Category: DVD

Dec 16 2014

Videophiled: Barbara Steele and ‘The Long Hair of Death’

LongHairofDeath

Raro VIdeo

The Long Hair of Death (Raro, Blu-ray, DVD) – Raro Video, the American arm of an Italian home video company, is one of only a couple of disc labels with a tightly-defined mission, in this case a focus on classics of Italian cinema that ranges from auteur masterworks to genre landmarks and cult items. The Long Hair of Death (1964) is one of the latter, a moody Gothic horror from genre stalwart Antonio Margheriti (whose name was immortalized by Quentin Tarantino in Inglorious Basterds) starring Barbara Steele, the British actress who became the most striking and mesmerizing star of Italian horror cinema in the sixties.

The preferred genre of the prolific Margheriti (whose films were often signed with the anglicized pseudonym Anthony Dawson, as it is here) was science fiction but, being an Italian director in the genre pool of the sixties (and later the seventies and eighties), he did it all: peplum, fantasy, crime, action, westerns, and of course horror of all kinds. His Gothic horrors of the sixties are among his best and this, his second collaboration with Steele (after Castle of Blood, 1964), is a minor beauty of the genre, a medieval revenge film with an innocent burned for witchcraft, a corrupt aristocracy, a curse, a ghost, and a sweet, sweet revenge. Steele is the eldest daughter of the woman framed for murder and burned alive and as she sacrifices her maidenhood to Count Humboldt to stop the trial by fire, his cruel son Kurt (George Ardisson, looking like Italy’s answer to Doug McClure with bad attitude) ignites the “test” blaze, which is quite literally a maze of bundled straw surrounding the accused It’s a great scene, with the woman scrambling up on a cross in the center of the inferno as pyres rage around her to spit a curse upon the family, and Steele soon follows, murdered to cover up the sins of the Humboldt family. Only when her innocent young stepsister Lisabeth is grown into a young beauty (Halina Zalewska) and forced into marriage to the scheming Kurt does Steele return, this time as the embodiment of her mother. She takes the name Mary and poses as a seductive traveler who immediately becomes of object of Kurt’s obsession. She turns seductress and appears to encourage Kurt to murder his wife but her true motivations are more insidious.

It’s a little slow as these things go, with the story just creeping along as Margheriti’s camera drinks in the atmosphere of the gorgeous castle locations and the secret passageways and ominous crypts and dungeon sets. It’s an atmosphere of plague and pestilence, though the ravages are only glimpses outside the castle walls (the peasants are, of course, locked out), but the worst seems to be over (coincidentally as Mary appears) and the local priest prepares to preside over a celebratory ceremony that looks positively pagan. The tension between peasant superstition, religious power, and the purely self-serving rule of the corrupt aristocracy makes an interesting backdrop that, while never really explored, figures in the finale as revenge is served.

The rest is about the beauty of figures that float through the atmosphere of Margheriti’s sets and locations and the mesmerizing presence of Steele, whose scary beauty is delicate and vulnerable yet feral and fierce. She is equally compelling as the innocent maiden of the opening scenes, the seductress in the castle, and the avenging dark angel of her wronged mother. But even if the film meanders more than it unnerves, more interested in creating elegant images and moments than tension or mood, the finale is perfectly orchestrated and it delivers a deliciously cruel poetic justice with echoes to Bava’s Black Sunday, the film that made Steele an icon of Italian horror.

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Barbara Steele in ‘The Long Hair of Death’

This appears to be an excellent transfer from less-than-stellar source materials. At its best the image is sharp and clean, with excellent detail and a rich gray scale in the black and white image, but the sharpness can vary from shot to shot. That may be inherent in the original photography or a matter of restoring the complete film from different sources (there are no notes on the provenance of the elements or the transfer apart from “New HD Transfer Digitally Restored). It has English language credits and both Italian and English language soundtracks, but it also has brief scenes of nudity that were surely not in the American release. There is a light, almost ghostly spiderwebbing of what looks like emulsion cracks through a few sequences over what is otherwise a strong image but no other glaring damage. It’s likely the best materials available for the film and the digital transfer is very good, delivering a strong, steady image. Note that the English soundtrack features an (unidentified) American actress dubbing Steele’s lines and a poor visual match to the lips, so I favor the Italian soundtrack with subtitles.

Also features an introduction by Chris Alexander, editor of Fangoria and Delirium Magazine and director of Blood for Irina (he makes the claim for this as Steele’s finest Italian Gothic moment), and video interviews with Edoardo Margheriti (the director’s son) and screenwriter Antonio Tentorio, all shot on standard definition video, probably a decade ago or so, and the accompanying booklet features a short essay on the film and the Italian Gothic horror genre by Alexander.

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Barbara Steele in ‘The Long Hair of Death’

Dec 12 2014

Videophiled TV Sets: The Complete ‘Secret Agent’

SecretAgentCompleteSecret Agent (aka Danger Man): The Complete Series (Timeless, DVD) – Before Patrick McGoohan was The Prisoner, he was John Drake, the maverick agent of Britain’s top secret M9 security force, in the series Danger Man. The show began in 1960, before the first Bond feature was released, in a 30-minute format, with the cool, clever undercover operative Drake sneaking into Eastern bloc regimes and Latin American dictatorships to flush out traitors and assassins, recover stolen secrets, and dabble in a little espionage himself.

That incarnation lasted a single season and was cancelled after the American networks failed to renew it, but a few years later it was reworked as an hour-long show in the wake of the renewed interest in spy shows and Cold War conflicts and it was picked in the U.S. under the title Secret Agent and a new theme, “Secret Agent Man,” sung by Johnny Rivers. (This set features the original British version of the series, with the Danger Man title and a harpsichord theme song.) Where he was once the loyal agent who follows faithfully orders, even when he seems to be on the side of status quo in some very repressive countries, the realpolitik shenanigans are played out with less assuredness and a creeping sense of futility, as if anticipating the disillusionment of McGoohan’s later series The Prisoner, in the second edition. Episodes played with the ambivalence of cold war politics (“Whatever Happened To George Foster,” “That’s Two of Us Sorry”), and two of them even anticipate The Prisoner: in “Colony Three,” a spy school in a manufactured village that could be the inspiration for The Prisoner’s village, and “The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove” features a mind game worthy of the new Number 2. Both of the latter episodes were directed by Don Chaffey, who helmed his share of The Prisoner.

Still, it was, like the U.S. series The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a cleverly-constructed show built of elaborate espionage shell games and diplomatic chicanery, with McGoohan as the ingenious con man behind the bluffs and feints. The series ends with the only two episodes made in color: “Koroshi” and “Shinda Shima,” both set in Japan and later combined and turned into the TV movie Koroshi. This set features the original episodic versions.

The series has been on DVD before but the original release is long out of print and had been going for high prices. This set features the original British broadcast versions of all 86 episodes with the same transfers as the A&E release but compacts it in a smaller box set of three cases, organized by season (as broadcast in the U.S.), and is quite reasonably priced. It features commentary on three episodes and bonus interview with Catherin McGoohan. All that’s missing is the alternate American version of the credits with the rocking theme song.

More TV box sets at Cinephiled

Patrick McGoohan is John Drake

Dec 09 2014

Videophiled: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ versus ‘Time Bandits’

GuardiansGalaxy

Disney

Guardians of the Galaxy (Disney, Blu-ray+Blu-ray 3D, DVD, VOD) is based on one of the more obscure Marvel Comics to get the big screen treatment, but everything about the film suggests a filmmaker trying to recapture the sense of energy and color and sheer fun of Star Wars and the pop space opera. That’s a pretty good marriage and director James Gunn, whose talent for balancing genre tropes with tongue-in-cheek humor and colorful characters came through nicely in Slither, makes it a winning union.

It’s not that the story is particularly fresh—there’s a super-evil megalomaniac (Lee Pace) bent on exterminating an entire race of beings and he needs a fabled super-weapon to execute his plan, which intergalactic soldier of fortune Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who calls himself Star Lord, happens to have—and frankly the whole everything-hinges-on-a-series-of-showdowns third act is getting a little tired by now. That’s par for the course for both comic book action spectacles and space opera adventures and this doesn’t shake it off.

But Gunn does make the journey a lot of fun, with an oddball cast of renegades who, tossed together in a deep space prison, team up to escape and wind up staying together because it suits their purposes, but really because it sucks to be alone. These guys are all outlaws, but they are not villains, and in the right place at the right time, that makes them heroes. The script is tossed through with entertaining banter, the action sequences are spirited and filled with inventive imagery, and the spirit of the whole enterprise is bright and energized, right down to the bouncy jukebox of seventies tunes that Peter carries around as his personal soundtrack.

Chris Pratt is shaggily charming as the rogue-for-hire with a souped-up space ship and a soft spot for underdog causes, Zoe Saldana is Gamora, the butt-kicking, green-skinned assassin who wants revenge against her adoptive father, wrestling star Dave Bautista is the muscular and very literal-minded Drax the Destroyer (again, on a mission of vengeance), Bradley Cooper voices the gun-toting, wise-cracking Rocket Raccoon, and Vin Diesel is the heart of the team as Groot, a walking tree of few words.

Here’s a deleted scene from the Blu-ray:

The DVD includes a short promo for the upcoming The Avengers: Age of Ultron. The wealth of extras is saved for the two-disc Blu-ray (which features both standard and 3D versions of the film). Director James Gunn really engages with the film for the commentary track. He’s not new to the format—he did commentary for Slither, Super, even his screenwriting debut film Tromeo & Juliet—but you gotta figure he’s been waiting his career for something like this and he’s clearly engaged to share it all. He’s also in the playful 21-minute “Guide to the Galaxy with James Gunn,” which crams a lot of territory into a very short piece. There’s also a short overview on the visual effects, a brief collection of deleted and extended scenes (with optional commentary by Gunn), and an obligatory gag reel.

Also on cable VOD, iTunes, Amazon Instant, and other digital rental services.

TimeBanditsBD

Criterion

Time Bandits (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) is a fractured fairy tale from the cracked imagination of Terry Gilliam, who wrote the warped adventure with fellow Monty Python alum Michael Palin. It’s a strange and weird and wonderful mix of boy’s own adventure, Python-esque humor, and grim irony, all wrapped in tall tales, ancient myths, and historical figures. British schoolboy Kevin (Craig Warnock) is pulled through a series of holes in time and space by a raucous band of renegade dwarfs (among them David Rappaport, Kenny Baker, and Jack Purvis) attempting to plunder their way through history. They’re no criminal masterminds, mind you, and the incredulous Kevin becomes a voice of reason and even something of an anchor when the gang gets tangled up in silly spats and Three Stooges-like shenanigans. And he gets the ride of his life as he meets Napoleon (Ian Holm, who is delighted by “little things hitting each other”), Robin Hood (John Cleese), and Agamemnon (Sean Connery) along the way.

This was Gilliam’s sophomore picture and he makes a significant leap from his debut solo effort Jabberwocky as both a storyteller and a cinematic artist. He lets us see it all through Kevin’s eyes, from a roaring horse that breaks out of his bedroom closet like a dragon from a storybook to the comforting entrance of Sean Connery as the heroic Agamemnon adopting Kevin like he’s an orphaned prince. But the whimsy and idealized heroics are leavened with satirical jabs—Robin Hood’s men are not so merry and their benevolence comes at an unexpected price—and the whole adventure turns out to be monitored by the scheming personification of Evil (David Warner). The colorful set pieces, imaginative design, and physical humor seems aimed at kids, while the dark satire presages Brazil, making it as much an adult film as a children’s fantasy. It’s hard to tell if the grim coda is Gilliam’s idea of a tragedy or a happy ending, but it does tap into a primal urge of adolescent rebellion: a child’s revenge fantasy made real. It’s also hilarious and imaginative and completely unruly, emphasis on that last note. Chaos reigns, evil exists, and the best we can do is keep our eyes open and hold our own.

Criterion released an edition on DVD back in the early days of the format and Image released a disappointing Blu-ray a few years ago. This edition comes from a new 2K digital transfer from the original camera negative supervised by Gilliam and it is a great improvement over all previous American disc releases. It includes the new featurette “Creating the Worlds of Time Bandits” with production designer Milly Burns and costume designer James Acheson discussing the design and creation of the world and illustrated with production sketches and artwork and stills from the finished film.

Carried over from previous Criterion releases is commentary by director Terry Gilliam, co-screenwriter and actor Michael Palin, and actors John Cleese, David Warner, and Craig Warnock, recorded in 1997 and featured on the original laserdisc release. There are also some archival interviews: Terry Gilliam in discussion with film scholar Peter von Bagh as the 1998 Midnight Sun Film Festival and actress Shelley Duvall with Ton Snyder on Tomorrow from 1981. And in place of the booklet is a fold-out insert with an essay by film critic David Sterritt on one side and reproduction of the time-hole map from the film on the other.

More releases on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, and VOD at Cinephiled

Dec 07 2014

Videophiled Landmarks: ‘The Conformist’ restored and reinvigorated

Conformist

Raro Video

The Conformist (Raro, Blu-ray, DVD) opens in the deep blue of dawn, an intense, vibrant azure with a hint of ultramarine that blankets the city like an ocean. Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a petty bourgeois Italian who just wants to disappear into the fabric of his society, specifically Mussolini’s Italy in the 1930s, has volunteered to be an informant for the Secret Police. He doesn’t believe in the Fascism, he just wants to belong, and under the glow of this overwhelming blue he heads off oversee the political assassination he has been called to facilitate. This is the temperature of his dispassionate nature, the calm of conformity that he desires, but even under this comforting ocean of reassurance, he remains anxious and out of place, a pretender to this society who wears his convictions like a suit. It’s all about appearance.

I focus on this blue because until now, it has never enveloped me so as I watched Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970). I’ve seen the film on 16mm college prints, on 35mm revival prints, and on Paramount’s DVD from a decade ago, but this restoration brings out Vittorio Storaro’s colors with a richness and a depth I’ve never seen before. For the first time those hues have reached through the screen and into my experience.

Color is central to the experience of The Conformist, pushed to intensities beyond what we could call natural yet nothing so actively artificial as the great MGM Technicolor musicals or as symbolically loaded as Antonioni’s Red Desert. It’s not some much unreal as hyper-real, a subjective reality as seen through the eyes of Marcello, a man seeking comfort in conformism and compromise. Those blue filters create a deep blue ocean of a sky, a perpetual twilight that is at once calming and unsettling. If it represents Marcello’s ideal state of stasis, it threatens to drown him as much as comfort him, and its chilly atmosphere suggests his amoral compromise. He may desire Anna (Dominique Sanda), the young wife of his former professor, but it sure isn’t love, and he’s quick to shut off any human connection to her when his mission as an agent / informer for the Secret Police comes to fruition. He has no love for his own beautiful, shallow, and silly petite bourgeois wife Guilia (Stefania Sandrelli), who is “all bed and kitchen,” he tells his best friend, a blind radio personality who spouts Fascist propaganda on a daily basis. Marcello only has self-loathing. His father is in an asylum and his mother, once rich and now broke but living a decadent lifestyle in a crumbling manor, disgusts him. And then there is that childhood trauma that he thinks this act will expiate. It’s all very symbolically loaded, a flashback to a world of sepia-tinged nostalgia that is tangled up in sexual confusion, guilt, and innocence besmirched, a psychological motivation that ultimately explains nothing beyond the excuses he gives himself.

Jean-Louis Trintignant in his blue mood

It’s a superb performance by Trintignant, whose presence is the film is physically passive even as he tries to play the confident, intellectual leader of men. He is stiff and still and pulls himself inward, instinctively resistant to physical contact. (He is also dubbed into Italian, as is Dominique Sanda.) In the memorable scene at a cheery dance hall, a room of bright lights in the midst of the blue sea of Paris at evening, Anna dances with a very willing, drunk, and giggly Giulia in a Paris bar, and then swirls the line of dancers around Marcello, who is caught in the middle of the empty dance floor and suddenly surrounded, the center of attention. His arms go up defensively, to keep the world from making contact. That passivity, his complete lack of conviction, is what fools his old professor (Enzo Tarascio), an anti-Fascist now in exile in Paris that he has been assigned to gather information on, into believing he can sway the former student to his side.

The Conformist was hugely influential on American cinema of the seventies. Coppola picked up the stylized color palettes for The Godfather movies, where the sepia became an idealized past contrasted with the chilly present of Michael’s corruption, and brought Storaro over to shoot Apocalypse Now, while Paul Schrader reached out to production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti to be his “visual consultant” on American Gigolo and Cat People, films with defining, carefully painted color palettes. Bertolucci, Storaro, and Scarfiotti showed them that it was possible to marry such expressionism with the strain of seventies realism in American cinema. Not that anyone would mistake anything in The Conformist as realism. It is heightened, exaggerated, distorted, the world reimagined by the filmmakers as something familiar yet not. It is magnificent.

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‘The Conformist’

The original American release was cut by about five minutes. It was restored to its full version in 1994 and released on a fine DVD edition by Paramount a decade ago. This disc is mastered from a new restoration commissioned by the Cineteca di Bologna in 2011 and mastered from the original negative in 2K for digital screenings and for disc. It brings out the rich hues while preserving the texture of the film. It looks like a film print from 1970, not a piece of digital photography. Raro’s release on Blu-ray and DVD features the “visual essay” In the Shade of the Conformist with Italian film critic and historian Adriano Apra and featuring clips from a 2011 video interview with Bertolucci, plus two trailers and a 28-page booklet with essays and excerpts from archival reviews, articles, and interviews. The credits on the booklet also helpfully identify the actors who dubbed Trintignant and Sanda.

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

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Jean-Louis Trintignat in the shadow of Fascism

Dec 04 2014

Videophiled: ‘Dawn’ of ‘The Hundred-Foot Journey’

100ftjourney

Touchstone

The Hundred-Foot Journey (Touchstone, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD) is a film for our culture: a feel-foodie drama of racial tolerance, cross-cultural acceptance, and fusion cuisine. It’s produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey and directed by Lasse Hallstrom (the classiest of contemporary feel-good filmmakers) and it stars Helen Mirren as the bastion of fine French cuisine and unshakable tradition in the prettiest little village in the South of France you’ll ever see in a movie.

The journey of the title is the distance between Mirren’s French restaurant, a one-star Michelin bastion of the region, and a new Indian restaurant opened by an immigrant family headed by Om Puri and represented in the kitchen by Manish Dayal, who learned the art from his late mother. There is a very underplayed romance between Dayal and Charlotte Le Bon, the young sous chef of Mirren’s establishment, but it is so understated you wonder if it’s actually catching fire at all.

There’s not a beat here that you will surprise you, nary a narrative turn you won’t see coming. While the proprietors go to war, hammering the Mayor with hassles about noise, zoning, and all sorts of nuisance complaints, Le Bon introduces Dayal to French cooking and it turns out that he’s a natural. Competition turns into cooperation and Mirren sponsors his entry into the world of competitive cuisine.

But it’s sweet and affectionate, lovely to look at, and appreciative of the evolution that all the characters make on their own journeys. And if you love food, this film celebrates cuisine as an art, a communal experience, an act of affirmation, and a way of sharing. Pair it with a nice Bordeaux… or perhaps a cup of tea.

Blu-ray and DVD, with a 12-minute making-of featurette. The Blu-ray also features a 12-minute interview with producers Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey discussing their first collaboration since The Color Purple, a behind-the-scenes piece with Oprah Winfrey, and a tutorial video on how to cook Coconut Chicken, plus a bonus Digital HD copy of the film.

DawnPlanetApes

Fox

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Fox, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD) picks up a decade after Rise of the Planet of the Apes, as the human population is recovering from the devastation of the virus unleashed at the end of that film and the human community has first contact with the ape civilization living in the forest outside of San Francisco. There’s a strong story involving the relationship between two families who reach across the species divide, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis in a brilliant and rich motion capture performance), who is both husband and father to his family and benevolent leader of the simian tribe, and Jason Clarke as an engineer trying to repair an electrical damn to power the human reclamation of San Francisco. They are the exceptions, however. The older apes remember the abuse they suffered at the hands of humans and the humans blame the apes for the virus (never mind that it was created by humans) and have an instinctual suspicion of any animal that can speak. It has a powerful resonance as a metaphor for wars of cultural animosity, hatred and mistrust, with human and ape both equating the worst actions of the other with the entire species.

Matt Reeves, whose Let Me In was an evocative adaptation of the Swedish horror film Let the Right One In, delivers both action spectacle and character drama, and he rightfully centers the entire film on Caesar, the noble leader who understands the best and worst of humanity, and has to come to terms with the worst of his own tribe as both sides push for war rather than co-existence. The film opens on Caesar’s eyes as he leads a hunt and it ends back on those weary but set eyes, contemplating the coming war that is now inevitable.

Fox isn’t making review copies of their discs available to most reviewers anymore—they offer a streaming link to see the film and that’s about it—so I assume the transfer and sound is good but can’t comment on the supplements or on the details of the deluxe Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Caesar’s Warrior Collection (Fox, Blu-ray).

More releases on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital formats at Cinephiled

Dec 01 2014

Videophiled Landmarks: ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ and ‘Verdun’ restored

CabinetCaligari

Kino Lorber

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD, streaming) is the grandfather and the godfather of German Expressionist cinema and one of the most influential films of its era. Directed by Robert Weine, it features Werner Kraus as the tyrannical Dr. Caligari, a sideshow barker in cape and top hat who commands the sleeping Cesare (Conrad Veidt), the carnival’s star attraction, to rise at night and do his bidding, a literal sleepwalker who is both monster and victim. With its painterly sets of jutting beams, leaning walls and heavy black lines painted on flats and arranged to suggest both a skewed sense of depth and a forced perspective that flaunts its artificiality, the film dropped audiences into an aggressively unreal world and celebrated its theatrical artifice as a vision of madness and horror. It set the style for a movement, influenced a generation of filmmaker from Fritz Lang and Universal horror movies, and created images so vivid they are still referenced today. This is a movie that has seen some awful home video releases over the years but even the superior presentations (the Image DVD from Film Preservation Associates and the previous Kino DVD from an earlier Murnau Foundation edition) have suffered from damaged footage, missing frames, and inferior source material.

The Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation (which previously spearheaded the astounding restoration of the definitive Metropolis) undertook the comprehensive digital restoration of this landmark using for the first time ever the original camera negative as the primary source (previous releases were taken from archival prints), with additional footage from the best of the existing archival prints. It was a two year project and the efforts are visible in every frame of this reclamation; the difference between Kino’s previous DVD and this stunning new restoration is night and day. The image is not just clean and free from much of the damage seen on earlier editions, missing frames and footage has been restored and the image is now sharp and strong, with deep blacks, vivid contrasts, and unprecedented clarity, stability, and detail.

Silent with German intertitles and English subtitles, with choice of two scores. Features the German documentary “Caligari: How Horror Came to Cinema” (with English subtitles), stills, restoration demonstration, and a booklet with an essay by film historian Kristen Thompson.

This restoration is also available to stream on Netflix and Fandor in HD.

Verdun

Carlotta US / Kino Lorber

Verdun: Looking at History (Carlotta US / Kino Lorber, DVD, Digital, VOD) comes with an unfortunately passive title in its English translation. It was released in France as Verdun, visions d’histoire, which is more haunting (as if it’s resurrecting the ghosts of soldiers and civilians as visions of the past) and a more fitting title for Léon Poirier’s war 1928 epic. The sweeping portrait of the battle of Verdun, an eleven-month siege where the French held the line against an offensive of overwhelming German forces at the cost of 300,000 solders on both sides, was produced to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the end of the war to end all wars and dedicated it to “all the martyrs of the ugliest passion that is war.” It is part human drama and part history lesson, complete with detailed statistics and animated maps of troop movements to put the big picture around human experience.

Poirier grounds the film in the “everyman” experience by identifying only the real-life historical figures by name. The fictional characters are referred to solely as titles and types—the French soldier, the German officer, the German soldier, the farmer, the wife, the daughter, the young man, and so on—but dramatic they are fully-formed characters whose experiences, soldier and civilian alike, are anything but generic. And while Poirier favors the French experience and can’t avoid the patriotic celebration of the French achievement, he doesn’t vilify the German officers or judge the German soldiers, who like The French Soldier (our central point-of-view figure, played with hearty embrace of life by the great Albert Préjean) are simply doing their duty in a terrible ordeal.

Celebrated upon release for its amazing recreations of battle scenes (which Poirier intercut with real battle footage from newsreels), it was eclipsed by the coming of sound (Poirier reworked it as a sound feature a few years later) and all but disappeared in subsequent years. It was restored in 2006 by the Cinematheque de Toulouse but was only screened a few times stateside since. Kino’s release of the Carlotta U.S. DVD finally makes it available to American audiences.

Features option of French or English menus and French intertitles with English subtitles, with a fine piano score by Hakim Bentchouala Golobitch. The featurettes “Restoring Verdun” and “Visions of Verdun” are French productions that explore the restoration of the original silent of the film and a look at the history and legacy of the film. “The French take their revenge in Verdun” is an archival documentary that shows the more familiar kind of nationalistic approach to war movies and offers a contrast to Poirier’s vision.

Also published at Cinephiled

Nov 26 2014

Videophiled: Joe Sarno’s ‘Dirty Movie’ and ‘What is Cinema?’

LifeDirtyMovies

Film Movement

A Life in Dirty Movies (Film Movement, DVD) – The work of Joe Sarno is little known outside of cinephile and cult cinema circles, and not widely seen even among cineastes. That’s because he, with the support and collaboration of his wife Peggy, made his low-budget explorations of adult sexuality within the confines of the sexploitation industry, where they played in grindhouse theaters under such titles as Sin in the Suburbs (1964) and The Love Merchant (1966). His films, however, were handsomely made, carefully composed and lit, and focused on the odysseys of women exploring their sexuality and their desires in a society stumbling through the sexual revolution. In a cinematic culture that focused on men getting their rocks off and women taking their clothes off, Sarno made women the active protagonists of his films. And while he satisfied the requirements of nudity and sexual spectacle (within the conventions and limits of the pre-X-rated era), his idea of a money shot was a close-up of a woman’s face as she reached climax. That sensitivity to women’s experiences and his lovely black and white photography earned him the nickname “The Bergman of 42nd Street.” In fact, he found more respect in Europe and even made films in Sweden, such as Inga (1968) and Young Playthings (1972), which played in the U.S. as foreign imports and earned Sarno a kind of critical respect his American films never received.

A Life in Dirty Movies gives viewers an overview of his career and its decline, when X-rated films displaced the softcore culture and Sarno was no longer able to make his kind of movies, but director Wiktor Ericsson is more interested in the couple themselves, together and still in love after more than 40 years, and on Joe’s doomed attempt at a comeback at the age of 88. Peggy actively encourages him and provides constructive criticism but confesses to the camera that Joe is hopelessly out of step with the times. His health was clearly declining while this documentary was being shot (he died in 2010, soon after production wrapped), and Ericsson finds his story in Peggy’s protectiveness and support of Joe in his decline, still defending her husband to her disapproving parents. Ericsson includes illuminating film clips but only a general overview of his career and he completely ignores 15 years when Sarno made X-rated films under a number of pseudonyms. The most interesting story is their long partnership, Sarno’s drive to keep making films, and Peggy’s determination to support his dreams even though she knows he’ll never make another film. Features bonus interview clips and two cut scenes.

WhatIsCInema

Cohen

What Is Cinema? (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) isn’t so much a lesson in film history and aesthetics as a survey of the breadth of cinematic possibilities. Filmmaker Chuck Workman (most famous for his short films and clip montages at the Oscars) throws a wide net and gives documentary, avant-garde, and experimental filmmaking an equal footing with Hollywood classics, independent film, and foreign cinema. Among his commentators are David Lynch, Mike Leigh, Costas-Gavras, Kelly Reichardt, and Jonas Mekas, all sharing their cinema loves (Leigh basically talks about his own method), and the gamut of featured filmmakers run from Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Bresson and Robert Altman to Abbas Kairostami and Chantel Akerman and Bill Viola. It’s not so much about defining cinema as exploring the possible, a celebration more than a history illustrated with clips from 100 films. Workman is a wizard with clips and you can lose yourself in the montage of images and the enthusiasm of filmmakers talking about the films that inspire them. But it does feel more like you’re wandering through a film museum than getting a guided tour with a point of view.

Features 10 bonus experimental shorts glimpsed in the documentary, including three films commissioned by Workman.

More new releases at Cinephiled

Nov 25 2014

Videophiled: Mohammad Rasoulof’s ‘Manuscripts Don’t Burn’

ManuscriptsBurn

Kino Lorber

What’s most startling about Mohammad Rasoulof’s 2013 Iranian thriller Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Kino Lorber, DVD, Netflix) is its audacity. Iranian filmmakers have a history of couching its criticisms of life in Iran in metaphor. This film puts its portrait of authoritarian oppression out in the open.

We open on a contract murder that plays like an American gangster picture dropped into dusty slums outside Tehran, then take a circuitous route through the workings of a totalitarian state that intimidates and terrorizes its intellectuals and dissident writers. Along with the web of writers connected by censored and suppressed works, we follow the thugs doing the dirty work for the vindictive minister of the security services, including a man whose motivation is simply money to pay for his son’s operation (it’s not a corny as it sounds). He’s constantly stopping along the route to see if the money has reached his account, interruptions that keep the political horror story firmly framed within the banalities and anxieties of everyday life.

The script is complicated and a little confusing, stirring in characters who appear without introduction, and it gets a little repetitive in the second act, but it seems churlish to complain that such a provocative, covertly-made portrait of the Iranian government as a brutally repressive regime could “use a little cutting.” The confusion sorts itself out as the intimidation turns into outright terrorism, 1984 by way of The Godfather, while an inspired formal twist puts the whole ordeal on continuous loop, a cycle of never-ending despotism. There are echoes of The Lives of Others in the routine surveillance of citizens but this is more confrontational and brutal and Rasoulof hasn’t the safe distance of exploring a fallen regime. His targets are current and he puts a target on his chest for his efforts. For that reason, he’s the only artist on the film who takes credit; the other names are hidden for fear of reprisals (we assume the actors are expatriates safely out of country). The film was, of course, banned in Iran and Rasoulof (against the advice of friends) returned home to Iran after premiering the film at Cannes (where it won the FIPRESCI Prize), where a prison sentence hangs over his head. His passport has been revoked and he is unable to see his family, whom he has already moved out of country. That’s some sacrifice.

In Persian with English subtitles. No supplements. Also available to stream on Netflix.

More new releases at Cinephiled

Nov 23 2014

Restorations, Revelations and Debuts of 2014

Film history discovered and rediscovered on Blu-ray, DVD and digital formats.

We never stop recovering our film history. In 2014 alone we found a 1916 version of Sherlock Holmes starring the legendary stage actor William Gillette (the only known footage of the man considered the definitive Holmes of his era in character) and an unfinished orphan film shot in 1913 starring black Broadway star Bert Williams.

The digital tools have given filmmakers, producers, studios and film archivists and restorers the ability to resurrect damaged prints and rescue damaged footage previously beyond the scope of physical and chemical methods and the transition from film prints to theatrical digital formats for repertory and revival showings has created new incentives to restore and remaster classic films for new theatrical screenings. (There’s plenty of controversy over this shift, with many partisans arguing that movies shot and originally shown in celluloid should be preserved and only screened that way.)

But it’s still a specialized audience and film lovers outside of major metropolitan areas often have no opportunities to see these restorations and revivals on the screen. At least until they are made available to home video formats. For instance, while the new restoration of the original Todd AO version of Oklahoma! premiered at the Turner Classic Movies festival in April, it has yet to reach audiences outside of specialty theaters and the China Film Archive restoration of the 1934 Chinese classic The Goddess has only shown in film festivals.

‘Too Much Johnson’

So this list is focused on debuts and rediscoveries of classic films and cinema landmarks and restorations of great films and revivals of previously unavailable movies that became available to viewers at home in 2014. Not just a countdown of the best, it’s a survey of the breadth of restorations and rediscoveries that film lovers now have a chance to see regardless of where they live, as long as they have a web connection and a Blu-ray player.

Too Much Johnson (1938) (Fandor, streaming)
The home video event of 2014 is not a disc debut or a Blu-ray special edition but a piece of lost film history found, restored and streamed on the web. Shot by Orson Welles in 1938 (two years before he went to Hollywood and began production on Citizen Kane) as a kind of experiment to accompany a stage production of the theater farce Too Much Johnson, the film was never finished by Welles beyond a continuity work print that was thought to have been destroyed in a fire in Welles’ Spanish home in 1970. The 35mm nitrate work print was found in 2013 in a warehouse in Italy (in Pordenone, as it happens, home to the greatest silent film festival in the world) and restored in an international effort. After a series of special screenings, the film (in both the original 66-minute work print and a 34-minute “reimagined” version, with outtakes and duplicate shots removed and footage edited into an “educated guess” of how it would have played in finished form) was made available to audiences the world over for free via the National Film Preservation Foundation website and in an HD edition through Fandor. I celebrated the film and its discovery for Keyframe earlier this year.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Nov 18 2014

Videophiled: ‘The Wind Rises’ for Hayao Miyazaki’s swan song

Disney Home Video

The Wind Rises (Disney, Blu-ray, VOD) – Hayao Miyazaki is a national treasure in Japan, the director of beloved animated features and a filmmaker dedicated to preserving the art of hand-drawn animation. The Wind Rises, which was released in 2013 and earned an Oscar nomination as Best Animated Feature, was a passion project for the director and a fitting swan song. The grand old man of Japanese animation has retired and this film, not a fantasy or mythical adventure but a delicate biographical drama about an idealistic engineer devoted to making “beautiful airplanes” for a country he knows will use them as instruments of war, is his final feature. Jiro comes of age in 1920s Japan and through him we experience the 1923 earthquake, the great Tokyo fire, and the crippling depression, as well as the growing militarism that takes hold of the country and the culture; at one point, the pacifist Jiro comes close to becoming a victim of Japan’s version of the communist witch-hunt.

The film was both celebrated and criticized in Japan, where some accused the film of whitewashing the militarism that sent the country into occupying Manchuria and then into World War II. Perhaps they felt that Miyazaki wasn’t more strident in his condemnation of that culture but he does surely confront and criticize it, albeit with a tone of regret and resignation. Jiro, who works in the aviation division of Mitsubishi, is an artist who dreams of flight (his eyesight prevents him from becoming a pilot) and channels his love into creating the next generation of airplanes, but is trapped in a military culture that demands he design a fighter plane. Somehow he never loses his idealism and his humanism.

Is Jiro complicit in the war because he designed one of Japan’s most effective war machines? Is he so driven to become part of the evolution of aviation that he ignores the use to which his designs will be used? Does the beauty of his creation (and Miyazaki does indeed express the beauty of flight that Jiro feels in his imagery) justify the compromises he has made? And are they indeed compromises in a time of war, or are they duty, regardless of one’s personal feelings? These questions hang in the air, suggested but never actually stated or answered. Perhaps he leaves that us to imagine as Jiro surveys the destruction in the aftermath of the war.

‘The Wind Rises’

There’s a love story here too and it is beautiful and tragic. The beauty who will become his wife is already ill with tuberculosis as they court and their romance is almost disconnected from the world around Jiro, taking him (and us) out of the city to the bucolic, sunny countryside, removed from the politics driving Japan to the destruction of war. The entire film is beautiful—could this be the last masterpiece of old-school hand-drawn animation? I sure hope not—and Miyazake applies his visual imagination to a realistic drama, giving it the romanticized imagery of Jiro’s hopeful perspective with the shadows of war and death around the edges. It has the feeling of remembrance, of memory elevating the experience to romantic ideal and shuttling the rest aside. And when we take flight the experience is exhilarating. Miyazaki is a master of both the delicate and the awesome and applies both to this lovely work.

Features the original Japanese soundtrack and a well-produced English language version featuring the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci, Mandy Patinkin, and William H. Macy, plus the short featurette “The Wind Rises: Behind the Microphone,” Miyazaki’s complete original storyboards (set to the movie soundtrack), press conference footage of the announcement of the completed film, and Japanese trailers and TV spots.

Disney Home Video

Along with the American debut of The Wind Rises, Disney releases two of Miyazaki’s best on Blu-ray for the first time. Princess Mononoke (Disney, Blu-ray) was the film that introduced most American viewers to Miyazaki when Disney (prompted by Pixar’s John Lasseter, a devoted Miyazaki fan) struck a deal to distribute Studio Ghibli films in the U.S. and create new English language versions to widen the audience. Mononoke was the first film to receive wide distribution and in retrospect it may have been the perfect introduction, at least for the adult audience: an environmentalist epic as and blood and thunder fantasy adventure on an apocalyptic scale. Set in the era of Japan’s Iron Age, it’s a time when the foundries first start to poison the forests and rivers around them and the weapons they produce—from fine samurai swords to primitive cannons and guns—give humans the advantage in conquering the natural world. Grounded in a rich and complex animist mythology, it is painted not as absolutes of good and evil but in moral shades of gray, a yin and yang within both man and nature. His figurehead is Mononoke herself, a wolf child as original eco-warrior leading the charge against her blood kin, the humans, in an elemental world of animal tribes and spirits and Gods imagined as magnificent giants and enchanting imps. Every frame is filled with an awesome sense of wonder and magic, and for all that is lost, he instills the ending with hope and healing.

Features original Japanese and the excellent American dub soundtracks (featuring Claire Danes, Gillian Anderson, Billy Crudup, Minnie Driver, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Billy Bob Thornton, and translated script penned by Neil Gaiman), plus storyboards, two featurettes, and original Japanese trailers.

Disney Home Video

Kiki’s Delivery Service (Disney, Blu-ray), which takes place in a magical variation of our own world, is aimed at a younger audience. Strong, plucky young heroine Kiki has turned thirteen, the age when witches leave the nest for a year of solo training. She’s ready to take on the world with her broomstick and her best friend Jiji, a cautious but supportive black cat (a tiny wisp of a feline) if she can only get her flying under control. Miyazaki’s gentle rhythm and meandering narrative capture the easy pulse of real life and Kiki and her flight obsessed pal Tombo are marvelous models of courage, drive and self-confidence. Their adventures have as much to do with real world situations, such as fear of failure and blows to her self-esteem, as with the lyrical flights among the birds and over the forests and city streets. It is a wonder to look at and a joy to experience and it doesn’t speak down to kids or up to adults.

Features original Japanese and American dub soundtracks (with Kirsten Dunst, Janeane Garofalo, and Phil Hartman), an introduction by Pixar director and English language producer John Lasseter, a short “Behind the Microphone” featurette on the voice cast, Miyazaki’s complete original storyboards (set to the movie soundtrack), and original Japanese trailers.

More new releases on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, and VOD at Cinephiled

Nov 14 2014

Videophiled Classic: ‘Fedora’ – Billy Wilder’s memorial for old Hollywood

Fedora (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) opens with a moment right out of Anna Karenina: a woman throws herself in front of an oncoming train, a steam engine puffing out white clouds against the night sky. A grand, glorious, powerfully melodramatic suicide right out of a glamorous tragic Hollywood romance. It’s a fitting in many ways, but especially because the woman, a reclusive Greta Garbo-esque Hollywood legend by the name of Fedora, has just been offered the lead in a new screen version of the Tolstoy classic, a comeback opportunity that her watchers—a gargoyle-ish group reminiscent of the waxworks that kept company with Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd.—turn down for her. So this actress appropriates the role for her exit. It turns out she’s all about role playing, to the point that she no longer can tell the difference between who she is and who she plays.

The penultimate film from Billy Wilder and a more fitting wrap to his career than his final feature Buddy, Buddy, Fedora (1978) recalls and plays off of Sunset Blvd. in numerous ways, from the premise of a retired Hollywood legend living in self-imposed exile (here it is in an isolated villa in Corfu) to William Holden in the lead, playing an out-of-fashion Hollywood producer named Barry ‘Dutch’ Detweiler, a former assistant director who worked his way through the ranks (and who could be Joe Gillis in 25 years had he survived his first brush with a Hollywood legend). He tracks Fedora (Marthe Keller), who walked off the set of her last film 15 years before and never returned, to an island villa owned by the aging Countess Fedora Sobryanski (Hildegard Knef). She looks like she hasn’t aged since the forties, which is attributed to the controversial work of once-famous plastic surgeon Doctor Vando (José Ferrer), who is now in his own kind of exile thanks to controversial treatments and scandalous failures, but she’s also paranoid and fragile. The villa could be an asylum or a fairy tale prison and the “companions” either her tough-love caretakers or jailers. In fact, appearances are deceiving in every way, and as Barry attempts to get his new script to the retired actress (with whom he had a brief fling back in his Hollywood apprenticeship), he discovers the truth behind the legend of the Fedora and her sudden disappearance years before.

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Nov 11 2014

Videophiled: Monty Python’s Swan Song (or, if you prefer, Dead Parrot) and Shirley Clarke’s ‘Portrait of Jason’

MontyPythonLiveMostly

Eagle Rock

Monty Python Live (Mostly) – One Down, Five to Go (Eagle Rock, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital) puts to disc the stage performance that was previously shown via satellite in select theaters around the world for one night only earlier in 2014. The first live show sold out with 30 seconds of the moment tickets went on sale and more shows were added, but they capped it at ten performances at the O2 in London. They say that this is the last time the group will perform together, and there’s no reason to doubt it; the last time they entire group performed together was 30 years ago, when Graham Chapman was still alive.

The title says it all: the five remaining Pythons (plus their favorite guest performer, Carol Cleveland) reunite for an encore, with Gilliam getting a little more involved than usual and a featured chorus member periodically joining in. You could say that Chapman is as much as a presence as could be hoped for, considering he died 25 years ago, but in fact he’s featured more than you would think possible, from the title of the show to classic film and video clips that bring him back into the ensemble (including some clips that showed in their first concert film, Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl) or make him a link between live segments, as if he was still interacting with the old gang.

This isn’t a master class, it’s a reunion and we’ve been invited to watch the old gang fall back into old patterns. Between revivals of their greatest hits (with a few wink wink nudge nudge updates) are big song-and-dance production numbers out of an overblown Broadway revue, with young dancers and singers taking over to kick up the energy and provide the production value. The rest is nostalgia. They are nowhere near the top of their game but they are clearly having fun (they are just as funny when they forget their lines or lose their place, which happens a couple of time) and so is the audience. Everyone there seems to know the skits by heart and get a kick out of seeing these senior citizens revive their standards for one last go round.

There are a few supplements, notably behind-the-scenes clips from the initial reunion meeting, the official announcement, and highlights from the 10 shows (including all the guest star appearances), plus the raw footage that the Pythons shot for intermission breaks and other video screen announcements.

PortraitJason

Milestone

Portrait of Jason (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD), Shirley Clarke’s stream of consciousness character study of Jason Holliday, aka Aaron Payne, is a landmark of non-fiction filmmaking and LGBT cinema. Ostensibly part of the cinema verité movement, it straddles the line between documentary and performance art piece. Clarke shot her portrait of the gay black hustler as an all-night extemporaneous monologue and gave voice to a man who would otherwise never be heard in any media form in 1967. In his round coke-bottle glasses and collegiate blazer, Jason plays to the camera and skeleton crew (heard just off camera throughout but never seen), telling stories and doing impressions over the 12 hour session, which Clarke edited to just under two hours. It is an act, all performance and outsized personality, with Jason playing the raconteur and would-be nightclub headliner, and it’s not clear how much is true and how much flight of fancy and projection. But between his paroxysms of laughter, puffs of a joint, and endless glasses of vodka, he offers a glimpse of how one grows up and survives as a flamboyant queer in sixties America.

It’s a scruffy, raw film that got scuffed up over the decades and had never been released on home video in the U.S. until Milestone undertook “Project Shirley.” Portrait of Jason is officially “Project Shirley, Volume 2? but the first in the series to be released to Blu-ray and DVD. This restoration, built on materials found in worldwide search, recovers lost footage and visual detail but leaves the roughness of the 16mm shoot intact because Clarke treasured that gritty texture. And as with all of Milestone’s archival presentations, the discs are packed with invaluable historical bonus material, from outtakes to archival interviews with Clarke to the audio-only “The Jason Holliday Comedy Album,” a rarity that makes an astounding companion piece to the film.

More new releases on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, and VOD at Cinephiled

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