Tag Archives: pedro costa

Vitalina

Blu-ray Review: Pedro Costa reaches new heights with ‘Vitalina Varela,’ out now from Second Run

VitalinaPedro Costa’s films have always been marked by a deep empathy for the humans they depict — characters does not seem like the right word to describe them — and that’s no different in his latest, Vitalina Varela. Among the film’s many virtues is its ability to transfer its heart-in-throat compassion for its subject almost instantaneously. Costa’s imagery has often been this mesmerizing, but never has he shot faces like this before; every close-up on Varela has a heart-wrenching effect.

Vitalina Varela feels like the apotheosis of Costa’s work since he switched to shooting digitally and began creating collaborative truth/fiction hybrids in Lisbon’s slums. Costa’s ability to coax unexplainable beauty from the defects of MiniDV digital video in In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth was astounding, but his work ascends to new heights in Vitalina Varela, hauntingly juxtaposing light and shadow in a seemingly unending series of striking tableaux. The tools may be enormously improved, but still, no one can make digital images look like Costa does.

Vitalina Varela expands on a moment from Costa’s previous film, Horse Money, in which a Cape Verdean woman tells the story of trying to visit her estranged husband in Portugal, but arriving three days after his funeral. Costa met the mourning Varela while shooting Horse Money and incorporated elements of her real story into the segment. By expanding it here, he gives a larger platform to the most penetrating performance he’s ever featured, in a film about grief, isolation and defiance in spite of disillusionment.

In a country that’s not her own, in the neighborhood where she knows no one, in the room where the husband who she barely knew after he left her decades ago lived, Varela turns her sadness into a steely determination to make a place for herself. Like all Costa films, there’s a tangible sense of space in Vitalina Varela, and the expressionistic lighting and tight camera set-ups communicate an almost suffocating heaviness. Scenes of Varela sitting alone are accompanied by a din of commotion, ambient sounds of conversation and activity teeming around her but not involving her. Interactions with her unfeeling new neighbors aren’t any less lonely.

Still, Varela perseveres, and she finds some commiseration with a priest who’s lost his congregation. Frequent collaborator and star of Horse Money and Colossal Youth Ventura plays the priest, in a departure from the version of himself he generally plays in Costa’s films. The priest is unable to restrain his despair like Varela, lamenting openly about the loss of his own faith.

For her part, Varela keeps her pain close to her chest, but the film externalizes this deeply internal feeling in a way few films ever have. There are two grace notes in Vitalina Varela in which she visualizes a glimpse of Cape Verde, the gleaming sun and natural beauty a stark contrast to every image surrounding them. Whether nostalgia for the past or a dream of a future with a husband that will never come to be, these moments only amplify Vitalina Varela’s grief. But maybe, just maybe, they’re a glimpse of a reality that could come to be.

Second Run’s region-free Blu-ray presents the film in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, with a 1080i transfer, which preserves the film’s 25fps format. The gulf between my original viewing of the film on streaming versus a re-watch on Blu-ray was wide, with Second Run’s impeccable transfer highlighting the hyper-reality of Costa’s images. The deep, rich black levels seen on this disc are essential to appreciating the film’s visual style, and a continued point in favor of discs over streaming, where black levels go to die a compressed, macroblocked death. Every other aspect of the transfer is just as impressive, from fine detail to clarity to sharpness. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is dynamic and immersive, creating a great sense of the dense neighborhood the film was shot in. A 2.0 LPCM stereo track is also included.

Extras include a brief introduction by critic Chris Fujiwara, an hour-plus interview with Costa from a March 2020 screening in London, and Companhia, a short film about Costa’s museum installation exhibit in Porto. The disc also includes a selection of trailers. Included in the package is a booklet with an essay by Daniel Kasman and another extensive interview with Costa, who never shies away from an opinion.

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.

 

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.