Blu-ray/DVD: ‘Crouching Tiger’ revisited, ‘Kamikaze’ Fassbinder, South Korean ‘Wailing,’ and more

kamikaze89Kamikaze ’89 (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD) – Rainer Werner Fassbinder takes a rare onscreen lead in what would be his last screen appearance in Wolfgang Kremm’s 1982 new wave science fiction cop drama. Based on a satirical science fiction novel by Swedish crime writer Per Wahlöö, it’s a cyberpunk murder mystery in a totalitarian near future, where news and entertainment is controlled by a single entity called the Combine, a corporate monopoly that narcotizes the population with mind-numbing reality TV and upbeat news reports of sunny weather. Lt. Jansen (Fassbinder) is assigned to investigate a bomb threat at the headquarters of the Combine, which is run by a man known as Blue Panther, and given 72 hours to wrap the case (which is classified as a state secret) by his Chief, who is constantly under medical treatment.

This is a cartoon of a totalitarian culture where vegetables are forbidden and the police salute one another with a thumbs up and a smile and the film is filled with comic books both real and fictional (the Blue Panther is the star of his own series, where his nemesis Kyrsnopompas has become an icon of revolution) to hammer the message home. The mystery is silly and confusing but the film is entertaining, with Fassbinder dressed in a leopard-print suit and playing racketball in a police disco in his off hours. You can see the ravages of drugs and alcohol on Fassbinder, who is pale and pudgy and often out of breath in his scenes. He was dead by the time the film was released. This is more curiosity than classic but it is goofy fun and it features Fassbinder collaborators on screen (actors Günther Kaufmann and Brigitte Mira) and behind the camera (cinematographer Xavier Schwarzenberger) and a score by Tangerine Dream founder Edgar Froese.

It debuts on Blu-ray and DVD in the US with commentary by producer Regina Ziegler and the documentaries Rainer Werner Fassbinder: The Last Year (1982) and Wolf At the Door (2015) directed by Wolf Gremm, plus a booklet with essays by Nick Pinkerton and Samuel B. Prime.

crouchingtiger4kCrouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (Sony, Blu-ray, 4K UHD) – Ang Lee transformed his love of “wuxia pian” (China’s epic adventures of martial arts, chivalry, and melodrama of the past age) into a worldwide smash by creating, in his own words, “Sense and Sensibility with martial arts.” As much about the tragedy of repressed love and the rebellion of a feisty young princess (Zhang Ziyi) against an arranged marriage as a hot-blooded action film, it bubbles with heart, soul, and sheer poetry in motion. Michele Yeoh kicks up a storm while Chow Yun-Fat relies on poise, confidence, and minimalist movements to make himself the calm master in the center of frenzied fights. The film soars—literally—with high flying action scenes that border on magic, but it’s the romantic abandon and delirious imagery that gives the melodrama it universal appeal. Winner of four Oscars, including Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography.

It’s been newly remastered from a 4K master for the 4K UHD release, and features a collection of new and archival supplements. New to this edition is the three-part “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tiger – A Retrospective” featuring interviews with director Ang Lee, screenwriter/producer James Schamus, and film editor Tim Squyres, all conducted by Tasha R. Robinson (runs about 80 minutes all together), and the vintage featurette “The Making of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” plus six never-before-seen deleted scenes, two music videos, and a new introduction by director Ang Lee.

Carried over from previous releases are two commentary tracks, one with director Lee and longtime collaborator James Schamus, the other with cinematographer Peter Pau, an interview with Michelle Yeoh, and a gallery of stills. The filmmaker commentary is both entertaining and informative. Schamus cracks jokes but is genuinely sensitive to the film; he quips: “And now the exposition: Why are you doing this? I’m repressed and I’m in an Ang Lee movie,” during a conversation between the two female leads, but turns around to praise Michelle Yeoh’s performance as she holds the scene in close-up. Lee is no slouch in the humor department himself, but he’s more concerned with the cultural background, the themes of masters and disciples, and the physical ordeal of creating the film and the effects, especially the stunning martial arts sequences but also the amazing vistas and beautiful locations.

wailingThe Wailing (Well Go, Blu-ray, DVD), a South Korean thriller that takes a dark turn into supernatural horror, is the third feature from Na Hong-jin, director of The Yellow Seaand The Chaser, two of the more sophisticated thrillers to come out South Korean cinema. He does a nice job of putting his horror in the material world of modern life with Kwak Do-won as a somewhat dim underachiever cop who is way over his head investigating a double homicide in his little town. Kwak isn’t too bright but he’s a doting father to his smart little girl and there’s still a little spark in his marriage, even if they have to sneak off like a teenager to the backseat of their car to have a little private time. He’s gobsmacked by the bloody crime scene, unnerved by the sight of a silent woman who appears at each crime scene like a demonic spirit, and unsettled by the enigmatic Japanese traveler living in the hills (Jun Kunimura). They are all clearly interconnected and as the body count increases and an inexplicable plague of untreatable illnesses build he puts his attention to the Japanese man with a hidden shrine of incriminating photos. Is he a shaman or a villain, and is this a serial killer spree or demonic possession?

This is dark and disturbing and surprisingly long—over 2 ½ hours—and directed with a slow build that churns up the tension as it shifts suspicion around. Na splashes the crime scenes with blood and gore and suggestions of unimaginable violence perpetrated on the victims, and he captures weird scenes of unnerving behavior that could be evidence of dark forces at work or simply fevered imaginations at work. But it’s when Kwak’s pre-teen daughter develops a rash and starts spouting filthy language with a ferocious rage that comes and goes like a fever (recalling nothing less than The Exorcist) that the horror really hits home for Kwak, who tosses aside police procedure and overcomes his innate cowardice to save his daughter. That’s not entirely reassuring, mind you. Where American horrors tend to provide us with earnest cops and wise religious figures, this film (like an earlier, non-horror South Korean thriller, Memories of Murder) offers no such comforting protagonists or confident insights to the supernatural origins of the inexplicable events. And when things get really weird and twisted in the third act, the brakes are off on this ride.

On Blu-ray and DVD. In Korean with English subtitles, with two featurettes and the original trailer.

phantomtheatrePhantom of the Theatre (Well Go, DVD) – The Phantom of the Opera looms large in this Hong Kong haunted theater / romantic melodrama set in 1930s Shanghai, where a grand show palace is reopened for the first time since a troupe of acrobats died in a fire 13 years before. An ambitious filmmaker (Yo Yang) wants to shoot his debut feature, a supernatural romance, in the theater. A series of mishaps plagues the crew and scares the leading man off, prompting the director to step in opposite the lovely ingénue (Ruby Lin), who remains through the disasters. There’s a mysterious, scarred figure scurrying behind the scenes, characters burst into flame and appear to burn from the inside out (the director’s girlfriend is, coincidentally, the police pathologist), and flashbacks reveal that most of the players in this modern drama have direct ties to the fatal fire years before.

The film tries to have it both ways, delivering supernatural spectacle and then explaining it away with pseudo-science that doesn’t quite hold up, and turns into a revenge film and a murder mystery. It’s directed by Raymond Yip (Yip Wai Man), a veteran of popular costume epics and grand action films, and he gives it a lavish, colorful look. The old style melodrama is big and lush and romantic, like the old Hollywood pictures of the 1940s and 1950s with modern special effects. It may seem corny to American audiences but it’s entertaining and visually fun to watch.

On DVD only. In Mandarin with English subtitles, no supplements.

reignassassinsReign of Assassins (Anchor Bay, DVD) is a 2010 costume action drama making its belated American home video largely on the two international names in the Chinese picture: producer John Woo, who has a co-director credit, and star Michelle Yeoh of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragonfame. Yeoh is a top assassin for Dark Stone, a criminal organization determined to find the remains of a great martial arts master that is said to give great power to whoever possesses them. The relics are something of a MacGuffin here, an object to set the story in motion as Yeoh takes the treasure and disappears into a new life (thanks to a black arts version of plastic surgery) married to a poor but honest courier (Jung Woo-sung). When she reveals her powers to save her neighbors from a gang of bank robbers, however, the top assassins from Dark Stone arrive to take the bounty on her head. This is a colorful but unremarkable mix of martial chivalry, costume drama, romance, and period martial arts spectacle with swordplay, flying acrobatics, and special effects. Action star Michelle Yeoh is duly enigmatic and Korean star Jung Woo-sung provides the romantic warmth, but it is otherwise routine with little sign of Woo’s action pyrotechnics or his operatic approach to melodrama.

On DVD only. Mandarin with English subtitles, no supplements.

Blu-ray/DVD: Takeshi Kitano’s ‘Violent Cop’ and ‘Boiling Point’

Violent Cop (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD)
Boiling Point (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD)

Takeshi Kitano has a way of making stillness into tension in his crime films.

violentcopIn the opening shot of Violent Cop, Kitano’s 1990 directorial debut, the camera holds on the smiling face of a toothless derelict. Like a pebble dropping into a pond the calm is shattered when a soccer ball knocks his dinner from his hand and a swarm of teens rushes him. The violence erupts out of nowhere as they relentlessly beat and kick him, and as the homeless man lies dead on the ground the feckless kids hop on their bikes and nonchalantly peddle away as if leaving the playground.

Into this cruel, uncaring world strolls Azuma (Takeshi), the police detective who earns the film its title many times over. In his first scene he beats a suspect, one of the teenage boys, in the kid’s own room. Azuma has a reputation for making up his own rules and he maintains a precarious position in the department that looks away as the lone wolf gets results at the price of unbridled police brutality. “Behave yourself for a year while I’m chief,” demands his new superior. He looks on like he hasn’t heard a thing, and before long he’s back to his usual tricks, running down suspects, beating drug dealers, planting evidence, even slugging a pimp standing in the stationhouse hall. Once in a while he cracks a smile, but mostly he wears a deadpan mask. Kitano has an amazing face, calm and bemused, at times almost blank, with big teddy bear eyes and soft features that suggest a gentle nature denied in his every action. Even when the battle becomes personal and the hair-trigger cop goes on his rogue rampage, he maintains that serenity, hardening just a bit, his crook of smile straightening out to a taut determination, perhaps suggesting a touch of bitterness and sadness.

Takeshi Kitano, better known by his nickname “Beat” Takeshi in Japan, rose to fame as a stand-up comic and remains one of Japan’s most popular TV personalities (he’s been known to host or star in as many as four TV shows simultaneously). His background helps explain how he can transform bullying bastards into such likable characters, but it doesn’t account for the fully realized style. Kitano stepped in as director of Violent Cop at the last minute and leapt out of the gate with a powerful, fully developed style. He boldly sketches shots with a seemingly simple directness and stages visceral action scenes with a mesmerizing impassivity: the camera locks down and watches the war zone erupt. And for a director of so-called action films, Takeshi’s cinema is full of static images and long digressions, intermissions from the blood sport. When the inevitable clashes recur, the sudden shots of brutality carry a startling kick to them.

boilingpointTakeshi’s second film, Boiling Point (1990), carries this stylistic idea even farther. The story concerns passive gas station attendant and baseball team benchwarmer Masaki (Masahiko Ono) whose one moment of action is a badly timed attack on a rude customer who just happens to be Yakuza. When the gangsters start taking it out on both his co-workers and his teammates, Masaki sets out to buy a gun and take care of the problem. Takeshi is even more oblique in his presentation of violent action and spends the middle of the film on a strange, rambling subplot involving a disgraced mobster (Takeshi again, this time in a supporting role as a fun loving brute with a penchant for rape) and his mission of revenge. The narrative almost dissolves in abstractions and digressions before the startling conclusion, but it remains a compellingly warped look at the uniquely Japanese culture of violence.

Violent Cop is a classic Japanese gangster tale shaped it into Kitano’s unmistakably warped reflection of cops and criminals culture with startling style and his charismatic presence, and is easily the bigger audience pleaser. Boiling Point isn’t as compelling but is in some ways more challenging and inventive. In these films he completely transformed the genre screenplay, a cops and gangsters tale of corruption and revenge, into a jaundiced, cynical vision.

Both are newly mastered for their respective Blu-ray debuts and new DVD editions. The initial DVD releases from the old Fox Lorber label fifteen years ago were pretty bad: soft, noisy, with interlaced video, and not mastered for widescreen TVs (no 16×9 option). These new discs are remastered in HD and are a marked improvement. They are sharper and feature greater detail and none of the video noise of the DVDs. The color, however, is a little weak and the image still a bit soft, likely due to the source materials.

Violent Cop includes the 20-minute featurette “That Man Is Dangerous: The Birth of Takeshi Kitano” and trailers. Boiling Point also includes the 20-minute featurette “Okinawa Days: Takeshi’s Second Debut” and the trailer. Both are in Japanese with removable subtitles and come with a booklet featuring an essay by Tom Vick.

More releases on DVD and Blu-ray at Cinephiled

Blu-ray Debuts: Two by Rohmer, ‘Tenderness of the Wolves,’ and Ford’s ‘Hurricane’

MarquiseThe Marquise of O (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD) – After Eric Rohmer completed his “Six Moral Tales,” and before launching into the “Comedies and Proverbs,” he tackled two projects very different than anything else in career. The first of these, The Marquise of O (1976), based on the novel by Heinrich von Kleist, leaves the young intellectuals of Paris for Italy of the late 18th century Napoleonic wars. During the Russian invasion the beautiful young Marquise (Edith Clever) is saved from certain assault the handsome and dashing Count (Bruno Ganz). She spends the night guarded by her chivalrous savior, who returns months later to rather insistently court her. Only when he leaves does she discover that she is, unaccountably, pregnant. Rohmer’s style is both more lush (shot in rich colors by Nestor Almendros) and less intimate than his previous romantic comedies, directed in painterly compositions from a removed distance. Unlike the self-obsessed young adults of his modern films, the Count and the Marquise act out of moral duty and social responsibility, and their actions reverberate through family and community.

Yet this is still a Rohmer film, filled with carefully tooled dialogue (spoken in German) and informed by irony. The story of innocence and corruption, and the shades that lay within even the best of men, ends on a note of delicate forgiveness and understanding. Rohmer followed this with an even more unexpected stylistic experiment, the beautiful and beguiling Perceval, which I hope is in consideration by Film Movement.

With archival interviews with director Eric Rohmer and star Bruno Ganz and a new essay by David Thomson.

FullMoonFull Moon in Paris (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD), the fourth of Rohmer’s six “Comedies and Proverbs,” stars Pascale Ogier as Louise, a restless designer bored with sleepy suburban life outside of Paris, lives with her lover Remy (Tcheky Karyo), a stable architect happy with a calm home life and a long-term relationship. The independent minded Louise decides to move back into her old Paris apartment during the week, losing herself in the bustle of dinner parties and nightclubs and single men, while spending her weekends back with Remy. Like an inversion of Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales” Louise becomes briefly entangled with another man, a spontaneous musician who is the opposite of Remy, but in a neat twist on the formula Remy himself drifts to another – at the suggestion of Louise herself.

This is the most ironic and, in many ways, judgmental of Rohmer’s films. Willowy Ogier’s kittenish sexuality and zest for life are wrapped in a self-absorbed determination that borders on indifference, but for the most part this is another wryly witty look at modern love from the master of the sophisticated romantic comedy. Fabrice Luchini plays Louise’s best friend and conniving confidante Octave and Laszlo Szabo appears as a café patron who pontificates on the magical effects of the full moon. Ogier, who died shortly after the film’s release, designed many of the handsome sets.

With an archival interview with actress Pascale Ogier and a new essay by David Thomson.

TendernessTenderness of the Wolves (Arrow / MVD, Blu-ray+DVD), based on the same true story that inspired Fritz Lang’s M, is a stylish and visually striking but narratively confusing and unpleasantly explicit thriller starring Kurt Raab as murderer, black marketeer and police informant Fritz Haarman, a pedophile who used his position to sweep the train stations and pick up young runaway boys.

Living well in the depression of post-World War I Germany, Haarman lured the boys to his attic apartment with the promise of a warm meal and bed, only to emerge alone the next morning with second hand clothes and black market “pork.” Director Ulli Lommel melds images from M and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu with the elegant camerawork, evocative sets and tableaux-style direction associated with the films of New German cinema auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who produced the film and appears in a small role. Screenwriter/star Kurt Raab suggests Peter Lorre by way of the vampire Nosferatu with his shaved head, child-like smile and hunched walk, an insidiously beguiling boy-man who turns feral to strangle and feast on the blood of his innocent young victims. Fassbinder’s inspiration is all over the elegant camerawork, handsome design, and tableaux-style direction and the film is well performed by cast made up of Fassbinder’s regular troupe. But it gets muddled in the middle, tangling the many threads before finally winding them together in a bold, baroque climax. Though lacking in the rich irony of Fassbinder’s works, it’s a striking, often startling film dominated by Raab’s unsettling performance.

In German with English subtitles. Newly restored and remastered by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, the Blu-ray debut (the release is a Blu-ray+DVD Combo) features commentary by director Ulli Lommel with moderator Uwe Huber, an introduction by Lommel, new video interviews with Lommel, director of photography Jurgen Jurges, and actor Rainer Will, and an appreciation by European horror expert Stephen Thrower, plus a booklet with art and essays.

HurricaneThe Hurricane (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) is frankly speaking one of John Ford’s weaker films. Based on the novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall (authors of “Mutiny on the Bounty”) and directed for high-rolling independent producer Samuel Goldwyn in 1937, it’s a drama of western civilization colliding with native culture in the South Seas, the same theme as Murnau’s Tabu but with more focus on the European characters and without the poetry or the power.

Jon Hall is the young Polynesian hero Terangi, a Tahiti native with a foot in both worlds, beloved by the islanders and the respected first mate of an American ship, and Dorothy Lamour his innocent Tahitian bride. They get top billing and it is ostensibly their story but the film spends a lot of time with the Caucasian characters in paradise debating culture, morality, and justice: the alcoholic doctor with a philosophical take on Tahitian life (Thomas Mitchell), the priest devoted to the islanders (C. Aubrey Smith), and the new island Governor (Raymond Massey), a strict, stiff martinet whose devotion to the letter of the Napoleonic code makes no room for justice or compassion, let alone the moral code of the local culture. Mary Astor is both his wife and his conscience, and he refuses to listen to either when he sentences Terangi to six months hard labor for punching a racist white man, and then extends his sentence by years for his failed escape attempts. This is paradise invaded by civilization, which casts judgement and punishes accordingly.

It’s clear that Ford’s heart isn’t in this one. Ever the professional, he delivers a handsome drama, but this kind of exotic romanticism is a poor fit for America’s film poet. The characters of the script (written by Dudley Nichols) are more debate positions than developed personalities, the natives are holy innocents, and the film is shot largely in the studio, which does no service to the tropical setting. Ford signed on because of the opportunity to shoot on location in the South Pacific and apparently lost interest when the production was relocated to the studio, with Catalina Island standing in for Tahiti in the film’s few outdoor scenes.

The title of the film arrives in the final act, whipping up a deadly storm while Terangi struggles to get home, and it’s quite the spectacle even if it was created in the studio, but it is also a confused metaphor for a film that sets up Terangi as a kind of Christ figure and the storm as the wrath of God. If this is Old Testament punishment, it’s taking it out on the wrong folks: the hurricane destroys the church and kills the innocent islanders (who are no better than extras in the drama) while sparing the westerner interlopers. If this is all just a lesson in compassion and multicultural respect for the Governor, there’s a lot of collateral damage. Still, it was a big commercial hit for Ford and Goldwyn. It was also the last film Ford made for Goldwyn.

It looks great, a good quality transfer with no evidence of damage. No supplements.

DevilsDIn The Devil’s Disciple (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play of the American Revolution, friends and frequent co-stars Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas teamed up for the third time. It’s an odd kind of American-British co-production: produced by Lancaster’s production company and directed by British filmmaker Guy Hamilton (who replaced Alexander Mackendrick, director of Lancaster’s “Sweet Smell of Success”), it is written by Brits, set in revolutionary America, and shot on England.

Lancaster is the idealistic, soft-spoken parish priest whose faith mother England is destroyed by the cruelty of British soldiers and Douglas is wanted criminal turned rabble rouser and revolutionary guerilla Richard Dudgeon, a nemesis who becomes a compatriot in a complicated triangle that involves the priest’s younger wife. Kirk is rather old for the role but a good match for the rebellious nature of the character and Lancaster is still and subdued as the priest, at least until the final act. Both are shown up by Laurence Olivier, the very model of cool, calm authority as a savvy British officer surrounded by thickheaded underlings.

What could have been turned into a swashbuckling revolutionary war adventure with witty characters remains largely stagebound. It’s shot largely on studio sets from a script that remains grounded in conversations and debates. The witty dialogue and energetic performances keep the film moving along but it never seems to break out of its constraints. There is also a creative and clever use of cut-out figures and 3D stop-motion animation to stand in for expensive battle scenes.

Strong image, crisp focus, excellent source material. No supplements.

Film Detective is a new company releasing public domain films on Blu-ray. It’s an idea that has been done right by Kino Classics, which partnered with George Eastman House, Library of Congress, and UCLA Film Archive to find the best quality materials from which to master their editions, and has been done wrong by companies like HD Cinema Classics, which tried to overcome damaged and inferior source prints with the digital scrubbing of digital noise reduction (DNR), which removes the blemishes and smoothes over the image. Film Detective looks to be following Kino’s model in two of its first releases, though it doesn’t quite meet the bar set by Kino.

BeatDevi;Beat the Devil (Film Detective, Blu-ray) is a cult film with an incredible pedigree. Directed by John Huston from a screenplay written on the fly by Truman Capote and starring Huston’s buddy Humphrey Bogart with Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, and Peter Lorre, it’s something of an anti-“The Maltese Falcon” with Bogart as a down-on-his-luck businessman fronting a group of swindlers attempting to take control of a uranium mind in Africa. Heavy with irony and black humor, the shaggy dog tale was a flop with audiences but it found admirers years later for the games of lies and flirtations played by the stars and the dry wit of the script and wry attitude injected by Huston’s direction. It feels much more modern than many films of its era, but because it fell into the public domain it has been victim to poor home video editions since the days of VHS.

The image on the Film Detective release is a little soft but it’s clean and detailed and in the proper aspect ratio and does not appear to be scrubbed with DNR tools. It’s an acceptable Blu-ray and superior to other public domain labels. No supplements.

SaltEarthSalt of the Earth (Film Detective, Blu-ray), the only American film ever to be blacklisted in the U.S., is an independently produced 1954 drama inspired by a real life strike in New Mexico by Mexican-American mineworkers. The cast is comprised largely of non-professionals (many of them participants in the real strike) and the film was financed by the mineworkers union and produced by socially-motivated artists that had been blacklisted from Hollywood, including producer Paul Jarrico, director Herbert Biberman, screenwriter Michael Wilson, and actor Will Geer (who plays the cruel sheriff that protects the strikebreakers).

It takes on issues of racial prejudice, social injustice, and economic inequity, often with a didactic approach, and delivers a message of collective action to improve working conditions and receive a fair wage. Remarkably it is built on the ordeal of the Mexican-American characters and there is no white movie star to save the day. But perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the film was the recognition of the participation and strength of the women, who rise to positions of leadership in the community and demand the same respect from their tradition-bound husbands and fathers that the men have been demanding from their bosses. This was all at the height of the Red Scare and the film was branded communist propaganda. It’s a remarkable portrait for its time, a landmark production that is still a powerful film. It was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1992.

The Blu-ray debut comes from a worn print and looks pretty scuffed up, but the transfer also presents a reasonably sharp image. A restoration is called for but until then this is an acceptable substitute. No supplements.