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Category Archives: Blu-ray/DVD Reviews

New Godard and Chabrol on Blu-Ray

The following piece should appear at Time Out sometime soon.

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Chicago-based Olive Films releases French New Wave rarities

Chicago-based Olive Films has earned a reputation as the “Criterion of the Midwest” for bringing superb-quality transfers of classic films to DVD and Blu-ray, many of which may be light on “special features” but compensate by being reasonably priced. Ophelia (1963) and The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers (1964) are two welcome new additions to the Olive catalogue, especially for movie lovers interested in the landmark movement known as the French New Wave. Both films have never before been released on any digital format until now.

The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers is an omnibus film comprised of four shorts revolving around con artists plying their trade in major cities around the world: Tokyo, Paris, Naples and Marrakesh (a fifth segment set in Amsterdam, Roman Polanski’s River of Diamonds, has regrettably been omitted from this release at the request of the director). The highlight is Jean-Luc Godard’s Marrakesh-set Le Grand Escroc, which revives the character of Patricia from Breathless (again embodied by the great Jean Seberg), now a successful television reporter on assignment in Morocco. Patricia investigates the story of a man who prints counterfeit money only to give it away to the homeless but Godard’s real interest appears to be the intersection of documentary and fiction, which he regards with characteristic playful inquisitiveness. Le Grand Escroc also marks the beginning of the director’s fascination with the Arab world, a subject he would return to in Ici et Ailleurs, Notre Musique, the Egyptian section of Film Socialism and, if rumors are to be believed, his forthcoming Image and Word.

Ophelia, directed by Godard’s New Wave compatriot Claude Chabrol (also director of the Paris segment of The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers), is a modern-day update of Shakespeare’s Hamlet set in provincial France. After his father dies unexpectedly, Ivan (Andre Jocelyn) suspects his mother (The Third Man‘s Alida Valli) and uncle (Claude Cerval) of committing foul play and sets a trap to catch them both; the “Mousetrap” play here is ingeniously presented as a silent short film made by Ivan with local amateur talent almost 40 years before Ethan Hawke did the same thing in Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet. Chabrol loved to skewer the bourgeoisie but his decision to portray his main character as an entitled and whiny brat may be off-putting to some viewers. I would argue, however, that this decision pays dividends in the film’s darkly ironic conclusion when the spoiled young man realizes too late that he was incorrect to assume his family’s tragedy had to follow a familiar narrative playbook; Chabrol intertwines notions of class, culture and “projecting” onto others in devilishly entertaining fashion.

The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers and Ophelia are released on DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday, April 25. For more info, visit Olive’s official site.

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Pioneers of African-American Cinema

My new blog post at Time Out Chicago concerns Kino/Lorber’s essential new Pioneers of African-American Cinema box set. My original version, longer and more intelligible than Time Out’s edit, is reproduced in its entirety below:

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Newsreel image of Oscar Micheaux directing a film, probably The Brute, in Chicago circa 1920.

Kino Lorber’s new Pioneers of African-American Cinema box set, available on both Blu-ray and DVD, offers an invaluable tour through an alternative history of American cinema in the early 20th century. The contents include 19 features and 12 shorts, not to mention various other fragments and supplements to provide historical context, adding up to an astonishingly rich and authentic portrait of black American life and culture during that period. All of these films, made between 1915 and 1946, were created far outside of Hollywood’s studio system. As Chicago was the birthplace of “race movies” (films made by and for African Americans) in the silent era, there is plenty of Chicago-related content in the set.

Disc one is especially Chicago-centric: it kicks off with three slapstick comedy shorts in a row, all made by the locally owned Ebony Film Corporation. These “two-reelers,” produced by the enterprising J. Luther Pollard, show the obvious influence of the Keystone Cops and are still quite funny by modern standards. The highlight is undoubtedly A Reckless Rover, in which the protagonist (Rastus Jones), on the run from the police, seeks refuge in a Chinese laundry and accidentally overdoses on opium. These shorts are followed by Oscar Micheaux’s 1920 Chicago-shot masterpiece Within Our Gates, an incendiary drama that climaxes with a taboo-busting lynching scene that explicitly critiques the similar climax of D.W. Griffith’s controversial The Birth of a Nation.

There are, of course, plenty of films in the set made outside of Chicago that will be of interest to movie lovers. Chief among them is Hellbound Train, a surreal visual allegory in which Satan is depicted as the literal engineer of a train taking the world’s sinners to hell. Made by traveling evangelists James and Eloyce Gist, it was screened not in commercial theaters at all but exclusively at church-sponsored gatherings across the country. It is but one of many examples of an early African-American film that has been notoriously difficult to see (or only been available previously in a poor quality transfer). Pioneers of African-American Cinema, co-curated by the University of Chicago’s Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, represents a remarkable feat of restoration and recovery that should go a long way towards helping to reintroduce this important part of our cinematic heritage to a contemporary audience.

For more information visit Kino Lorber’s website.


Top 10 Home Video Releases of 2015

My top 10 favorite new home video releases of 2015 (and 20 runners up):

10. The Band Wagon (Minnelli, 1953, Warner Blu-ray)

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Warner Brothers has a track record of putting out impeccable high-def transfers of their catalogue titles on Blu-ray — when they can be bothered (their neglect of the considerable number of silent movies to which they own the rights is unfortunate) — and The Band Wagon is no exception. This is for my money Vincente Minnelli’s best film and the greatest of all Hollywood musicals. Fred Astaire, in a role that must’ve been uncomfortably close to his real-life situation, is a legendary but over-the-hill hoofer hoping to make a triumphant return on Broadway but who must first contend with a pretentious director (Jack Buchanan) and a saucy young co-star (Cyd Charisse). The Blu-ray of this love letter to the musical genre and the process of collaborative art-making is perfect. Among the extras, ported over from the DVD, is a nice audio commentary track by Liza Minnelli who vividly remembers visiting the set as a little girl. That’s entertainment indeed.

9. Variete (Dupont, 1925, Edel Germany GmbH Blu-ray)

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The new Blu-ray of the F.W. Murnau Foundation’s impeccable restoration of this classic German silent was mired in controversy due to the inclusion of a single musical-score option: a track by the British musical group The Tiger Lilies that features a prominent vocal throughout. Personally, I kind of like it but, even if I didn’t, this is still a must buy; it’s Variete, uncut and looking better than it probably has since the silent era. For those who’ve never seen it, the chief selling points are the heartbreaking and uncharacteristically subtle lead performance by Emil Jannings and the dazzlingly subjective cinematography, especially during the trapeze sequences, by the great Karl Freund (Metropolis). This reasonably priced German disc thankfully comes with optional English subtitles and is region free. There are no plans for a U.S. release. Full review here.

8. Love Unto Death / Life is a Bed of Roses (Resnais, 1983-1984, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)

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I don’t think that either of these individual movies or their respective HD transfers are quite as impressive as, say, Criterion’s recent release of Hiroshima Mon Amour or Kino/Lorber’s Je t’aime, je t’aime disc. However, there is something to be said for an enterprising distributor like Cohen Media Group taking a chance on putting out the lesser-known work of a master filmmaker. And there is even more to be said for the incredible value of bundling two films together into one package (Cohen did something similar a few years back with their essential Claude Chabrol/Inspector Lavardin set). Not only was it a pleasure to revisit these underrated gems, I also greatly appreciated the casual audio commentary tracks by Francophile-critics Andy Klein and Wade Major. Further thoughts here.

7. Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight (Welles, 1966, Mr. Bongo Blu-ray)

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The Criterion Collection is putting this out next year and there’s no doubt in my mind that their release — in terms of transfer quality and, especially, extras — will handily best Mr. Bongo’s disc. But I don’t regret scooping up this bare-bones release for one second. The first time I saw Chimes at Midnight was on a terrible-quality VHS tape that I rented from Facets Multimedia (the only way it could be seen in the U.S. at the time) and I recall putting my face only inches away from the screen so that I could absorb the sounds and images of Orson Welles’s masterpiece as thoroughly as possible. Jonathan Rosenbaum once noted that, in making this film, Welles essentially created a new Shakespeare play by mashing up the Falstaff cycle (the two Henry IV plays, Henry V and the Merry Wives of Windsor). The result is also, perhaps paradoxically, Welles at his most cinematic: the famous “Battle of Shrewsbury” sequence is an insanely great montage that stands as the most remarkable such battle scene in the history of movies. I still cannot believe that I am finally able to see this in an amazingly restored version (courtesy of Luciano Berriatúa of the Filmoteca in Madrid) in 1080p on my home television.

6. The Apu Trilogy (Ray, 1955-1959, Criterion Collection Blu-ray)

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Deciding which Criterion release will make my year-end best-of list (I limit myself to one title per distributor in the interest of diversity) is always a challenge. This year, the decision was made a lot easier by their amazing Blu-ray box set of Satyajit Ray’s legendary Apu trilogy. Not only are these among the finest films in the history of cinema — they capture the ebb and flow of life as it is simply lived with an uncommon clarity and power — Criterion also did heroic work in “rehydrating” and restoring the brittle, fire-damaged original negatives (for a thorough account of what this elaborate process entailed, read this illuminating interview with Lee Kline). What a joy it is then to revisit these humane masterworks, which follow the experiences of one individual from his early childhood in a poor and rural Bengali village into adulthood and professional literary success, in such exceptional quality.

5. Dragon Inn (Hu, 1967, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

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Chinese director King Hu is the most important director of the martial arts genre (his relationship to wuxia is similar to that of Hitchcock to the thriller or Ford to the western) and Dragon Inn is one of his most significant achievements. It was the first film he made after leaving Hong Kong (where he was a contract director for Shaw Brothers Studios) and establishing his own independent production company in Taiwan where he was able to exert more creative control over his work. The plot details the attempts of an evil eunuch to kill off the children of a rival politician in ancient China. Meanwhile, a brother/sister martial-artist duo also conspire to help the children, and all of these characters come together for a memorable showdown at the titular inn located in the desert. The fight choreography is killer but how that choreography is captured via Hu’s rigorous cinematography and editing schemes is what truly impresses. This new transfer looks amazing on Blu-ray, especially the deep-focus exterior shots of desert vistas, some of which seem to stretch into infinity. Thankfully, Eureka/Masters of Cinema has also announced a limited-edition release of A Touch of Zen, Hu’s greatest movie, on Blu-ray in January.

4. Dziga Vertov: The Man with the Movie Camera and Other Newly-Restored Works (Vertov, 1929, Flicker Alley Blu-ray)

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Man with the Movie Camera, an experimental documentary that served as the apotheosis of the Soviet-montage era, is a film that continues to look better and more modern with each passing year. Director Dziga Vertov, along with his brother and cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman and wife and editor Elizaveta Svilova, created the definitive self-reflexive movie with this hyperkinetic portrait of a day in the life of a cameraman (which was actually filmed over five years in three different cities). Flicker Alley did the world a huge favor by putting out a Blu-ray of this deathless masterpiece based on a definitive new restoration (courtesy of the joint efforts of Lobster Films, Blackhawk Films Collection, EYE Film Institute, Cinémathèque de Toulouse, and the Centre National de la Cinématographie). Not only does Man with the Movie Camera now look better than ever, it also contains shots missing from all previous home video releases and runs at the correct speed for the first time. Best of all, it is married to the best soundtrack of the many that have been composed for it over the years: the Alloy Orchestra’s pounding 1995 score that itself was based on Vertov’s detailed instructions. Flicker Alley’s set is very nicely fleshed out by an additional three features: Kino Eye, Enthusiasm and Three Songs of Lenin.

3. Goodbye to Language 3D Godard, 2014, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)

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In 2014, Jean-Luc Godard reinvented cinema yet again with Goodbye to Language, his fascinating first feature-length foray into the 3-D format. The use of stereoscopic cinematography was crucial to the overall meaning of the film — from the jokey use of floating intertitles to the innovative way he had a single 3-D image break apart into two overlapping two-dimensional images by panning the right-eye camera while keeping the left-eye camera stationary. More so than any other 3-D movie, there is no point in even attempting to watch this in 2-D. Knowing that to be the case, I purchased a 3-D television and a 3-D Blu-ray player pretty much for the sole purpose of being able to experience this masterpiece again and again at home. Kino/Lorber’s Blu-ray looks almost identical to the film’s theatrical presentation (with the only significant difference being the absence of the variation in color grading between the left and right-eye images that could be observed on the big screen). Among the fine extras are an interview with JLG conducted by the Canon camera company, who were clearly proud of the fact that this God-level director was using their equipment, and a booklet essay by David Bordwell.

2. Carl Theodor Dreyer Collection (Dreyer, 1925-1964, BFI Blu-ray)

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The British Film Institute really upped their Blu-ray game in 2015, releasing, among many worthy titles, two separate Roberto Rossellini box sets — one devoted to his celebrated War Trilogy and another devoted to the cycle of melodramas he made with paramour Ingrid Bergman. But the crown jewel of their release slate this year was the “Carl Theodor Dreyer Collection,” a limited-edition box that bundles together four features by the Danish master-filmmaker: the silent feminist-comedy Master of the House (1925), the medieval witch-hunt expose Day of Wrath (1943), the austere spiritual drama Ordet (1955) and his sublime final film Gertrud (1964), which examines the romantic life of a woman with impossibly high ideals. The BFI did Dreyer justice by putting out these transcendentally uplifting films in wonderful quality and also stacking the set with welcome extras, including seven(!) shorts by Dreyer as well as the informative feature-length doc Carl Th. Dreyer: My Metier.

1. The Complete Works of Hayao Miyazaki (Miyazaki, 1972-2013, Disney Blu-ray)

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I’ve often said that animation has long been something of a blind spot for me, citing my preference for watching live-action movies as the result of my fondness for “looking at real people.” My interest in animation, however, has grown exponentially over the past few years due to the fact that it has been of so much interest to so many of my students. Besides, if one accepts that “mise-en-scene” can be defined as the director’s control over all of the elements within the frame, then the truest masters of mise-en-scene are arguably the world’s greatest animators; do they not, after all, have the tightest control over all of the details that appear in every shot of every film? This is certainly true of Japan’s beloved Hayao Miyazaki, who both wrote his own screenplays and painstakingly animated nearly all of his films by hand; and one must give credit to the Walt Disney Company (in spite of their dubious and occasionally evil business practices) for bringing the work of this great auteur to a wide American audience. The eleven feature films included in this box set are all presented complete and uncut and feature the option of the original Japanese language soundtracks (with faithful English subtitles) in addition to the option of the English-dubbed tracks. This is so much better than the raw deal that many foreign-language films — especially those from Asian countries — have gotten in the States over the years. Best of all, the films themselves are consistently terrific. From the relatively conventional but rip-roaring damsel-in-distress rescue yarn Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro to his perfect swan song, the aeronautical-engineer biopic The Wind Rises, Miyazaki obsessively revisited the same stylistic tropes and themes — feminist heroines, prescient anti-war and ecological themes, exhaustively detailed science-fiction landscapes, images of aircrafts in flight, and an admirable, near-total absence of villains. Prior to the release of Disney’s box set, I had only seen three of Miyazaki’s films. Purchasing his collected works gave me just the excuse I needed to finally watching them all and I’m so glad that I did; I may be late to the party but I now regard him as Japan’s finest living director. Here is my “report card” for each of the individual films within the set:

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro – B
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind – B+
Castle in the Sky – A-
My Neighbor Totoro – A+
Kiki’s Delivery Service – A
Porco Rosso – A
Princess Mononoke – A+
Spirited Away – A-
Howl’s Moving Castle – A
Ponyo – A-
The Wind Rises – A+

20 Runners-Up (Alphabetical by Title):

3-D Rarities (Various, 1922-1962, Flicker Alley Blu-ray)
Boyhood (Linklater, 2014, Paramount Blu-ray)
Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies (Chaplin, 2015, Flicker Alley Blu-ray)
Don’t Look Back (Pennebaker, 1967, Criterion Blu-ray)
Every Man for Himself (Godard, 1980, Criterion Blu-ray)
Faust (Murnau, 1926, Kino Blu-ray)
Hiroshima Mon Amour (Resnais, 1959, Criterion Blu-ray)
The House of Mystery (Volkoff, 1921-1925, Flicker Alley DVD)
Inherent Vice (Anderson, 2014, Warner Blu-ray)
Je t’aime, Je t’aime (Resnais, 1968, Kino Blu-ray)
Kiss Me Kate (Sidney, 1954, Warner Blu-ray)
Life of Riley (Resnais, 2014, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, 2015, Warner Blu-ray)
Mulholland Drive (Lynch, 2001, Criterion Blu-ray)
Le Pont du Nord (Rivette, 1981, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
The Roberto Rossellini Ingrid Bergman Collection (Rossellini, 1950-1954, BFI Blu-ray)
Rossellini: The War Trilogy (Rossellini, 1945-1948, BFI Blu-ray)
Sherlock Holmes (Berthelet, 1916, Flicker Alley Blu-ray)
Speedy (Wilde, 1928, Criterion Blu-ray)
Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (Murnau, 1931, Kino Blu-ray)
The Thin Blue Line (Morris, 1989, Criterion Blu-ray)


For the Love of Film: Varieté and The House of Mystery

The invaluable National Film Preservation Foundation is currently in the process of restoring a silent one-reel comedy titled Cupid in Quarantine from 1918. In order to raise funds to cover lab costs for its preservation as well as the recording of a new score to accompany its online premiere, the essential movie blogs Ferdy on Films, Wonders in the Dark, and This Island Rod are hosting the annual “For the Love of Film” blogathon. White City Cinema is proud to be participating in this blogathon again by contributing reviews of two silent masterpieces newly released on home video in new restorations: Variete and The House of Mystery. Please consider making a donation to the National Film Preservation Foundation, no matter how small, after reading my review. Film preservation is a very worthy cause!

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My two favorite home video releases of the year so far are Flicker Alley’s DVD of Alexandre Volkoff’s 1923 “cliffhanger” serial The House of Mystery and Edel Germany GmbH’s Blu-ray of E.A. Dupont’s drama Variete from 1925. Both films deserve to be called masterpieces of the silent European melodrama and both feature plots that revolve around bizarre love triangles. Yet their virtues are ultimately as different from one another as are the virtues of the new discs that house them. Both films have been the recipients of painstaking new photochemical restorations although each new edition is not without controversy: Variete has been saddled with an anachronistic new score that has silent purists crying foul and The House of Mystery has been released on DVD only and not the superior Blu-ray format. I nonetheless will argue that both releases are absolutely essential for anyone who cares about silent cinema.

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Variete (also known in the U.S. as Variety and Jealousy) was Germany’s biggest box office hit of 1925 and it’s not hard to see why. It came out during the height of the movement known as German Expressionism but, in spite of the extraordinarily fluid camerawork of Karl Freund (Metropolis) and a clever plot about the sinister goings-on within a circus, E.A. DuPont’s movie actually feels closer to the school of social realism with which directors like G.W. Pabst (Pandora’s Box) and Josef Von Sternberg (The Blue Angel) would soon make their mark. The film begins with a long-time prisoner, “Boss” Huller (Emil Jannings in an uncharacteristically restrained performance), breaking a 10-year vow of silence and telling his warden the tragic story, seen in flashback, of how he came to murder his unfaithful trapeze-artist wife (Lya de Putti). The whole thing is great but the undeniable highlights are the exhilarating trapeze sequences, the deft camerawork of which seemingly puts viewers smack-dab into the leotards of the performers, creating a thrilling “you are there” effect.

Previously available on home video only in poor-quality and truncated editions, this definitive restoration of Variete by the redoubtable F.W. Murnau Foundation adds more than 20 minutes of footage unseen since its original release. While the image quality on the Blu-ray is predictably superb, the only option for an audio track is a controversial new score by the British musical trio The Tiger Lillies. This retro-cabaret act’s score features sung lyrics (a no-no for silent films, according to many cinephiles) that comment directly on the onscreen action. Personally, I love it; most silent movies did not have official musical scores so I have to wonder what the point is of commissioning contemporary musicians to compose new scores for silent films if one is only going to handcuff them into imitating something one would’ve heard in a theater 100 years ago (e.g., a generic pastiche of 19th century folk tunes)? Contemporary viewers are, after all, watching digital versions of these films in their own living rooms, no? The musical score for a silent film need only be effective, I say, not attempt to function as some sort of time machine.

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Until recently, The House of Mystery was for me an unknown quantity — a film I had never heard of by a director I had never even heard of — but I purchased it sight unseen anyway simply because it is drumming up excitement in certain cinephile circles. Directed by Alexandre Volkoff, a Russian filmmaker living in France, and co-written by Volkoff and his star and fellow Russian emigre Ivan Musjokine, this 10-chapter “cliffhanger” serial feels like the missing link between Louis Feuillade and Fritz Lang. Like Feuillade’s Fantomas (1913), it begins with a montage of close-ups of Musjokine’s character, Julien, a master of disguise, posing in each of the many drastically different makeup jobs he will sport over the next six-and-a-half hours. Unlike Fantomas, Julien is not a master-criminal but rather a good-hearted factory owner who is framed for a murder he did not commit by the factory’s villainous director (Charles Vanel, later a favorite of Henri-George Clouzot) because he covets Julien’s beautiful wife (Helene Darly).

Also different from the serials of Feuillade is how The House of Mystery‘s narrative follows a single clean story arc. Feuillade’s capers were beloved by the Surrealists in part because of their “we’re making it up as we go along” quality (often a cyclical capture-and-escape narrative-loop structure that perhaps best finds a modern equivalent in the endless death-and-rebirth narrative-loop cycles of the Resident Evil series). The House of Mystery, by contrast, is closer to classic “hero’s journey” epics like The Odyssey and The Count of Monte Cristo in its portrait of a man who escapes from prison and spends years attempting to clear his name and reunite with his family. There are many astonishing set pieces along the way — including a wedding sequence depicted entirely in silhouette and an exciting prison-break/chase scene involving a hijacked train being pursued by mounted police. Flicker Alley’s release represents the first time The House of Mystery has ever been released on home video in any format and also serves as a reminder of how much our knowledge of film history depends upon the vicissitudes of fate. While a Blu-ray would have been preferable to this DVD-only release, you should definitely buy this anyway; it’s so good you won’t regret upgrading when and if a Blu-ray ever does hit the market.

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You can make a donation to the National Film Preservation Foundation here.

You can purchase a region-free Blu-ray of Variete from Amazon Germany here. (Chicagoans should note I will be introducing a screening of my own projected Blu-ray of Variete this Saturday, May 16, at Transistor.)

You can purchase The House of Mystery on DVD directly from Flicker Alley here.


Top 10 Home Video Releases of 2014

My top 10 favorite new home video releases of 2014 (and 20 runners up):

10. Ravenous (Bird, UK/USA, 1999, Shout! Factory, Blu-ray)

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Director Antonia Bird tragically passed away last year at the too-young age of 62. While she is known primarily for the television and theater work she did in her native England, genre movie aficionados have a place in their hearts for her because of her extraordinary work on Ravenous, a cult classic about cannibalism at an American army post in California in the mid-19th century. Incredibly, Bird was brought in at the 11th hour to replace another director but managed to infuse this horror-western hybrid with a unique, darkly comedic tone and bring a welcome female perspective besides (she changed one crucial supporting part from male to female). A film of enormous political and philosophical interest masquerading as a B-movie, Ravenous is one of the key movies of the 1990s and one that looks better with each passing year. In terms of A/V quality, Shout! Factory’s release does the best it can with source materials that appear to not be in ideal shape but I would never want to be without this on Blu-ray.

9. Faust (Murnau, Germany, 1926, Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

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F.W. Murnau’s greatest German movie makes the leap to 1080p with the staggering results one would expect from the Masters of Cinema label. In adapting the old German folk tale about the wager between an archangel and a demon over whether the latter can corrupt the titular alchemist’s soul, the legendary UFA studios gave Murnau a bigger budget and access to greater technical resources than he ever had before. The stylistic virtuosity that resulted — nowhere better evidenced than in a magic-carpet ride through an mind-bogglingly elaborate miniature set — trumped even the masterful mise-en-scene of Murnau’s own The Last Laugh. This Blu-ray edition bundles together the inferior international cut of the film (long thought to be the only one in existence) with Luciano Berriatua’s meticulous restoration of the definitive German domestic version. There is also a great, enthusiastic commentary track by critics David Ehrenstein and Bill Krohn, both of whom are especially good at tracking Faust‘s considerable influence on subsequent filmmakers and films.

8. Mouchette (Bresson, France, 1967, Artificial Eye Blu-ray)

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A very welcome addition to the growing number of Robert Bresson titles on Blu-ray (Criterion has already released A Man Escaped and Pickpocket) is UK distributor Artificial Eye’s exemplary Mouchette disc. Nadine Nortier, in her only film role to date, is an extraordinary screen presence as the title heroine, a poor, rural teenaged girl who is consistently let down or betrayed by the adults around her: her alcoholic father, her bedridden mother, her unfairly strict teacher and a local poacher who repays the girl’s kindness by raping her. Solace comes only in fleeting moments: walking alone through the woods, riding the bumper cars at a traveling carnival, the chance to comfort her infant sister, etc. Jean-Luc Godard once remarked that Bresson’s previous film, Au Hasard Balthazar, was “the world in an hour-and-a-half,” a remark that seems equally true of Mouchette. Both films have a shattering impact because of the director’s unique ability to elicit empathy for a marginalized protagonist while also ruthlessly avoiding sentimentality. The film-like textures of Artificial Eye’s transfer make this the version that you need to own.

7. The Epic of Everest (Noel, UK, 1924, BFI Blu-ray)

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“Since the beginning of the world men have battled with Nature for the mastery of their physical surroundings. Such is their birthright, and such is their destiny.” So reads a quintessentially British — and vaguely imperialist — opening title card in this mesmerizing documentary from explorer/filmmaker Captain J.B.L. Noel. Newly restored and released on Blu-ray by the British Film Institute, this masterpiece is the official record of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine’s ill-fated 1924 attempt to scale the world’s highest mountain. The film’s focus, refreshingly, is not on the personalities of the men involved but on the arduous task of mountain-climbing itself; most of its power stems from shots of wee man, often not more than a black speck on the horizon, crawling all over the overwhelmingly indifferent, ice-capped peaks of Mount Everest. Some of Noel’s astonishing montage sequences feature shots where the most dramatic thing happening is the way drifting clouds cast shadows over mountaintops, images that resemble moving paintings in their abstract beauty. The best such scene is arguably the last, after the two men spearheading the trek have perished; the final images of Everest, tinted blood-red, conjure up the futility of their mission with an almost unbearable poignance.

6. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, Germany, 1920, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)

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As someone who first discovered many classics of world cinema via VHS tapes of poor quality public-domain prints in the early 1990s, it has been a great joy to see the image and sound quality of certain titles improve over the years — courtesy of new restorations and new advancements in home-video technology. The most impressive instance of an absolutely jaw-dropping upgrade in a movie’s quality over time might be Robert Wiene’s masterpiece of psychological horror The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Long seen in faded, scratchy and often incomplete prints, the F.W. Murnau Foundation’s new restoration — based on the original camera negative — renders a ridiculous amount of never-before-seen detail in the film’s striking visual design, including the Expressionist makeup on the actors’ faces and even paint-brush strokes on the intentionally artificial-looking sets around them. I’m also a big fan of the new techno-ish score by DJ Spooky though Kino/Lorber also thankfully offer a more “traditional” soundtrack option for silent-film purists. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari‘s influence is still very much alive (Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, John Carpenter’s The Ward and Tim Burton’s entire career would be unthinkable without it). It was the big bang of both German Expressionist and horror moviemaking and if you care at all about cinema, you need to own this.

5. Hail Mary (Godard, Switzerland/France, 1984, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)

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Cohen Media Group did the world a big favor by releasing Blu-rays of two of the best films from Jean-Luc Godard’s thorny post-1967 career: 1984’s sublime religious allegory Hail Mary and 1996’s ambitious and political For Ever Mozart. While For Ever Mozart has the better audio commentary track (film critic James Quandt’s invaluable insights into Godard in general and this film in particular, delivered in a conversational style, constitute the best such commentary track I’ve ever heard), I’m ultimately going with Hail Mary as the more significant release simply because the film itself is more significant. Controversial upon its initial release, Hail Mary re-imagines the story of the birth of Christ in a modern setting where Mary plays high-school basketball and works at her father’s gas station, Joseph drives a taxi and “Uncle Gabriel” arrives via jet plane to deliver the annunciation. While this may sound irreverent — and the film does indeed feature Godard’s characteristic absurdist humor — the end result is as serious and deeply spiritual as anything Robert Bresson or Carl Dreyer ever did. The best of the special features here is Anne-Marie Mieville’s, The Book of Mary, a terrific companion short about a young girl grappling with her parents’ divorce.

4. The Nutty Professor: 50th Anniversary (Lewis, USA, 1963, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)

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Warner Brothers finally gave Jerry Lewis the respect he deserves with this lavish box set commemorating the 50th anniversary, albeit one year late, of the master’s most enduring creation. The Nutty Professor, a surreal/comedic take on the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde legend in which Lewis transforms from the title nebbish into a satire of his own real life ladies-man persona named “Buddy Love,” looks better and funnier than ever. Lewis’s bold use of color in particular (dig that crazy purple!) benefits from the Blu-ray upgrade. Among the treasure trove of extras are DVDs of Frank Tashlin’s minor Lewis-starring comedy Cinderfella (1960), Lewis’s second film as a director, the self-reflexive masterpiece The Errand Boy (1961), as well as a CD of hilarious prank phone calls, “Phoney Phone Calls 1959-1972,” that puts the Jerky Boys to shame. I was also grateful for the new documentary short Jerry Lewis: No Apologies, which offers a snapshot of the still-sharp 87-year-old comedian in concert and in conversation with family and friends. If you do not think this live-action cartoon is hilarious, then I do not want to be your friend.

3. The Essential Jacques Demy (Demy, France, 1961-1982, Criterion Blu-ray)

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Jacques Demy has always been the most underrated of the major French New Wave directors; the Criterion Collection’s essential new box set devoted to six of his best features (plus the usual welcome smattering of bonus material) will hopefully go a long way towards correcting that. Included are Demy’s seminal debut Lola (1961), his doomed romance about gamblers Bay of Angels (1963), a dazzling restoration of his best-known film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), my personal favorite The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), the subversive fairy tale Donkey Skin (1970), and the darkly beautiful, scandalously unknown movie opera A Room in Town (1982). To watch these films together is to realize how unfair it is that Demy has somehow accrued the reputation of being both lightweight and a sentimentalist. His penchant for the musical genre (even when directing non-musicals) and his love of candy-box colors mask what often amounts to a bittersweet if not outright tragic worldview. Among the extras are two excellent feature-length docs by Demy’s wife Agnes Varda (a major director in her own right): The Young Girls Turn 25 (1993) and The World of Jacques Demy (1995).

2. Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery (Lynch, USA, 1990-1992, Paramount Blu-ray)

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This extravagant box set is phenomenal for so many reasons: it contains all 30 episodes of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s beloved cult-classic television show from 1990-1991, plus Lynch’s 1992 feature film prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (much derided at the time but clearly one of his greatest achievements when viewed today), plus the legendary “deleted scenes” from Fire Walk with Me, which have been a holy grail for Peaks aficionados for over 20 years. Best of all: because Twin Peaks was originally shot on 35mm film stock, this Blu-ray sports an impeccable 1080p transfer that perfectly captures the show’s buttery-warm color palette while revealing way more visual detail than anyone ever saw when the series first aired. Lynch and Frost’s daring “Blue Velvet crossed with a soap opera” formula was ahead of its time in the early 90s — the weirdest thing to ever play on network television — doomed to end prematurely but paving the way for today’s current “golden age of T.V.” (David Chase has acknowledged its influence on his own game-changing Sopranos). Fortunately, this box is not quite the entire mystery; Twin Peaks will be rebooted on Showtime in 2016 — where Lynch and Frost can take advantage of television freedoms they never dreamed possible 25 years ago.

1. Intégral Jacques Tati (Tati, France, 1949-1974, StudioCanal Blu-ray)

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A lot of film writers on this side of the Atlantic have anointed the Criterion Collection’s “Complete Jacques Tati” Blu-ray set as the home video release of the year but I’m going to give the nod to Studio Canal France’s similar release instead. Criterion’s set dropped in late October but Studio Canal had already put out an almost identical (albeit “Region B-locked) set back in February, more than eight months previously. As great as Criterion’s “visual essays” and other supplements undoubtedly are, the most important aspect in a box set of this magnitude is its “completeness” in terms of the films themselves and in this regard there is no difference between the Studio Canal and the Criterion: both of them bundle together all of the Gallic comedic giant’s short and feature-length films, most of the latter of which are available in multiple versions. What a joy it was to revisit Tati’s entire filmography in such superb quality and to witness the evolution of his artistry in chronological order — beginning with the uproariously funny (and still underrated) Jour de Fete, climaxing with the staggeringly ambitious Play Time (one of the greatest movies ever made by anyone) and ending with the poignant, made-for-TV Parade (which saw the actor/director returning to his music-hall roots). Let’s hope Criterion doesn’t wait so long to announce their new titles in the future. Full review here.

Runners-Up (Alphabetical by Title):

11. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder, Germany, 1974, Criterion Blu-ray)
12. All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, USA, 1955, Criterion Blu-ray)
13. L’avventura (Antonioni, Italy, 1960, Criterion Blu-ray)
14. Double Indemnity (Wilder, USA, 1944, Universal Blu-ray)
15. F for Fake (Welles, USA, 1973, Criterion Blu-ray)
16. For Ever Mozart (Godard, Switzerland/France, 1997, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)
17. The Freshman (Newmeyer/Taylor, 1925, Criterion Blu-ray)
18. The Long Goodbye (Altman, USA, 1973, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
19. Los Angeles Plays Itself (Anderson, USA, 2003/2014, Cinema Guild Blu-ray)
20. Love Streams (Cassavetes, USA, 1984, Criterion Blu-ray)
21. Master of the House (Dreyer, Denmark, 1925, Criterion Blu-ray)
22. Mauvais Sang (Carax, France, 1986, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
23. My Darling Clementine (Ford, USA, 1946, Criterion Blu-ray). More here.
24. Only Angels Have Wings (Hawks, USA, 1939, TCM/Columbia Blu-ray)
25. Out of the Past (Tourneur, USA, 1947, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)
26. Pickpocket (Bresson, France, 1959, Criterion Blu-ray)
27. Spies (Lang, Germany, 1928, Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
28. Touch of Evil (Welles, USA, 1958, Universal Blu-ray)
29. A Touch of Sin (Jia, China, 2013, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
30. The Wind Will Carry Us (Kiarostami, Iran, 1999, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)


Blu Clementine

“John Ford is an unholy combination of the Boston Strangler, Groucho Marx, Zorro and Mark Twain.” — Stephen Longstreet

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Newly released on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection is John Ford’s 1946 western masterpiece My Darling Clementine. This highly fictionalized account of the gunfight at the OK Corral — pitting Marshal Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda at his most iconic) and his right-hand man Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) against the fascistic “Clanton gang” (led by an atypically but convincingly psychotic Walter Brennan) — is a welcome addition to both the Criterion Collection and the growing number of Ford titles available in high-quality, high-definition editions on home video. My Darling Clementine was a pivotal film in Ford’s career for a number of reasons: it was his first western since Stagecoach in 1939 and his first fiction feature since returning from active duty in the Navy during World War II. The conflicts that arose during My Darling Clementine‘s post-production — between Ford and 20th Century Fox production chief Daryl Zanuck (with whom the director had previously enjoyed a long and productive, if occasionally combative, relationship) — ultimately fractured their partnership for good and led to Ford’s exiting the studio and starting his own independent production company, Argosy Pictures. This rupture is explicitly spelled out in Criterion’s excellent Blu-ray set, which features not only the copious supplementary material one would expect but two versions of the film itself: an early “preview version” (103 minutes in length and truer to Ford’s original intentions) and the 97-minute theatrical release (partially re-shot by Lloyd Bacon and heavily re-cut by Zanuck). The result is one of the most essential home video releases of the year.

Ford’s experiences during the war had a profound impact on his art and that is immediately apparent in My Darling Clementine, a film about a cattle man who emerges from the wilderness to “settle down” in the lawless town of Tombstone, Arizona, and reluctantly becomes marshal in the process. The first significant thing Wyatt Earp does upon arriving in town is to disarm and run out of town a drunken Indian, an event that occurs when Earp’s symbolic trip to the barbershop is unceremoniously interrupted. More importantly, Wyatt Earp’s reaction to the death of his younger brother James (and his lament over James’s grave about how their “Ma” will take the news) seems to reflect Ford’s own wartime duty of informing the parents of the deaths of the young men who served under his command in the Navy’s Field Photographic Unit. Finally, Ford stages the climactic gunfight at the OK Corral as if it were, in his own words, a “clever military maneuver.” There is a lot of powerful stillness and silence in the build up to the gunfight, as Earp and his deputies calmly walk up to the corral, which they then strategically infiltrate by cover of the dust kicked up by a passing horse-drawn covered wagon. This strategic maneuvering was undoubtedly influenced by the military maneuvers Ford had witnessed while covering the second world war as a documentary filmmaker, a lot of the footage of which has still never been publicly screened.

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My Darling Clementine also feels highly personal and quintessentially Fordian in the way that it eschews plot in favor of a series of vignettes — some comical, some poignant — that Ford himself termed “grace notes.” One watches Ford in general not for plot but for these magic moments: an unexpectedly stunning composition here, a bit of spontaneous behavior that he probably cooked up with his actors while on set there. The fact that My Darling Clementine contains an unusually large number of such moments is perhaps an indication that Ford’s wartime experiences had strengthened his independence and resolve to buck against the constraints of a rigid studio system. Daryl Zanuck, who adored Ford, had always complained about the tempo of Ford’s movies (Zanuck had even wired the director a message on the set of 1939’s Drums Along the Mohawk reading, “They don’t call them moving pictures because they stand still. They move.”). Yet in 1946, Ford was willing to introduce the central conflict between the Earp brothers and the Clantons in his opening scene and then essentially put that conflict on hold for the next 45 minutes. This is absolutely the best stretch of the film, a series of magic moments that everyone remembers but that have nothing to do with the story. Most famously, there is the image of Wyatt Earp leaning back in a chair on the front porch of his hotel and balancing himself on a post with his feet. But there is also the sweetly awkward moment where Earp dances with Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) at the consecration of Tombstone’s first church, Linda Darnell’s Mexican prostitute singing “Under a Broad Sombrero,” the comical visit to Tombstone of a Shakespearean actor named “Granville Thorndyke” (Alan Mowbray), and Earp collecting poker chips in his hat.

It was Ford’s indulgence of such indelible digressions, and Zanuck’s opposition to them, that ultimately led to the permanent falling out between the two men. This falling out is illustrated in detail on Criterion’s Blu-ray, not only through the two versions of the film included (both thankfully presented in 1080p) but also through the many welcome supplements, including an excellent new audio commentary by Ford biographer Joseph McBride and a visual essay by Tag Gallagher. But, of course, even those not academically inclined will want to snap this up; the real treat here is the movie itself, one of the greatest of all Hollywood westerns, and this version represents a new 4K digital restoration with a linear PCM soundtrack that both looks and sounds fabulous (better even than the superb DVD that was included in the mammoth “Ford at Fox” box set from a few years ago). Ford’s body of work is so rich because the man himself, like other great American artists such as Walt Whitman or Bob Dylan, contains multitudes. As the quote from Stephen Longstreet that opens this review attests (less perverse than it might initially seem), Ford was a complex dude who could be a stern — occasionally sadistic — father figure, a comedian, an adventurer and a master storyteller. One gets a sense of each of these qualities in My Darling Clementine, a film that undoubtedly would be a richer experience could we see Ford’s original version today. However, it is a testament to Ford’s genius that, even shorn of 30 minutes and partially re-shot, the theatrical release is still one of the high water marks of his long and illustrious career.

My Darling Clementine (1946)


Odds and Ends: A Touch of Sin

touchofsin Zhao Tao with blade and topknot ponytail.

I recently revisited my favorite film of 2013, Jia Zhang-Ke’s A Touch of Sin, thanks to Kino/Lorber’s stellar new Blu-ray, an occasion that caused me to realize how much my initial long review barely scratched the surface of this great work of art. Upon rewatching Jia’s bold, funny, shocking, beautiful and torn-from-the-headlines anthology (it was inspired by items that first appeared on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter and apparently a widespread source of important but often “unofficial” news for many Chinese citizens), what stands out to me the most now are the way each of the film’s four stories are linked in ways both obvious and subtle. So here are some additional thoughts on some of the fascinating correspondences between the different segments of A Touch of Sin: the first and the second stories are linked by gun violence, and it is further implied that the protagonists of each story may not have committed murder if they had not readily had firearms at their disposal. The third and the fourth stories are linked by the fact that both protagonists have recently been romantically jilted, and thus they share a possible indirect psychological motive for their aberrant behavior. The first and the third stories are also linked by a potential motive — revenge (the protagonists, who inflict violence on others, do so only after violence has been inflicted on them). And the second and fourth stories deal with rootless characters whose violence may be seen as resulting from profound feelings of dislocation. Finally, all four stories prominently feature a symbolic use of animals and animal imagery: from the horse being flogged in the first story, to the Chicago Bulls logo on a killer’s stocking cap in the second, to myriad snake imagery in the third (including an excerpt from Tsui Hark’s Green Snake), to fish seen imprisoned in an aquarium in the fourth. In each instance, the lives of the protagonists seem to correspond to these “spirit animals.”

touchofsin2 Jiang Wu with shotgun and tiger-emblazoned towel.

Even more fascinating are the varying degrees to which Jia has purposefully stylized the climactic “acts of violence” in each of the four segments, which, taken together, turn the whole project into a meditation on both real-world violence and its representation in the movies. (How many other films in recent decades, instead of merely being violent, actually make violence their subject and have something interesting to say about it? A History of Violence? Unforgiven? Anything else?) The most stylized action in A Touch of Sin occurs in the third story where Yu Xiao (Zhao Tao), a receptionist at a massage parlor, slices a man to ribbons after he harasses her by making unwanted sexual advances and repeatedly hitting her over the head with a wad of cash. The fact that Yu reveals an unexpected and almost-superhuman dexterity with a knife, not to mention that she sports a topknot ponytail like a wuxia heroine, places this exhilarating sequence squarely in the realm of myth (not unlike the climax of the aforementioned Unforgiven). The protagonist of the first story, Dahai (Jiang Wu) is almost as sympathetic as Yu as he avenges himself against the crimes of corrupt politicians and local business leaders in his village. The violence caused by Dahai’s shotgun blasts is, however, depicted in a more realistic and horrifying fashion than Yu’s blade work. The saddest moment in the film is the self-inflicted violence of the fourth story (which sees Jia utilizing CGI in a way that allows him to recreate the suicide in Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero but in more excruciating detail). The scariest violence, by far, occurs in the second story: Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang) is a drifter on a motorcycle who, it is implied, gets some kind of sexual thrill from discharging a gun and plots an elaborate robbery as a mere pretext for the purpose of being able to shoot two people. Such a mindset is, of course, unfathomable, which is exactly why stories of violence in the media leave so many of us frustrated. Jia may not provide answers but we should all be grateful that he has at least been able to dramatize our questions about such matters as intelligently as he has in A Touch of Sin. The film even ends with a rhetorical (sung) question: “Do you understand your sin?”

Kino/Lorber’s stellar Blu-ray of A Touch of Sin can be purchased on amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/Touch-Sin-Blu-ray-Tian-Ding/dp/B00H91LWBY

You can view the trailer for A Touch of Sin via YouTube below:


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