Tag Archives: Twilight Time

Vanya

Blu-ray and DVD Review Round-Up: Films by Alexsei German, Albert Serra, Louis Malle & more!

3 FilmsAndré Gregory & Wallace Shawn: 3 Films
My Dinner with André (1981)
Vanya on 42nd Street (1994)
A Master Builder (2014)
The Criterion Collection

Filmed theater is not something too many cinephiles tend to get excited about, but the creative partnership of Wallace Shawn and André Gregory has generated some of the most compelling intersections of the two disciplines. In a new box set, Criterion includes the previously released Vanya on 42nd Street Blu-ray along with a newly upgraded My Dinner with André and the newly released A Master Builder.

While Dinner isn’t actually an adaptation of a play, Shawn and Gregory’s script could easily be imagined as a stage-bound two-hander, and the whole thing is steeped in the era’s New York independent theater milieu. Playing fictionalized versions of themselves, the pair reconnect over dinner, discussing their lives and the role theater plays before tumbling deeper and deeper into an existential discussion as Gregory waxes enthusiastically about a series of spiritual experiences.

André is a touchstone of talky cinema and a snapshot of artistic and intellectual ideas at a specific point in American history, but it’s a film that retained its vitality and originality throughout the decades, directed by the chameleonic Louis Malle with an unobtrusive grace.

Malle also captures lightning in a bottle in his final film, Vanya on 42nd Street, which stars Gregory as the director of a production of David Mamet’s translation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. The film represents the culmination of a privately workshopped production of the play, with Shawn as Vanya and Julianne Moore as Yelena. As I mentioned in my original review of the 2012 Blu-ray release:

The film is more than simply great theater frozen in time. The open-ended intersection of actor and character and the way the reality of a rehearsal and the reality of the events of the play mingle without a clear boundary between the two makes Vanya on 42nd Street a compelling and intriguing take on what it means to create art.

There’s a somewhat similar quality to A Master Builder, which brings to film an adaptation of the Ibsen play that had arisen from actors workshopping the material. Director Jonathan Demme’s close-up-heavy shooting style doesn’t do much to open up the play, but the performances here are engrossing regardless, particularly Lisa Joyce as a mysterious young woman who re-enters the life of accomplished architect Halvard Solness (Shawn).

Shawn’s adaptation of the play pushes it into more ambiguous territory, turning the bulk of the narrative into a hazy dream-like reverie where no characters’ motivations are totally clear. Demme mirrors the play’s shift from stone-cold reality to ego-trip fantasy with an obvious but effective visual conceit. Despite the fact that much of the film feels like a creation of Solness’s patriarchal desires gone mad, Joyce’s vivacious performance is like an invented character who won’t play by the rules of her creator, and a similarly complex turn from Julie Hagerty as beleaguered wife Aline follow suit.

The three discs come packaged in their own separate keepcases, the Vanya release identical to the original disc, and the strong 1.66:1 transfer therein. André has been given an impressive upgrade, the 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer bringing all the textural beauty of its 16mm materials to a grainy but highly detailed home video presentation. A Master Builder alternates from 1.78:1 to 2.35:1, switching from the prosumer Sony XDCAM to a 2K Arri Alexa. Obviously, the footage shot on the Sony is riddled with artifacts, but the Alexa footage is given a clean, crisp presentation of HD digital video. Extras on Vanya and André are identical to previous editions, while the Master Builder disc contains two conversations with Shawn and Gregory — one moderated by critic David Edelstein, the other with Fran Lebowitz — and an interview with Hagerty and Joyce. All three discs are also available separately.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s My Dinner with André Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: N/A
Extra Features Overall: ***

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s Vanya on 42nd Street Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: N/A
Extra Features Overall: **

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

The Criterion Collection / 1981, 1994, 2014 / Color / 1.66:1, 1.78:1, 2.35:1 / 111 min, 119 min, 127 min / $99.95

 

Hard to be a GodHard to be a God (2013)
Kino Lorber

The final film from Russian filmmaker Aleksei German, who died shortly before its completion, Hard to be a God is an intimidating and punishing work of art. This is a fact that cannot be overstated. Cerebrally, viscerally, you name it — in every way, this is a difficult film.

It also represents the culmination of decades of planning from German, whose work remains almost completely invisible in the United States, and the labor of love is immediately apparent from the first frames. “World-building” is a term that gets thrown around a lot in sci-fi and fantasy contexts, as the most successful works of fiction in both genres are able to create a tactile sense of place. Well, Hard to be a God might be the greatest example of world-building ever committed to film, as its overwhelming design and camerawork plunges the viewer into an enveloping environment composed entirely of mud, shit, spit, blood and decay.

Both oppressive and expansive in its design, the film adapts the sci-fi novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (Stalker), set on the planet of Arkanar, which is in the midst of its own particularly brutal medieval period. Several scientists from Earth have been sent to the planet to observe, but they’re powerless to make any changes to a society defined as much by proud ignorance as unrelenting violence and a complete disregard for hygiene.

German’s insatiably curious camera and his commitment to jaw-dropping production design have to be witnessed, despite the film’s often inscrutable plot and the merciless depiction of all sorts of horrific violence and stomach-churning body secretions. You might want to, but you can’t look away — and even if you did, it’d be hard to escape the similarly oppressive sound design, which is often dominated by hacking coughs that sound like death itself.

Kino’s Blu-ray release of Hard to be a God is very nice, its 1.66:1, 1080p transfer looking exceptionally clean and sharp throughout. Black levels are deep and full, with nuanced grayscale separation and clean whites in the very brief moments when a snow-covered ground hasn’t been defiled yet. Both 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD soundtracks are included.

Although a forthcoming Arrow Video UK release looks to have the Kino beat handily in terms of extras, there’s some good material on this disc, including a 44-minute behind-the-scenes documentary and a lengthy introduction by co-screenwriter Svetlana Karmalita. The package also includes a booklet with a director’s statement from German, and essays from his son, Alexey German Jr. and critic Aliza Ma.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Kino Lorber’s Hard to be a God Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ****
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2
Kino Lorber / 2013 / Black and white / 1.66:1 / 177 min / $34.95


Story of My DeathStory of My Death (2013)
Second Run DVD

Albert Serra brings his idiosyncratic sense of historical fiction to Story of My Death (Història de la meva mort), a conflation of the legends of Casanova and Dracula, envisioned as an epochal shift between the 18th and 19th centuries.

Serra’s work is both baroque and austere, lavishly composed digital shots that linger and linger in a familiar slow cinema mode. Despite its languid pace, the film begins with a reasonably recognizable narrative structure before gradually morphing into a series of highly abstracted scenes, the arrival of Count Dracula (Eliseu Huertas) ushering in a time of brooding, mystical violence.

With Dracula representing the Romanticism that would supplant Rationalism, the figure is less of a character than a force, perhaps not so much malevolent as merely indifferent. Vicenç Altaió’s Casanova is more broadly drawn, an aging letch who’s aware of his impending mortality but who isn’t compelled to discard his licentious tendencies. Whether in sex or in bodily function, he’s a man unashamed. (One of the film’s most memorable scenes has him straining to take a shit, laughing at himself and immediately returning to a wafery bonbon once the deed is done.)

Serra’s skill at coaxing striking imagery from lower-grade digital cameras is apparent throughout; both delicate, shadowed shots of man in nature and more traditional costume drama tableaus. The film’s transition from talky philosophizing to nearly wordless mood piece can be challenging, as is the dissolution of the already tenuous narrative markers. It’s a film that’s both energizing and enervating at times, but there’s plenty to admire for those willing to slog through.

Second Run’s presentation of the 2.35:1 film is a strong representation of the film’s digital photography, although be prepared to squint a bit during some of the extreme lowlight scenes. Both 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround sound options are included.  Extras include Serra’s tribute to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the 2013 short Cuba Libre, and a booklet with an entertaining conversation between Serra and Ben Rivers (Two Years at Sea).

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Second Run’s Story of My Death DVD rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***
Film Elements Sourced: **1/2
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2
Second Run DVD / 2013 / Color / 2.35:1 / 144 min / £12.99 / Region 2 (PAL)


Jekyll and OsbourneThe Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne
(1981)
Arrow Video

After releasing probably the most ambitious box set of the year in 2014, Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection, Arrow Video has quickly followed up with another film from the oft-misunderstood Polish filmmaker in editions available both in the UK and the newly minted U.S. line. Like many of Borowczyk’s films, this adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel was branded in some markets as an exploitation piece, but it’s actually an unusual, beguiling portrait of the madness of desire.

Set in a Victorian house during the engagement party of Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier) and Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro), the film begins quickly dispatching victims of rape and murder, with Borowczyk’s camera peering through cracked doorways and around corners like a quiet observer hoping not to be noticed. The “who” is immediately obvious, but the “why” is far more intriguing, and the film’s elliptical scenes start to put together a portrait of a man consumed.

Never before available on DVD or Blu-ray, Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne has long languished in home video hell before Arrow’s release, which frankly represents something of a miracle. Sourced from a conscientious 2K restoration, scanned from the original camera negative, the 1.66:1, 1080p transfer here is outstanding, with great depth of image and color reproduction. The look of the film is rather soft, but it’s apparent that this was the intended appearance. Uncompressed mono versions of the original French track and an English dub are included. As a French-West German co-production, there wasn’t one language unifying the actors, so there’s dubbing whichever way you go.

Even by lofty Arrow standards, the extras on this release are incredibly comprehensive. A sampling: a lengthy introduction by critic Michael Brooke, a commentary track featuring new and archival interviews with cast and crew, including Borowczyk and Kier, multiple interviews with cast and admirers, featurettes on the film’s music and the filmmaker’s silent cinema influences, and quite a bit more. The film is likely to attract divisive opinions, but there’s plenty here to make a case for this atmospheric horror.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Arrow Video’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ****
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: ****
Extra Features Overall: ****
Arrow Video / 1981 / Color / 1.66:1, 1.78:1, 2.35:1 / 90 min / $39.95


U TurnU Turn
(1997)
Twilight Time

Oliver Stone’s sunbaked neo-noir U Turn is a frenetic flurry of sound and image, all jump cuts and garish compositions and heavily processed photography from the great Robert Richardson. The charged aesthetic is probably better suited to the frivolous plot convolutions here than in one of Stone’s many heavy-handed political works, but as is often the case, Stone struggles to modulate his eccentric tendencies.

Sean Penn glowers through the film as a drifter on his way to Vegas to pay off a gambling debt who gets stranded in a middle-of-nowhere desert town. A number of stars are on hand to embarrass themselves, especially Billy Bob Thornton as the redneck mechanic who takes in Penn’s car, but a bit turn from Jon Voight as a blind Native American runs a close second.

After a flirtatious encounter with a beautiful woman (Jennifer Lopez, hopelessly flat without Steven Soderbergh behind the camera), Penn is confronted by jealous husband Nick Nolte, who flies into a rage before attempting to enlist him in a plot to kill the woman.

Stone’s sense of humor is mis-calibrated throughout, but a lesser Ennio Morricone score and Richardson’s shots of the wide-open spaces of Arizona are pretty good assets. U Turn isn’t a particularly well-made film, but it’s more fun than it seems like it will be at the outset.

Twilight Time packages a swell Sony 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer here, with deeply saturated colors and nicely textured images, given a highly unnatural look thanks to much of the film being shot on reversal stock. The 5.1 DTS-HD track is active and vibrant, with Morricone’s score and the hyper sound design served well.

Extras include two commentary tracks, one featuring Stone and another with production exec Mike Medavoy and Twilight Time head honcho Nick Redman. There’s also a brief intro from Stone along with the customary Twilight Time isolated score track. A trailer also makes the cut.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Twilight Time’s U Turn Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ****
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2
Twilight Time / 1997 / Color / 1.85:1 / 124 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.

 

 

Bandit Queen featured

Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Tsai Ming-liang, Lucretia Martel, Mario Bava & more!

Stray Dogs (2014)
Cinema Guild

Stray DogsThere’s talk that Stray Dogs may be the final film from Tsai Ming-liang, one of the undisputed masters of the so-called “slow cinema” school, and it would certainly be a high note to go out on. Even by Tsai’s usual standards, Stray Dogs can test a viewer’s patience, particularly in the film’s final two shots, seemingly endless static displays of emotional and physical decay, minutely realized.

But while Tsai is stretching the limits of your endurance, he’s also stretching the imagination with his unbelievably precise compositions — ever-so-slowly revealing new bits of visual information — and his un-signaled detours into the surreal.

It’s easy enough to decipher the rudimentary bits of the narrative — a father (frequent Tsai collaborator Lee Kang-sheng) attempts to provide for his two children by working as a sign holder on a busy Taipei highway. They sleep in various abandoned places and are occasionally joined by one of several different women (or perhaps, the same woman, played by different actresses), and it’s not clear whether we’re jumping back and forth in time or simply seeing different perspectives. Is the woman the kids’ mother? Simply a compassionate acquaintance?

Emotional ties are not explicated, but what appears to be a distant film can turn shockingly emotional quickly, like when the father fashions a companion out of cabbage (a deeply uncomfortable, surprisingly funny and heart-wrenching scene all in one) or a rare close-up where he spontaneously breaks into song. Offering an entirely different audience experience are long takes where the man stands transfixed in front of a mural, connecting with the piece in a way that’s completely sealed off from our comprehension or empathy. That push-pull between alienating and affecting is just part of what makes Stray Dogs an indelible experience.

Cinema Guild’s 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer is an impeccable rendition of Tsai’s digital photography and the muted grays of crumbling structures and the bright primaries of consumer products under fluorescent light. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is subtly immersive, planting the viewer down near a packed highway, cars zooming past, or an echo-y abandoned corridor.

Among the extra features is a bonus film, Journey to the West (2014, 56 min), another entry in Tsai’s “Walker” series. Lee stars as a Buddhist monk making his way through Marseille in infinitesimal steps, with Tsai’s framing constantly subverting expectations of where he’ll show up next. This was like pure cinematic dopamine to me, with Tsai’s mind-blowing compositions and super-long takes used to a purely playful effect. The scene in which Denis Lavant shows up to follow up in Lee’s footsteps might be one of my new all-time favorites. The disc is worth the purchase for Journey to the West alone.

Other extras include footage of the Cinémathèque Française’s Tsai Ming-liang Master Class, a trailer and booklet with an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Milestone’s The Connection Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ****
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: ****
Extra Features Overall: ****
Cinema Guild / 2014 / Color / 1.78:1 / 140 min / $34.95

 

La Ciénaga (2001)
The Criterion Collection

La CienagaFrom its first moments, the debut feature from Argentinian filmmaker Lucretia Martel envelops you in a feeling of sweaty dread. This is an extremely tactile film — shots seem to perspire, unease welling as her camera lingers, and the nerve-rattling nature of the off-screen sound design sets you on edge.

Martel’s most recent film, The Headless Woman (2008), established her as a major player in world cinema, and one can see that film’s formal precision and narrative withholding in its nascent form in La Ciénaga, a strong work in its own right.

Malaise has set in on the film’s subject — a bourgeois extended family sprawled out in front of a filthy backyard swimming pool as the film opens. When one of the characters badly injures herself on a broken wine glass, no one can even muster up an attempt to come to her aid. It’s a striking scene — both because of its unpleasant subject matter and Martel’s radical use of space, which uses close-ups and oblique angles to disorienting effect.

In many ways, the opening scene is a perfect microcosm of the entire film, as its thematic concerns about a family stuck in a self-harming cycle of decay and decadence hardly need to be developed further. That doesn’t make any of its subsequent running time less riveting though — you know the spiritual rot will manifest in irreversible physical consequences eventually, and the anxiety mounts across carefully crafted frame after frame.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is based on a new 4K scan, and the level of depth and fine detail is phenomenal. The image is consistently sharp, clean and exceptionally film-like. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround track perfectly handles Martel’s vital sound design, delivering crisp audio from all channels.

Extras include new interviews with Martel and filmmaker Andres Di Tella, who discusses Martel’s place within New Argentine Cinema. A trailer and an insert with an essay by scholar David Oubiña are also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, The Criterion Collection’s La Ciénaga Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***
Film Elements Sourced: ****
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ****
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2
The Criterion Collection / 2001 / Color / 1.85:1 / 101 min / $39.95

 

The Connection (1963)
Milestone Films

The ConnectionIf only every stage-to-screen adaptation had the authorial conviction of Shirley Clarke’s The Connection, based on the play by Jack Gelber. Clarke’s film honors its source material, sometimes offering an unvarnished, empathetic look at a group of junkies and jazz musicians waiting around for their heroin dealer in a New York flop house. But Clarke goes a step further, explicitly acknowledging the inherent staginess of the material and offering a metatextual critique of the truth of documentary filmmaking.

A few years later, Clarke would more subtly make many of the same points about the deception of the camera and the uneasy relationship between documentarian and subject in Portrait of Jason (1967), but the sheer forcefulness of her thesis here is completely irresistible. Filmmaker Jim Dunn (William Redfield) — who’s financing the group’s heroin buy so he can film the “reality” — frequently steps in front of the camera, fussily adjusting lights and clumsily directing the men, who range from bemused to wholly disinterested.

Clarke, via Dunn and barely seen cameraman J.J. Burden (Roscoe Brown) — the diegetic film’s secret mastermind — often favors close-up one-shots, almost confrontational, as the various men tell their stories directly into the camera. It looks and feels like cinematic revelation, until it begins to sink in how each man has been transformed into a performer of some sort. Any sense of gritty reality is punctured by the arrival of Cowboy (Carl Lee), the group’s connection to the connection, who confronts Dunn’s camera right back, blasting him for thinking he’s uncovering the truth by “flirting” with them.

Clarke’s films have been given superb treatment on home video by Milestone, and they make no exception for her debut film, granted a 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer here that’s been sourced from the UCLA and Milestone restoration. The film-like transfer features excellent levels of fine detail and a very clean image, while the uncompressed 2.0 mono track offers a great showcase for jazz pianist Freddie Redd’s hard-bop score. Extras include behind-the-scenes footage and photos, a brief interview with art director Albert Brenner, a conversation with Redd, additional songs, home movies and a trailer.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Milestone’s The Connection Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2
Milestone Films / 1963 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 110 min / $39.95

 

A Day in the Country (Partie de campagne, 1936)
The Criterion Collection

A Day in the CountryOne might look at the backstory for Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country, and wonder what might have been. Before production could finish in 1936, Renoir had to leave to work on The Lower Depths (1936), and he never returned, the film completed by collaborators and released a decade later, after Renoir had already been working in Hollywood for a number of years. At 41 minutes, this just must be a fragment, a curiosity, right?

In reality, the film was always planned as a short feature and in its existing form, it’s already a masterpiece — a perfectly constructed bauble of idyllic romance and crushing disappointment, the totality of life’s emotions wrapped up together in a compact package.

A Parisian family escapes the hectic city life for a day by the water in the countryside, and two local fishermen, Henri and Rodolphe (Georges Saint-Saens and Jacques Borel) instantly set their sights on daughter Henriette. Rodolphe settles for a playful pursuit of Henriette’s mother (Jane Marken), while Henri’s casual attraction to Henriette blossoms quickly.

Renoir is capable of communicating a world of emotion with just a few brief shots, so the short running time here doesn’t cause the film to feel rushed. Time is both everlasting and fleeting in this tranquil setting, a paradise away from the world’s concerns where love can develop into something overwhelming, but where there is little hope of permanence. Initially, the film was designed with some cutaways to Paris, but sticking in the same location for its entirety gives A Day in the Country a mythical quality.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is sourced from a new 2K digital restoration, and the resulting image quality is very nice, especially in close-ups, which reveal healthy levels of fine detail. Grayscale separation is strong, and damage is almost completely nonexistent. The lossless mono soundtrack handles the film’s dialogue and music just fine.

Those worried about spending full Criterion price on such a short film should be heartened by the slate of bonus features, which include Un tournage à la champagne, an 89-minute collection of outtakes, assembled in 1994 from more than four hours’ worth of material. Renoir scholar Christopher Faulkner discusses the film’s unusual production history in a new interview, and Faulkner also examines Renoir’s style in a new video essay. Archival material includes a Renoir intro from 1962, a 1979 interview with producer Pierre Braunberger and several screen tests. An insert with an essay by scholar Gilberto Perez is also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, The Criterion Collection’s A Day in the Country Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: ***
Extra Features Overall: ****
The Criterion Collection / 1936 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 41 min / $39.95

 

Black Sunday (1960, AIP version)
Kino

Black SundayMario Bava’s breakthrough film, Black Sunday, showcases the director’s keen sense of atmosphere and elegant camera work in this pretty hokey tale about a 17th Century Russian witch (Barbara Steele) who’s burned at the stake and returns to wreak havoc two centuries later. Kino already released the film’s original Italian cut on Blu-ray a few years ago, but now returns with a Blu-ray release of the American cut, shortened a bit and presented with a new score courtesy of American International Pictures.

By most accounts, the original cut is the way to go, but Bava fans in the U.S. will be happy to have both versions available in high-def. One might wonder why Kino didn’t simply package both cuts together from the start, but it seems some tricky rights hurdles had to be cleared, as evidenced by the announcement and subsequent cancellation of a Black Sunday/Black Sabbath (1963) AIP double-feature. (Kino will now release the AIP Black Sabbath on a standalone Blu-ray in July.)

The 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer is a bit softer than Kino’s original cut disc, but it’s a nicely detailed presentation, if a bit rough around the edges with various print damage. As usual, Kino has refrained from any excessive digital manipulation, so the image retains a film-like look, though a less-than-sharp image is the norm. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mono track is very clean.

Unfortunately, no extras here aside from a theatrical trailer. This release gets the job done for region-A-locked Bava fans who don’t mind buying two discs, but Arrow Video’s dual-format Region B release is vastly superior, offering both cuts in one package and a ton of extras.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Kino Lorber’s Black Sunday Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: **1/2
Video Transfer: **1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: 1/2
Extra Features Overall: 1/2
Kino Lorber / 1960 / Black and white / 1.66:1 / 83 min / $19.95

 

Bandit Queen (1994)
Twilight Time

Bandit QueenShekhar Kapur straddles biopic convention and something resembling an exploitation film in his telling of the life of Phoolan Devi, a low caste Indian woman who endured endless sexual and physical abuse before becoming a vigilante gang leader. There are flashes of an angry, forceful vision here — the film opens with a defiant Devi (Seema Biswas) looking directly into the camera and declaring, “I am Phoolan Devi, you sisterfuckers!” and her climactic revenge against a group of upper-caste Thakurs is brutally balletic.

These moments are rare though; Kapur’s sedate camerawork lingers over the beautiful Northern Indian landscapes with the same apparent disinterest he has in the ugliness of Devi’s humiliations. From her marriage as an 11-year-old to an adult man who rapes her to a gang-rape by bandits to similar treatment from local police, Devi is subjected to one unimaginable horror after another.

Kapur seems to wallow in these moments — they essentially make up the first three-quarters of the film — but there’s a sense that he’s just ticking off biographical boxes, proceeding chronologically through the atrocities until he can get to the point where she has some agency. Despite its bold beginning, this is a film that’s hardly empowering.

It’s pretty apparent that Twilight Time’s 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer is sourced from an older master. Despite a generally pleasing image, colors are a bit faded and fine detail disappears into soft mush at points. Low-light scenes are afflicted with overwhelming grain that renders as video noise, and blacks are crushed pretty badly. It’s an improvement over what DVD can offer, and I wouldn’t count on a new scan for a film like this anytime soon. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack presents the film’s Hindi dialogue cleanly, but some will be disappointed by the forced English subtitles (not burned-in per se, but not removable nonetheless).

Extras include a commentary track from Kapur, carried over from an older release, and an isolated score track. A booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo is also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Twilight Time’s Bandit Queen Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): **
Film Elements Sourced: **1/2
Video Transfer: **1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: 1/2
Extra Features Overall: *1/2
Twilight Time / 1994 / Color / 1.78:1 / 119 min / $24.95

 

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.

 

 

Medusa Featured

What I’ve Been Watching Lately: Wilder, Truffaut, Forsyth, Peckinpah

Welcome to a new monthly column here at World Cinema Paradise called “What I’ve Been Watching Lately.” I’ve been loathe to repurpose my DVD and Blu-ray reviews from my writing day-job over at DVD Talk, so you’ll see none of those reviews here. Instead, the focus is going to be the other, more niche titles, including many from outside the confines of region A Blu and region 1 DVD.

And so, in the immortal words of Jackie Gleason, away we go…

Ballad in Blue

Ballad in Blue (1964)

This intriguing little British film, directed by actor Paul Henreid, stars R&B icon Ray Charles, playing himself. In London as part of a European tour, Charles visits a special school for blind children where he meets David (Piers Bishop), a young lad who lost his sight six months earlier. He’s trying hard to adjust, but his overprotective single mother, Peggy (Mary Peach, Scrooge), treats him like a baby. Charles, sympathetic to the boy’s plight, gently intervenes, hiring her alcoholic pianist boyfriend, Steve (Prime Suspect’s Tom Bell), as a new arranger. Though not quite as kinetic as Richard Lester’s contemporaneous Beatles movies, Ballad in Blue nonetheless has much outstanding footage of Ray Charles at the peak of his game, and he’s not a bad actor, either. Some find his relationship with the (white) kid cloying, but I found it straightforward and emotionally honest, plus the movie ends on an unexpectedly but intelligently ambiguous note. Network’s Blu-ray of this black-and-white production looks great though, curiously, it’s presented in 1.37:1 format. The tight framing of the musical numbers especially suggests it just may have been intended to be seen that way, though 1.66:1 widescreen would seem more likely. Regardless, there’s precious little extra headroom and visually works well enough in this format. (Network, Region B)

High Road to China

High Road to China (1983)

A Hong-Kong-U.S.-Yugoslavian co-production, High Road to China was dismissed as a mediocre Raiders of the Lost Ark imitator, which this most definitely is not. Sure, the reason it probably got made had something to due with Raiders’ success, to say nothing of the fact that Magnum, P.I. star Tom Selleck came within a hare’s breath of playing Indiana Jones. But the movie is nothing more or less than an old-fashioned historical adventure that one easily imagines would have looked exactly the same if the Spielberg-Lucas collaboration had never existed. The plot has a society heiress (Bess Armstrong) reluctantly hiring a hard-drinking World War I flying ace (Selleck) to search for her father, last seen somewhere between Afghanistan and China. Stylistically, nothing about the film resembles Raiders: it’s more methodically paced, has a lushly romantic John Barry score closer to his Somewhere in Time music than John Williams’s Indiana Jones themes, and better characters. There’s a nice scene, for instance, where the audience learns that the pilot’s drinking is the result of having to shoot down pilots barely out of britches at the end of the war, young kids whose frightened faces he can’t forget. And the cast is good: Robert Morley, Brian Blessed, Jack Weston (nicely underplaying his comedy relief part), and a nearly unrecognizable Wilford Brimley. On Blu-ray in Region B from Mediumrare, in a clean, satisfying widescreen transfer.

Fedora

Fedora (1978)

Billy Wilder’s penultimate film nearly bookends an earlier triumph, Sunset Blvd. (1950), even to the point of starring William Holden and featuring some of that same wonderfully cynical narration. Adapted from a novella by actor-turned-writer Tom Tryon, the plot has Holden playing a desperate, aging producer trying to coax a Garbo-esque reclusive screen icon (Marthe Keller) to agree to star in his proposed independent production. He tracks her down to an island villa near Corfu but her handlers – a Polish countess (Hildegard Knef), personal assistant (Frances Sternhagen), and physician (José Ferrer) – won’t let him anywhere near her. Reviled at the time of its release, Fedora’s admirers has been growing steadily through the years, though they’ve tended to go overboard in the other direction. It’s a bitter, funny movie on several levels with many fine moments, but casting problems fatally wound its potential. The movie has a lot of signature Tryon surprises that don’t work. Wilder originally wanted Marlene Dietrich and Faye Dunaway for the roles played by Knef and Keller; the movie plays a lot better imagining them in those parts. (Meryl Streep would also have worked quite well in the latter role.) Wilder realized too late that the Swiss-born Keller and the German-born Knef neither sounded nor looked alike, critical to the movie’s plot, nor could they easily be understood, so he had both performances dubbed by a third actress, Inga Bunsch, for the English-language release. (Keller dubbed both voices for the French version while Knef did double-duty on the German; it would be interesting to see if those play any better.) The results, sadly, are almost ruinous, though as he often did, Holden’s as-usual terrific performance nearly holds everything together, albeit like sticky, past-its-expiration-date glue. Olive Films’ Region A Blu-ray, using a high-def master restored in Germany, looks great.

Truffaut Collection

Shoot the Pianist (1960) / The Soft Skin (1964)

I’ve been slowly making my way through Artificial Eye’s The François Truffaut Collection, an incredible bargain featuring eight great and/or overlooked films, all stunning in high-def. Most I’ve not seen in 30-plus years. In the case of Shoot the Pianist (better known, at least to me, as Shoot the Piano Player), the first time I saw that it was panned-and-scanned with burned-in English subtitles, cut off on both edges of the frame, and using white font, often against white wall backgrounds. I think I caught maybe 40% of the dialogue. Singer-songwriter Charles Aznavour stars as withdrawn Parisian dive bar pianist Charlie Kohler, who becomes an accessory to his criminal brothers’ activities. Lena (Marie Dubois), a waitress who loves Charlie and aware of his past identity as an acclaimed classical pianist, likewise becomes tangled in their web of crime. In The Soft Skin, Jean Desailly stars as Pierre Lachenay, a famous writer and literary editor popular on the European lecture circuit. On a trip to Portugal he meets and falls in love with a beautiful airline hostess named Nicole (Françoise Dorléac). As he’s married with a young daughter, Pierre struggles to keep his relationship secret and, despite his best efforts, Nicole becomes impatient and hurt living as the “other woman.” Like Shoot the Pianist, The Soft Skin was not a success when it was new – the theme of this month’s column, apparently – and the latter was even reportedly booed at Cannes. One suspects contemporary critics found its story too simple and clichéd. I, however, thought it riveting and highly suspenseful. Reportedly a lot of it was based on Truffaut’s own infidelities, including with Dorléac, and it’s adult, intimate, and immediate as few films today are. Region B.

Killer Elite

The Killer Elite (1975)

Sam Peckinpah’s 1970s filmography runs hot and cold with this writer. I find Junior Bonner, with Steve McQueen, unjustly unheralded but The Getaway, also with McQueen, repulsive and boring. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is better than its reputation, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid far worse than its. Cross of Iron is simply a mess with little of interest, Convoy is empty-headed but entertaining. Amidst all this is The Killer Elite, with James Caan as a corporate security man charged with jobs the CIA won’t touch, much less acknowledge. Partner Robert Duvall goes rogue, shooting Caan in the elbow and knee in a deliberately career-ending hit, but Caan is determined to recover enough so that he might track down this ex-partner who betrayed him. The movie’s first third, clinically dramatizing the shooting, various operations, and Caan’s grueling attempts at recovery are riveting, but the picture slowly loses its way and, by the anachronistic blend of samurai and chopsocky for its climax, is merely ridiculous if entertaining escapism. (Not helping matters is Arthur Hill, who spent virtually his entire career playing good guys in positions of authority who turns out to be the surprise bad guy. It stopped working when audiences picked up that Hill always played the surprise bad guy.) Twilight Time’s region A Blu-ray, however, looks stupendous, and includes a rare treat: Peckinpah’s Noon Wine, a featurette-length adaptation of Katherine Anne Porter’s short novel, shot on one-inch (analog) video for television in 1966.

Gregory's 2 Girls

Gregory’s 2 Girls (1999)

After enjoying Second Sight’s excellent Region B Blu-ray of an old favorite, Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl (1981), I picked up the British DVD of Forsyth’s barely-released sequel, filmed eighteen years later. Now pushing 40, Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair, still delightful) remains single and, effectively, is still in high school, now a politically conscious English teacher. His mantra, “Don’t spectate, participate” prompts 16-year-old soccer player Frances (Carly McKinnon), for whom Gregory has had sexual fantasies, to confide in him. She’s convinced an old schoolmate of Gregory’s, millionaire electronics manufacturer Fraser Rowan (Dougray Scott), may be smuggling torture equipment to Third World governments. Fans that dearly loved Gregory’s Girl mostly hated the film. Some, undoubtedly, were put off by the film’s darker political themes, the idea that idyllic, ordinary suburban Scotland might secretly be contributing to tools of war. Others found Gregory’s attraction to Frances, one teetering precariously close to pedophilia, distasteful. But if Gregory’s 2 Girls lacks the original film’s sweet innocence, it also reflects a maturation on the part of writer-director Forsyth. It may not be as disarmingly entertaining as Gregory’s Girl, but it’s a very funny, intriguing film in its own right, making Forsyth’s fall from grace all the more unfathomable. It remains his last film to date. Region 2 (PAL).

Catacombs

Catacombs (1965)

The sixties were a kind of Golden Age for British thrillers. Merton Park Studios was cranking out as many as a dozen Edgar Wallace thrillers for Anglo-Amalgamated, while Hammer’s Jimmy Sangster penned some marvelous thrillers for Hammer. Sangster joked that all of his scripts were simple variations of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s seminal French thriller Les Diaboliques (1955), but Sangster’s were often very clever and admirably original. Conversely, the very entertaining and quite spooky Catacombs, directed by Gordon Hessler and adapted by Daniel Mainwaring from Jay Bennett’s novel, is a blatant gender-reversal of Les Diaboliques almost scene-for-scene. However, it’s so well done this reviewer didn’t connect the obvious dots until the film was almost over. A big part of its success is the performances: Gary Merrill as the henpecked husband, Georgina Cookson as the shrewish, possessively jealous wife, and a young Jane Merrow as Merrill’s step-daughter, caught between them. Like Clouzot’s film Catacombs is very nearly a horror film, with several impressively tense, genuinely creepy moments. How is it I had never even heard of this picture before, even under its U.S. release title, The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die? Network’s Region 2 (PAL) release offers a good, widescreen transfer.

Medusa Touch

The Medusa Touch (1978)

Another Network title I had never seen before was this wild ride of movie; I knew the title and that Richard Burton starred but nothing else, really the best way to experience it. How could I have known that it’s a religious horror-disaster-science fiction-end of the world-political thriller, all in one? Co-produced by legendary editor Anne V. Coates, directed by Jack Gold, and adapted from Peter Van Greenaway’s novel, the film stars Burton as Morlar, a firebrand novelist obsessed with the idea that he’s been cursed with the ability to consciously and unconsciously cause people’s deaths. After he’s murdered (or is he?) a French police inspector, Brunel, (the great Lino Ventura) questions Morlar’s psychiatrist, Zonfeld (Lee Remick), who dismisses Morlar’s claims, though Brunel isn’t quite so sure. The all-star British cast includes Harry Andrews, Jeremy Brett, Michael Hordern, Gordon Jackson, Derek Jacobi, and many others. The region B Blu-ray looks fantastic and helps showcase the film’s impressive sets and one spectacularly realized special effects sequence done with miniatures. Kim Newman’s enlightening liner notes on this one-of-a-kind film provide essential background on novelist Greenaway. A real find.

Elvis

Blu-ray and DVD Review Round-Up: Films by Les Blank, Chris Marker, Terry Gilliam and more!

Les Blank: Always for Pleasure
The Criterion Collection

Les Blank: Always for PleasureI’m not sure I can think of a more apt descriptor of Les Blank’s films than “humanist.” The 14 short- to medium-length documentaries included in Criterion’s new box set are vivacious, warm and fascinating looks at some of life’s most sensual pleasures. Not to be trite, but these are works that make you feel grateful to be alive and able to experience the world around you.

Over and over, Blank shows himself to be a master of distilling down the essence of a subculture into a brief but substantial package. Blank resists explanation — his films are defiantly free form, roaming from moment to moment — in favor of immersion, and one can’t help but feel edified after living in one of his cinematic worlds.

Food and music are Blank’s two constants in this collection of work. Even films that have a broader focus tend to incorporate these elements as part of the basic building blocks of culture, whether he’s documenting Cajuns (Spend it All, 1971), a black Creole community (Dry Wood, 1973) or Los Angeles hippies (God Respects Us When We Work, but Loves Us When We Dance, 1968).

The music films explore blues guitarists (Lightnin’ Hopkins in The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, 1968, and Mance Lipscomb in A Well Spent Life, 1971), Creole Zydeco (Clifton Chenier in Hot Pepper, 1973), polka culture (In Heaven There Is No Beer?, 1984) and African-Cuban rhythms (Sworn to the Drum: A Tribute to Francisco Aguabella, 1995), among others. The sheer joy of the performances captured on film would be enough to justify these films, but each one feels like meaningful time spent with the artist in his environment.

As for food, well, it’s rarely looked this good on screen before. Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers (1980) and Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking (1990) aren’t merely food porn (still, prepare to salivate); they’re contextualizing tributes to the surrounding cultures.

All 14 films in the three-disc Blu-ray set have been granted 2K digital restorations, and the 1080p, 1.33:1 transfers are beautifully film-like, superb reproductions of the 16mm photography. All of the films feature uncompressed mono soundtracks, save for Sworn to the Drum, which has a lossless stereo track. Clean-up work has left these soundtracks crisp and clean.

As if collecting all these films in one place wasn’t enough, Criterion has supplied at least one extra to accompany each film, including five additional short films, outtakes, an excerpt from forthcoming documentary Les Blank: A Quiet Revelation and extensive interviews with family and collaborators, including sons Harrod and Beau, editor Maureen Gosling and friend Werner Herzog. An extensive booklet contains film notes and an essay by Andrew Horton.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s Les Blank: Always for Pleasure Blu-ray rates:

The Films (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: ****
Extra Features Overall: ****
The Criterion Collection/ 1968-1995 / Color / 1.33:1 / 563 min total / $124.95

Level Five (1996)
Icarus Films

Level FiveChris Marker returns to many of his favorite themes in Level Five, a characteristically dense and beautiful essay film that touches on the pain of loss and the role of memory in dealing with that loss. Can the past be changed if memories — both the intangible human memories and the tangible technological ones — are changed? In some ways, Level Five plays like a sequel to Sans Soleil (1983), with Marker again focusing on his beloved Japanese culture, this time looking closely at the tragedy of World War II’s Battle of Okinawa, a precursor to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Marker adds a technological wrinkle, as a woman called Laura (Catherine Belkhodja) seeks to carry on her late lover’s work by completing a video game about the conflict. She addresses him directly, peering into the camera in a series of monologues that dovetail with Marker’s own observations about technology and history. Images of primitive computer graphics mingle with newsreel footage, and Marker’s deft editing constantly creates fascinating juxtapositions between the future and the past that these images represent.

Though the film’s philosophical underpinnings aren’t easy to pin down, the dizzying imagery and the film’s elegiac tone ensure Level Five is anything but dry, academic pondering. Marker again returns to referencing Vertigo (1958) at one point, and it’s no stretch to say that his investigations into the ability to recreate, restructure and re-contextualize memories are every bit as moving and cinematically wondrous as Hitchcock’s film.

Fresh off a theatrical run in 2014 that saw Level Five finally receiving a release in the U.S., Icarus Films brings Marker’s masterpiece to home video in an essential DVD release. The variety of sources all look good in this nice transfer, and the DVD comes with a booklet with an extensive essay from Christophe Chazalon.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Icarus Films’ Level Five DVD rates:

The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: **1/2
New Extra Features: *
Extra Features Overall: *
Icarus Films/ 1996 / Color and black & white / 1.33:1 / 106 min / $29.98

Kinetta (2005)
Second Run DVD

KinettaGreek director Yorgos Lanthimos has established himself as a filmmaker with an eerily alienating style with his most recent works Dogtooth (2009) and Alps (2011). His debut feature as a solo director, Kinetta, now getting its worldwide home video debut from intrepid UK label Second Run, is clearly those films’ progenitor, examining similar themes in a less formally assured manner.

Like its successors, Kinetta deals with a close-knit community of people that’s developed a series of odd rituals in order to relate to one another. Here, a hotel maid (Evangelia Randou), a plainclothes detective (Costas Xikominos) and a photo clerk (Aris Servetalis) pass the time by filming awkward recreations of murder scenes. This uncomfortable role-playing fills the void in what seems to be mostly colorless existences for these people, playing out in a vacation town during the off-season that might as well be an actual ghost town.

Unlike Lanthimos’ later films, especially Dogtooth, which displays a Michael Haneke-like formal precision, Kinetta features mostly queasy handheld camerawork, fraying the nerves even more than the off-putting but inscrutable actions of the people on-screen, who are more types than actual characters. On its own, Kinetta might feel like a filmmaker valuing obliqueness for its own sake, but take in conjunction with his subsequent films, it fits into a discomfiting oeuvre of estrangement from reality.

Second Run’s 1.85:1 transfer is quite strong considering its standard-def limitations, with a crisp image and a detailed reproduction of Lanthimos’ almost colorless palette. Extras include a newly filmed conversation with the director and a booklet with an essay by critic Michael Ewins.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Second Run’s Kinetta DVD rates:

The Film (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: **1/2
New Extra Features: **
Extra Features Overall: **
Second Run DVD / 2005 / Color / 1.85:1 / 94 min / £12.99 / Region 2 (PAL)

Slaughter Hotel (1971)
Raro Video

Slaughter HotelFernando Di Leo is better known for his gritty, violent crime dramas, but with Slaughter Hotel (La bestia uccide a sangue freddo), he serves up a thick slice of giallo-sleaze. Veering between jarringly disjointed and laughably languid, hardly anything here makes a lick of goddamn sense, even by standards of the genre. Still, there’s something admirable about Di Leo’s willingness to abandon sense and style from scene to scene. Frenetic barrages of canted angles will give way to elegant, gliding takes, while scenes juggle varying combinations of sex and death.

Klaus Kinski nominally stars as Dr. Francis Clay, the head of a mental institution that caters to rich women, most of whom are being treated for having a sex drive. But Kinski’s presence is mostly a red herring, as he’s not even in the top 10 of weirdest things in the film. Like most of the performances, Kinski’s borders on medicated, as a series of brutal murders can barely arouse much of a reaction in anyone besides those being murdered (and sometimes, not even them).

The nudity, which approaches gynecological levels, is far more graphic than the violence — beheadings, impalements and slashes are more stolid than your average giallo. It’s hardly an exemplary entry in either the genre’s canon or Di Leo’s filmography, but worth a look for enthusiasts of either.

Raro Video presents the film in a 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer that will do little to dissuade critics of the company’s highly variable technical output. There are some things to like about this transfer, including the consistent color reproduction and strong levels of image clarity. Unfortunately, there’s quite a bit of digital manipulation visible, from over-sharpening to heavy-handed edge enhancement. One scene features significant telecine wobble. Elements seem to be in good shape, but the transfer is merely watchable rather than anything commendable.

Two audio options are included, both in 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. This disc defaults to an English dub, while an Italian dub is also offered. The original Italian track is far preferable, featuring sound that is much less tinny and harsh than the English track.

Extras include an interview with actress Rosalba Neri, a fairly in-depth archival making-of and a couple minutes of deleted scenes. The set also includes a booklet with film notes and essays.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Raro Video’s Slaughter Hotel Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): **
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: **
Audio: **1/2
New Extra Features: N/A
Extra Features Overall: ***
Raro Video/ 1971 / Color / 2.35:1 / 94 min / $29.95

Flaming Star (1960)
Twilight Time

Flaming StarMovies starring Elvis Presley don’t typically cause much excitement among cinephiles, but he proves himself to be a capably understated performer in Don Siegel’s lean western Flaming Star, which opens with a couple of songs before turning into something considerably more sober.

Tensions are rising between white settlers and a Kiowa tribe in post-Civil War Texas, and Presley’s Pacer Burton, a half-white, half-Indian man, finds himself torn as he’s forced to consider loyalties to heritage, family and community. While his white father, Sam (John McIntire), and his Kiowa mother, Neddy (Dolores del Rio), just want to live peacefully, spates of violence on both sides threaten to ignite all-out war.

Siegel’s film has a hair-trigger capability of turning suddenly violent, and he sustains that tension throughout. The film also manages a reasonably fair-minded portrayal of Native Americans, emphasizing the similar community aspects of both cultures while recognizing the vast gulf between them.

Presley communicates a sense of being rent in two with his sensitive, introverted performance. Any of his persona’s braggadocio has been replaced with the wandering, unsure eyes of a young man forced to make a decision he’s not sure he’s equipped to make.

Siegel shoots the action sequences with a tough-minded precision, while he allows more room for the complex interpersonal relationships to play out on screen. That means less of a perfunctory sort-of love interest in Barbara Eden and more of the alternating clashing and bonding between Pacer and white half-brother Clint (Steve Forrest).

Twilight Time presents Fox’s 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer of the film, which is an exceptionally clean and sometimes stunningly vivid high-def presentation. The image possesses excellent clarity and sharpness and the somewhat muted color scheme is still capable of displaying vibrant beauty. Audio options include a mostly useless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, which shunts some of the score to the surrounds and an uncompressed 2.0 track, which gets the job done fine in original mono.

Extras include Twilight Time’s signature isolated score track, a commentary by Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman and the theatrical trailer.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Twilight Time’s Flaming Star Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ***
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: *1/2
Extra Features Overall: *1/2
Twilight Time / 1960 / Color / 2.35:1 / 92 min / $29.95

The Zero Theorem (2014)
Well Go USA

The Zero TheoremTerry Gilliam is a filmmaker of boundless imagination, which can sometimes result in overstuffed cinematic worlds in his lesser works. There’s a fair amount of frenetically detailed production design in his latest film, The Zero Theorem, but it somehow feels cheap and insubstantial — a thinly realized knock-off of a Gilliam film instead of the real thing. The same goes for the ideas in Pat Rushin’s script, which shamelessly borrows from Gilliam’s masterpiece Brazil (1985), reshaping story and character elements into a discount version that sort of gets the broad strokes right but haplessly botches the details.

Christoph Waltz stars as Qohen Leth, an office drone in a futuristic society tasked with unlocking the meaning of life. Qohen toils under the watchful eye of superiors both nosy (David Thewlis) and aloof (Matt Damon), but his work is merely a distraction in his obsessive patience for a phone call that he believes will unlock the key to his own destiny.

Miserable and neurotic, Qohen gets glimpses of a happy life courtesy of Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a prostitute whose idyllic virtual reality experiences become a source of comfort. The artificial beach in these sequences brings to mind the fractured mental state of Jonathan Pryce’s Sam Lowry in the bitterly ironic conclusion of Brazil, but with a half-hearted effort at incisive commentary. Similar broadsides on pervasive advertising and Big Brother surveillance just don’t muster up much energy. Even the normally vibrant Waltz delivers a somnambulant performance that rarely brings any specificity to the character.

On the other hand, Tilda Swinton does appear as a rapping virtual psychiatrist, so it’s not like the film has nothing going for it.

Well Go’s Blu-ray presentation of the film features a roughly 1.75:1 transfer in 1080p. The image features rounded corners in an ostensible attempt to replicate vintage photography. Color reproduction of both garish and muted palettes is nice, and there are solid levels of fine detail to be seen throughout. The image is rarely super-sharp, but this seems to replicate the theatrical look. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack isn’t tested too often, but it offers a reasonably immersive experience when the material calls for it.

Extras include one big EPK chopped up into smaller chunks on the costuming, sets, visual effects and a general behind-the-scenes piece. The theatrical trailer is also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Well Go’s The Zero Theorem Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): *1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: *1/2
Extra Features Overall: *1/2
Well Go USA / 2014 / Color / 1.75:1 / 111 min / $29.98

 

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.

Day Featured

World Cinema Paradise’s Best of Blu – 2014

Despite nearly everyone’s insistence (so it seems) that physical media is dead as a doornail, 2014 has, truly, been a remarkable year for home video, Blu-ray particularly. From an agonizingly slow start when the format was new, the flow of classic titles really exploded in the last year. It’s been hard to keep up with all of the terrific catalog titles, even if most are being sublicensed by the majors to boutique labels like Olive Films, Kino, and Twilight Time.

Region-free Blu-ray players have become an essential piece of hardware, with so many of the best titles emanating from the damndest places. For instance, some of the best ‘50s Hollywood Westerns and sci-fi pictures, for instance, are currently exclusively available from German labels. Further, video transfers and better extras from non-U.S. labels (Britain’s Arrow Films, for instance) are often far superior to their American counterparts. Sporadically, many French, Spanish, German, Italian, Indian, and other countries occasionally offer domestic Blu-rays of their country’s classic films with English subtitles.

But perhaps most exciting developments in the Blu-ray realm have been the growing list of classic 3-D titles and the continuing reemergence of long-lost Cinerama releases. These movies were next to impossible to see anywhere in the world at all. Today one can enjoy a very good approximation of what it was like for paying audiences when these movies were new, in the comfort of one’s own home. And that, folks, is simply amazing.

Narrowing a Best of Blu-ray list to only ten titles proved a daunting task. This is not a list of the greatest movies released in 2014 or even necessarily the greatest video transfers. In large part, however, it does take into consideration the work that went into reconstructing/restoring/presenting it (as opposed to simply releasing a preexisting video transfer), the “bang for the buck,” particularly in terms of the results versus the funds available to the label to do the work, and the creativity and ingenuity involved in the creation of extra features.

And away we go…

Day Earth Caught Fire

1. The Day the Earth Caught Fire (Val Guest, 1962)
This extremely smart and adult science fiction film seemed pretty good when for years it ran panned-and-scanned on commercial television, but the BFI’s outstanding Blu-ray offers a picture-perfect transfer of its extremely impressive ‘scope photography (and special tinting for its opening and closing reels), with audio far superior to Anchor Bay’s years-ago DVD release. All of the fine extras from that earlier release have been ported over, along with many fine new ones – look for Leo McKern, in one his last interviews, doing a hilarious imitation of star Edward Judd!

Mad World

2. It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (Stanley Kramer, 1963)
Fans of Stanley Kramer’s all-star epic comedy have for years been clamoring for a reconstruction of this film’s short-lived original roadshow version. Criterion’s release reinstates nearly all of the lost footage, which subtly but effectively improves the film’s pacing, even with its longer running time, adding fine little bits of comedy long thought lost. The many fine extra features include 2014’s Audio Commentary Track of the Year, a deeply affectionate yet densely informative track that’s a real joy to listen to.

Werner Herzog

3. The Werner Herzog Collection (Werner Herzog, 1967-1987)
I envy those who’ll “blind-buy” this amazing collection of shorts and features, viewers unprepared for Herzog’s uniquely hypnotic, visionary films. If this set, well under $100 had included only Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Nosferatu, the Vampire (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1982), and Cobra Verde (1987) it would have been worth every penny, but this boxed set includes scads more films and shorts, and hours-upon-hours of extra features content.

Seven Wonders

4. Seven Wonders of the World (Tay Garnett & Paul Mantz & Andrew Marton & Ted Tetzlaff & Walter Thompson, 1956)
David Strohmaier and his plucky band of restoration artists rescued three Cinerama titles from oblivion in 2014, the other two being Search for Paradise (1957) and Holiday in Spain (1960). Seven Wonders of the World is the best of the three, a visually spectacular tour around the globe chockfull of natural and man-made sights from a fascinating, singularly 1950s “Free World” perspective. More than any other movies from its time, the Cinerama format is the movie’s equivalent of a time machine, an experience not to be missed. Crammed with great extras.

Pit Stop

5. Pit Stop (Jack Hill, 1969)
Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider get all the praise, but Jack Hill’s movies of the 1960s and early ‘70s are in their own way just as revolutionary and innovative. Another gorgeous high-def transfer from Arrow Films, this is one of Jack Hill’s best (and frequently startling) films. Despite its ultra-low budget, this is a fascinating and smart little movie you’ll not want to pass up. As usual for Arrow, this is packed with creative extra features.

Planet of Vampires

6. Planet of the Vampires (Mario Bava, 1965)
Mario Bava’s enormously influential sci-fi horror film (Ever see Alien?) is an eye-popping parade of surrealistic sets, costumes, and special effects, but even in Bava’s home country the best anyone could come up with until was a widescreen DVD. Scorpion’s new Blu-ray rectifies all that, with a gorgeously, richly-colored transfer that at long-last does Bava’s vastly-underrated work justice. Add to that a densely packed, fact-filled and observant audio commentary by Bava authority Tim Lucas and you’ve got one of the year’s best releases.

Infero

7. Inferno (Roy Ward Baker, 1953)
This classical era 3-D production was initially released Region B only by British label Panamint Cinema but, almost under the radar, they’ve reissued it region-free. If you’ve got a 3-D set-up at home, this is one you’re going to want to get. A terrific desert noir, Inferno stars Robert Ryan as a wealthy, urban company president whose mettle is tested when his trophy wife and her secret lover abandon him (and his broken leg) in the middle of the desert, miles from civilization. Filmed in Technicolor (and thus requiring no less than six strips of 35mm film for each shot!) this release is a thing of stereoscopic beauty, perhaps the best-looking 1950s 3-D release on Blu-ray so far.

55 Days Blu

8. 55 Days at Peking (Nicholas Ray, 1963)
In this age of CGI excess, the gargantuan roadshows of producer Samuel Bronston seem downright tasteful and restrained now, and despite their occasional shortcomings remain intelligent, thoughtful, and undeniably awesome in their full-scale epicness. This one, set during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, features an incredible reproduction of turn of the century Beijing, all built full-scale on the plains of Spain. On big home theater screens (I watched this on a 90-inch screen), the film’s grandeur is truly a sight to behold, especially via the picture’s stunning restoration from its original Super Technirama 70 negative.

Mack Sennett

9. The Mack Sennett Collection (various, 1909-1933) Flicker Alley; ALL
A revelatory set of rescued silent short subjects (plus a couple of feature) that demonstrate the incredible range not just of producer Sennett but also his company of comics, gag writers, and directors. Those whose image of Mack Sennett is limited to the Keystone Kops will be enormously surprised – and delighted – by the range of these delightful comedies. Many fine extras, including a genuinely touching This Is Your Life.

Price 2

10. The Vincent Price Collection, Volume 2 (various, 1958-1972)
A worthy follow-up to Shout! Factory’s Volume 1, this set – featuring House on Haunted Hill, Return of the Fly, The Raven, Comedy of Terrors, Tomb of Ligeia, The Last Man on Earth, and Dr. Phibes Rises Again. Most were licensed from MGM, but Shout! went the extra mile licensing and insuring good transfers of the Allied Artist Haunted Hill and Fox’s Return of the Fly, as well as locating and creating lots of good new supplements.

Some Honorable Mentions:

The Essential Jacques Demy, The Sicilian Clan, Gravity (3-D), Gulliver’s Travels, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, Tomorrow, Judex, Man Hunt, His and Hers, The Death Kiss, Dragonfly Squadron (3-D), The Bubble (3-D), Last of the Unjust, The Conformist, Judgment at Nuremberg, The Girl Hunters, The François Truffaut Collection.

Ken Loach camera

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

Boy Meets Girl (1984)
Mauvais Sang (1986)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Milestone Films’ Portrait of Jason Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: ****
Extra Features Overall: ****
Milestone Films / 1967/ Black and white / 1.33:1 / 107 min / $39.95

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

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

 

F for Fake (1975)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bill Morrison: Collected Works (1996 to 2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Man Hunt Featured

Blu-ray Review Round-up: “Man Hunt,” “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” and more!

Man Hunt (1941)

Man HuntIt’s doubtful there are many who would consider Man Hunt to be top-tier Fritz Lang, even if the parameters were narrowed to only his Hollywood films. Still, this noirish propaganda piece is bookended by a couple of harrowing sequences, and even in the saggy midsection, Lang’s expressive photography keeps the mood taut and tense. Isolating the pursued protagonist in shots that emphasize the impersonal blankness of urban and non-urban locales, Lang squeezes every last drop of intrigue out of a plot that only occasionally transcends its anti-Nazi polemic.

Walter Pidgeon stars as Alan Thorndike, a renowned British hunter on a German vacation just before the outset of World War II. He tracks down Adolf Hitler and has him in his rifle sight before being arrested by the Gestapo and placed in the custody of Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders, doing a kind of Erich von Stroheim urbanely sadistic thing). Thorndike insists he had just drawn a “sporting bead” on Hitler and wasn’t actually going to kill him, but Quive-Smith doesn’t buy it and makes the first attempt of what will be many on Thorndike’s life.

Pursued by German forces back to his home country, Thorndike must rely on a variety of sources to evade detection, including a quick-thinking cabin boy, Vaner (Roddy McDowall), and an infatuated young woman, Jerry (Joan Bennett). There’s a high potential for hokey plotting here, but the actors help sell the questionable material, as McDowall is an unusually perceptive child actor and Bennett taps into a place of unvarnished emotion, despite sporting a risible Cockney accent.

The film’s opening sequence is intriguing, and a later cat-and-mouse game in the shadows of the Underground has the elemental brilliance of the pursuits in M (1931), and taken with the generally engaging rest of the film, that makes for one solid piece of agit-entertainment.

Twilight Time has received a strong 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer from Fox for this high-contrast, shadowy film. Fine detail is abundant, blacks don’t suffer from any apparent crush and contrast levels are stable. A little bit of visible grain looks natural in this film-like presentation, which only displays minimal damage to the elements. The lossless mono track is similarly clean and clear.

Aside from the customary isolated score presentation, all the extras are ported over from Fox’s DVD release, including a decent making-of featurette, an audio commentary from Lang historian Patrick McGilligan and a trailer.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Twilight Time’s Man Hunt Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): **1/2

Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2

Video Transfer: ***

Audio: ***

New Extra Features: 1/2

Extra Features Overall: **

Twilight Time / 1941 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 102 min / $29.95

 

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Ali: Fear Eats the SoulFollowing closely on the heels of its ecstatically beautiful Blu-ray upgrade of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955), Criterion gives the upgrade treatment to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s surprisingly faithful remake/homage, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf).

Much has been written about Sirk’s subversive criticism of bourgeoisie values rippling beneath his melodramatic surfaces, but there’s a bit of an opposite dichotomy seen in Fassbinder’s take. He shoots the unlikely romance between a 30-some Moroccan immigrant (El Hedi ben Salem) and a 60-some German widow (Brigitte Mira) with a characteristic aloofness, his camera at a distance, peering at the action through narrow doorways and winding bannisters.

And yet, the melodrama creeps through, both through Fassbinder’s expressive use of color (those gorgeous yellows!) and his empathetic, lingering shots of his actors’ faces. Fassbinder and Salem were romantically involved at the time, which may have contributed to the film’s deeply felt looks of longing. Either way, this is one of the cinema’s most exquisite and most honest love stories.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer couldn’t be any better. Sourced from a new 4K digital restoration and supervised by DP Jürgen Jürges, the transfer features exceptional clarity and astounding levels of detail. Fassbinder’s somber color palette, punctuated with flashes of brightness, looks natural and stable, while film grain is rendered beautifully. The uncompressed monaural German audio sounds superb, free of any distractions or imperfections of any kind.

Extras are all carryovers from the 2003 DVD release, including an introduction from fellow Sirk-ophile Todd Haynes, interviews with Mira and editor Thea Eymèsz, a 1976 BBC program on the New German Cinema, a scene from Fassbinder’s The American Soldier and Shahbaz Noshir’s 2002 short Angst isst Seele auf, which has a prominent connection to Fassbinder’s film. A trailer and an insert with an essay by critic Chris Fujiwara are also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ****

Film Elements Sourced: ****

Video Transfer: ****

Audio: ***1/2

New Extra Features: N/A

Extra Features Overall: ***1/2

The Criterion Collection / 1974 / Color / 1.37:1 / 93 min / $39.95

 

Sidewalk Stories (1989)

Sidewalk StoriesOn the included interview in Carlotta Films’ Blu-ray release of Sidewalk Stories, director and star Charles Lane plays down the obvious affinities between his film and Chaplin’s The Kid (1921), insisting instead that his film was primarily inspired by J. Lee Thompson’s low-budget thriller Tiger Bay (1959).

It’s probably to the film’s benefit to get away from the Chaplin comparison, despite the obvious narrative similarities between the films. For one thing, Lane is a reasonably expressive actor, but he doesn’t nearly possess the remarkable communicative abilities of a Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd, not to mention his relative lack of physical comedic chops.

For another thing, Sidewalk Stories is certainly a more faithful homage to the silent film than The Artist, but much of the time, this feels like a film that just happens not to have a synced soundtrack — it’s more of a polished version of cinema verité than anything.

Nonetheless, Sidewalk Stories is often very charming in its tale of a street artist (Lane) who begrudgingly adopts a little girl (Nicole Alysia) after her father is murdered in an alley. Living in an abandoned building, the artist barely has enough resources for himself, but he finds a way to provide for the child with the help of a young woman (Sandye Wilson) who falls for the mismatched pair.

The film’s silent-style comic sequences — a skirmish with a fellow, much larger artist over a customer and a playground squabble are both great moments — are a little too infrequent. Lane has an eye for capturing interesting perspectives on marginalized individuals, but the docu-style elements of this hybrid tend to become a little repetitive, especially considering the film’s obvious finale, in which Lane breaks the sound barrier to no great effect.

Despite the film’s shortcomings, it’s a treat to have it presented this beautifully by Carlotta Films, the French company who have recently expanded into the US, with Kino Lorber distributing their discs here. The 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer, sourced from a 2K restoration, is a clean, detailed snapshot of the past that feels like it was preserved perfectly intact. Black and white levels are stable and consistent, with a film-like appearance to the image that is highly pleasing. The 2.0 DTS-HD soundtrack presents a nice showcase for Marc Marder’s eclectic score, which combines traditional piano plinking, bluesy riffs and ambient droning.

Extras include a new interview with Lane and Marder, as well as a commentary track from the pair. A nice inclusion is Lane’s 1977 short A Place in Time, which serves as a kind of prototype for Sidewalk Stories. A trailer is also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Carlotta Films US’ Sidewalk Stories Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): **1/2

Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2

Video Transfer: ****

Audio: ***1/2

New Extra Features: ***

Extra Features Overall: ***

Carlotta Films US / 1989 / Black and white / 1.85:1 / 101 min / $29.95

 

Iguana (1988)

IguanaNo surprise, Monte Hellman delivers another fascinating genre subversion with Iguana, as idiosyncratic a take on the monster movie as Hellman’s versions of the road movie — Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) — and the western — The Shooting (1966), Ride in the Whirlwind (1966).

Iguana stars Everett McGill as Oberlus, a disfigured harpooner whose reptilian facial features has made him the object of ridicule among his fellow sailors on a 19th Century whaling ship. When he escapes the horrific conditions, he sets up his own empire on a remote island, paying back the cruelty done to him tenfold to anyone who dares step foot on land.

Hellman’s atmospheric, disorienting film interrogates both traditional notions of masculinity and femininity, in Oberlus’s absurdly grandiose proclamations and in the character of Maru Valdivielso’s Carmen, a woman whose free sexuality terrifies the men around her. Oberlus takes Carmen as his lover by force, leading to a tragic ending that simply underlines the horror that Hellman allows to unfold over the course of the film.

Raro Video’s Blu-ray release restores several minutes that were cut from the long out-of-print Anchor Bay DVD release, but that’s about the only nice thing to be said about this disappointing disc. While the Blu-ray boasts approval and new color correction from cinematographer Josep M. Civit and Hellman, it’s clear that something went very, very wrong in Raro’s transfer, which is riddled with obvious noise reduction, resulting in frozen grain and disturbingly smooth surfaces. This is an especially bad fit with the dim, raw look of the film, as blacks are frequently crushed and riddled with artifacts. Though I suspect they would look OK in a properly presented transfer, the colors just look sickly here. The 2.0 DTS-HD soundtrack isn’t great itself, but its slightly muddled sound is nothing compared to the onscreen travesty.

Extras include a new interview with Hellman, a trailer and a booklet with a brief essay and a Q&A with Hellman.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Raro Films’ Iguana Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ***

Film Elements Sourced: ***

Video Transfer: *

Audio: **

New Extra Features: **

Extra Features Overall: **

Raro Video / 1988 / Color / 1.85:1 / 100 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.

Brannigan featured

Blu-ray Review: “Brannigan” (1975)

Brannigan 3

“Knock knock.”

Brannigan (1975) is a guilty pleasure. John Wayne, in one of his last films – he made only Rooster Cogburn (1975) and The Shootist (1976) after this – plays a fish-out-of-water Chicago cop in London, in a movie all too clearly inspired by the success of Dirty Harry (1971), a project originally offered to but rejected by Wayne. But Dirty Harry eventually grossed $36 million domestically ($18 million in rentals during its initial release) against a budget of just $4 million – and at a time when Wayne’s pictures were marginally successful at best.

Wayne responded with McQ (1974), a Dirty Harry clone much less enjoyable than the supremely ridiculous and touchingly elegiac though unrelated Brannigan. Most reviewers then and now unfavorably compare both films to Clint Eastwood’s now very dated Dirty Harry series (all but the first of the five films are virtually unwatchable today). The offbeat setting and obvious though entertaining cultural clashes are a plus, and Brannigan is more relaxed and less imitative of Dirty Harry, even though its premise resembles yet another Eastwood picture, Coogan’s Bluff (1969). Wayne, then 67 but looking much older with his deeply-etched features, big gut and bad toupee, is barely credible as an active police officer, but a few amusing lines of dialogue (“Get Brannigan! Use a forklift if you have to!”) amusingly address these issues while his relationship with co-star Judy Geeson is, thankfully, more paternal than romantic.

MGM holds the rights to this United Artists release. They in turn have licensed their video master to Twilight Time. There are some good extra features, but the transfer itself appears old and/or inadequate. It’s not terrible, but falls into that I-guess-it-looks-a-little-better-than-the-DVD category, as evidenced by the high-def trailer that’s also included. Using inferior source elements, it’s clearly sharper and brighter than the feature presentation.

The movie opens in Chicago (Det. Lt. Lon “McQ” McHugh was based in Seattle) where police Lt. Jim Brannigan (Wayne) bursts through a door, interrupting a small-time counterfeiter hard at work. “Knock knock,” Brannigan says, with exquisite John Wayne deadpannedness. He’s looking for notorious racketeer Ben Larkin (John Vernon, the Mayor of San Francisco in Dirty Harry) but Larkin, threatened with a grand jury indictment, has already done a runner to London, where Scotland Yard Commander Sir Charles Swann (Richard Attenborough) stands ready to arrest and extradite the underworld kingpin.

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Brannigan’s boss, Capt. Moretti (Ralph Meeker) puts Big Jim aboard the next flight to London, where DS (Detective Sergeant) Jennifer Thatcher (Judy Geeson), Brannigan’s driver and liaison officer, is there to meet him.  However, just as Brannigan arrives in London Town, cocky, confident Larkin is kidnapped by two hoods (one is James Booth from Zulu, the other is Straw Dogs‘ Del Henney) who make huge ransom demands from Larkin’s attorney (Mel Ferrer) – and who show they mean business by mailing one of Larkin’s severed fingers to Scotland Yard. Meanwhile, a hit man (Daniel Pilon) hired by Larkin back in Chicago makes several extravagant attempts on Brannigan’s life.

The cinematic Old West didn’t change much as Wayne himself aged. Conversely, it’s a little jarring to see him in then-present day London madly trying to jump the Tower Bridge’s drawbridge in a yellow Ford Capri. The film tries hard to be a fish-out-of-water Western in modern dress, even to the point of staging a completely superfluous comical barroom brawl (What exactly instigates it anyway?) that, minus the bowler hats and pints of Guinness, could be straight out of McLintock! (1963).

The movie works best watching the British characters react with dismay, disgust, or bemusement to Brannigan’s American swagger (he insists on carrying his flagrantly illegal handgun, all but telling an appalled Sir Charles to buzz off) and vice versa. In other hands Sir Charles might have been a painful stereotype, an English version of John Vernon’s Mayor character from Dirty Harry, but Attenborough nicely underplays his role, alternately amused if puzzled by the oversized American and only occasionally loses his cool, helpless against Brannigan’s inelegant meddling. Geeson, 41 years Wayne’s junior, is well cast: believably efficient and friendly but also clearly doing a job, she and Wayne have better rapport than many of Wayne’s late-career female co-stars.

Douglas Hickox directed. His short list of credits is nothing if not eclectic. His previous film was the horror-black comedy Theatre of Blood (1973), maybe Vincent Price’s best-ever film, and soon after Hickox would helm the vastly underrated prequel to Zulu, entitled Zulu Dawn (1979). Despite good reviews that film died at the box office. Hickox segued into television and died too young, in 1988.

The picture has a few good action set pieces, an excellent car chase undermined only by the sequence’s final stunt, clearly faked via some sort of optical or miniature effect. Though old and fat, Wayne in his old age still could throw a visually spectacular punch, and behind-the-scenes home movie footage shot by Geeson during the filming of the picture’s climax suggests Wayne may have thrown his considerable weight in other areas, influencing how at least his character should be photographed. (The home movies show something else likely never seen on any other Blu-ray extra: actor Mel Ferrer picking his nose.) The locations are used well. Scenes in Picadilly Circus show off marquees advertising The Sting and The Great Gatsby, while the nearby Picadilly Theatre promises A Streetcar Named Desire headlined by Claire Bloom and Martin Shaw.

Disc extras include an audio commentary by Judy Geeson, prompted by Nick Redman. The aforementioned home movies are limited to footage of filming the climactic scene, but they are interesting for showing Wayne’s particular way of filming such sequences.  There’s an isolated score track featuring Dominic Frontiere’s frequently derivative music (a scene with Ferrer eluding the police sounds all too much like a cue Jerry Goldsmith wrote for Planet of the Apes, for instance; other cues are reminiscent of Shaft).  Julie Kirgo offers some good liner notes, and there’s that better-looking-than-the-movie trailer.

Not a great film but far more entertaining than one might expect, Brannigan’s impact is undermined by a lackluster transfer but still a whole heck of a lot of fun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

King Featured

Blu-ray Review: “All the King’s Men” (1949)

All the King's Men

Not that you necessarily needed any, but All the King’s Men (1949) is solid proof that the moralizing, narratively stilted Best Picture recipient is hardly a modern invention. Winner of the big prize and two acting trophies, All the King’s Men often looks the part of a great film, thanks to director Robert Rossen’s flair for noirish visuals. Dramatic camera angles, canted frames and blunt lighting imbue the film with an occasionally palpable sense of dread, but any visual tension is dissipated by Rossen’s thunderously obvious screenplay, based on Robert Penn Warren’s novel. The noir-like qualities don’t really rise above the level of pastiche, and yet they’re easily the film’s most compelling elements.

A what-you-see-is-what-you-get affair, the film tells the story of Willie Stark (Oscar-winning Broderick Crawford), an aw-shucks, country bumpkin type whose downhome, self-taught law experience and rural county seat election are the only qualifications he needs to soon land a spot in the governor’s seat, riding a wave of populist enthusiasm to victory. Once there, Stark descends into all-out corruption, getting his hands dirty with a litany of bribery, intimidation and deception. Most of this is merely glossed over, and the lack of specificity prevents the film from having any real political teeth; Willie Stark is simply a boogeyman. Worse, he essentially transforms into such over the course of a single montage, one of many papered-over transitions that accompany most of the film’s significant narrative developments.

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So, even though Crawford is reasonably engaging, his character is never as terrifying or magnetic as the script lets on. There’s potential for more interest in Jack Burden (John Ireland), the newspaperman and audience surrogate who narrates the film. Initially intrigued by Stark as a feature subject, he’s eventually drawn into the governor’s inner circle, forcing him to confront his own ideals as Stark requires increasingly morally dubious tasks from him. Burden’s swings of conscience are wide and erratic, but most of the potentially interesting crises of faith are swallowed up in a subplot that has Burden digging up dirt on the uncle (Raymond Greenleaf) of his girlfriend, Anne (Joanne Dru).

Burden’s relationship with Anne eventually becomes a point of contention between he and Stark, who is presented as a lady-killer in the film’s most unpersuasive overreach. The married Stark has women falling all over him, including Anne and his sassy campaign manager Sadie (Mercedes McCambridge in an Oscar-winning turn). When a film doesn’t bother to explicate its corrupt politician’s corruption, it’s probably too much to ask for it to apply any sense of believability to his level of attraction. The romantic entanglements do provide the film with some unintended comic relief though, as Dru’s head-throwing ultra-melodramatic performance clashes sharply with her slightly more restrained costars.

All the King’s Men seems convinced that “power corrupts” is such a novel message that there’s no need for any further insight into its characters or political climate. The broadly drawn portrait is almost tract-like in its single-mindedness, and its abrupt about-face at its conclusion seems shoehorned in to make a moralistic point about the downfall that such corruption brings. Rossen’s varied camera positioning and strong ability to stage striking scenes prevent All the King’s Men from being a total slog; still, this is a Best Picture winner that would probably play a lot better with the sound off.

Twilight Time brings Rossen’s film to Blu-ray in a 1080p high definition, 1.33:1 transfer that looks exceptional much of the time. Grayscale reproduction is precise and clean, with deep blacks, perfectly balanced whites and plenty of beautiful silvery images. Film grain is fairly light, but present and unhampered by any obvious digital manipulation. Clarity only really suffers during transitional opticals, but is otherwise quite impressive. There are a few specks here and there, but damage is minimal. The uncompressed DTS-HD mono audio is just fine, with clean dialogue and an adequate reproduction of Louis Gruenberg’s rather forgettable score.

That score is the main feature of Twilight Time’s thin slate of extras, as their usual isolated score track is the only significant extra here. I doubt anyone is all that invested in Gruenberg’s score, but on the plus side, this option does allow one to filter out the film’s frequently hackneyed dialogue. The only other extra is a trailer.

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On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Twilight Time’s All the King’s Men Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): **

Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2

Video Transfer: ****

Audio: ***

New Extra Features: *

Extra Features Overall: *

Twilight Time / 1949 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 109 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.

 

Equus Featured

Blu-ray Review: “Equus” (1977)

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Equus (1977) is the Sidney Lumet-directed film version of Peter Shaffer’s controversial 1973 play. Both the play and the film (which Shaffer adapted) grapple with weighty issues including primarily acute mental illness, and the spiritual advantages/disadvantages of religious passion and psychological therapy. The story focuses on the relationship between a psychiatrist, played in the film by Richard Burton, and his patient, Peter Firth. The case, suggested to Shaffer by a real-life incident, is about a 17-year-old boy who with a hoof pick viciously blinds six prized horses at the stable in which he’s employed. In both the play and the film there are undercurrents of bestiality and arguably themes of repressed homosexuality as well, though it’s also less about the boy than the psychiatrist’s reaction to his mental state. As in most London and New York productions of the play, in the film there is much full-frontal male nudity and, in the film more than the play, squirmily uncomfortable footage of Firth’s character physically as well as spiritually bonding with real horses. The subject matter made for one of The Onion’s better jokes.

In the play, instead of using real horses onstage, actors generally in black tights or body suits wear elaborate but singularly unreal horses’ heads. For the movie, Shaffer and presumably Lumet decided to use real, live horses instead, though the movie retains many other theatrical devices: at one point Firth plays himself at age six in a flashback scene, there are long monologues spoken directly into the camera by Burton, and deliberately theatrical, not realistic, lighting is utilized in several key scenes. Nonetheless, the decision to literalize the horses angered some purists, and partly for this reason reviews were mixed-to-negative. The subject matter turned audiences away and it was not a great commercial success.

This is unfortunate, for while Equus is a difficult film on many levels, it’s also adult and intelligent if at times a bit pretentious and self-conscious, though overall superbly acted by a peerless cast. Lumet’s direction is among his most accomplished. In addition to his usual uncluttered approach, often as simple as pointing his camera at the characters the audience will want most to watch at any given moment, his handling of all the scenes involving the horses is among his most subtly cinematic.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray, licensed from MGM, offers a flawless transfer of the film, beautifully shot in spherical 1.85:1 Panavision by Oswald Morris. Further, the label’s usual extras are supplemented with a superb two-hour-plus documentary on Burton, In From the Cold? (1988), making this effectively an intriguing double-feature.*

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The movie, like the play, is set in England but filmed, apparently for tax reasons, in and around Toronto, Ontario. Court magistrate Hesther Salomon (Eileen Atkins) presses esteemed but overworked psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Burton) to take on the case of Alan Strang (Firth), a 17-year-old boy who blinded horses at the stable where he worked.

Alan proves hard to treat. He’s either catatonic or, when questioned, replies with television commercial jingles. Looking for answers Dysart visits Alan’s parents, housewife Dora (Joan Plowright), a devout Christian, and her printer husband, Frank (Colin Blakely), an atheist. Through this contradictory child-rearing Alan develops a strange spiritual interest in horses. After destroying a reproduction of a painting of the Crucifixion, his father gives him a painting of a horse, which glowers down at Alan in his bed. Dysart later visits the stables where its wealthy owner, Harry Dalton (Harry Andrews), express disgusted shock over what has happened. Until Alan went mad, he gave every indication of being a hard-working polite young man. Dysart also learns that a young woman Alan knew there, rider Jill Mason (Jenny Agutter), suffered her own breakdown and became reclusive after the incident.

Dysart gradually penetrates Alan’s psyche. Alan’s attraction to horses takes on a religious, as well as sexual significance. He sees the horses, which he calls by the name “Equus,” their Latin origin, and the bits they wear as enslaved and tortured like Christ, and that in becoming a stable boy, Alan has been granted entrance into their holy temple. Alan’s confessions become increasingly dark, as he attempts to become one with the horses by sneaking them off into the night, nakedly riding and caressing them.

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Ultimately though, Equus is less about Alan than it is about Dysart, an unhappily married man with existential concerns about the treatment he provides. However cross-eyed Alan’s religious epiphanies, Dysart argues, through his passion (in the religious sense) he’s experienced something Dysart has not. To “cure” Alan is to make him “normal,” but at what cost? The film reminded me of friends I’ve known with bipolar disorder. Medication might provide some stable, manageable middle ground between the manic highs and cripplingly suicidal lows but, once experienced, those unimaginable maniacal highs are pretty hard to give up, which is partly why so many manic-depressives go off their medication.

The original London production starred Firth, with Alec McCowen as Dysart. Firth reprised the role on Broadway and in Los Angeles productions featuring, in turn, Anthony Hopkins, Burton, Leonard Nimoy, and Anthony Perkins as Dysart, with Tom Hulce eventually replacing Firth.

Firth is fine but Burton is almost revelatory, giving one of the best performances of his career. He could be overly theatrical or walk through certain movie parts, but apparently he recognized this as a major opportunity and, with Lumet’s directions, gives a remarkably restrained performance. The entire supporting cast operates at the same high standard.

The video transfer of Equus is basically flawless. It’s a clean source with great detail and nearly perfect color, while the DTS-HD Master Audio, a 2.0 mono mix, sounds good also, and includes optional English subtitles. The region-free disc is a 3,000-copy limited edition.

In addition to Twilight Time’s usual extras – audio commentary by Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo with liner notes by the latter, an isolated score track, and trailer, the disc includes a marvelous two-hour-plus documentary of Burton made shortly after his death (but with a mysterious 2010 copyright notice), In From the Cold?, featuring interviews with his vast Welsh family and hometown friends, tracing his life from beginning to end and buttressed with generous film clips (reflecting more on Burton’s stormy life than chronologically unspooled) and archival interviews with Burton (and wife Elizabeth Taylor). Fascinating stuff: Burton obviously drunk and self-loathing in several of the interviews, Lauren Bacall’s scathing criticism of Dick and Liz’s opulent lifestyle, and John Gielgud reflecting on a bemusing encounter with Ringo Starr (“He had no idea who I was, and a daresay he didn’t know who I was, either!”) aboard the famous couple’s yacht. It’s worth the price of admission all by itself.

Equus is a challenging work, not entirely successful and in many respects unpleasant, but it ambitiously tries to make sense of what may ultimately be unknowable. As Dysart himself, paraphrasing Alan, says, “At least I have galloped. Have you?”

Equus

* Another double-bill an imaginative film programmer might try would be to pair Equus with John Huston’s similar Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967).