Blu-ray: Richard Lester’s ‘The Knack’ and more

KnackWhy isn’t Richard Lester more celebrated? An American who made his home in England, Lester earned an Oscar nomination for The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1959), a lark he made with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan and others, made his reputation as a fresh, innovative filmmaker with Beatles rock and roll romp A Hard Day’s Night (1964), and proved his versatility with the acidic drama Petulia (1968), the comic swashbucklers The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), and the melancholy Robin and Marian (1976).

Kino Lorber has just released three of Lester’s British film on Blu-ray for the first time on their Studio Classics label, including one of his best.

Fresh from the playfully exuberant A Hard Day’s Night, which set the bar for rock and roll cinema and inspired the modern music video, Richard Lester continued the same acrobatic, tongue-in-cheek style in The Knack… and How to Get It (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray), his adaptation of Ann Jelico’s lightweight play “The Knack,” creating a delightfully frivolous take on swinging London and the sexual revolution.

Michael Crawford is grade school teacher Colin, the meek landlord of a flat where lives Tolen (Ray Brooks), who has “a certain success with the ladies” (which Lester exaggerates in a simultaneously poetically delicate and outrageously dreamy image of identically clad young women lining up the staircase and out the door into the streets for their turn with Tolen). When Tolen agrees to teach Colin a few tricks he decides he needs a bigger bed. Meanwhile Nancy (Rita Tushingham) arrives in London. While Colin and his new border Tom (Donal Donally) push Colin’s new brass bed home through the streets of London (which Lester shoots with a “candid camera” technique to elicit surprised reactions from unsuspecting onlookers) they “pick-up” Nancy, but Tolen moves in for the make while Colin chokes on small talk. Crawford’s underdog desperation and mix of innocence and desire makes for an appealingly nerdish hero but it’s Tushingham’s kooky charm and deft comic delivery that steals the film. Lester’s offbeat sense of humor and zippy pace drive this goofy romance and compendium of sight gags and non-sequiters, while John Barry’s lovely score balances the energy and invention with a tender romanticism.

HowIWonJohn Lennon gets second billing in How I Won the War (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray), Lester’s farce of confused priorities and skewed war stories in World War II but is no more than simply another member of the ensemble of confused, distracted and goofing soldiers under the command of Michael Crawford’s eager but incompetent Lt. Goodbody, a cheery upper class twit promoted to officer by virtue of class rather than any talent, intelligence or aptitude for leadership.

Lester had directed Crawford in the The Knack and Lennon in A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, which are all better movies than this well-meaning misfire of a black-humored satire as anti-war statement. The absurd mission movie (to build a cricket pitch in the North African desert in advance of the invasion) is an awkward mix of British music hall lampoon, “Goon Show” whimsy and absurdity, gallows humor and gruesome scenes of death (actual battle footage is edited into the comic chaos), sometimes inspired, sometimes mugging shamelessly in overworked performances and bizarre antics. Lennon’s impish goofing around the edges can be endearing, but the slapstick often falls flat and the collision of comedy and cruelty gets confused. The cult of John Lennon has made this an essential film for completists, but it’s little more than an oddity for everyone else.

BedSittingThe Bed Sitting Room (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray), adapted from the play by Spike Milligan (of “The Goon Show”), is another anti-war satire, this one a series of comic sketches about a post-nuclear London with a girl who is 17 months pregnant, a father who turns into a parrot, and others who become a chest of drawers and a bed sitting room.

All three have been previously available on DVD or DVD-R and are remastered for their respective Blu-ray debuts, and all three include the “Trailers From Hell” shorts on The Knack (with Allan Arkush) and The Bed Sitting Room (with John Landis) and a Lester trailer gallery.

Two years the label released Lester’s superb (and far too often overlooked) 1974 picture Juggernaut (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD), a kind of caper thriller about a terrorist who plants seven bombs on a luxury ocean liner. Richard Harris and David Hemmings are the disposal experts parachuted in to defuse the bombs and Omar Shariff is the captain who neglects his wife (Shirley Knight) under the pressure of the situation. It’s not a comedy by any definition—in fact, it’s a terrific thriller with as much personality as tension—but Lester weaves some terrific character humor through the picture, notably Roy Kinnear as the hapless Social Director, trying his best to keep spirits through the ordeal. Lester rewards the actor and his character with a lovely little moment of human tenderness amidst the chaos. This has never been on disc before and it is a welcome arrival as well as a good-looking disc. It’s not stellar but it’s mastered from a good source and has a strong image and color. No supplements.

More new Kino Lorber Studio Classics at Cinephiled

Blu-ray/DVD/VOD: Hou Hsiou-Hsien’s ‘The Assassin’

AssassinThe Assassin (Well Go, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD) is a martial arts drama as cinematic poem. Chinese filmmaker Hou Hsiou-Hsien, who won the Best Director Award at Cannes for his direction, reimagines the genre from a spectacle of action and choreography and acrobatic skill to a vision of stillness and tension. Asian superstar Shu Qi stars as Nie Yinniang, who was kidnapped as a child and trained by a cold-blooded nun (Sheu Fang-yi) to become an assassin for the Emperor, and Chen Chang (of John Woo’sRed Cliff) as Lord Tian Ji’an, her new target. He also happens to be her cousin and the man to whom she was once betrothed. Needless to say, it stirs emotional complications, which she hides behind her mask of an expression but betrays in her actions.

Hou doesn’t shoot the martial arts scenes in the conventional manner, showcasing the prowess of the performers or appreciating the dance-like spectacle of the choreography. (As far as that goes, he doesn’t shoot any of it in a conventional manner; the film is presented in the squarish Academy ratio of pre-widescreen movies.) The action comes in pulses, sudden bursts of movement let loose in the serenity of the flow of the picture, and are brief, and the images of individuals racing through tall grass or running through the underbrush are given as much weight as the clash of swordsman (and swordswomen) and the whoosh of blades slicing through the air.

It’s hard to follow, narratively speaking, as Hou abstracts the story into a flow of gentle, beautiful moments punctuated by bursts of violence. But it is lovely and graceful and beautiful to watch in action—Hou and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping shot on film rather than digital video and they create rapturous images, which look amazing on the Blu-ray—and the soundtrack is equally astonishing and enveloping. Not for its flourishes but its dense, layered backdrop of natural sounds running through the film—the birds in the distance, the wind through the trees, the crackle of fires, the chatter of voices in the distance, the soft crunch or wooden clop of footsteps of characters moving through the world—setting the political machinations of the humans within a physical, tactile world.

If you are looking for a classic display of flying bodies and clashing swords and acrobatic prowess showcased as action spectacle, you will be gravely disappointed. For that matter, you shouldn’t go in expecting a grandly melodramatic historical drama of moves and countermoves. But if you want to be transported into a world you’ve experienced before, The Assassin is not like any wuxia you’ve ever seen.

The Blu-ray edition includes four brief behind-the-scenes featurettes and offers English, French, and Chinese subtitles.
The Assassin [Blu-ray]
The Assassin [DVD]

Also on Cable and Video On Demand

Resurrecting ‘Sherlock Holmes’: An interview with Rob Byrne

“I’ve always been, since my early, early days, a silent film fanatic, or aficionado, or whatever you call it.”

After a successful career in the tech world, lifelong silent movie fan and President of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival Rob Byrne decided what he really wanted to do with his life: restore movies. So in 2006, at a point when, in his own words, “I could go after and do what I wanted to do,” he moved to Amsterdam for two years to attend the master’s program in film preservation at the University of Amsterdam. After internships at several different archives, he received an award from the Netherlands Filmmuseum (now the EYE Film Institute) and Haghefilm to restore the 1923 Pola Negri film The Spanish Dancer. He’s now back in San Francisco and building a legacy as an independent film restorer and preservationist. His restorations of the Douglas Fairbanks features The Half-Breed (1916) and The Good Bad Man (1916), the three-reel When the Earth Trembled (1913) and the San Francisco-shot The Last Edition (1925) all premiered at SFSFF over the past few years.

William Gillette and his team in the 1916 ‘Sherlock Holmes’

Byrne’s most recent project is one of the most important restorations of the last decade: the long-assumed-lost 1916 Sherlock Holmes starring William Gillette, the definitive Sherlock Holmes of the stage.

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Blu-ray / DVD: ‘The American Friend,’ ‘Bitter Rice,’ and the ‘Lady Snowblood’ chronicles

AmericanFriendThe American Friend (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – “What’s wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?” Dennis Hopper’s Tom Ripley is nothing like the character that Patricia Highsmith created and explored in five novels, and while Wim Wenders’s adaptation of Ripley’s Game, the sequel to The Talented Mr. Ripley, remains more or less faithful to the plot (with additional elements appropriated from Ripley Underground), the personality and sensibility belong to Wenders.

The cool, cunning sociopath of Highsmith’s novel becomes a restless international hustler, selling art forgeries and brokering deals (some of which may actually be legal) while travelling back and forth through Germany, France, and the United States. His target, renamed Jonathan Zimmerman here (a Dylan reference? Wenders loves his American music, you know) and played with an easy (if at times arrogant) integrity by Bruno Ganz, is a German art restorer who now runs a frame shop due to the effects of a fatal blood disease. In true Highsmith fashion, the motivation is purely psychological and emotional—a small but purposeful social slight—and the reverberations are immense. Ripley concocts a medical con to convince Zimmerman he’s dying so a French associate (played by Gerard Blain) can tempt him to be his assassin, and then comes to his rescue as the French criminal extends the cruel little act of revenge to pull Zimmerman into additional murders.

Given these origins, the relationship that develops between Zimmerman and Ripley, who returns as a strange dark angel savior, is genuine and fraternal, even as it arises from deceit and a desire to punish, and rife with contractions. While Zimmerman is unexpectedly intoxicated by the danger and violence of his assignments, his victims are not merely the murdered criminals, but his family. This is as introspective and psychologically tangled as thrillers come, and all the more compelling for it. Wenders regular Lisa Kreuzer is excellent as Zimmerman’s wife, whose suspicions of Ripley prove completely founded, Nicholas Ray is superb as the aging New York artist turned forger who, in opening scene, contemplates his failing eyesight (he was dying of cancer at the time of shooting and the acknowledgment of his mortality haunts his scenes), and Sam Fuller barks orders as an American gangster.

Criterion’s disc is mastered from a new 4k restoration produced by Wenders’ own production company and supervised by Wenders. Robbie Muller’s cinematography is preserved in all its clarity, from the cool, uncluttered quality of the airports and train stations and Ripley’s own fortress of a home to the cluttered warmth of Zimmerman’s home and frame shop.

It features commentary recorded by Wim Wenders and Dennis Hopper for the original 2003 DVD release, “exactly 25 years after we shot it.” Wenders is quite and calmly paced (“Somehow I became obsessed with having directors play all the crooks and bad guys”) and Hopper calmer than you might expect. Their talk isn’t quite a conversation (Wenders sounds more like a combination lecturer and storyteller and Hopper ends up his audience much of the time), but they find their rhythm about a half hour into it. The deleted scenes in the 36 minute featurette are interspersed with behind-the-scenes shots, slates, outtakes, and colorful production footage. Without the benefit of introductions or titles, the commentary is essential to place the shots and understand the context, and true to form the soft-spoken Wenders acts more like a host than a commentator as he sets the scenes. There isn’t much explanation, but there are stories, insights, and reflections in all the commentaries.

Exclusive to the release are the interview featurettes “Too Much on my Mind: Wim Wenders on The American Friend” (in English), with the director reflecting back on his career and the origins and production of the film (37 minutes), and “From Jonathan: Bruno Ganz on The American Friend” (in German), which runs about 27 minutes. The accompanying fold-out insert features a new essay by novelist Francine Prose.

LaduySnowThe Complete Lady Snowblood (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – Lady Snowblood (1973), directed by Fujita Toshiya and starring Kaji Meiko, is best known to American audiences as a major inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1, which appropriates images and scenes from the film (the showdown in the falling snow of a Lucy Liu’s courtyard) as well as the theme song, “The Flower of Carnage.” But the samurai revenge thriller, adapted from the manga by Koike Kazuo (who also created Lone Wolf and Cub) and Kamimura Kazama, was a cult favorite long before Tarantino came along.

Born of a wronged woman who dies giving birth in prison, the beautiful and deadly Shirayuki (Meiko) is raised by a thief and trained in the martial arts by a priest to exact her revenge on the quartet of criminals who murdered her father and tortured her mother. Clad in a demure kimono and armed with a sword hidden in her parasol, she turns from proper lady to the fiery Lady Snowblood in the flick of an eye. The film’s comic book origins can be seen in the intermittent use of penciled panels to tell the story, in the vivid chapter titles (like “Crying Bamboo Dolls of the Netherworlds” and “Umbrella of Blood, Heart of Strewn Flowers”) that mark her progress, and in the slash cutting the takes the film rapidly back and forth in time. Yet it’s a thoroughly cinematic experience, full of color and movement strewn across the widescreen frame and highlighted by efficiently choreographed battles.

Both director and star reunite for Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance (1974), the one and only sequel to the hit film. Sentenced to death for her reign of murder, she is given a reprieve by a mysterious government agent in return for a mission to kill an enemy of the throne and winds up in the middle of a conspiracy where the heroes and villains are not so clear cut.

Both films are remastered from new 2k scans of 35mm prints struck directly from the camera negatives and the double feature (two discs on DVD, one on Blu-ray) includes new interviews with manga author Koike Kazuo and screenwriter Norio Osada. The insert folds out to a poster on one side and an essay by Howard Hampton on the other (along with notes on the film and the disc production.

BitterRiceSocial drama meets sexed-up melodrama and crime caper in Giuseppe De Santis’ 1949 Bitter Rice (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), starring Vittorio Gassman as a small-time criminal who hides out from the police in the harvest of Northern Italy’s rice fields with his increasingly disillusioned accomplice (Doris Dowling) while romancing a sexy peasant worker (Silvana Mangano, all of 18 when made the film) who falls for his promises of wealth. It’s earthy stuff, with the all-woman rice harvest crew showing plenty of leg while toiling in the fields and lounging in lingerie between shifts while debating fair treatment and dreaming of a better life. It makes for a very entertaining mix of politics and hot-blooded melodrama and the culture of the seasonal workers—all women, with a few men around the fringes acting as little more than labor pimps—and their barracks society is fascinating. As director John L. Sullivan might put it, it’s social commentary… with a little sex in it.

The Criterion edition is mastered from a new high-definition scan of the original camera negative. The source material is not pristine but Criterion has used digital tools to clean up where possible, and the black and white images has good clarity and contrasts. On Blu-ray and DVD with screenwriter Carlo Lizzani’s 2008 documentary Giuseppe De Santis, his portrait of the director, and an interview with Lizzani from 2002, with a fold-out insert featuring an essay by film critic Pasquale Iannone.

Blu-ray / DVD: Jacques Rivette’s nouvelle vague magnum opus ‘Out 1’ restored and reclaimed

Out1BoxJacques Rivette’s Out 1 (Kino Lorber / Carlotta, Blu-ray+DVD) has been one of the Holy Grails of international cinema since its premier screening in 1971. Rejected by French TV and, at over 12 1/2 hours in its initial cut, too long for theaters, the definitive editions wasn’t even completed until 1989. It showed on French and German TV but apart from periodic special screenings (including a handful of showings in the U.S. and Canada in 2006 and 2007) was impossible to see.

That changed in 2015 with a French digital restoration from the original 16mm negatives, a high-profile two-week run in New York (qualifying as the film’s American theatrical debut) followed by screenings across the country (including Seattle), streaming availability from the arthouse subscription service Fandor and a late 2015 disc release in France. Now 2016 brings this amazing Blu-ray+DVD combo box set release. It features not only the 13-hour Out 1: Noli me tangere (1971 / 1989) but the shorter Out 1: Spectre (1974), designed for a theatrical release after French TV balked at his original vision, plus an accompanying documentary and a booklet.

Out 1 is many things, not the least of which is a radical experiment in filmmaking and collaborative storytelling: a film completely improvised by the cast. Each actor was invited to create a character independently of one another and then interacted based on the situations of an outline developed by Rivette and Suzanne Schiffman and inspired by the “History of the Thirteen” novels by Balzac. Length was left open: the story would take as long to tell as the process demanded, and while Rivette was there to guide the process, he was also there to follow where the actors took it. The rhythms of the performances and interactions guided the shaping the film.

The film itself reflects its creation: two separate theater groups, each working on a different play by Aeschylus, work the material through acting exercises, each utilizing a different approach. One group is led by Lili (Michèle Moretti), who draws from dance and song to inform performance in her workshopping, the other by Thomas (Michael Lonsdale), whose improvisational exercises are meant to get in touch with the essence of character and the act of collaborative performance. The post-performance discussions conducted by Thomas, which analyze the experience as well as the effectiveness, could be comments on the process of the shooting itself. At least that’s my takeaway.

In addition to these groups are another matched pair. Jean-Pierre Leaud plays Colin, a deaf-mute who panhandles with enigmatic messages and “talks” through a harmonica, and Juliet Berto is petty thief Frédérique, who flirts with bar patrons and then steals their money. Colin is handed a letter that hints at a conspiracy of thirteen individuals (followed by two more enigmatic notes) and turns investigator, looking for secret messages coded in the messages and following clues to a group that meets in a counter culture storefront run by Pauline (Bulle Ogier). Frédérique steals letters with references to The Thirteen from a chess-playing businessman (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze) and tries to leverage them for the purposes of blackmail. Connections between the characters—who grow to include an author (Bernadette Lafont), a lawyer (Françoise Fabian), an intellectual (Jean Bouise), a gangster with aspirations to theater (Alain Libolt), and more—are discovered along the way and histories are revealed. There are also cameos by Rivette’s fellow filmmaker and former colleague Eric Rohmer (dryly funny as a Bazan scholar consulted by Colin in the “Third Episode”) and Barbet Schroeder.

Juliet Berto in 'Out 1'
Juliet Berto in ‘Out 1’

Even for the French nouvelle vague this is an unconventional narrative. Leaud’s character isn’t identified by the name Colin until the fourth episode (though it is cited in the credits) and there is no effort to establish characters or relationships for the viewer, as the screenwriting manuals instruct. You pick up their names and their backstories as they come, piecing the world together along the way. Two seemingly central characters referenced in great detail never even appear. Storylines don’t follow any familiar paths and endeavors fall apart as outside forces and personal anxieties pull at the characters. This was produced in the wake of May 1968 and in some ways it is their response, both as a communal endeavor among collaborators with a shared vision and a portrait of idealists whose creations collapse for any number of reasons. To say that patience is called for is an understatement—I for one found the theater exercises of Thomas’ group, which Rivette allows to play out in long sequences, trying in the early episodes—and it will frustrate anyone waiting for a narrative payoff, something that explains everything that we’ve seen. But it’s a delight if you engage in the process and enjoy the personalities, the collisions of character, the unexpected textures and rhythms of the storytelling, and the odd bounces of the narrative. Out 1 musters the energy and enthusiasm and free-spirited filmmaking of the Nouvelle Vague that Rivette’s more famous colleagues left as the moved into their own comfort zones (Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer) or, in the case of Godard, discomfort zones.

Out 1 is Rivette redux. His engagement with actors is there on the screen, creating energy even in simple conversational scenes, and they are co-conspirators in his hide-and-seek narratives, where characters circle conspiracies and play blind man’s bluff through mysteries that may have no solution. His love of actors and theater, his passion for mysteries and conspiracies and puzzles, his play with doubles and reflections, and his freewheeling approach to storytelling is all here. While Rivette had television in mind for distribution (French TV turned it down at the time and it was nearly 20 years before it was broadcast) and he breaks it into eight chapters, he always saw it as a work of cinema and that’s how it plays. This isn’t a mini-series along the lines of Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz or a serialized story like the contemporary cable or streaming model. This is a movie and the pleasures are as much in the invention and energy of the moment as in the accumulation of detail. It simply takes its time, and is best seen in parts spread out over time (though I would never deny anyone the pleasure of watching it in a single epic screening).

Bulle Ogier in 'Out 1'
Bulle Ogier in ‘Out 1’

The complete 13-hour version was finished and presented in its final version in 1989. Carlotta Films restored this version from the 16mm negative, scanned in 4k and supervised by director of photography Pierre-William Glenn, and original sound mix, and remastered it in 2k for theatrical and video release. The producers of the restoration corrected damage to the materials but preserved the anomalies inherent in the original presentation; you’ll see stray hairs in the gate of the camera (preserved for posterity on the camera negative) in many shots. Rivette chose to keep some mistakes captured in the shooting if it meant preserving the integrity of the scene, especially in the midst of a long take. The futz on the frameline of some (actually quite a few) shots is simply a hallmark of the method of production, which he grabbed on the fly at a tremendous pace (the entire production was shot in six weeks). The presentation preserves the grain of the 16mm source, another distinctive texture of the film, and the odd intensity of the colors, a kind of saturation you don’t see in modern digital or even 35mm shooting.

The shorter Out 1: Spectre, which runs 255 minutes and is presented in two halves with an intermission, is not just a condensed version of the original cut but a reworking of the material (with some instances of alternate footage). Set in “Paris and its double,” this journey through the characters does away with most of the long takes and extended sequences (especially the theater exercises) and shuffles the B&W stills (which recap each episode in the long version) are shuffled through Spectre to fill in gaps and set a different narrative rhythm. Footage from the longer version, already scanned and restored, was used where possible, but a few alternate shots and sequences unique to Spectre were newly remastered for this presentation.

Out1Beauty

The 13-disc box set (6 Blu-rays, 7 DVDs), released stateside by Kino, features both versions and is identical to the French release but for the packaging and branding. It features the new documentary “The Mysteries of Paris: Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 Revisited,” directed by Robert Fischer and Wilfried Reichart, as a bonus program. The 2015 production features new interviews with actors Bulle Ogier, Michael Lonsdale and Hermine Karagheuz, cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn, assistant director Jean-François Stévenin and producer Stéphane Tchal Gadjieff, plus archival interviews with Rivette and others. The accompanying 120 page bilingual booklet features an illuminating essay by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, a champion of Rivette and Out 1, along with archival interviews and articles with members of the cast and crew and a collection of production stills.

With the release of Out 1 and last year’s Le Pont du Nord (1981) on Blu-ray and DVD by Kino Lorber, I think it’s fair to say that Rivette is finally getting his due. Criterion will bring out the American home video debut of his debut feature, Paris Belongs to Us (1961), in March, while Noroit (1976) and Duelle (1976) were released in the British Out 1 box set, and I still hold out hope for the eventual Blu-ray releases of Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), announced by New Yorker a couple of years ago, and La belle noiseuse (1991), previously released on DVD by New Yorker but in desperate need of a remastered upgrade. Rivette is clearly an acquired taste. Here’s hoping more viewers are acquiring it.

Calendar of upcoming releases on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, and VOD

TRAILER OUT 1 BY JACQUES RIVETTE from Carlotta Films on Vimeo.

Keith Baxter: On Acting in Orson Welles’ ‘Chimes at Midnight’

Keith Baxter was a struggling young Welsh actor when Orson Welles tapped him to play Prince Hal in the 1960 stage production of Chimes at Midnight in Ireland. Like Welles’ earlier Five Kings, this massive production brought together elements of numerous Shakespeare plays, in particular Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II, to chronicle the education of a king, and like the earlier production is was commercial failure. But Welles was still determined to make his production. As Baxter related in a 1988 interview, “on the last night, coming back to England, he [Welles] said to me on the ship, ‘This is only a rehearsal for the movie, Keith, and I’ll never make it unless you play Hal in that, too.’” Welles was true to his word and Baxter, in his first major screen role, starred opposite Welles in a cast that included John Gielgud, Jeanne Moreau and Margaret Rutherford.

Keith Baxter and Orson Welles in Welles’ ‘Chimes at Midnight’

Mr. Baxter, now eighty-two years old and a grand old man of British and American theater, was in New York City to introduce the American debut of the new restoration if Chimes at Midnight on Friday, January 8. Before the event, he granted a few interviews. “Ask me whatever you want to ask,” he said with a bright enthusiasm as our phone conversation began.

Sean Axmaker: You starred as Prince Hal in the 1960 stage production of Chimes at Midnight with Orson Welles in Ireland. You were the only member of that production (besides Welles) to appear in the film. Was there any change in the way that you played Hal and in the relationship between Hal and Welles’ Falstaff between the stage production and the film a few years later?

Keith Baxter: Well not really, you know. The thing is that Welles discovered me when I was out of work, washing dishes, so it was a wonderful opportunity to play on the stage with him. And, how can I explain? He really loved me and I really loved him. I don’t mean in any sexual sense. I mean because he’d given me a whole opportunity to play a wonderful part with a great actor instead of washing dishes and being out of work. So of course I felt a tremendous debt towards him. And he was wonderful to act with. He didn’t direct the play in Dublin, it was directed by an old friend of his who had discovered him when he was a teenager in Ireland [ed. note: Hilton Edwards]. Because when we started rehearsing Welles wasn’t there for two weeks, he was in Paris working on his film of The Trial, so we rehearsed without him and then he arrived. And of course we were all mightily… not in awe of him, well yes, in awe of him, whatever, and it was quite clear that he liked acting with me and I was a source of light.

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Blu-ray: ‘Fantomas’ – Cinema’s original supervillain, remastered

Kino Classics

Fantômas (Kino Classics, Blu-ray) – There may be no more creatively energetic, playfully inventive, and entertaining surreal filmmaking in the years 1913 and 1914 than the five wicked short features of Louis Feuillade’s serialized adaptations of the pulp adventures of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, films that captured the imaginations of filmgoers of the time and inspired the crime and adventure serials of the next decade, including Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse films.

Thief, assassin, escape artist and master of disguises, Fantômas (played with calm, stylish command by Rene Navarre) is the cinema’s first supervillain, an anti-hero who is very much the center of attention in this mad masterpiece of secret identities, violent conspiracies and cliffhanger twists. The character of this pulp mastermind was established in blitzkrieg of pulp adventures cranked out by the authors at the rate of one a month for 32 months between 1911 and 1913. That, according to film historian David Kalat, has a lot to do with the incoherence of the plotting. The rest is a matter of Feuillade’s breakneck pace of filmmaking: he made these five feature-length (some just barely) films in a single year, in which he also turned out almost fifty short films (most of them with his popular child star Bout-de-Zan). I don’t think there was anyone more prolific than Feuillade in the early teens, and this while also serving as the artistic director of Gaumont.

Gaumont bought the rights to the bestselling series and the first film, Fantômas in the Shadow of the Guillotine, hit screens in May 1913. Rene Navarre (star of dozens of earlier Feuillade films) opens the film by appearing in the series of disguises he’ll be taking on through the film, one incarnation dissolving into another, and then proceeds to brazenly steal the jewels of a Princess, personally handing his card to his victim: blank until his name fades in and then back out, like a taunt. Inspector Juve (Edmund Bréon) is assigned the case, a reporter named Fandor (Georges Melchior) joins Juve in the pursuit, and the battle of wits and wiles between the elaborate charades and schemes begins. There’s a manhunt, a capture, and an escape that has to be seen to be believed. It’s insane and improbable and irresistible and it was an instant smash with audiences, and the final shot of the short (the first chapter run just under an hour) feature essentially guarantees not just a sequel but a series: the Inspector is back in his office, dejected and beaten by the criminal who escaped the guillotine, and the final intertitle reads: “From now on, Inspector Juve will have but one obsession: capturing Fantômas.”

Their game continues through Juve vs. Fantômas (1913), which begins on another brazen theft and features a dramatic train wreck (a fabulous miniature of toy trains on an elaborately detailed set), The Murderous Corpse (1913), which opens with Juve missing and presumed dead, Fantômas vs. Fantômas (1914), with Juve is suspected of being the master criminal, and The False Magistrate (1914), where Fantômas murders a judge and takes his place on the high court (the judge himself is dispatched in a particularly insidious manner).

Each film is filled with wild plots and demented side schemes and features exotic gimmicks, from snakes unleashed into what should be the safety of one’s own parlor to a dead man hung from the inside of a bell like a clapper. There are poisons, guns, murders galore, and corpses that disappear and reappear with alarming frequency. But most insidious of all is the lack of motivation for most of his crimes. Greed seems beside the point: Fantômas likes to cause chaos and mayhem and seems to enjoy murder as a way of proving his superiority and taunting his nemesis.

Juve vs. Fantômas

In an era when the language of cinema was evolving at an amazing speed, Feuillade looks old-fashioned on the surface of things, shooting in series of still tableaux shots with the actors choreographed within the frame like it’s the proscenium arch of an intimate theater. In The Murderous Corpse, when the camera slowly pans over to reveal a corpse in the room, the anomalous movement itself is almost as startling as the dramatic reveal. But within the frame the staging is dynamic and dramatic, composed in depth and filled with motion, and the breakneck plotting and editing drives the film at a furious pace. Feuillade methodically explicates complicated schemes with a minimum of shots, and then detonates the screen as a scene explodes from stillness to furious action. In Juve vs. Fantômas, for instance, on what appears to be a deserted waterfront piles up with empty barrels, gunmen suddenly pop out of barrels and start shooting at Juve. The sudden transformation from still life is like an explosion. It’s both archaic in style and strangely modern; Feuillade shoots a lot of the film on location and makes effective use of landscapes and backdrops, and then drops in weird and unexpected imagery. Even with contemporary eyes you can see why audiences embraced its dime novel deliriousness and surrealists appreciated its mix of elaborate schemes and incoherent complications. This is the most fun as you’ll find in silent cinema before Chaplin went to Biograph. Or at least before Feuillade made his next serials, notably Les Vampires (1915-1916) and Judex (1916), the latter with a more coherent story (if only barely).

The five short features (they run from 54 minutes to 90 minutes) are mastered from a new 4K restoration from Gaumont and the Centre National du Cinéma (created for the film’s 100th anniversary), which was scanned from the original nitrate negative. The increase in texture and detail from Kino’s earlier DVD release is immediately evident, and it features an orchestral score (replacing the compilation score edited from classical music recordings from the DVD release). This is a significant upgrade from the DVD and it’s gorgeous.

It carries over the supplements of the earlier DVD. There is commentary by film historian and silent film expert David Kalat on the first two parts of the series. Well researched and passionately presented, it’s more of a lecture on the origins of Fantômas in print and the aesthetics of Feuillade’s direction and adaptation (“The Fantômas films are marked by narrative chaos”) than a running commentary on the films themselves, but it is fascinating and very informative. The set also includes two bonus Louis Feuillade shorts, The Nativity (1910) and The Dwarf (1912), neither of which have been remastered for HD, and “Louis Feuillade: Master of Many Forms,” a ten-minute featurette on Feuillade’s career originally presented on Kino’s Gaumont Treasures box set.

Calendar of upcoming releases on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, and VOD

Blu-ray / DVD: Sicario

SicarioSicario (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), a violent, chaotic, adrenaline-fueled thriller set in the brutal violence of the drug war on the American border with Mexico, is a film that constantly seems to be spinning out of control. That’s not entirely by design, I fear, but it is purposeful. From the opening scene, where a missing persons rescue operation headed by FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) sends the team into a Mexican drug cartel safehouse, a sinister mausoleum hidden behind the chalkboard the walls, and a booby trap that takes the life of one of her men, we are thrown into a world where the rules no longer apply.

We are suddenly tossed along with Macer, a driven but idealistic veteran of an FBI strike force, into what appears to be a black ops campaign driven by the CIA. She is requested by a cagey company man named Matt (Josh Brolin, who tosses off his evasions with an amiable grin that hides his endgame), ostensibly an “advisor from the DOD,” and like her we are racing to keep up with the events. Borders are crossed (both physical and moral), information is withheld, and she suspects something bigger (and likely illegal) under the official cover of the operation. The American team has apparently chosen to fight the Mexican cartels with their own tactics, acting on information and advice from a former cartel man with a score to settle with the Mexican mob. Benicio Del Toro plays the advisor, Alejandro, holding his cards close to his chest but never lying to Macer.

This is a world of sudden violence and brutal retaliation, yet apart from the opening scene, Macer is a frustratingly passive character in the midst of the action. She’s a proven warrior yet mostly serves as witness to the events, a point of view character and the moral high ground in a war where the rules of engagement are at best ambiguous.

Director Denis Villeneuve, a Québécois filmmaker who came stateside to direct Prisoners and Enemy in 2013, tends to ignore the holes and inconsistencies in the screenplay and focuses on the combustible atmosphere. This is a film built on a foundation soaked in nitroglycerine; every situation seems pitched on the verge of combustion. Early in the film, as they drive a recently captured suspect back over the border to the American side, the caravan gets blocked in the traffic crunch at the checkpoint. Every car around them carries a potential cartel soldier and Villeneuve brilliantly orchestrates the tension as all eyes rake the freeway for threats.

It’s that tension, enhanced by Villeneuve’s constant surveillance of every space these characters inhabit, as if viewing the world through their military vigilance, that keeps the film walking the knife’s edge and keeps the audience riveted to every scene. You never know when things will explode. You just know they will.

Blu-ray and DVD, with the desert-baked digital cinematography by Roger Deakins beautifully preserved in the HD transfer. There are four featurettes, all presented in HD, that add up to just over 50 minutes of supplementary material. “Stepping Into Darkness: The Visual Design of Sicario” focuses on crafting the film’s look and defining cinematography, “Blunt, Brolin and Benicio: Portraying the Characters of Sicario” features interviews with the three leads, “Battle Zone: The Origins of Sicario” researches the brutal history of drug violence along the border (it features graphic imagery so beware), and “A Pulse from the Desert: The Score of Sicario,” which runs about 6 minutes, profiles composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. The Blu-ray also features bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copies of the film.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

DVD: Resurrecting ‘Julien Duvivier in the Thirties’

JulienDuvivier“If I were an architect and I had to build a monument to the cinema, I would place a statue of [Julien] Duvivier above the entrance….This great technician, this rigorist, was a poet.” – Jean Renoir

Julien Duvivier in the Thirties (Eclipse, DVD) collects four films by the French filmmaker, once a giant of French cinema with a string of popular and critical hits in the thirties and a successful foray into Hollywood in the forties. He’s been largely forgotten as filmmaker even with though one of his biggest hits, Pépé le Moko (1937), remains a revered (and oft-revived) classic of gangster romanticism and a precursor to film noir. He was an innovator in the silent and early sound eras and helped create the poetic realist style that defined the great French cinema of the late 1930s and influenced American film noir. He was championed by the likes of Jean Renoir and Ingmar Bergman and Orson Welles, but in the 1950s, as the young film critics who would drive the nouvelle vague in France developed their auteur approach to cinema, Duvivier was branded as part of the old “tradition of quality,” “le cinema de papa” that the aspiring filmmakers fought against. This set of four films, all starring actor Harry Baur, may not lift his reputation back up to heights of his success, but they do show that he was a versatile, creative filmmaker who, at his best, found innovative and expressive ways to tell moving and entertaining stories.

It’s the innovations that jump out in the opening moments David Golder (1930), his first collaboration with Baur and his first sound film. Duviver meets the challenge of the talkies with a dynamic use of sound in the rapid-fire montage of the opening scene. It emphasizes the energy and speed of the modern age as a succession of commentators build up his reputation in snippets of gossip about the man and his fortune. Duvivier edits sound in the same spirit of his images, with strong, jolting cuts from silence to startling noise and back.

Golder (Baur) is a ruthless banker who climbed to the top by destroying his enemies—his backstabbing partner is the latest victim of his vindictive dealings—but has no life outside of business, and certainly no joy. He dotes on his daughter, a spoiled heiress who simply loves his money, and ignores his wife, who spends his fortune as quickly as he makes it and would prefer he not actually show up to the country manor he purchased for her. This culture that Golder would rather avoid is the French version of an American pre-code movie of life among the rich and decadent, a wretched, spoiled world of human parasites whose contempt for those who actually work for money is matched only by their greed. Golder is pitiless and cruel, a self-made man who arrived penniless and built his fortune from nothing, but next to his wife and daughter and their shallow society, he’s the closest the film has to a hero. When his health turns bad, he decides it’s time to retire and let his family fend themselves but his daughter isn’t having any of it so once more he wades into the cutthroat world of international dealmaking.

David Golder

David Golder

David Golder is based on the debut novel of Irène Némirovsky, a Russian-born Jewish writer who was killed in the internment camps during the Holocaust (her unfinished final novel, “Suite Française,” written while she was in hiding during the occupation, was discovered and published a decade ago). And it announces Duvivier as a sophisticated filmmaker who not only refuses to let the challenges of the new dimension of sound deter his cinematic approach—his elaborate camerawork is as impressive as it is expressive—but uses sound inventively and evocatively. It’s a fairly simple story with little dimension to the characters—I don’t know if that’s a weakness of the novel or simply a limitation of the adaptation—but the culture of corruption and decadence and predatory greed seeps through every scene.

Poil de Carotte (1932), which translates to “Carrot Top,” is a remake of his 1925 silent success (which is not home video), a mix of comedy and near-tragedy in the story of a sweet, spirited kid (Robert Lynen, superb) bullied by his mother, who favors the boy’s teenage brother and sister, and ignored by his disconnected father, who has checked out of the family completely. It inspires the defining line in his school essay: “A family is a group of people forced to live together under one roof who can’t stand each other.” His teachers, who appreciate his spirit and intelligence, are convinced he’s overreacting but as he goes home from boarding school for the summer we find he’s absolutely correct.

Baur plays the father, a jovial man in public who so disgusted by the behavior of his wife and elder children that he no longer engages with any of them, leaving the youngest to roll with the punches with his imaginative spirit, witty sense of humor, and upbeat demeanor. Even all that pluck isn’t enough to cushion his heart from neglect. In fact, for an often lively family movie with idyllic scenes of play in the countryside and small town camaraderie in the village (where father is running for mayor), Poil de Carotte has a sadness that cuts to the soul. Yet it is also the gentlest and sweetest of this Duvivier quartet, filled with the spirit of the red-headed child beloved by all in the countryside but his own family. It makes the boy’s own slide into fatalism all the more powerful.

I don’t want to spoil anything but if you are worried about heartbreaking tragedy, fear not. There are devastating moments but Duvivier is ultimately protective of our boy and sends a few guardian angels his way, and he provides a space for the father to redeem himself. And though he favors painterly scenes in the bucolic atmosphere of the countryside over cinematic flash, he beautifully transforms the boy’s nighttime trip to the chicken coop into a fantastic journey through the underworld and uses optical effects to create an imaginary doppelganger with whom he debates his sorry state.

Poil de Carotte

Poil de Carotte

La Tête d’un Homme (1933) stars Baur as Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret in a murder mystery that plays in part like an early police procedural, with Maigret’s crack team interviewing witnesses and tracking down clues as Maigret zeroes in on his suspect. Is it the hapless petty thief who is found with the victim’s blood on his clothes, the nephew who turns out to be her sole beneficiary, or the suspicious, tubercular Czech medical student Radek (Valéry Inkijinoff), an arrogant mastermind who calls to mind Raskolnikov from Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”?

Duvivier uses the project to become an exercise in style, technique, and tension. His camera prowls crime scenes and creeps up on suspects and he uses rear projection to turn an interview montage into an ingenious single take where the policeman remaining stationary in the foreground and the location dissolves into the next scene, the performer acting against a pre-filmed segment. The police station is a buzz of activity and Duvivier sketches out the camaraderie of the squad in quick, simple strokes. But by the end it becomes a battle of wits between Maigret and Radek, an angry psychotic who relishes the mind games with the cops, and Inkijinoff burns simmers in his scenes.

La Tête d’un Homme

Un Carnet de Bal (1937), the story of Christine (Marie Bell), a recently widowed heiress who tracks down the young men who courted her 20 years ago at her first society ball, is one of the director’s most beloved films, a melancholy meditation on memory and loss and disappointment. The title translates to “Dance Card,” the object that launches her from her lavish but remote country manor on an odyssey around France, and she gets glimpses of what her life might have been had she married another.

Bell is reminiscent of Norma Shearer in Hollywood in the thirties, the elegant, confident worldly woman meeting the world without apology, though she hasn’t quite the command or the presence of Shearer, and a cast of French greats play her former beaus as grown men, including Harry Baur (the aspiring composer who became a monk and is now an avuncular choirmaster), Fernandel (a happy hairdresser with a love of card tricks and brood of kids), Louis Jouvet (a disgraced lawyer turned underworld criminal mastermind), and Raimu (a jovial small town mayor who, after years as a widower, is about to remarry). As you might guess, it’s an episodic picture built around a series of encounters that gives each man a moment to shine as their character takes stock of their lives with the appearance of Christine.

It’s an elegant romantic drama where the deft stylistic touches—the rear-projection trick of La Tête d’un Homme enhanced by a slight slow-motion effect that turns a flashback into a dreamy reverie, theatrical shadows that suggest the ghosts of memory with a melancholy edge—are so gracefully incorporated that they (unlike some of his devices) arise organically from his storytelling. Duvivier’s technical prowess meshes with his worldly romanticism in a cynical world more evocatively than any other film of his apart from Pepe le Moko as he elevates moments of tender reconnection and touching scenes of regret and redemption with an express effect or a simple camera movement.

These are not restored films and they show signs of wear and damage, but they have been well mastered from archival sources and look and sound fine. Sadly, Un Carnet de Bal shows greater damage than the other films: scratches, speckling, chemical fading, with missing and torn frames. But the image is steady and fairly sharp behind the damage.

All films in black and white and in French with English subtitles. No supplements apart from (very informative) essays on each film by Michael Koresky.

Fernandel and Marie Bell in ‘Un Carnet de Bal’

Blu-ray/DVD: The strange Japanese worlds of ‘Tokyo Tribe’ and ‘Jellyfish Eyes’

JellyfishJellyfish Eyes (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the debut feature from visual artist Takashi Murakami, is a fantasy of childhood innocence and fantastical creatures come to life as Pokemon-like playmates. It’s also a strange conspiracy involving a cult of young researchers in a post-Fukushima world applying an alchemy of science and magic to a transporter device linked to an alternate reality.

Masashi (Takuto Sueoka), the young son of a widowed mother (still trapped in her mourning), moves to the idyllic little town next to an ominous, secretive research lab. He’s practically adopted by a flying creature that looks like a mushroom crossed with a jellyfish and turned into a rubber doll you might win from a carnival game, right around the time he starts having nightmares of his father, the tsunami that took his life, and jellyfish. Then Masashi discovers that every kid in town has their own creature, which they explain are called F.R.I.E.N.D.s and controled with the help of a handheld device. The boys send their F.R.I.E.N.D.s into battle in arena-like matches, much to the outrage of a shy girl (Himeka Asami) with giant sheepdog of a F.R.I.E.N.D. who hates the bullying culture that this violence inspires.

It’s an odd choice for a feature debut by an internationally renowned visual artist, a commercial science fiction adventure fantasy about a child who, after the loss of his father, finds comfort in the friendship with a fantastical creature with unconditional love and protective loyalty. It channels E.T., Pokemon culture, Godzilla, secret societies, imaginary playmates, and H.P. Lovecraft, and Murakami maintains a goofy innocence throughout, even as the cute little creature comedy becomes a giant monster movie as the cabal of wizard-like scientists use the kids as guinea pigs to siphon “negative energy” (anger, sadness, and especially aggression) to power their master plan. In a sense, they are scientists as vampires, feeding off the children they have hooked on their tiny monster mash culture, while the gadget-addicted kids ignore the endless possibilities in front of them to obsessively replay those battles.

There is plenty of gentle satire here—from game culture to merchandising to high school cliques and bullying to religion (there’s a particularly unnerving cult that believes the lab to be evil incarnate and tries to pray it away)—but no real teeth to the message or edge to the presentation. That lightness makes it fine for children but doesn’t serve the drama, which has the depth and dimension of a video game. The kids are a flavorless bunch, the adults have even less personality, and conflicts are resolved in a flash of generosity and a rousing call to unity. It’s as if it can’t decide if it is a parody of juvenile anime and game fantasy or simply a knowing, idealistically upbeat pop-art incarnation of it. Which makes this warped reflection of Japanese pop culture a strangely fascinating artifact but not a particularly compelling piece of storytelling.

In Japanese with English subtitles on Blu-ray and DVD with two original featurettes, created for Criterion from behind-the-scenes and production footage shot for the Japanese release, explore the making of the film: “Takashi Murakami: The Art of Film,” a 39-minute documentary that follows the production from the announcement of Murakami tackling his first feature through shooting to release, and “Making F.R.I.E.N.D.S.,” a 15-minute piece on the design and creation of the film’s creatures. Also features a new interview with Murakami and a trailer for the upcoming sequel. All supplements in Japanese with English subtitles. The accompanying foldout insert features an essay by critic and film professor Glen Helfand.

TokyoTribeTokyo Tribe (XLrator, Blu-ray, DVD) – Sion Sono, now emerging as Japan’s new cinema wildman rebel, seems determined to become the new Miike Takashi. His films are increasingly outrageous, unhinged, extreme, and unpredictable, pushing expectations as well as boundaries, and trying anything and everything in a wildly creative (if unfocused) attempt to refresh familiar genres.

Tokyo Tribe, adapted from a graphic novel series, is a comic book gang war thriller in an alternate future, part Blade Runner, part Escape From New York, part The Warriors, part Miike Takashi gangland freak show, part all hip-hopera musical on a studio soundstage like a golden age Hollywood musical. It opens with a long take and a traveling camera that follows our narrator up and down a long studio street as he raps the exposition—the Tokyo of the near future is divided into districts run by different gangs in a wary state of détente—the film never leaves the insular atmosphere or the perpetual night of the studio-created city, and it never stops moving or rapping.

We jump through the main gangs with a quick introduction and get a thumbnail idea of the style of each fashion statement (each gang has its own, often elaborate tribal look, sort of like sports uniforms in the glam league). Then we come to Lord Buppa, the insatiable, possibly cannibalistic leader (he keeps severed human fingers in his cigar box) of a Yakuza-like organization who decides to wipe out the rest of the gangs and take over all of Tokyo for himself. He’s played by Riki Takeuchi, star of Miike’s Dead or Alive films, so we know he’s absolutely committed to extreme bloodshed, though instead of Miike’s trademark sadism and creatively explicit gore, Sono indulges in purely gratuitous nudity, foul language, schoolgirls in underwear, Takeuchi engaged in (non-explicit but still disgusting) masturbation, and constant sexual threats to young women. You know, like an adult manga with a juvenile attitude.

Among the victims is a giggly group of teenage girls scooped up Lord Buppa’s henchmen to fill in his ranks of sex workers (at least those who are not handed over to Buppa’s son to serve as his living furniture). There’s also a beat-boxing personal servant, a pair of kung-fu siblings, references to Scarface, Bruce Lee, and Kill Bill, and the most literal use of penis envy as motivation I’ve ever seen in a film. Packed with incident and movement and color, it’s a big, busy mess that is more overwhelming than thrilling or engaging, but you’ll see things you’ve never seen in American gang war movies and you won’t have a moment to catch your breath.

In Japanese with English subtitles, no supplements.

Riki Takeuchi and his little friend in ‘Tokyo Tribe.’ Photo credit: XLrator

Blu-ray: ‘Holy Grail’ at 40, Capra’s ‘You Can’t Take It With You,’ two by Jess Franco, Disney’s ‘Aladdin,’ and more

MontyPythonGrailMonty Python and the Holy Grail: 40th Anniversary Edition (Sony, Blu-ray) – After a career of inspired skit comedy, the unbalanced minds of Monty Python pounded the Knights of the Round Table into their own skewed square hole for their first “real” feature film (I’m not counting their skit comedy And Now For Something Completely Different) and Camelot has never been the same. King Arthur, Lancelot, Galahad and the rest of the dotty knights forsake the decadence of the Camelot (“It’s only a model”) to bang coconut shells across the misty English countryside and take on abusive Frenchmen with outrrraaageous accents (“Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries!”), hot-to-trot nuns, a killer rabbit, the mysterious Knights Who Say “Nih!,” and other typical medieval threats. Probably the cheapest Arthurian adventure ever made (heck, they couldn’t even afford horses!), and easily the funniest. In fact, this absurdity is considered by many (including myself) to be one of the funniest movies ever made. The DVD restores an extra 24 seconds unseen in the original American release, but even with the remastering the grimy, drab visuals still look like a big budget TV show that’s been a bit underlit. But these are the dark ages, after all, and the models and the English countryside look suitably earthy, muddy, and medieval.

This is one of those perennials that gets a new edition every few years, each one adding something new to the accumulating menu of special features. New to this edition (the second Blu-ray release) is a new 30-minute Q&A with the five surviving members of the team recorded at the gala screening at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. Carried over from the previous disc releases are two commentary tracks (one production-focused track by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, and other with general complaints and back-biting by John Cleese, Eric Idle and Michael Palin), featurettes (“The Quest for the Holy Grail Locations” hosted by Michael Palin and Terry Jones, the 18-minute 1974 BBC report “On Location with The Pythons,” “How To Use Your Coconuts”), “Lost Animations” (a 12-minute collection of unused animated bits prepared for the film with an introduction by Terry Gilliam) nearly 20 minutes of outtakes and extended scenes with an introduction by Terry Jones, three sing-alongs, clips from the film in Japanese with English subtitles, and the all-interlocking “Monty Python and the Holy Grail In Lego.” Missing is the “Holy Book of Days” Second Screen Experience (an interactive function that required an iPad, a downloadable app and a connection to the same WiFi network as the Blu-ray player, an idea that never took off with viewers).

There’s also a deluxe edition in a substantial castle-shaped box with a toy catapult and collection of small plastic animal figures, for those of you who like the conversation piece packaging.

YouCan'tTakeBD

You Can’t Take It With You (Sony, Blu-ray), Frank Capra’s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, won Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards in 1938. The film has a delightful romantic couple in Jean Arthur and James Stewart and a wonderfully eccentric patriarch in Lionel Barrymore, but it replaces the unhinged anarchy of the play with sentimental Capra-corn. The production never recovers. Now the story turns on a battle of wills between embrace-the moment-everyman Barrymore and bitter king of capitalism Edward Arnold, who refuses to accept these addled free spirits as future in-laws. Capra turns out an amiable and appealing little comedy with some memorable character bits (Mischa Auer and Ann Miller in particular), but spends so much effort hammering home his own populist point that he misses the spirit of the material. I find Capra a poor match for the material but he did bring out the spirit in his case and he took home his third and final Oscar for best director for his efforts. And give him credit for knowing a winning formula. He reunited Stewart and Arthur in his next film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1940).

It comes in a Blu-ray booklet case with 28 pages of photos, notes, and an essay by TCM writer Jeremy Arnold. Features commentary by Frank Capra Jr. and author Catherine Kellison, the interview featurette “Frank Capra Jr. Remembers… You Can’t Take It With You,” and the trailer, plus a bonus Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film.

TriumphBDTriumph of the Will (Synapse, Blu-ray), Leni Riefenstahl’s record of the 1934 Nuremburg rally, is a stunning piece of cinema, a landmark of propaganda cinema, and a terrifying look at totalitarian demagoguery. The rhetoric about the thousand year Reich, the one and only party, and the purity of the race is less important than the mythic dimensions and sense of awe that Riefenstahl created not just in the filmmaking but on the design and staging of the event itself. It is possibly the first political spectacle choreographed specifically for the cameras, and it presents Hitler as both a God from the heavens and man of the people with a message: “this future belongs entirely to us!”

For years, the film was only available with the original English subtitles created by the government, which played down the politics by purposefully mistranslating many of the speeches. This translation, released on home video for the first time in 2000, features an accurate translation of the speeches and reveals the verbal imagery and strident nationalism of the real thing, and this Blu-ray debut is newly remastered in 2K from a duplicate 35mm fine grain master.

Synapse does an excellent job of subtitling, identifying locations, activities, and key figures as well as translating speeches and correcting some of the rhetoric that was watered down for American audiences in its original translation, and the commentary by historian Dr. Anthony R. Santoro makes him a play-by-play announcer, color man (giving background to the players), and interpreter all in one on the commentary track.

Also features a newly remastered edition of Riefenstahl’s Day of Freedom (1935), another of her propaganda pieces, this one a short shot at the 1935 rally.

JustineEugenie…The Story Of Her Journey Into Perversion: 3-Disc Limited Edition (Blue Underground, Blu-ray+DVD)
Marquis De Sade’s Justine: 3-Disc Limited Edition (Blue Underground, Blu-ray+DVD)

Jess Franco adapts the Marquis de Sade in a pair of notorious Euro sexploitation classics, both making their respective Blu-ray debut in three-disc combo packs with bonus DVD copy and CD soundtrack.

Marquis De Sade’s Justine (1969) is one of Franco’s first collaborations with Harry Alan Towers, the famous British producer of Euro pulp thrillers with decadent flourishes, and his entry into the international production. The kinky tale of a virtuous innocent (Romina Power, Tyrone Power’s 18 year old daughter) who is “cruelly treated, robbed, falsely accused, imprisoned, assaulted, beaten, and pursued” by all she encounters while her sister indulges in vice, sin, murder, and all sorts of wickedness with such glee that it sends her to the top of society is perfect Franco material, though the satire and irony is admittedly buried in sheer excess. What surprises isn’t the kink and cruelty, it’s the handsome style and gorgeous photography (two Gaudi designed buildings serve as key locations), and the unhinged performance of Jack Palance as a malicious monk exploring the carnal limits of pleasure through pain. Klaus Kinski plays the Marquis in a framing sequence, and we periodically cut back to him madly scribbling in a prison while visions writhe around him, and Mercedes McCambridge, Akim Tamiroff, and Howard Vernon are a few of the familiar faces in the cast. The film was cut by half an hour and released under the name Deadly Sanctuary in the U.S. by AIP.

EugenieBDThis features the complete (or as complete as possible) version in a beautiful transfer that preserves the color and the beautiful sets as well as the all the sex and sadism. It features the new interview featurette with Franco historian “Stephen Thrower on Justine” and the 20-minute interview featurette “The Perils and Pleasures of Justine,” originally recorded for the DVD release, with director Jess Franco (who describes how the Romina Power was forced upon him against his wishes, and how Jack Palance was “drunk all the time” and brilliant nonetheless) and screenwriter/producer Harry Alan Towers. In Franco’s own words, it was “the most expensive film I ever made… A fake big film. Of course, only we knew it was fake.”

Eugenie: The Story of Her Journey into Perversion(1969, also released as De Sade 70), based on De Sade’s “Philosophy in the Boudoir,” followed soon after. The story of an innocent girl (Marie Liljedahl of Inga fame) seduced into a dreamy/nightmarish world of eros and perversion by a decadent couple (Jack Taylor and Maria Rohm), it co-stars Christopher Lee as the sinister Dolmance, master of the island.

It features the new interview featurette with Franco historian “Stephen Thrower on Eugenie” and interview featurette “Perversion Stories” with director Jess Franco, producer Harry Alan Towers, and stars Marie Liljedahl and Christopher Lee.

Each release includes a collectable booklet with an essay by Stephen Thrower, a bonus DVD copy with the supplements, and a CD soundtrack of Bruno Nicola’s score for each film.

Also recently released:AladdinBD

Aladdin: Diamond Edition (Disney, Blu-ray+DVD) – It’s a whole new world for the 1992 Disney animated classic in the Blu-ray debut of the film, freshly remastered for its high-definition incarnation with bright, vivid color. Robin Williams provides the voice to the big blue genie, a fun-loving guy in curly slippers who offers three wishes to the plucky young poor boy and marketplace thief Aladdin, who dreams of romancing a princess. It’s one of the jewels in Disney’s crown of traditional hand-drawn animated features.

New to this edition are “The Genie Outtakes” (nine minutes of unused improvisations from Robin Williams set to storyboards), “Aladdin: Creating Broadway Magic” (about the Broadway adaptation, 19 minutes), “Genie 101” (explaining the pop culture references to 21st century kids), “Ron and Jon: You Ain’t Never Had a Friend Like Me” (with filmmakers John Musker and Ron Clements reminiscing about their early days at Disney), and “Unboxing Aladdin” (a guide to the Easter eggs hidden through the film). Carried over from the previous DVD release are the commentary tracks (one by directors Ron Clements and John Musker, the other by the animators), the 70-minute documentary “A Diamond in the Rough: The Making of Aladdin,” plus the rest of the short featurettes, deleted scenes and songs, music videos, and such. Also includes bonus DVD and Digital HD (via Disney Movies Anywhere) copies of the film.

BadBoys20thAnnBad Boys I & II: 20th Anniversary Collection (Sony, Blu-ray) – The original Bad Boys (1995) was the obnoxiously loud and destructive action hit that launched Michael Bay’s reign as the definitive expression of the Bruckheimer and Simpson aesthetic of big, expensive, flamboyantly excessive action cinema. Interestingly Martin Lawrence, who plays the married man and harried father trying to reign in the excesses of his ladies man partner Will Smith, gets first billing in this partnership. How things change in the intervening years. The box set features Bad Boys and the Blu-ray debut of the 2003 sequel Bad Boys II (also directed by Bay), each in its own case. Bad Boys carries over the extras from the 2010 release, with director commentary, a featurette, and music videos. Bad Boys IIincludes featurettes on the stunts and visual effects, on-set production diaries, “Sequence Breakdowns” of six key scenes, and deleted scenes, all in 480i SD. But fear not, the movies themselves are both remastered in 4K and are vivid and sharp.

ThunderThundercrack! (Synapse / CAV, Blu-ray, DVD), the 1975 underground cult film by Curt McDowell and co-writer / star George Kuchar, is a gothic romp that veers into horror, sex, and camp parody, with explicit scenes and graphic horror. It makes is American home video debut (at least it first official release) in DVD and Blu-ray editions, with an audio-only interview with Curt McDowell (on the second audio track) and newly translated subtitles in Parisian French, German, and Castilian Spanish. Exclusive to the Blu-ray edition is the 2009 documentary It Came From Kuchar, on the underground filmmaking brother George and Mike Kuchar, and a bonus DVD with rate short films, interviews, and audition footage and outtakes from Thundercrack!

LivingOblivionLiving In Oblivion: 20th Anniversary (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray) – Steve Buscemi is the angst-ridden auteur of a low budget art film falling apart at the seams (splices?) in Tom DiCillo’s very funny 1995 satire of indie filmmaking nightmares, which won him the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance. James Le Gros plays his egotistical, impulsively improvising star with blow-dried smarminess, Catherine Keener has a crisis in confidence as his female lead, and Dermot Mulroney swaggers in an eye-patch and leather vest as the artiste of a cinematographer. Features commentary by director Tom DiCillo, deleted scenes, a video interview with DiCillo and Buscemi, and trailers.

Stalingrad (Synapse, Blu-ray) presents the Blu-ray debut of the complete 2003 3-part documentary on the devastating World War II battle that lasted over 6 months and took 4 million casualties. The epic production features rare footage from both Russian and German archives, some of it shot by the soldiers themselves, and presents the battle from both perspectives. Nominated for the 2003 International Emmy Award for Best Documentary. Presented in the English language dubbed version with footage not seen in original broadcast. Features deleted interview segments, the featurette “Stalingrad Today,” and a video interview with professor and historian Dr. Guido Knopp.

BrainWouldntThe Brain That Wouldn’t Die (Scream Factory, Blu-ray), a bizarre tale of a scientist hunting for a shapely body for his fiancée’s floating head while it hisses and taunts a deformed assistant back at the lab, has become a cult classic of classic B-movie horror. It has been newly restored from original negative, with new commentary by film historians Steve Haberman and Tony Sasso, an alternate scene from the international cut, and the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode featuring The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.

White of the Eye (Scream Factory, Blu-ray+DVD), the cult thriller from Donald Cammell (co-director of Performance), makes its disc debut in a Blu-ray combo pack mastered from the original camera negative. Features commentary by Cammell biographer Sam Umland, deleted scenes with commentary, an interview with Steadicam operator Larry McConkey, and an alternate credit sequence.

WhiteEyeTroll / Troll 2 (Scream Factory, Blu-ray) is actually a triple feature. It includes the original 1986 low-budget horror film from director John Carl Buechler, the notorious in-name-only English-language Italian-produced sequel directed by Claudio Fragasso, and the 2009 documentary The Best Worst Movie, a loving tribute/remembrance/celebration of Troll 2, which explores the film and the cult that has grown up around what many have deemd the worst film ever made. The two Troll features include commentary.

Blu-ray / DVD: ‘Queen of Earth’ and ‘Bone Tomahawk’

QueenofEarthQueen of Earth (IFC, DVD), Alex Ross Perry’s follow-up to his breakout feature Listen Up Philip, is much more intimate a character drama. Elisabeth Moss, who was the neglected and betrayed girlfriend in Philip, takes the lead here as a Catherine, a young woman reeling from the sudden death of her father at the same time as the emotional fallout of a bad breakup. She takes refuge in the comfort of her best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston), a trust-fund baby spending her days on perpetual vacation, in her Virginia’s family upscale vacation cabin in the woods.

Catherine and Virginia are not what you would call likable. These best friends are privileged women who slip into defensive posture whenever they feel the glare of judgment upon them, which is often. They are ostensibly there for each other, yet so self-involved they can barely break out of their own little bubbles. Neither writer/director Alex Ross Perry nor his actresses attempt to soften these characters. Moss plays Catherine as vulnerable and in pain, tangled in a torrent of contradictory emotions—anger, betrayal, love, hate, don’t leave me and get the hell out of here—but also narcissistic, self-involved, without any ability to empathize, and Waterston is distant and wary as Virginia, still angry at Catherine’s neglect of her emotional turmoil in a previous getaway. Yet, surprisingly, we actually come to care for them—or at the very least worry about them.

What should be a weekend of bestie comfort becomes fraught with expectations, assumptions, and resentment. It’s like an American indie reworking of Hollywood high melodrama—initial pettiness and sniping grows into passive-aggressive war between bitchy frenemies in close quarters—but instead of the theatrical thrill of showboating spectacle of divas dueling with sophisticated wit and sneering delivery we get something uncomfortably intimate and personal. Moss is truly scary as she slips into dazed smiles and giggling fits. It may sound unpleasant to watch but Perry and his performers draw you into this raw chamber piece. You can’t look away, and neither can you dismiss the emotional wreckage of friends who fail each other so spectacularly.

On DVD, with commentary by filmmaker Alex Ross Perry and producer / star Elisabeth Moss and a featurette. Also on Netflix.

BoneTomahawkAvailable on Tuesday, December 29 is Bone Tomahawk (RLJ, Blu-ray, DVD), the other 2015 western starring Kurt Russell. But rest assured, this is no knock-off created to cash in on Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. The feature debut by writer / director S. Craig Zahler is a sturdy frontier western about strong but decidedly mortal settlers who take the responsibilities of community seriously, and its odyssey takes them to the border of horror cinema without leaving its frontier drama landscape or sensibility.

Russell is Sheriff Franklin Hunt, the aging lawman of a small, mostly peaceful town that is rocked when a deputy and a doctor (Lili Simmons), the wife of an injured cowboy, are kidnapped in a guerrilla raid on the local jail. His rather small posse consists of his back-up deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins in the chatty Walter Brennan role), an erudite gunman with a particular hatred of the Indians (Matthew Fox), and the injured husband (Patrick Wilson), enduring a fractured leg that becomes gangrenous along the way. Even the local tribes don’t recognize the renegade tribe as Indian—they are troglodytes, according the town’s only Native American representative, cave dwellers that have turned to cannibalism—and that’s where the horror creeps into the drama.

Zahler takes his time—the film lopes along for more than two hours—and favors the rhythms and evocative dialogue of a frontier drama. For all the urgency of the posse’s mission, it’s a journey of days through the desert and the characters fill the time with defining personalities: the easy-going affability of Sheriff Hunt that becomes sharpened by the focus of tracking the raiding party, the garrulous way that Chicory talks, like a lonely old man trying to be useful (“It’s the opinion of the back-up deputy that…”), the arrogance and urbane language of the educated townsman whose character recalls the gamblers of classic westerns but whose backstory reveals different tale, the resolute determination of the cowboy husband who will not shirk his duty despite the crippling ordeal. It’s something like a western story song with gruesome twist.

There’s a gruesome edge to it in the opening, a prologue with David Arquette and Sid Haig as cutthroats who run into the savage tribe, and in the final act, where the tribe’s sadistic brutality is shocking even this age of cinema violence. But Zahler doesn’t revel on the violent spectacle. It flirts with horror but remains rooted in the physical frontier world and grounded in character, both of which Zahler sculpts with a richness of texture and detail that makes it live and breathe.

The film had a limited theatrical release along with a Cable On Demand availability. Apparently the studios have little faith that a western can bring an audience into theaters, at least not one that doesn’t come with Tarantino’s pedigree. It deserved better and I hope the disc release will bring more attention to this smart, savvy genre picture.

There’s a featurette, a deleted scenes, and a Q&A with the director and cast at the Fantastic Fest screening. It’s also available to stream on Amazon Prime starting January 1.

Also new and notable:Pan

Pan (Warner, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, VOD) is yet another take on the “Peter Pan” story, this one a lavish fantasy that imagines the origins of the boy who never grew up with Hugh Jackman as Blackbeard, Garrett Hedlund as Hook, Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily, and Levi Miller as Peter. Joe Wright directs. Blu-ray and DVD with a featurette. The Blu-ray includes three additional featurettes and director commentary plus DVD and Ultraviolet HD copies of the film.

Pawn Sacrifice (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) stars Tobey Maguire as Bobby Fischer and Liev Schreiber as Boris Spassky in this dramatization of the chess match that became the focus of the world when it became a symbolic battle of minds in the Cold War. Blu-ray and DVD with a featurette and a bonus Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film.