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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.

 

Vampir2

Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Lina Wertmüller, James Whale, Jean-Luc Godard & more!

SweptSwept Away (1974)
Seven Beauties (1975)
Summer Night (1986)
Ferdinando and Carolina (1999)
Kino Lorber

The great Lina Wertmüller gets a big home video boost from Kino with its latest wave of Blu-ray releases from the Italian director, the first woman to be nominated for a Best Directing Oscar. Kino put out Wertmüller’s successive 1970s comedies The Seduction of Mimi, Love and Anarchy and All Screwed Up a few years ago, and this slate includes the two films that immediately came after — her two most popular films — and two lesser-known works.

In all of these films, Wertmüller demonstrates her remarkable facility for visual comedy — she may be the master of the comedic zoom — and her unwavering commitment to stories that feature an inextricable intertwining of sex and politics. Sex is never about just sex in a Wertmüller film, and though her depictions of problematic sexual relationships in ostensibly humorous settings has courted some controversy, the discomforts she foists on audiences are purposeful. Men wield sex like a weapon in these films, but they end up being undercut by their own flailing desires.

In Swept Away, the fabulously wealthy Raffaella (Mariangela Melato) seems to find her greatest pleasure during a Mediterranean vacation needling deckhand Gennarino (Giancarlo Giannini), an outspoken Communist. His loathing of her is fueled both by her conspicuously lavish consumption and her aggressively rude behavior. But the power structure flips when they’re stranded on a deserted island together, and his survival skills require her to show some deference. His eager exploitation of her needs complicates the story and our sympathies, as do Melato and Giannini’s performances, both unhinged and calculating in almost equal measures.

SevenSeven Beauties amplifies the tonal flexibility, with Giannini starring as the lecherous Pasqualino, a man who domineers yet depends on his seven sisters, and who ends up conscripted into the army after murder and rape. The film that earned Wertmüller her Oscar nomination, Seven Beauties is probably the only successful concentration camp comedy in existence, as Pasqualino blunders himself into one, and then becomes convinced his only chance at survival is seducing Shirley Stoler’s commandant. Unlike Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997), which used comedy in a concentration camp as a vehicle for bittersweet uplift, Wertmüller embraces the fundamental grotesquerie of the situation. The film’s hazy, nonlinear structure is braced by a forceful condemnation of bourgeois detachment.

Summer

Summer Night is the weakest film of the four, returning to many of the ideas and scenarios in Swept Away, and rehashing them over and over. There are numerous bouts of screaming in this film, and the relentless nature of its repeated jokes tends to outweigh the charms, though they are there, largely thanks to Melato essentially reprising her role as a stuck-up avatar of capitalism. Here, she kidnaps an eco-terrorist (Michele Placido), puts him in bondage gear and brings him to her private island to wait for a ransom payment. Placido grunts and moans like Giannini, but his energy doesn’t escalate with Melato’s the same way, and their sexual attraction feels more perfunctory. (Melato’s obliviousness to the feelings of her co-conspirator, played by Roberto Herlitzka, is more consistently amusing.)

Ferdinando

Ferdinando and Carolina refutes any idea that Wertmüller’s talents were confined to her heyday in the 1970s, delivering an effervescent depiction of an 18th Century monarchy and a razor-sharp excoriation of the misogyny of its sexual hierarchy. In Naples, King Ferdinando lies on his deathbed and escapes to his memories of his early days on the throne, when he (Sergio Assisi) wed an Austrian princess, Carolina (Gabriella Pession), in an arranged marriage. Here, sex is transactional, until it’s not. But any feeling of idyllic bliss is fleeting. Wertmüller romps through a catalog of supporting characters and amusing scenarios here, her ever-curious roving camera sometimes only having a few moments to alight on a situation before moving on. But the film never feels overloaded or dense; it’s an airy confection that turns out to be surprisingly substantial.

Though none of these transfers are promoted as being sourced from new restorations, this is an excellent batch of discs, with all of the 1080p transfers looking quite nice, despite some intermittent minor damage and some inherent softness. The brilliant blues of the Mediterranean shine in Swept Away and Summer Night, while fine detail remains solid in the murky hues of Seven Beauties. Images are generally clear and sharp, with unmanipulated grain structures and stable colors. Audio, all in 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks, is rarely more than adequate, with some age-related harshness in the older films. Overall, these all make for excellent viewing experiences.

Extras are most abundant on the Swept Away disc, which includes an audio commentary by Valerio Ruiz, director of Behind the White Glasses, a Wertmüller doc Kino simultaneously released on DVD. Both Swept Away and Seven Beauties feature an excerpt from that film and an interview with Amy Heckerling. Booklet essays are included with each disc.

Swept Away: Kino Lorber / 1974 / Color / 1.85:1 / 114 min / $29.95
Seven Beauties: Kino Lorber / 1975 / Color / 1.85:1 / 116 min / $29.95
Summer Night: Kino Lorber / 1986 / Color / 1.66:1 / 103 min / $29.95
Ferdinando and Carolina: Kino Lorber / 1999 / Color / 1.85:1 / 107 min / $29.95

VampirVampir Cuadecuc (1970)
Second Run

Jess Franco films are a lot of things, but scary isn’t usually one of them. On the other hand, there’s Pere Portabella’s Vampir Cuadecuc, a genuinely unnerving piece of abstract art made concurrently with Franco’s Dracula, starring Christopher Lee.

Shot on high-contrast 16mm black-and-white stock — the image sometimes close to being completely obliterated — the film unfolds from alternate angles, with camera equipment sometimes in view. The diegetic world stretches beyond the myth here, with a nonexistent barrier between fiction and nonfiction. Suddenly, Lee will leer into the camera and take a playful swipe, and though he’s goofing around, in this context the effect is the opposite. The vampire has become all the more mysterious and menacing.

The film’s soundtrack — completely absent of diegetic sound, save for Lee reading a passage from Bram Stoker’s novel in the film’s final scene — creates its own eerie atmosphere, veering from lounge-y piano tunes to avant-garde droning. In the film’s penultimate scene, the soundtrack stutters, looping one second over and over and over, directly countering the supposed climax taking place on screen.

As a deconstruction, as a tone poem, as an accompaniment and as a piece of standalone experimental film, Vampir is a fascinating work, and Second Run’s region-free Blu-ray is a stacked release, beginning with a nice 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer, which offers a strong showcase for the wildly fluctuating image and its grainy, contrast-heavy look. The elements are in good shape, and in the scenes that allow for it, the image is clear and detailed. Audio is presented in uncompressed 2.0 mono.

Extras are numerous and substantial. A newly filmed interview with Portabella has him discussing the genesis of the idea, his interactions with Franco who expected something far more conventional initially, and his approach to shooting. An interview with BFI curator William Fowler acts as an appreciation of the film’s visual merits and offers some political and social context, particularly in regard to the Franco regime’s disapproval of Portabella’s work.

Two newer Portabella shorts made with composer Carlos Santos are also included: La Tempesta (2003), which makes abstract the interaction of water and the human body, and No al No (2006), which features Santos at the piano, employing an unusual way of playing with a ball in his left hand. Both are in 1080p, and look great. Also included: a booklet with an essay by filmmaker Stanley Schtinter.

Second Run / 1970 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 69 min / £19.99

PersonalPersonal Shopper (2016)
The Criterion Collection

It was apparent early in her career that Kristen Stewart was an incredibly skilled actor, capable of imbuing small gestures with enormous feeling. As exceptional as she was in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (2016), Stewart seems to have found her ideal filmmaker match in Olivier Assayas, who’s shown an intuitive sense of how best to use her abilities in Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) and Personal Shopper.

In both films, she plays an assistant — someone whose life is very much not their own on a day-to-day basis. In Personal Shopper, she runs largely inane errands for a largely vapid model (Nora von Waldstätten), while grieving the death of her twin brother from a heart condition she also has. Her character, Maureen, is also a medium, and her brother promised he would contact her from the other side once he was gone. Throughout the film, Maureen receives contacts — some more corporeal than others — but are any of them her brother? And would it matter?

Assayas has made another film about alienation in the modern world, and Stewart is an exceptional portrayer of that existential discomfort. She’s good at her job, but she never seems quite at ease doing it, despite its fundamental banality. And she’s good at attracting spirits, which sees Assayas nearly committing to an honest-to-goodness horror film. But what purpose does that serve for Maureen? The film’s most noted sequence involves an unknown sender toying with her via text message, and Stewart makes us hang on every movement like that blinking iMessage ellipsis. But that connection is tenuous, thin. When she reaches out, will she find anything at all?

Criterion’s 1080p, 2.40:1 transfer is fine. Sourced from a 2K transfer of the original 35mm elements, the Blu-ray transfer is a bit limited by the film’s muted look and not terribly detailed darker scenes, which can come across a touch muddy here. Detail is strong in daylight, with a natural color palette that looks good. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is immersive when called upon, with clean dialogue throughout.

Extras are minimal: A new interview with Assayas is a worthwhile look at the film’s inception and development, while a press conference from Cannes, where it was booed, is less focused. Also included: a trailer and an insert with an essay by critic Glenn Kenny, whose comparison to themes in Vertigo is an interesting and well-supported reading.

Criterion Collection / 2016 / Color / 2.40:1 /105 min / $39.95

ChinoiseLa Chinoise (1967)
Le Gai Savoir (1969)
Kino Lorber

Two key transitional works from Jean-Luc Godard come to Blu-ray via Kino, and these have to be up there high on lists of the most essential discs of the year, replacing the lackluster OOP Koch Lorber DVDs with two gorgeous high-def presentations. Made in the midst of Godard’s beginnings with the radical Dziga Vertov Group and his disillusionment with narrative, these two films jettison the notion of plot that still existed in some form in a contemporaneous work like Week End to dive headlong into political probing.

In the aesthetically ecstatic La Chinoise, Godard depicts a group of students (including Jean-Pierre Léaud, Juliet Berto and Godard’s soon-to-be wife Anne Wiazemsky) holed up in a Paris apartment, discussing their rejection of bourgeois values and their attraction to Maoist ideals. Their conversations are discursive and often one-sided, with one character monologuing for minutes on end. The ever-present question about Godard’s opinion of these people is never really answered. Are they meant to be revered or ridiculed? Their ideas about eschewing middle-class comforts and embracing the need for violent change are somewhat contradicted by their actions, which see them remaining in their apartment and only play-acting revolutionary actions. While the specificity of the subject matter requires extratextual knowledge (and this disc has it), Raoul Coutard’s stunning images, replete with pops of primary color — including, famously, hundreds of copies of Mao’s Little Red Book — speak for themselves.

SavoirIn Le Gai Savoir, Godard hones his focus considerably, with a visual economy to match, as nearly the entire film takes place on a darkened soundstage. There, Léaud and Berto meet, and discuss the limits of language and of images, which Godard intercuts with images of political upheaval, pop culture and everyday Parisian life. The film is a compelling essay that advocates a “return to zero” in image-making, and the implications are both political and artistic. Godard longs for a new way of seeing and a new way of hearing, and here, as in most of his films, he discovers new ways to force audiences to do just that.

The 1080p, 1.37:1 transfers on these discs are superb, with every red and blue a blast of vibrant color, and beautiful levels of filmic fine detail throughout. There’s no loss of that detail in the essentially omnipresent shadowed scenes in Le Gai Savoir, which feature perfectly inky black levels. Any slight fluctuation of image density is due to the condition of the elements, but such moments are very minor. These films look phenomenal. The uncompressed 2.0 mono tracks have some intentional harshness due to the films’ unconventional sound designs.

Extras are also a major selling point, including audio commentaries from two of the best in the biz: James Quandt on La Chinoise and Adrian Martin on Le Gai Savoir. Both tracks are packed with helpful contextual information and analyses of Godard’ political and visual aims. La Chinoise also features five interview pieces with cast, crew and film historian Antoine de Baecque, while Le Gai Savoir has a brief video piece from Godard collaborator Fabrice Aragno. Trailers and booklets with essays by Richard Hell (on both), Amy Taubin (La Chinoise) and Adam Nayman (Le Gai Savoir) are also included.

La Chinoise: Kino Lorber / 1967 / Color / 1.37:1 / 96 min / $29.95
Le Gai Savoir: Kino Lorber / 1969 / Color / 1.37:1 / 92 min / $29.95

houseThe Old Dark House (1932)
Cohen Film Collection

Though often described as a horror-comedy, James Whale’s pre-code The Old Dark House strikes me as more of a hangout film, in which we get the pleasure of spending time with Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart’s witty married couple, Charles Laughton’s self-deprecating sad-sack and Melvyn Douglas’ charming flirt, who woos Lilian Bond’s chorus girl.

When a vicious storm reroutes all of their paths to the expansive Femm estate, where the hosts (Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore) aren’t terribly hospitable and a mute butler (Boris Karloff) works, the menacing implications are clear. And sure, some of those foreboding events do come to pass, but like most Gothic horror, this is a film all about mood, and the mood is ultimately kind of carefree.

Sure, there’s a demented relative locked somewhere in the house, and yes, Karloff’s alcoholism is accompanied by freakish strength, and why exactly is the host so insistent on that potato being eaten? Ah, who cares. Pull yourself up by the fire, have another swig of whiskey and all of this won’t look so scary in the morning.

Cohen’s Blu-ray features a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer that’s sourced from a new 4K restoration, and the overall look is excellent, with a healthy grain structure, stable image and nice levels of detail and clarity. Imperfections and fluctuations are minor, and grayscale separation is pretty good, even if black levels can look just a touch washed out at points. An uncompressed 2.0 mono track betrays the film’s age with some rough edges and slight hiss, but is serviceable.

Extras are mostly ported over from a previous release, including two commentary tracks with Stuart and Whale scholar James Curtis. A vintage featurette features director Curtis Harrington detailing his love for the film and his efforts to rescue it after it had fallen into obscurity and elements weren’t known to survive in good condition. New to this release is an interview with Sara Karloff, Boris Karloff’s daughter, which features her appreciation for her dad’s prolific career and the great lengths that went on behind the scenes to outfit him in some of his most iconic looks. A trailer and an insert with an interview with Harrington are also included.

Cohen Film Collection / 1932 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 72 min / $25.99

 

 

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.

Barton2

Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Robert Bresson, Karel Zeman, the Coen Brothers & more!

BartonBarton Fink
Kino Lorber Studio Classics

The long-awaited Region A Blu-ray upgrade of Barton Fink has finally arrived, thanks to Kino’s Studio Classics line. (Among Coen Brothers features, that just leaves The Ladykillers Blu-less, and given that it’s their worst film by a healthy margin, it’s no travesty.)

Perhaps the Coens’ first great film (I’m overdue for a revisit to Miller’s Crossing), Barton Fink presages a number of their pet themes and concerns, anticipating both the Hollywood satire of Hail, Caesar! and the rumination on artistic frustration of Inside Llewyn Davis. Its most direct descendant though is probably the Coens’ true masterpiece, A Serious Man, which echoes its vision of a man stuck in hell (or at least purgatory) on earth. And it features the memorable scene in which Michael Stuhlbarg’s Larry Gopnik is implored to “accept the mystery.”

Accepting the mystery is key to the enjoyment of Barton Fink, which feels like the first instance of the Coens fully operating on that mysterious, metaphysical level.

John Turturro, who’s mesmerizing as Barton, the New York playwright who begrudgingly goes to Hollywood to work as a screenwriter, is not a terribly mysterious character on a basic narrative level. He’s an artist determined to be the voice of the common man, but he can’t be bothered to even make an attempt at engaging with one, a point gleefully underlined by his interactions with Charlie (John Goodman), the insurance salesman who lives next door to him in his dilapidated hotel. (Side note: Barton Fink is also a remarkably tangible horror film — witness the squirm-inducing effects of the adhesive sliding through the peeling wallpaper and their visual similarity to the pus that drips from Charlie’s ear.)

Though Barton and Charlie strike up a kind of friendship, their conversations are never operating on the same plane. Goodman’s cackling enthusiasm is tough to pin down — Is he sincere? Does he have nefarious intentions? — but Turturro is a self-serving blank slate, only hearing what he wants to and interpreting it accordingly.

The disconnect between Barton’s grand pronouncements and his actions is textbook literary irony — and in the Coens’ hands, great fodder for comedy! — but Barton Fink is much weirder than that, veering from fast-paced screwball antics (thanks to a great Michael Lerner) to gut-churning existential dread to quite-real physical terror, culminating in one of their signature bemused non-sequitur finishes. It’s great. Accept the mystery.

Barton Fink has received a number of Blu-ray releases in Europe, where Universal holds the rights, and like many Universal catalog titles, that one is afflicted with some heavy-handed digital manipulation. Kino’s Fox-provided 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer (the case’s listing of 2.35:1 is a typo) doesn’t have that issue; this appears to be a fairly hands-off transfer of a somewhat dated master — a fair amount of speckling and a few more obtrusive marks are present. Overall, this is a decent improvement, offering reasonable levels of fine detail, stable if muted colors and nicely resolved film grain. The image isn’t tack-sharp, particularly in extreme detail close-ups that can really reveal a softness that’s somewhat pervasive, and low-light scenes have a tendency to look a touch washed-out. Still, it’s an easy upgrade over all other available versions. (The US DVD is almost unbelievably bad.) The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is excellent, giving the sound design’s crescendos some real heft.

For some time, Criterion was expected to pick up the rights to Barton Fink, but Kino has assembled a supplements package that looks a lot like what Criterion may have done. Four new interviews are included on the disc, including a subdued Turturro, who mostly does some personal reminiscing and a riotous Lerner, who smokes a cigar and is nearly as boisterous as his character, more than 25 years later. An interview with producer Ben Barenholtz and a featurette on the film’s sound, with composer Carter Burwell and sound editor Skip Lievsay are also included. Carried over from the DVD: eight deleted/extended scenes, looking a little less rough here, and the theatrical trailer.

Kino Lorber Studio Classics / 1991 / Color / 1.66:1 / 116 min / $29.95

L'argentL’Argent
The Criterion Collection

The final film in one of the most tightly focused cinematic careers you could hope to find, L’Argent is one last masterpiece among many in Robert Bresson’s oeuvre. Some filmmakers go out with a gut punch (say, in a very different vein of filmmaking, Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead), and Bresson delivers a profoundly disquieting one. The emotions are so sublimated in a Bresson film, it can take some time to work out one’s own emotional response, but I’m not sure any (aside from possibly Lancelot du Lac) have left me cold, and L’Argent is the kind of film that imprints its mysteries on your brain.

As Adrian Martin notes in his excellent essay included with Criterion’s new Blu-ray release, L’Argent sees Bresson once again using ostensible genre trappings, like in Pickpocket and A Man Escaped. Here, the conceit starts out following a “butterfly effect” pattern, where a couple of schoolkids’ decision to pass a counterfeit bill results in a cascading series of increasingly consequential events, including robberies and eventually, murder.

In the beginning, the film is almost propulsive in its movement from one incident to the next, from the initial payment to a knowingly shady payout to Yvon (Christian Patey), the truck driver fated to feel the brunt of the film’s depiction of ruthless capitalism, where a transactional society offers little respite for the soul. But the film’s moments begin to elongate, less ruled by their own connection to previous events and more by the caprices of modern life, which are as initially unknowable here as they typically are in Bresson.

This culminates in a final sequence where Yvon is taken in by a woman whose kindness seems like it may be just a factor of her resignation (Sylvie Van den Elsen). Ruthless in its implications, this is a finale governed by a deeply unsettling rhythm. Violence hovers outside the frame, like in an extraordinary moment involving a coffee cup. This extends to the film’s final act of violence, drained of graphic detail, but felt in all of its hopeless inevitability.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer is sourced from a new 2K restoration scanned at 4K resolution by MK2 at Éclair Laboratories. Like a number of recent French restorations, including Alain Resnais’ Je t’aime, Je t’aime and Muriel, this one will raise some concerns with its color timing, which definitely leans in a sickly yellowish/teal-ish direction. The quality of the restoration is otherwise excellent, with richly detailed images and perfectly rendered film grain. The 1.0 LPCM mono track handles the film’s dialogue and music just fine.

Though there aren’t a ton of extras (let’s hope Criterion is apportioning some for later Bresson releases; rescuing Une femme douce and Four Nights of a Dreamer from their rights entanglements would be heroic), what we do get is welcome. Footage from the contentious press conference at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival is included, along with a new visual essay from James Quandt, who goes A-Z through a list of Bresson traits. The format is a tiny bit gimmicky, but the analysis is great, offering a wide-ranging primer on the inner workings of a Bresson film. The theatrical trailer, which consists only of shots of ATMs dispensing money, is also included.

The hefty booklet includes the aforementioned Martin essay and a 1983 interview with Bresson by Michel Ciment.

Criterion Collection / 1983 / Color / 1.66:1 / 84 min / $39.95

BaronThe Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Baron Prášil)
Second Run

If I’m ever in the mood to head down a cinematic rabbit hole, grabbing something I’m not familiar with from Second Run off the shelf is almost always a perfect starting point. That’s certainly the case with their latest Blu-ray release, The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, from Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman. Occupying a crucial point in the connective tissue between the tactile fantasy of Georges Méliès, Ray Harryhausen, Alexander Korda’s The Thief of Bagdad, Terry Gilliam and Henry Selick, The Fabulous Baron Munchausen offers moment after moment of highly concentrated joy.

The technical marvels in this animation/live action hybrid are myriad, from the way Zeman creates spatial depth through use of elaborate cutouts to the quality of the animation itself, often somewhere right in the middle of whimsical and unsettling (the through-line to Gilliam, who of course made his own Munchausen film, is at its clearest here).

But Baron Munchausen is much more than a technical achievement; every frame bristles with feeling and a unique sense of place, sometimes even tipping over into purely experimental imagery, like a maelstrom of angry reds to demonstrate a scene of violence. You can sense the joy it gave Zeman to create these worlds, and I’m now ready to see everything he ever made. (A good first stop perhaps: Second Run’s previous release of Munchausen follow-up A Jester’s Tale.)

The narrative approach to the well-worn Munchausen mythos is pure picaresque, hurtling from the moon to a Turkish kingdom to the depths of the ocean, as the good-naturedly pompous Munchausen (Miloš Kopecký) offers an astronaut (Rudolf Jelínek) a tour of Earth after mistaking him for a resident of the moon. Various hostile actors, from a sultan to a massive fish, threaten their adventures, but Munchausen’s primary concern is wooing away a princess (Jana Brejchová) from the astronaut after they help her escape from the Turkish kingdom.

Zeman’s conception of Munchausen as a somewhat delusional but ultimately well-meaning figure informs the film’s tone: dryly satirical with numerous flights of fancy and a romantic soul. It’s a tone I’ve never seen pulled off quite like this before.

Second Run’s region-free Blu-ray release features a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer sourced from a new 4K restoration. This is a strong contender for the best-looking disc Second Run has ever released, with incredible levels of detail visible in each frame. Zeman’s colors are kind of mind-bending, and the burnished golds and rich blues look amazing here. The 2.0 mono LPCM sound track is clean and precise.

This is also a strong performer in the extras department, with two new major supplements. 2015 feature-length documentary Film Adventurer Karel Zeman offers a comprehensive look at the filmmaker’s career, while Michael Brooke’s appreciation features a thorough rundown of Munchausen’s representation in cinema alongside an analysis of Zeman’s version. Carried over from a previous DVD edition are a number of featurettes on the film’s production. A booklet includes an essay from Graham Williamson.

Second Run / 1961 / Color / 1.37:1 / 85 min / £19.99

CrazyWho’s Crazy?
Kino Lorber

“It’s almost Dalí,” reads the pull-quote on the cover of Kino’s new Blu-ray of Who’s Crazy?, a rediscovered curio from 1966. From anyone other than its source, that would seem like an eye-rollingly reductive way to describe a free-form experimental film. From Salvador Dalí himself, it’s impossible to resist.

There’s a pretty big gap in that “almost” though; Who’s Crazy? isn’t so much surreal as it is wildly fragmented. Starring members of New York’s now-venerable Living Theatre, the film strings together extended scenes of anarchy on a very slender narrative thread: a group of patients from a mental hospital escape their bus and flee to an empty farmhouse, where a power struggle ensues.

The film is sort of like watching an acting troupe organize their warmup exercises around a half-remembered viewing of The Exterminating Angel. A bunch of people are trapped in a house and they behave erratically. The similarities don’t continue; there’s plenty of food, as captured in a scene where enormous amounts of eggs are cooked.

There are moments of genuine verve and moments of tedium, and that extends to the camerawork as well. Director Thomas White, who never made another film, will intercut New-Wave-ish jags of zooms and jump cuts with seemingly thoughtless medium shots. It’s messy. It’s meant to be.

The film is helpfully jolted by a tremendous score by Ornette Coleman, playing with drummer Charles Moffett and bassist David Izenzon, a trio that first appeared on Coleman’s stellar Town Hall, 1962 album, a turning point before an abrupt career hiatus. That trio (featuring an appearance by Pharoah Sanders) recorded a score for Conrad Rooks’ 1967 film Chappaqua, but it wasn’t used for fear the music would overwhelm the imagery. In Who’s Crazy?, that’s a welcome sense, the unpredictable jags of Coleman’s bold playing lending vital energy to a film that would likely become enervating without it.

Once thought lost, Who’s Crazy? is out on an improbable Blu-ray release, sourced from a French print that includes burned-in French subtitles. (Dialogue is fairly minimal for long stretches.) The elements are in pretty rough shape, with plenty of dropped frames and moderate to heavy wear, and the grayscale image is flat, with not a ton of detail. Considering the provenance, it’s plenty watchable. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack has persistent noise and diminished dynamic range, but is a decent showcase for the score, which I’m now determined to track down a recording of.

Extras include a Q&A with White after a recent re-release screening at Lincoln Center, where he seems a little surprised but grateful about the attention the film is receiving, and a 1966 television episode about this iteration of the Ornette Coleman Trio. A booklet essay by Adam Shatz offers some good context on Coleman’s artistic pursuits at the time.

Kino Lorber / 1966 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 73 min / $29.95

TerrorTerror in a Texas Town
Arrow Video

The title does no favors to Joseph H. Lewis’ Terror in a Texas Town, a stultified western that seems to yearn to swim in pulpy waters, but can’t quite allow itself to do so. There’s a germ of structural ingenuity in the film’s set-up, which launches into a climactic confrontation, one character’s monologue almost egging on the viewer’s own bloodthirst, but the film quickly settles into a more measured, straightforward approach.

Written by a pseudonym-employing Dalton Trumbo, the film stars Sterling Hayden (whose Swedish accent is not passable) as George Hansen, a man who discovers his father has been murdered under what he’s told are mysterious circumstances. The film itself isn’t so coy — it plainly details how the lecherous McNeil (Sebastian Cabot) is willing to do whatever it takes to force out landowners so he can grab the area’s oil, and he uses henchman Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young) to do the dirty work.

Hansen’s father was a whaler, which is just about the only piece of biographical information that matters here, as it provides a reason for Hayden to use a massive harpoon as his weapon of choice. Like the title, this sets up expectations that the film doesn’t really meet.

Arrow’s 1080p, 1.85:1 presentation is sourced from a new 2K restoration, and is very impressive, particularly for a B-film like this. While inserts of stock footage have a smeary softness, everything else is tack-sharp and finely detailed. The depth of image is consistently impressive, and it retains that even in moments of damage — a couple marks and frame judders here and there. The uncompressed 1.0 mono soundtrack is a little flat, but doesn’t have any obvious issues.

The transfer certainly makes Arrow’s release worthwhile, and the extras help foster some appreciation. Scholar Peter Stanfield contributes both major extras, offering an introduction that mostly repudiates any notion of Lewis as an auteur and offers some context to the film’s place among the HUAC blacklist controversy. A visual essay examines Lewis’ visual strategy, which Stanfield basically describes as deliberate but meaningless. A theatrical trailer is also included.

Arrow Video / 1958 / Black and white / 1.85:1 / 80 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.

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.

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Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Shirley Clarke, Miklós Jancsó, Akira Kurosawa & more!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DreamsDreams (1990)
The Criterion Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DivorceChildren of Divorce (1927)
Flicker Alley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PrivatePrivate Property (1960)
Cinelicious Pics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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.

Dusty Featured

Blu-ray and DVD Review: Films by Alain Resnais, Jia Zhangke, Ken Russell & more!

MurielMuriel, or The Time of Return (1963)
Criterion Collection

The third feature film from Alain Resnais often feels like a continuation of the concerns of his previous two (1959’s Hiroshima mon amour and 1961’sLast Year at Marienbad), dealing with the oppressive and disorienting power of memory. Though the ambiguous elisions of Marienbad are legendary, Muriel is the more challenging (and rewarding) film, despite a narrative that’s ostensibly far more straightforward.

Resnais again employs the talents of Delphine Seyrig, who acts as an emotional anchor in a film that deliberately alienates over and over again. Seyrig stars as Hélène, a widow who’s paid a visit by Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kerien), her lover more than 20 years ago. Alphonse is accompanied by a woman he calls his niece, Françoise (Nita Klein), while Hélène lives with her stepson Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thierrée), who she doesn’t see much after his return from fighting in the Algerian War.

An antique dealer whose showroom is her apartment, Hélène lives among countless objects that aren’t really her own, and the state of her living quarters seems to represent her own mind, cluttered with detritus from other eras. In Resnais’ audacious opening, he prepares us to be challenged, rapidly cutting between many of the objects in a dizzying barrage that spatially disorients while giving us some sense of Hélène’s state of mind.

From that point on, the film’s editing isn’t as obviously aggressive, but after lulling us somewhat with a measured dinner scene with the four principals, the film suddenly slips into a much more elusive form, darting from scene to scene in an order that seems chronological, but with events that feel completely disconnected. (The script by Jean Cayrol specifies the film’s events take place over a two-week period, but the film doesn’t obviously let on to that.)

Muriel is a film that necessitates multiple viewings — not so much to comprehend, as to appreciate the nuances Resnais brings to his depiction of the crushing effect of suddenly dredged-up memories. It doesn’t take multiple viewings to feel the weight of the film’s title, and its central, most horrific memory, when we discover that Muriel isn’t one of Bernard’s girlfriends, but his connection to the trauma of war. Here, a trauma that one perpetrates has a stinging clarity that a trauma one merely experienced does not.

Criterion’s Blu-ray release presents Muriel in a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer that markedly improves over the Masters of Cinema DVD release in terms of clarity and detail. There has been some grumbling online about the color timing, and there is a slightly sickly, greenish-tealish-yellowish tinge to the image. How far this diverts from the original color timing, I can’t say; at this point, the clear upgrade in image quality makes this the best home video option available, color issues notwithstanding. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is fairly flat, but doesn’t exhibit any prominent noise issues.

The supplements here are mostly of the archival variety. There are three brief excerpts: Pieces of a 1980 TV documentary on Resnais with contributions from Cayrol, a 1969 TV interview with Seyrig, where she contrasts her characters in Marienbad and Muriel, and a 1963 TV interview with composer Hans Werner Henze, who explains why Resnais helped him feel comfortable composing for film. Newly recorded, and more substantial, is an interview with scholar François Thomas, who discusses the film’s themes and the cultural environment in which it was released. Perhaps most essential is the insert essay by scholar James Quandt, whose efficient yet dense unpacking of a number of the film’s ideas is superb.

Criterion Collection / 1963 / Color / 1.66:1 / 116 min / $39.95

MountainsMountains May Depart (2016)
Kino Lorber

The great Jia Zhangke continues to chronicle the state of contemporary China, and in his latest feature, Mountains May Depart, he does so by looking both backward and forward. A time-hopping triptych that chronicles the breakdown of a family, Mountains May Depart is a moving melodrama that occasionally feels strained as it seeks to correlate the intensely personal with a larger societal malaise.

Jia’s bewitching images, in which the extraordinary can suddenly overtake the mundane, and a richly interior performance from wife and longtime collaborator Zhao Tao help to overcome any feelings that the film’s observations about capitalism are too on-the-nose.

As the film progresses, slick materialism becomes more ubiquitous and more alienating, and the film’s color scheme shifts into cooler and paler tones. The aspect ratios get wider too; Jia uses 1.33:1 for the segment in 1999, 1.85:1 for 2014 and 2.35:1 for 2025.

Mountains May Depart isn’t exactly a paean to the past, but there’s an unmistakable sense of nostalgia that blankets the first segment, if only in the luxuriousness of the imagery. Interspersed with documentary footage Jia shot during roughly the same timeframe, the opening act details a love triangle between Shen Tao (Zhao) and her two suitors, coal miner Liangzi (Liang Jing Dong) and the wealthy, callous industrialist Zhang (Zhang Yi).

Shen Tao cares deeply for Liangzi, but she also longs for change (a New Year’s dance to the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West” reinforcing her yearning) and understands that Zhang offers a much better chance at it. Zhang, who could nearly twirl his mustache despite being clean-shaven, is not a subtly written or performed character, but Zhao’s conflicted performance makes her choices believable. Throughout the film, Zhao’s performance is situated on heartbreak, whether she’s currently experiencing it or merely anticipating it.

As time progresses, the film shifts its attention to Shen Tao’s son, whose anglicized moniker is the not-so-understated Dollar (Dong Zijian), and the film’s final sequence suffers for the relative absence of Zhao. Fortunately, the wonderful Sylvia Chang appears as Dollar’s college professor, and later, his unlikely companion as he faces disillusionment with school and his distant relationships with his parents. Set in a gleaming, sterile Melbourne, this final segment is the least emotionally acute, but the most effective at communicating Jia’s apprehension about unrelenting modernization.

Kino’s Mountains May Depart Blu-ray offers a largely excellent transfer, though the 1.33:1 segment is slightly pictureboxed. Jia’s archival footage, blocky and flat, is readily apparent, but the rest of the film is crisp and detailed, with particularly vibrant colors in the first segment. A 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is mostly subdued, but shows off some dynamic range during a few key moments. Optional English subtitles accompany the first two segments’ Mandarin, but not the largely English dialogue in the final part.

Extras include a lengthy and somewhat dry, but informative Q&A with Jia at the New York Film Festival moderated by Dennis Lim, a trailer and a booklet with an essay by programmer and critic Aliza Ma, who offers a helpful synopsis of Jia’s career and the way his early work dovetails with his recent output.

Kino Lorber / 2016 / Color / 1.33:1, 1.85:1 and 2.35:1 / 126 min / $34.95

StuffStuff and Dough (2001)
Second Run

Though his cachet among cinephiles in the US might be slightly less than Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) or Corneliu Porumboiu (Police, Adjective), Cristi Puiu is still a major figure in the Romanian New Wave, and he beat both of them to the feature-film punch, releasing Stuff and Dough in 2001. Considered by some to be the first major entry in Romania’s then-fledgling movement, the film is now getting some wider exposure thanks to Second Run, whose DVD release represents the first time Stuff and Dough has been available on English-friendly home video.

Stuff and Dough is not an outlier when it comes to much of modern Romanian film. Its narrative is spare, its camerawork straightforward and its tone is dryly, darkly comic before veering into nervy, if low-key, suspense mode. It’s a road movie that takes the road seriously; the majority of the running time is spent with three characters in a van, trekking to Bucharest from their small town on a trip that seems deadly dull.

It’s not, of course; the boredom is sharply punctuated by flurries of violence as it becomes clear the trio is being pursued by some nasty characters. This might come as a shock to them, but it’s deeply expected for the audience, who’s witnessed the none-too-bright Ovidiu (Alexandru Papadopol) agree to transport “medical supplies” for the almost comically shady Ivanov (Razvan Vasilescu) at the beginning of the film.

Ovidiu would like to get out from underneath his parents’ roof, and the money from Ivanov would go a long way toward that goal, but he’s not exactly the most ambitious guy. Puiu’s best scene is an early one in which Ivanov grills Ovidiu about the planned trip, the steps he will take and even his bathroom habits, but no matter how stern Ivanov’s commands get, Ovidiu remains blissfully disconnected from the conversation.

That humor doesn’t really carry over, and the story doesn’t get sketched out much beyond the opening act, so there are few surprises on the drive, though it stays engaging thanks to the naturalistic performances from Papadopol and Dragos Bucur and Ioana Flora as Ovidiu’s friend Vali and Vali’s girlfriend Bety. The film’s ultimate observations about aimless youth scraping by in a depressed economy aren’t earth-shattering, but the film does resonate as a truthful portrait of a particular point in the country’s history.

Second Run’s DVD features a sharp new high-def transfer, approved by Puiu, in 1.85:1. Extras include his 2004 short Cigarettes and Coffee, a seemingly low-stakes naturalistic two-hander that won the Berlin Film Festival’s Best Short award, and a newly filmed interview with Puiu, who discusses his entry into the world of cinema and some of his influences. A booklet with an essay by critic Carmen Gray is also included.

Second Run / 2001 / Color / 1.85:1 / 90 min / £12.99

CrimesCrimes of Passion (1984)
Arrow Video

For many filmmakers, the garish, sleazy and unhinged Crimes of Passion could be the kind of baffling cult item that forever sticks out in their filmography. For Ken Russell, it’s just another movie.

The brilliant British director continually pushed his films to the limits of good taste and beyond, so there’s nothing particularly shocking about the film’s luridness, even if it’s notably more explicit than his string of outrageous period pieces in the 1970s. Barry Sandler’s script whiplashes from campy sex crime thriller to leaden suburban satire, but Russell’s steady directorial hand balances the tonal jackknifing. There’s no question that the film’s domestic subplot compares poorly to the film’s main thrust, but Russell credibly ties it all together.

The second Hollywood film Russell made after the contentious Altered States (1980), Crimes of Passion stars then-megastar Kathleen Turner as China Blue, a prostitute with a flair for the theatrical who lives a double life as a prominent fashion designer by day. In the film’s opening scene, China Blue’s encounter with a john is filmed as if she’s performing for the film’s viewers, her boudoir an invisible proscenium, and that performative, exaggerated style continues throughout her fascinating, completely exposed turn.

Compared to Turner, no one is going to really match up, though Anthony Perkins’ nitrate-sniffing, sexually frenzied priest — like a less religious Hazel Motes — certainly comes close. Less up to the task is John Laughlin as Bobby Grady, a milquetoast stuck in a sexless marriage who becomes tangled up in China Blue’s world of fantasy when he’s hired to tail her real-world alter ego.

The film tends to grind to a halt whenever Bobby and his wife Amy (Annie Potts) are onscreen, the script’s obvious broadsides against the emptiness of middle-class values not livened by their whiny performances. (A more potent barb is the music video the couple watches on TV of Rick Wakeman’s “It’s a Lovely Life,” the lyrics not so much sung as shrieked by Maggie Bell.)

Arrow Video’s excellent Blu-ray release presents the film in a 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer sourced from a new 2K restoration. Both the uncut theatrical release and a slightly extended director’s cut are included; the extended cut features additional scenes from a lesser source, though the quality drop-off is less drastic than expected. Arrow’s transfer is a knockout, perfectly showcasing the film’s electric blues and pinks and displaying exceptional clarity, sharpness and damage clean-up. Audio is a reasonably dynamic uncompressed mono track.

On-disc extras include newly filmed interviews with screenwriter Sandler and composer Wakeman, both of whom enthusiastically recount their participation, along with an archival commentary track with Russell and Sandler, 20 minutes of rough-looking deleted and extended scenes with optional Sandler commentary, an MTV music video of “It’s a Lovely Life” and the theatrical trailer.

Arrow Video / 1984 / Color / 1.85:1 / 107 min / $39.95

CemeteryCemetery of Splendor (2016)
Strand Releasing

In the latest film from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the characters are stuck between the past and the present, between sleeping and waking and between a higher plane and one stubbornly still of this mortal coil. So no, it’s not a major departure for the Thai filmmaker, but it’s still a welcome return from Joe, who hadn’t released a proper feature since 2010’s hallucinatory Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. (The hour-long doodle Mekong Hotel [2012] doesn’t quite count, though it’s a welcome bonus feature on Strand’s well-appointed Blu-ray.)

Cemetery of Splendor rarely shifts out of that gently dreamlike mode that Weerasethakul has perfected, ambling through patient shots of his hometown Khon Kaen and its many green spaces, canopies of trees stretching out across the frame.

There’s a thin membrane here between the real and the extra-real, as is quickly discovered by Jen (Jenjira Pongpas Widner) when she goes to tend to soldiers afflicted with a mysterious sleeping sickness. Set up in hospital beds in the building that used to be Jen’s school as a child, the seemingly comatose soldiers are being treated with color therapy. The film’s first scene showing tubes of colored light being activated is the closest Weerasethakul gets to dramatically flipping the switch between worlds, the greenery and natural light of the village being suddenly shut out and replaced with glowing, otherworldly cylinders.

Most of the transitions are more casual; Jen watches over Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), who occasionally wakes from his dead-to-the-world sleep with little fuss. Jen learns more about the soldiers’ condition from Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), who claims to be a medium, and a pair of goddesses who’ve shed their heavenly accouterments. It becomes apparent that the school turned hospital is built on an ancient burial ground; time has somehow compressed and associated the soldiers’ fates with that of long-passed kings.

Naturally, Cemetery of Splendor is a beguiling film, but one of its chief pleasures is the way its characters embrace simple delights. The film’s trappings are heady, but its pleasures feel earthly, whether it’s the straightforward humor of a dick joke (sleeping sickness doesn’t prevent erections, apparently) or the way Jen justifies her love for fried bananas or Itt savors a meal from a market food stand.

Strand Releasing doesn’t put out very many of its releases on Blu-ray, but when it does, it tends to do it right. Cemetery of Splendor is granted a luminous 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer that nicely renders the film’s naturalistic color palette. Images are detailed and crisp, with no apparent digital tampering issues to speak of. The 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack is subtly immersive, and cleanly presents dialogue and music.

Extras include the aforementioned Mekong Hotel in 1080p, a making-of featurette with interviews with Weerasethakul and Widner, a handful of deleted scenes and the theatrical trailer.

Strand Releasing / 2016 / Color / 1.78:1 / 122 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.

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.