Tag Archives: Abel Gance

Top 10 Home Video Releases of 2016

My top 10 favorite home-video releases of 2016 (and 21 runners-up):

10. Cool Apocalypse (Smith, 2015, Emphasis Entertainment DVD)

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I would be lying if I didn’t include my own first feature on this list. I love the package that Al Strutz of Emphasis Entertainment Group put together for the DVD-only release of Cool Apocalypse, which includes Pierre Kattar’s minute-long behind-the-scenes documentary and my own “director’s commentary” track in which I expound at greater length than I have anywhere else before on my influences, methods and intentions in making this little film. Thanks a million, Al!

9. The Assassin (Hou, 2015, Well Go USA Blu-ray)

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Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s martial arts film about a female assassin, played by the great Shu Qi, whose personal life conflicts with her professional life when she’s ordered to kill her ex-fiance during the waning years of the Tang dynasty. This is one of the transcendent film experiences of recent years: a sword fight among ghostly birch trees and a climactic conversation on a fog-enshrouded mountaintop are among the instant-classic scenes. Cinematography of borderline-supernatural magnitude like this (courtesy of Mark Li Ping-Bing who shot on 35mm) deserves a stellar HD transfer and Well Go USA’s Blu-ray certainly delivers in that department. The disc is a little light on extras — there are just four short “featurettes,” all of which clock in at less than four minutes a piece — but we should all be grateful for any chance to see and hear Hou talk about his work.

8. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Scorsese, 2005, Paramount Blu-ray)

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2016 was a great year for America’s greatest living artist: Bob Dylan turned 75-years-old, released an acclaimed new album of standards for the second year in a row, logged 76 more dates on his Never-Ending Tour (including a co-headlining gig at “Desert Trip,” the biggest concert event of the year) and, oh yeah, won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Martin Scorsese’s definitive doc about Dylan’s early career – up through and including his earth-shaking European tour in 1966 – also got a spiffy “10th anniversary” re-release. The original version had only been available on DVD so Paramount’s new Blu-ray is a very welcome upgrade – with the D.A. Pennebaker-shot footage from Eat the Document looking better than those of us who first saw it via crappy VHS bootlegs would have ever thought possible. Among the plentiful extras is an insightful new interview with Scorsese in which he discusses at length his editing choices — including the film’s dazzling chronology-shuffling structure.

7. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (Ford, 1949, Warner Blu-ray)

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For me, the second installment of John Ford’s celebrated “Cavalry Trilogy” doesn’t quite scale the artistic heights of the previous year’s Fort Apache but it is arguably the director’s most beautifully photographed color film and remains an essential work. Archivist Robert Harris wrote that this stunning new transfer was “taken from an IP derived from the original three-strip negatives, but so good, and with such accurate color (matched to an original nitrate), and perfect registration, that if I had to decide which way to go for the difference in cost, I’d do precisely what Warner Archive has done.” The accurate color is so crucial: the film features an expressive, boldly stylized use of color — nowhere more apparent than in the theatrical, blood-red sunset during John Wayne’s famous graveside monologue.

6. Napoleon (Gance, 1927, BFI Blu-ray)

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The way I feel about Abel Gance’s legendary Napoleon is the same way a former President of Columbia Records felt about Leonard Cohen’s music: I know that it’s great but I don’t know if it’s any good. It can be hard to reconcile the film’s dubious qualities – it is unquestionably pro-militaristic, nationalistic and hagiographic – with its status as a cinematic landmark and the apotheosis of Impressionism. Whether he’s capturing schoolchildren engaged in a snowball fight or French and English soldiers fighting for literally days on end in the wettest, muddiest battlefields this side of Kurosawa, Gance has the uncanny ability to use handheld camera (rare for a silent epic) and super-fast cutting to whip viewers into an emotional frenzy. Of course, the film itself is almost beside the point now: Kevin Brownlow’s restoration, nearly 50 years in the making and 5-and-a-half hours long, cobbles together prints from all over the world to very closely approximate what the film would’ve first looked like in 1928. It’s one of the all-time great restoration stories and every movie lover should make it a point to see this version.

5. Godard: The Essential Collection (Godard, 1960-1965, Studio Canal Blu-ray)

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Studio Canal UK released this sweet box-set, combining five of Jean-Luc Godard’s most popular early features (Breathless, Une Femme est une Femme, Le Mépris, Alphaville and Pierrot Le Fou) to surprisingly little fanfare in February. All of the discs are stacked with welcome extras — vintage making-of docs, introductions by Colin MacCabe, interviews with Anna Karina, etc. — and feature impeccable transfers to boot (with the notable exception of Le Mépris, which has always looked problematic on home video). The real story here though is that Une Femme est une Femme and Alphaville are receiving their Blu-ray debuts and look and sound better than ever in 1080p. One is a widescreen, riotously colorful musical comedy, the other is a high-contrast, black-and-white, neo-Expressionist sci-fi/noir. But they both function as dual love letters to the cinema and to Godard’s then-wife and muse, Karina, still one of the most ravishing screen presences in all of cinema.

4. Dekalog (Kieslowski, 1988-1989, Criterion Blu-ray)

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Sell your old Facets DVDs if you still can! The mighty Criterion Collection did Krzysztof Kieslowski proud with this amazing set that combines new restorations and transfers of all 10 one-hour episodes of the director’s legendary television miniseries Dekalog with the expanded theatrical-release versions of episodes five and six (AKA A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love). While Kieslowski is probably still best known for the later “Three Colors” trilogy that saw him move to France and work with notable Euro-arthouse stars like Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy and Irene Jacob, the Dekalog remains his supreme masterpiece: Each episode is set in the same housing project in Warsaw and corresponds — to varying degrees of literal-ness — to each of the Ten Commandments. The series dares to ask the question: how might these Commandments serve as the basis for ethical dilemmas in the modern world? The episodes can be watched in any order and discovering the ways in which the different stories subtly intersect (a major player in one episode may turn up for a cameo in another) is fascinating to behold. Is it television or is it cinema? Who cares? As the Criterion jacket copy states, it’s one of the 20th century’s great achievements in “visual storytelling.”

3. Early Murnau (Murnau, 1921-1925,  Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

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Aw yeah. Masters of Cinema did silent movie fans a huge favor by bundling together five of F.W. Murnau’s great early German films (The Haunted Castle, Phantom, The Grand Duke’s Finances, The Last Laugh and Tartuffe) into one stellar three-disc set. If I had to list the virtues of this Early Murnau box, it would be endless: All five films are making their Blu-ray debuts, all are based on meticulous restorations by the redoubtable F.W. Murnau Foundation, all are presented with the original German intertitles and feature optional English subtitles, there are copious extras, etc. While The Last Laugh is the (deservedly) best-known film of the bunch, what a joy it is to see an undervalued mini-masterpiece like Phantom looking so crazy and beautiful in 1080p. Murnau is a God of cinema, someone who knew how to put emotion into camera movement — in the same way that someone like William Faulkner knew how to put emotion into a string of words — and being able to witness that kind of cinematic expressiveness in the optimum quality it’s presented in here made me ecstatically happy. Now where’s The Burning Soil, damn it?!

2. Pioneers of African-American Cinema (Various, 1915-1941, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)

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University of Chicago professor Jacqueline Najuma Stewart curated this incredible and extensive compilation of early movies by African-American filmmakers, all of which were made far outside of the Hollywood studio system between the mid-1910s and the mid-1940s. It’s an impressive act of restoration and reclamation that stands as one of the most significant home video releases ever. Spread across five Blu-ray discs are a dozen feature films and twice that many shorts — totaling 24 hours of running time altogether. This set includes newly restored works by such relatively well-known
“race film” directors as Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams as well as a wealth of exciting new discoveries by previously unknown filmmakers who immediately qualify as what Andrew Sarris once termed “Subjects for Further Research.” Chief among the latter are James and Eloyce Gist, husband and wife traveling evangelists whose surreal visual allegory Hellbound Train depicts Satan as the literal engineer of a train taking the world’s sinners to hell.

1. The Jacques Rivette Collection (Rivette, 1971-1981, Arrow Blu-ray)

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There’s no way in hell anything else was going to top this list. Jacques Rivette has always been the most underappreciated of the major New Wave directors — mainly because his work has always been the most difficult to see. This imbalance was in large part redressed with Arrow Video’s mammoth box set, which was released 11 days before Rivette’s death in January. The centerpiece is Rivette’s greatest work, the near 13-hour-long Out 1, originally made for but rejected by French television. In this epic series Rivette intercuts the stories of two theatrically troupes rehearsing different Aeschylus plays with the stories of two con artists separately investigating a secret society with its origins in Balzac. The way Rivette gradually brings these various characters together — as if pieces on a giant chessboard — is alternately hilarious, terrifying and exhilarating. Only shown a handful of times theatrically and on T.V. over the decades, this cinematic holy grail was primarily seen by cinephiles in recent years as an illegal digital download of dubious quality with “fan-made” English subtitles. This new transfer boasts nicely saturated colors and beautiful film-grain quality via a 2K restoration of the original 16mm elements overseen by cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn. Also included is Out 1: Spectre, a four-and-a-half hour alternate version (not a reduction) of the original that stands as a major work in its own right; Duelle and Noroit, two delightful female-centric companion films from 1976 that function as mythological noir and pirate-adventure story, respectively; and the globe-hopping thriller Merry-Go-Round, an interesting but somewhat lesser work starring Joe Dallesandro and Maria Schneider. To pore over the contents of this set is to understand why Rivette is one of the giants of the medium. The Rivette renaissance will thankfully continue in 2017 as Cohen Media Group has acquired a whopping 10 more Rivette films for distribution.

Runners-Up (Alphabetical By Title):

3 Bad Men (Ford, 1926, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
Boyhood (Linklater, 2014, Criterion Blu-ray)
Cat People (Tourneur, 1942, Criterion Blu-ray)
Chimes at Midnight (Welles, 1965, Criterion Blu-ray)
Destiny (Fritz Lang, 1921, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
The Emigrants / The New Land (Troell, 1971-1972, Criterion Blu-ray)
The Executioner (Berlanga, 1963, Criterion Blu-ray)
The Exterminating Angel (Bunuel, 1962, Criterion Blu-ray)
Fantomas (Feuillade, 1913, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
The Immortal Story (Welles, 1968, Criterion Blu-ray)
In a Lonely Place (Ray, 1950, Criterion Blu-ray)
Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen, 2012, Criterion Blu-ray)
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Altman, 1971, Criterion Blu-ray)
Muriel (Resnais, 1955, Criterion Blu-ray)
Night and Fog (Resnais, 1963, Criterion Blu-ray)
On Dangerous Ground (Ray, 1951, Warner Blu-ray)
Paris Belongs to Us (Rivette, 1961, Criterion Blu-ray)
The Player (Altman, 1992, Criterion Blu-ray)
The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Collection (Fassbinder, 1969-1978, Arrow Blu-ray)
They Were Expendable (Ford, 1945, Warner Blu-ray)
A Touch of Zen (Hu, 1971, Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)


A Silent French Cinema Primer

Following my French cinema primers covering the Nouvelle Vague and the pre-Nouvelle Vague sound era, today’s post covers what I think are the most essential French movies of the silent era. Although I normally only write about feature films in these primers, I’m going to make an exception for this one so that I can cover some of the most influential French films of the era.

Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (Lumieres, France, 1896)

Bertrand Tavernier has referred to this Lumiere Brothers masterpiece as the “first horror movie” because, as legend has it, early audiences reacted to the image of a train moving towards the camera by fleeing in terror. This is a simple “actuality” that depicts just what the title states in a single shot lasting approximately 42 seconds. But it’s also a good example of how well made the Lumiere Brothers’ films were: the dramatic contrast of the black and white cinematography, coupled with the diagonal perspective of the composition, makes the film an aesthetically pleasing experience even when viewed today. It can be seen in its entirety on YouTube by clicking the image above.

A Trip to the Moon (Melies, France, 1902)

Georges Melies was the polar opposite of the Lumieres; he made narrative films in the fantasy genre that showcased trick photography and special effects. He also shot all of his movies in an ingeniously constructed glass-walled studio in Paris. Melies’ most famous film is A Trip to the Moon, a 14-minute sci-fi adventure about astronomers making a maiden moon voyage, where they do battle with the moon’s alien inhabitants before triumphantly returning to earth. This gained renewed fame when it became a major reference point in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and was subsequently re-released in a splendidly restored color version. I’m including a link to a YouTube video above but please note that the image quality here is far inferior to what you will find on the magnificent Flicker Alley blu-ray released earlier this year.

The Life of Christ (AKA The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ) (Guy, France, 1906)

Alice Guy, a true movie pioneer, began her directing career in 1896 and is sometimes credited as the first person to make a narrative film (as opposed to Lumiere-style actualities). A DVD compilation of her work released by Kino in 2009 is a revelation: it contains stunt comedies, panoramic views of exotic places, and fascinating early experiments with sound and color. My favorite of her films that I’ve seen is The Life of Christ, which recounts “the greatest story ever told” in 25 single-shot tableaux-like scenes that, at 33 minutes, made it relatively epic in 1906. Especially effective is the climactic resurrection, which is bolstered by a beautiful score on Kino’s DVD. This is my second favorite Jesus movie after Pasolini’s.

A Child of Paris (Perret, France, 1913)

Also included in Kino’s “Gaumont Treasures” DVD set is a an entire platter devoted to Leonce Perret, an important director previously unknown in the States. The major revelation of the set is A Child of Paris, a feature film from 1913 that is shockingly sophisticated in terms of its cinematography (including the kind of camera movements and oblique compositions that wouldn’t become commonplace for years to come). The Dickensian story concerns a little girl who becomes an orphan, is sent to a boarding school, runs away and then is kidnapped by a gang of thieves. The acting is surprisingly naturalistic for the time and the use of real locations – in Paris and Nice – is impressive in the extreme.

Les Vampires (Feuillade, 1915-1916)

The brilliant, prolific Louis Feuillade directed over 600 movies, many of them multi-part serials, before his death at 52. Les Vampires, which is not about vampires but rather a gang of nocturnal thieves who call themselves “The Vampires,” is one of the highlights of his career. The leader of the gang is a woman named Irma Vep (played by the ferocious, outrageously sexy actress Musidora) who finds herself matching wits with ace newspaper reporter Philippe Guérande and his comical sidekick Oscar Mazamette. This was much beloved by the Surrealists for its evocation of an elaborate criminal network festering beneath the surface of mainstream bourgeois society as well as, one presumes, a capture-and-escape narrative loop structure that stands in opposition to the typical closure of Hollywood. Nearly a hundred years later, this 10 part mystery serial has lost none of its power to entertain for the entire duration of its nearly 7 hour running time.

Tih Minh (Feuillade, 1918)

Jacques d’Athys, a French adventurer, returns to his home in Nice after an expedition to Indochina where he has picked up a Eurasian fiancee and a book that, unbeknownst to him, contains a coded message revealing the whereabouts of both secret treasures and sensitive government intelligence. This makes him the target of foreign spies, including a Marquise of mysterious Latin origin, a Hindu hypnotist and an evil German doctor, who will stop at nothing to obtain the book. Louis Feuillade’s 12 chapter, 7 hour serial is overflowing with action, thrills, humor and romance, and is a strong contender for the title of the most purely entertaining movie that I have ever seen from any era.

Coeur Fidèle (Epstein, 1923)

My favorite French silent feature is Jean Epstein’s Impressionist masterpiece about a young woman, Marie, whose cruel foster parents force her into a marriage with an unemployed, alcoholic thug ironically named “Petit Paul.” Marie nonetheless continues to pine for her true love, Jean, a local dockworker. This romantic triangle is infused with sublime visuals from beginning to end (including a highly poetic use of superimpositions, rapid-fire cutting and close-ups) that make the film a crushing emotional experience when viewed today. The famous merry-go-round sequence, with its striking imagery and musical rhythms, is one of the glories of the silent cinema.

Ménilmontant (Kirsanoff, 1926)

Dmitri Kirsanoff’s astonishing 38 minute short is arguably the most modern-looking film produced anywhere in the silent era. The story, told without intertitles, revolves around two sisters who, as children living in a small town, tragically witness their parents being murdered. Then, Kirsanoff flashes forward to years later as both sisters are living in Paris and become involved with an evil seducer. But no plot description can do justice to the way Kirsanoff uses his camera like a paintbrush to capture images of incredible beauty and emotional depth. The film’s tempo ranges from fast, Soviet-style montage to a deliberately arty languorousness depending on the mood of the characters, and contributes to an atmosphere of almost unbearable intensity. Finally, there is the brilliantly understated lead performance of Nadia Sibirskaïa (Kirsanoff’s wife) who, in the film’s most celebrated scene, contemplates suicide before changing her mind when a complete stranger offers her bread in a public park. Ménilmontant is on my short list of near-perfect movies.

Napoléon (Gance, 1927)

First, I must confess to having only seen this on VHS tape in a controversial restoration overseen by Francis Ford Coppola that was both incomplete and transferred at the wrong speed. The arguably nationalistic and pro-militaristic content of the film also strikes me as somewhat dubious. But . . . as an insanely gargantuan, impossibly ambitious work of pure cinema, this has few equals. Gance’s film begins with Napoleon as a child engaging in a snowball fight at a military academy and proceeds through many visually astonishing episodes before climaxing, unforgettably, with a three-panelled widescreen sequence that shows Napoleon at the height of his powers invading Italy as the head of the French army. One of my fondest cinephiliac desires is that silent historian Kevin Brownlow’s most recent restoration, which has now swelled to five and a half hours, will make its way to blu-ray soon.

The Little Match Girl (Renoir, 1928)

Although it wasn’t until the sound era that Jean Renoir directed the films that made him immortal (e.g., Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game), I think The Little Match Girl, a 40 minute adaptation of a Hans Christian Anderson story, is one of his best and most affecting films. The title character is a waif forced to sell matches on the streets in the dead of winter in order to earn her livelihood. While literally freezing to death, the match girl looks through a toy store window and fantasizes that she is inside and that the toys have magically come to life all around her. The dream-like visuals and fantasy element are atypical for Renoir, the humanism is not.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1928)

After a successful run of films in his native Denmark, Carl Dreyer headed to France for his last silent film, a beautiful dramatization of the life of the beloved saint. Instead of showing Joan’s heroism in battle the way you would expect a biopic to do, Dreyer focuses instead only on the last days of her life as she is tried and executed by an English court. The film’s most notable characteristic is its relentless use of extreme close-ups, which capture every wrinkle on the judges’ evil faces and every nuance of Renee Falconetti’s highly emotive performance in the title role, which remains one of the finest ever captured on celluloid.

Un Chien Andalou (Bunuel, 1929)

Luis Bunuel’s directorial debut, based on a script he co-wrote with Salvador Dali, is the most famous Surrealist movie ever – and for good reason. It opens with the shocking image of a man slicing a woman’s eyeball with a straight razor (a shot that is graphically matched with a cutaway image of a cloud drifting in front of the moon) before jumping ahead to “Eight Years Later” and focusing on a new set of characters in scenes that are equally bizarre. But, since Bunuel plays the man with the razor, the function of the prologue is obvious: to announce an all-out assault on the viewer, whose sight, after all, is the most important sense in experiencing a film. Bunuel and Dali’s rule when writing the screenplay was that Un Chien Andalou should be nonsensical to the point of not being interpretable; legions of critics and historians, including me, have ignored their intention ever since.

À propos de Nice (Vigo, 1930)

À propos de Nice is the exceptionally promising debut film of Jean Vigo, whose career was tragically curtailed four years later when he died of tuberculosis at age 29. This begins as a conventional “city symphony”-style travelogue of the title locations before expanding its scope to offer surreal stylistic flourishes and a satirical/critical view of Nice’s wealthy citizens. In 25 minutes, Vigo and his ace cinematographer Boris Kaufman offer up more ideas, visual invention and wit than what you see in most features; the slow-motion, low angled shots of women dancing are particularly memorable for their eroticism.


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