini saw it as influential on their foundational Neorealist films. All of these things seem true while watching the film, which begins like a docudrama and makes forays into both the quasi-magical religiosity and the bleak realities of working as a woodcutter in the remote Transylvanian forests.

Szőts mostly worked with nonprofessional actors, though his lead, János Görbe, was a fairly accomplished performer. Görbe stars as Gergö, a man determined to preserve some of his family’s way of life when a logging operation takes over the small community he lives in.

Gergö is a man of modest ambitions, and he and his wife Anna (Alice Szellay) mainly seem intent on providing a better life for their young son, Little Gergö (Péterke Ferency). It’s an initially low-stakes scenario that escalates to matters of life and death as a series of tragedies befall the family.

The story here is moving despite its simplicity, and a large part of that is due to the stunning camerawork of Ferenc Fekete, who uses diffused forest light in ways that highlight the family’s hopes for an idyllic future and the harsh truth of what actually lies ahead. Szellay and Görbe have deeply expressive faces, and Szőts wisely frames them in close-ups that give the film a full-blooded emotional force.

Second Run’s DVD is sourced from a new 2K restoration by the Hungarian Digital Archive and Film Institute, and even on DVD, the beautiful shadow gradations and delicate lighting look exceptional. Cunningham’s detailed essay is the only bonus feature.

Second Run / 1942 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 88 min / £12.99

SpidersThe Spiders (Die spinnen, 1919)
Destiny (Der müde Tod, 1921)
Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, 1922)
Kino Lorber

Three foundational silent works from Fritz Lang get the Blu-ray upgrade from Kino, and though Dr. Mabuse already has an excellent Blu-ray from Eureka’s Masters of Cinema, Kino’s new editions of The Spiders and Destiny are English-friendly Blu-ray debuts.

Watching these films chronologically is like watching some of Lang’s fundamental filmmaking approaches click into his place — his bold, expressionistic use of light and shadow, his love of epic-scale setpieces, his capacity for generating suspense.

All of these films owe something to both the structure and the look of the serials of Louis Feuillade (Fantômas). Both Spiders and Mabuse are relentlessly episodic films, lengthy two-parters with a sprawling narrative approach. Destiny is a more compact fable, but it’s restless, using a nested story structure that allows Lang to retell the same tale in different ways.

The Spiders follows the exploits of adventurer Kay Hoog (Carl de Vogt) as he seeks out both lost Incan treasure and lost pirate treasure, while attempting to stay one step ahead of the nefarious titular crime ring, who leave behind arachnids as a calling card. Fairly turgid when it’s not featuring an active setpiece, The Spiders is still of interest.

destinyDestiny represents a staggering step forward for Lang in terms of atmosphere, as he and Thea von Harbou (in one of her first collaborations with Lang) weave the tale of a town haunted by Death (Bernhard Goetzke), given access and power thanks to greed of local politicians.

When her fiancé dies, a young woman (Lil Dagover) is given the opportunity to reverse it by Death, who presents her with scenarios in three different time periods. Lang’s special-effects-laden, incredibly ornate versions of Persia, Italy and China are impressively detailed, but it’s the somber, ghostly images of a town blanketed by the specter of loss that really stick with you.

The first entry in what would become a trilogy directed by Lang (and a handful more from others), Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler is a more ambitious take on the serial, not only because of its length (a not-entirely-brisk 270 minutes) but because of its visually cohesive depiction of a societal menace that’s spread into every institution.

That menace is personified in Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), a criminal mastermind with the powers of hypnosis and disguise at his disposal. His band of henchmen is ragtag —cocaine addicts and morons — but his powers are far-reaching.

Pursued by Chief-Inspector Norbert von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke), Mabuse wins huge gambling pots thanks to hypnosis, Business Accessories has the perfect guide for learn about casinos and how make money, crashes the stock market for his own gain and kills or abandons anyone who gets in his way. In Lang’s stark vision of Weimar-era Germany, opium dens, secret séances and hidden gambling halls are rendered vividly — underground worlds where it seems anything unnerving is possible.

mabuse

The Spiders is granted a 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer using the same apparent source as Kino’s 2012 DVD release. The elements aren’t in great shape, and the tinted images rarely have much depth, but it’s a solid presentation and a marginal upgrade over the previous DVD. Intertitles are in English. Audio is a nice Ben Model score in lossless 2.0 stereo. There are no extras.

Destiny’s 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer comes sourced from a 2K restoration by Anke Wilkening on behalf of the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, and it’s mostly a strong one, with healthy levels of fine detail despite some pervasive softness to the images. The simulated color tinting looks good, and damage has been nicely attenuated. German intertitles are presented, with optional English subtitles. Audio is a lossless 2.0 stereo track of a newly-composed score by Cornelius Schwehr, performed by the Berlin Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra. Extras include a Tim Lucas audio commentary, a restoration demonstration and a trailer for the 2016 re-release.

Dr. Mabuse uses what appears to be the same restoration as the Eureka disc as the basis for its 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer, and it’s an excellent one, presenting an image that is generally sharp, detailed and film-like, despite a variety of marks and lines that appear throughout. Blacks are often fairly rich, though contrast does sometimes seem a bit boosted. The film is split across two discs. German intertitles are presented, with optional English subtitles. Audio is a lossless 2.0 stereo track that features Alijoscha Zimmerman’s involving score. While it doesn’t have the David Kalat commentary that the Eureka disc offers (a big loss), the Kino is otherwise similar on the extras front, presenting a three-part featurette on the music, the novel by Norbert Jacques that was the basis for the film and Lang’s perspective.

The Spiders: Kino Lorber / 1919 / Color tinted / 1.33:1 / 173 min / $29.95
Destiny: Kino Lorber / 1921 / Color tinted / 1.33:1 / 98 min / $29.95
Dr. Mabuse: Kino Lorber / 1922 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 270 min / $39.95

The FitsThe Fits (2016)
Oscilloscope Laboratories

The “all style, no substance” critique is one of my least favorite observations about a piece of art. Who’s to say style itself is not substantial?

So I won’t say that about Anna Rose Holmer’s debut feature The Fits, even though in its slim 72-minute running time, it doesn’t make much of a case for being more than a tightly controlled formal exercise. The good news: It’s a really impressive formal exercise, with a carefully distributed feeling of trepidation and an incredible kinetic physicality that nonetheless obeys the limits of the image’s frame.

Even more than signaling the arrival of a promising talent behind the camera, The Fits portends big things for Royalty Hightower, who plays 11-year-old Toni with a mix of steely determination and cautious naïveté.

In a sort of gender-reversed-Billy Elliot scenario, Toni becomes fixated on the dance troupe that practices at the same gym she boxes at with her brother. Every physical action here seems like it could have major consequences, from the thundering of fists onto a punching bag or the synchronized sounds of feet smacking the ground.

Shortly after joining the dance team, a series of puzzling fainting spells and seizures begin to afflict some of the older girls, and Holmer’s camera exploits these for maximum unsettledness. The Fits is not a horror film, but it wouldn’t take too many adjustments to make it one.

Ultimately, the film is in service to a metaphor that feels pretty thin, but even when it feels like a warm-up to something greater, The Fits is an enjoyable debut.

Oscilloscope’s Blu-ray release features a crystal clear 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer and a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that nicely highlights the film’s very active sound design. They’ve also assembled a healthy slate of bonus material, including an audio commentary with Holmer, producer and writer Lisa Kjerulff and editor and writer Saela Davis. An interview with Hightower, a making-of featurette, outtakes and a theatrical trailer are also included.

Oscilloscope Laboratories / 2016 / Color / 2.35:1 / 72 min / $31.99

immortalThe Immortal Story (1968)
The Criterion Collection

Based on a short story by Karen Blixen (AKA Isak Dinesen), The Immortal Story is Orson Welles’ final completed fiction feature — though that designation does ignore the slippery nature of truth in Welles’ brilliant documentary F For Fake (1973). Maybe we should call The Immortal Story Welles’ last all-fiction film.

Unsurprisingly, the intersection of truth and fiction is a major theme running through The Immortal Story, as wealthy merchant Charles Clay (Welles, caked in an unholy amount of old-age makeup) attempts to transfer an old sailors’ tale from the realm of myth to reality by recruiting two people to reenact it.

The almost certainly apocryphal story is simple enough: A rich, impotent old man pays a young sailor to impregnate his wife. After learning of the tale from his only companion, his bookkeeper (Roger Coggio), Clay enlists him to find a man and a woman to act this out, with Clay himself filling in as the old man, of course. The eventual participants: Virginie (Jeanne Moreau), the daughter of a man Clay once drove to suicide, and Paul (Norman Eshley), a down-on-his-luck sailor who seems like he could have been plucked right out of the story itself.

Clay’s sudden obsession with the story reflects on his own loneliness, his ill health and his impending irrelevance, and making the tale true is envisioned as a sort of exorcism of these demons for Clay. Welles shoots interior spaces with a distinct emphasis on their emptiness, the moribund figure of Clay isolated in the frame, sometimes enveloped by the shadows.

The Immortal Story was Welles’ first color film — not his choice, but demanded by the French production company who premiered it on television. Of all of the fascinating things about this odd film — which runs under an hour but is far richer than one would expect given the length — it’s the dramatic, almost expressionistic use of color that might stand out the most.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer is largely exceptional, and is sourced from a new 4K restoration of the film. The film-like transfer is thickly textured and film-like, with a stable grain structure. Colors range from garish and vibrant to more subtly shaded, and the transfer handles it all well. The uncompressed mono audio isn’t terribly dynamic — Welles opted for post-dubbed sound — but it’s a clean track.

The Immortal Story is a short film, but Criterion’s slate of extras isn’t, beginning with the alternate French-language version of the film, which is slightly shorter but not significantly different aside from the French-dubbed dialogue. The transfer is comparable to the English-language cut.

Other extras include a typically perceptive commentary track by Adrian Martin, taken from the Madman Entertainment DVD release, a 1968 French documentary on Welles, new interviews with Eshley and scholar François Thomas, and a 2004 interview with cinematographer Willy Kurant. The included insert features an essay from Jonathan Rosenbaum.

Criterion Collection / 1968 / Color / 1.66:1 / 58 min / $39.95

 

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.

Keaton Featured

Blu-ray Review Round-up: Films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Kelly Reichardt, Buster Keaton & more!

Horse Money CostaHorse Money (Second Run)
Mysterious Object at Noon (Second Run)

British label Second Run has removed just about the only obstacle to achieving peak reverence among cinephiles by making the jump to Blu-ray. Art house stalwarts are the beneficiaries of its first two Blu-ray releases, with Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s debut feature and the latest film from Pedro Costa getting the nod. Weerasethakul and Costa are pretty different filmmakers, but Mysterious Object at Noon and Horse Money could make a good double feature, as both films are intermittently dream-like excursions into a world where fiction and documentary blur together — or at least coexist side by side.

Costa’s Horse Money (2014) is a sort of epilogue to his Fontainhas trilogy. With the decaying tenement housing of those films now completely eradicated, Costa has moved on to the landscape of the mind of Ventura, the lead of trilogy-closing Colossal Youth (2006). Ventura’s stay in a labyrinthine hospital for a mysterious illness is mind-numbingly nightmarish, but there’s also not much solace to be found traversing his memories — some seem to be deeply personal; others seem to be collective remembrances of the displaced Cape Verdean people.

Explicating Costa’s intentions or the numerous historical signifiers he employs is a challenge I’m not equipped for, but I can confidently say Horse Money is further confirmation of his daring brilliance when it comes to digital photography. Replicating the look of celluloid never seems to be his intention; instead he uses a bewitching confluence of light and shadow to create images that seem both mythic and hyper-real. Like many shots in his earlier films, there are ones in Horse Money that sear themselves into your brain.

MysteriousApichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mysterious Object at Noon (2000) is a more playful kind of truth/fiction hybrid, and though its structure and “rules” are ostensibly clearer than in Costa’s flim, it’s also more baffling in its own way. The basic set-up is this: Weerasethakul and his crew are traversing across Thailand, shooting observational footage while asking each successive subject to tell the next chapter of a story about a woman and the wheelchair-bound boy she tutors.

Eventually, the woman gives birth to the “mysterious object,” but the various storytellers — including those tasked with acting out the drama — can’t quite agree on just what emerges or its nature. Is the alien thing evil or kindly — or does it even matter? The film pushes and pulls between the magical and the quotidian, a tension that defines much of Weerasethakul’s subsequent work.

Horse Money is granted a 1.33:1 transfer in 1080i to accommodate the film’s 25 fps frame rate. The transfer displays rich colors, deep blacks and a consistently sharp image. The clarity of the transfer is frequently striking. 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 stereo LPCM soundtracks are included.

The region-free release boasts all of the extras of the US release from Cinema Guild and more. Costa’s 2010 short O nosso homem and Chris Fujiwara’s essay match the Cinema Guild release, and Second Run also includes an introduction from filmmaker Thom Andersen, who mostly focuses on the Jacob Riis photographs that open the film, and a conversation between Costa and Laura Mulvey. A selection of trailers and an additional essay from Jonathan Romney round out the bonus features.

Mysterious Object at Noon has a more problematic transfer, though it all comes down to the poor condition of the surviving materials, detailed in the included booklet.

As it stands, the restoration from the Austrian Film Museum and the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project represents a Herculean effort, sourced from a 35mm blow-up internegative of the original 16mm elements. That source featured burned-in English subtitles, and the resulting image appears as a 1.78:1 frame that’s been window-boxed on all sides, with subtitles extending below the image.

Still, fine detail is plenty apparent and the image has some depth to it. Clean-up efforts were extraordinary, and the film’s fairly heavy grain structure is handled well.

5.1 DTS-HD and 2.0 LPCM options are also included here, both serviceable tracks with minimal noise issues.

Extras include 2007 short film Nimit (Meteorites), a brief restoration featurette and a new interview with Weerasethakul. The great Tony Rayns offers an insightful essay in the booklet.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Second Run’s Horse Money Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: ***
Extra Features Overall: ***

Second Run / 2014 / Color / 1.33:1 / 105 min / £19.99 / Region-free

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Second Run’s Mysterious Object at Noon 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: ***

Second Run / 2000 / Black and white / 1.78:1 / 85 min / £19.99 / Region-free

KeatonBuster Keaton: The Shorts Collection 1917-1923 (Kino Lorber)

Kino’s line of Buster Keaton Blu-rays is largely exceptional, offering both his short films and features in impressive high-def presentations that mostly overcome their age and highly variable condition of the source elements.

Could they be better? Sure, and the first proof comes in the form of a new five-disc Blu-ray set of short films that surely won’t be the last Keaton Blu-ray double-dip opportunity. Is this a necessary purchase if you already own Kino’s 2011 Blu-ray release? Yeah, probably. (Also an attractive option: the forthcoming Masters of Cinema release in the UK, which includes the same films and a more extensive collection of extras.)

For the Region A (or just impatient) customer, Kino’s set is superb. This version adds the 13 surviving shorts Keaton made with Fatty Arbuckle alongside the 19 solo shorts available in the previous release, and every film has been granted a 2K restoration courtesy of Lobster Films.

While the Arbuckle films, in which Keaton often plays multiple supporting roles, can be breathlessly entertaining, a sense of repetition sets in. Big setpieces escalate and escalate to their logical conclusion: utter chaos. Arbuckle’s jolly, indefatigable persona is endearing, but a little one-note.

Once Keaton went solo, he grew in leaps and bounds as a filmmaker, honing his world-weary character and attempting more formally complex and physically daring setpieces. For more information about the individual films, you can check out my review of the previous release.

By and large, the 1080p, 1.33:1 transfers represent a significant improvement over previously available versions. For the Arbuckle/Keaton films, these high-def presentations easily outclass those on the turn-of-the-millennium Kino DVD releases, many of which were tinted and all of which were badly damaged. The condition of the elements here varies, with most of the films vacillating from faded and muddy to stunning clarity. Overall, damage has been greatly minimized and the images are stable and detailed. In their best moments, these nearly 100-year-old films barely show their age.

For the solo shorts, the improvement over Kino’s previous Blu-ray is obviously less drastic than the improvement over 15-year-old DVDs. Still, this is a consistent upgrade across all 19 films, most apparent in improved levels of fine detail and image clarity. There are also fewer missing frames, and several films are presented in more complete versions. All of the scores are presented in LPCM 2.0 stereo.

The set does take a bit of a step backward in regards to special features. Several of the alternate shots extras have been rendered unnecessary and there were some fairly superfluous excerpts of Keaton cameos, but the previous set’s extensive collection of visual essays on the films and their locations are missed.

On the new set, we get an excised racist ending from “Coney Island,” a longer version of “The Blacksmith,” an alternate ending to “My Wife’s Relations,” and a brief excerpt from 1951 TV series “Life With Buster Keaton.” Film preservationist Serge Bromberg introduces a quick overview of the restoration process, while Jeffrey Vance offers an expanded version of his previous liner notes. Kino’s booklet here is quite detailed, listing the source materials for every film alongside critical essays and plot overviews.

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

Kino Lorber / 1917-1923 / Black and white/color tinted / 1.33:1 / 738 min / $59.95

Woman on the RunWoman on the Run (Flicker Alley)
Too Late for Tears (Flicker Alley)

Two little-seen noirs have been unearthed and restored by the Film Noir Foundation and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, and are now available in fantastic dual-format editions from Flicker Alley. (Editions with identical specs are forthcoming from Arrow Video in the UK, though the Flicker Alley discs are region-free.)

Besides their relative obscurity, both films also share the notable quality of being female-centric noirs, each with a magnetic lead performance of a character who might be relegated to the sidelines in a typical noir.

In Norman Foster’s Woman on the Run (1950), the ostensible protagonist is Frank Johnson (Ross Elliott), a man who witnesses a late-night murder while walking his dog, and narrowly avoids being the gunman’s second kill. But almost immediately after being questioned by police, Frank flees the scene, leaving his wife, Eleanor (Ann Sheridan), to wonder where he’s gone.

Or not.

Eleanor and Frank are almost to the point of being completely estranged, so his disappearance hardly feels consequential to her at first. But the mystery of his whereabouts and the prodding of a pesky journalist (Dennis O’Keefe) convince Eleanor to track him down in a scenic tour around San Francisco that steadily escalates the level of pulse-pounding thrills.

At only 79 minutes, Woman on the Run feels elemental, stripped down to the basic components of noir and fashioned as a pure shot of adrenaline.

Too Late for TearsToo Late for Tears (1949), directed by Byron Haskin and written by Roy Huggins, is more instantly familiar, its casually sneering tone and the rhythms of its dialogue deeply indebted to Raymond Chandler. But this film inverts the formula, making the femme fatale the protagonist, a role played by a delightfully deranged Lizabeth Scott, whose base impulses seem to be irrevocably triggered by a sudden windfall.

Scott’s Jane and her husband (Arthur Kennedy) are driving along, minding their own business, when a suitcase with $60,000 is mistakenly flung into their car. He doesn’t want anything to do with the obviously ill gotten gains, but she can’t help but imagine the possibilities.

When the suitcase’s owner (Dan Duryea’s Danny Fuller) comes calling to collect, it seems apparent that Jane has stumbled way in over her head, but the power dynamics here are anything but stable. Scott’s performance blackens like a piece of fruit quickly turning rotten, peeling and twisting to continually reveal worse facets of herself. Duryea’s Philip Marlowe-like flippancy gets taught a lesson, the cockiness sweating off of him as he comes to see who Jane really is.

Even the wet blanket of Don DeFore, who stars as a requisite paragon of righteous, can’t quench the film’s black heart.

Both 1080p, 1.33:1 Blu-ray transfers will be a revelation for anyone whose previous experiences were relegated to crappy public-domain DVDs. Woman on the Run is a little ragged around the edges, with a fair amount of speckling and marks, but the underlying image is nicely detailed and stable. Too Late for Tears frequently looks exceptional, full of dense, well-resolved grain and fine detail, though the look of the film is more soft than sharp. The uncompressed mono tracks fare similarly; Woman on the Run’s track has more wear, but both are fairly clean with no major drop-outs.

Extras for Woman on the Run include a commentary track from noir expert Eddie Muller, who also relates his own connection to the film’s preservation in the booklet essay. Featurettes on the film’s production, its restoration and locations are also included alongside a piece about San Francisco’s annual noir fest. Too Late for Tears has a similar bonus slate, with an audio commentary from Alan K. Rode, featurettes on the making-of and the restoration, and a booklet with an essay by Brian Light.

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

Flicker Alley / 1950 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 79 min / $39.95

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

Flicker Alley / 1949 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 102 min / $39.95

River of GrassRiver of Grass (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Before becoming one of American film’s great chroniclers of displacement, Kelly Reichardt made her feature-film debut with a little 1994 Sundance entry called River of Grass. (This was quite a bit before —her next film wouldn’t come out until more than a decade later.)

Basically undistributed and only available for years on an atrocious Wellspring DVD, River of Grass has received a Kickstarter-aided 2K restoration from Oscilloscope Laboratories and a gorgeous new Blu-ray release that perfectly renders the film’s hazy 16mm images of wide-open Florida skies and dead-end suburban landscapes.

Reichardt’s upended film noir doesn’t closely resemble her later work; its offbeat, lanky humor is reminiscent of Hal Hartley and there are brief flashes of early Todd Haynes — it’s certainly in step with 1990s American independent film. But even though Reichardt established a much more unique voice later on, there’s an undeniably consistent vision and a sharp eye for striking compositions here.

Lisa Bowman (who’s only acted sporadically since) stars as Cozy, a housewife so unconcerned with her husband and kids, they only register in the film as briefly visible images. At a bar, she meets Lee (filmmaker Larry Fessenden, who also edited the film), a layabout just charming enough to spark a hint of interest in Cozy. Together, they sneak into a backyard pool, but soon the homeowner has appeared, Lee’s gun has gone off and the pair takes off on the lam together.

Scraping together a few bucks from selling stolen records, Lee and Cozy hole up in a cheap motel and make plans to maybe flee the state altogether. But inertia is a powerful force, and Reichardt’s script gets good mileage out of things not happening, the film’s genre shell drained of all its dramatic energy.

Oscilloscope’s 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer could have the power to transport you back to 1994 Sundance, where you’re watching a brand-new print. The film’s not-too-heavy grain structure is beautifully resolved, and the image possesses wonderful levels of clarity. Colors are consistent, if muted, and damage has been almost completely eradicated. The lossless 2.0 mono track shows its age, but handles the dialogue and jazzy score just fine.

Extras include a newly recorded commentary from Reichardt and Fessenden, and the loose, rambling vibe is a good fit for the material. The pair spends a good portion of the track ribbing each other or themselves about various production choices, most of them dimly remembered, making it an amiable, if not terribly informative listen. Also included is a brief restoration featurette and a trailer for the re-release. An essay by film writer and curator Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan rounds out the bonus material.

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

Oscilloscope Laboratories / 1994 / Color / 1.33:1 / 76 min / $31.99

Arabian NightsArabian Nights Trilogy (Kino Lorber)

There’s something for almost everyone in Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights (2015), a sprawling, incredibly ambitious allegorical take on Portugal’s economic crisis and subsequent austerity measures. The problem is, that something is likely buried somewhere in the middle of a six-hour-plus meandering epic that sometimes seems perversely determined to do the opposite of what its framing device implies.

(Scheherazade from One Thousand and One Nights is an actual character here, telling stories with cliffhangers so fantastic, they continually save her life. Gomes sometimes — oftentimes? — dares the viewer to kill him for going on and on.)

Though it’s separated into three distinct volumes — The Restless OneThe Desolate One and The Enchanted One — Arabian Nights is essentially one long episodic film, opening on a note of self-deprecation that somehow doesn’t seem quite genuine. (Would a director that worried about his own futility open his trilogy with a sequence starring himself?)

The membrane between the magical and the mundane is pretty thin here, with a collection of stories that run the gamut and some that stay resolutely in one camp or the other. Early on, a rooster will provide some wry voiceover, while the series closes out with an extended, stubbornly un-magical take on the painstaking process of teaching chaffinches to sing competitively. One may hope for the birds to suddenly start speaking.

For a viewer not intimately acquainted with the details of Portugal’s politics, there are certainly going to be missed cues, though some segments are so heavy-handed (“The Men with Hard-ons,” about corrupt government officials, for instance), it’s hard to mistake Gomes’ point. Others, like the story of an escaped murderer/local folk hero only coalesce after a patience-testing slow-cinema unfurling. Arabian Nights is generally visually stunning, but its ideas can seem spread a bit thin in times like these.

In its best story, “The Owners of Dixie,” the film’s political and narrative concerns come together movingly, as a couple make plans for their beloved white fluffy dog after they’re no longer around. For much of its running time, Arabian Nights doesn’t feel worth the effort, but in retrospect, I find myself wanting to revisit some of the tales that I didn’t quite connect with at the time.

Kino’s three-disc Blu-ray release features 1080p, 2.35:1 transfers for all three films, and each displays superb levels of detail, and deep, rich colors. A fair amount of speckling affects certain scenes, with more and more marks seeming to appear as the trilogy progresses. These don’t appear to be intentional defects, and they’re mostly minor, but it’s a bit odd. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks are dynamic and sharp throughout.

Extras include a fairly substantial interview with Gomes from the 2015 New York Film Festival, his short film Redemption (2013), a trailer and a nice, hefty booklet with production notes and an essay by Dennis Lim.

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

Kino Lorber / 2015 / Color / 2.35:1 / 382 min / $49.95

 

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.