Tuesday, January 12, 2016

10 Best Blu-Ray Releases of 2015

2015 gave us an embarrassment of riches for cinephiles. Even as sales of physical media continue to decline, there are many specialty labels keeping the form alive, releasing great films on Blu-Ray and DVD that would probably not have otherwise seen the light of day. The internet has given us greater access to cinema than ever before, but thanks to a few dedicated labels, many amazing works are being released in pristine, hi-def editions for eager film fans and cinephiles to enjoy. Here are my ten favorite releases from last year that really stood out from the pack.

1
THE APU TRILOGY
(Criterion)

The Criterion Collection's long awaited release of Satyajit Ray's monumental Apu Trilogy was everything we hoped it would be, and more. From the wide eyed wonder of Pather Panchali, to the grim realities of growing up in Aparajito, to the full circle beauties of adulthood in Apur Sansar, The Apu Trilogy is a landmark of world cinema, seemingly containing the whole of life's experiences over the course of three masterful fulms. Beautifully restored and loaded with extras, Criterion's box set release is a kind of cinephile holy grail, offering top notch presentations of the greatest motion picture trilogy of all time (sorry, Star Wars fans).

2
MASTERWORKS OF AMERICAN AVANT-GARDE EXPERIMENTAL FILM
(Flicker Alley)

Flicker Alley has quickly become one of my very favorite distributors, regularly releasing great cinema in packages that rival industry standard bearer, Criterion. This stellar collection of avant-garde short films from 1920 to 1970 is an absolute goldmine for cinephiles, especially for fans of surrealism and experimental film. Some of these films have been released on similar collections before (Ballet Mechanique, Anemic Cinema, The Life and Death of 9413 - A Hollywood Extra, and Lot in Sodom, all appeared on Kino's excellent avant-garde collection several years ago), but they have never looked as good as they do here. This set offers a tour through 60 years of experimental filmmaking, including Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand's astonishing "city symphony," Manhatta (1920), animator Oskar Fischinger's mesmerizing MGM release, An Optical Poem (it's impossible to imagine a mainstream studio ever playing something like this in a theater now), and perhaps most notably, Maya Deren's dreamlike masterpiece, Meshes of the Afternoon. This is an absolutely essential collection, providing 418 minutes of boundary-pushing cinema that helped revolutionize the medium as we know it today.


3
CHAPLIN'S ESSANAY COMEDIES
(Flicker Alley)


Fresh off his seminal work for the Keystone studio, Chaplin left for competing studio, Essanay, for a year long, $1,250 per week contract. Chaplin didn't flourish creatively in quite the same way as he did at Keystone or Mutual (where he would go in 1916 after leaving Essanay), yet it is here where we begin to see the seeds of the characters and situations that he would expand upon in his feature films beginning in 1920 with The Kid. Flicker Alley, along with Lobster Films and Cineteca di Bologna, has collected his 15 Essanay films for this set, completing their collection of Chaplin shorts after releasing box sets of his Keystone and Mutual comedies. Many of these films showcase a different side of Chaplin than many of us are used to seeing - the affable, lovable Tramp with a heart of gold is here sometimes replaced by a drunken rogue out on the town (as seen in A Night Out). Released just in time for the 100th anniversary of the films, Flicker Alley's presentation showcases just how timely (and how funny) Chaplin continues to be.


4
MULHOLLAND DR.
(Criterion)

I was probably 14 or 15 the first time I saw David Lynch's Muholland Dr. It was the first time I had been exposed to cinema that lay outside the typical narrative conventions, and I haven't been the same sense. When I think of the first decade of this century, there are three films that come to mind as the top of the pantheon of great cinema - Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, Lars Von Trier's Dogville, and this. Revisiting the film now, 15 years older and more familiar with the world of surrealist filmmaking (and Lynch's oeuvre in general), I am still floored at the sheer power of Lynch's masterpiece. When I first saw the film as a teen, I didn't really understand it, but I knew I had seen something special, something brilliant, something that operated on a completely different level that anything I had ever seen before. I was able to follow its mysteries of Lynch's beautiful puzzle box better than I had before. It's a haunting, disturbing tale of doomed love, jealousy, and faded dreams in the city of light. Naomi Watts is a plucky young starlet looking to realize her dream of becoming an actress (and in the process gives one of the all time great performances). Laura Harring is a troubled amnesiac who is trying to discover her true identity after a car accident robber her of her memory. For the first two hours, we think we're watching two women search for one's identity. Then Lynch unlocks the blue box and plunges us down the rabbit hole, pulling the rug out from under us and upending everything we've already seen. This is David Lynch's Persona, a pyscho-sexual exploration of memory and identity that is clearly the work of an artist working at the height of his creative powers. Mulholland Dr. represents a singular vision in service of a seemingly straightforward film noir, warped through Lynch's own unique psyche. Sometimes words don't quite suffice. This is a film that needs to be experienced. Lynch's films are something you feel in the pit of you stomach, in the raised hair on your arms, in the depths of your soul. This is one for the ages.


5
DZIGA VERTOV: THE MAN WITH THE MOVIE CAMERA
(Flicker Alley)


"This experimental work aims at creating a truly international absolute language of cinema based on its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature." So begins Dziga Vertov's pioneering work of documentary cinema, Man with the Movie Camera, which chronicles Vertov's journey across the Soviet Union armed with his trusty movie camera. A wildly kinetic, experimental work that captures the pulsing rhythms of the city and championing the ideas of the Soviet Montage movement pioneered by Sergei Eisenstein, Man with the Movie Camera remains one of the most astonishing works of art in cinematic history. It's a shame that the score it is most often presented with, composed and performed by the Alloy Orchestra (based on notes by Vertov), often feels too modern and grating, which distracts from Vertov's stunning imagery. Still, it's hard to deny Vertov's genius, and even with the grating score it still shines through, capturing the humming city and progress of technology in often glorious fashion. Also contains Vertov's Kino-Eye, Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass, and Three Songs About Lenin.

6
FAUST
(Kino)

F.W. Murnau's 1926 adaptation of Goethe's Faust, remains perhaps one of the most impressive achievements of silent cinema. Not only are the visual effects especially impressive (thanks to the massive resources of UFA Studios), but Murnau's imagery is some of the most haunting in all cinema history. Based on the German folktale, Faust is a religious allegory about a man who is the subject of a bet between God and the Devil, in which the Devil offers elderly alchemist Faust power, glory, and eternal youth in exchange for his soul. Emil Jannings is great fun as the demonic Mephisto, chewing the scenery with great gusto. The film becomes somewhat distracted in the third act as it pulls away from Faust and Mephisto, a small quibble in such a masterfully directed film. The expressive imagery is nothing short of stunning, from the impeccable period detail, to the evocation of a plague-ridden village, to the unforgettable moment when Faust first summons the Devil, Faust is a visual marvel. The new restoration and Blu-Ray by Kino Lorber is stunning, enhancing Murnau's striking use of light and shadow. Murnau certainly made better films, but Faust remains his most technically dazzling marvel.

7
HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR
(Criterion)


There is a special and unique beauty about Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour, a landmark of the French New Wave and the film that put the legendary director on the map. Set in post-war Japan, the film is a love story between a French woman and a Japanese man with very different perspectives on the war. Resnais splinters the narrative with an almost Rashomon-like disregard for time and truth, capturing the essence of a foreign love affair with a delicacy that recalls David Lean's Brief Encounter. But unlike that film, Resnais experiments with the form (some refer to the film as the first modern sound film), incorporating the theories of Sergei Eisenstein into something that feels thrillingly contemporary even today. Resnais uses the setting of Hiroshima, now a commercialized tourist destination a mere 14 years after it was destroyed by a nuclear bomb, as a hub for the disorienting collision of tradition and modernity, love and war, peace and chaos, to deliver a jarring yet strangely familiar narrative of deep, passionate longing.

8
JE T'AIME, JE T'AIME
(Kino)


Another Resnais release, this time from Kino Lorber, who gave it one of their finest treatments of the year. Resnais dabbled in science fiction (sort of) for his 1968 film, Je T'aime, Je T'aime, delving into the mind of a man who becomes trapped in his own past (or as Resnais put it, a perpetual present) during an experiment in time travel. Forced to relive the same moments over and over again, he begins to unravel not only his own guilt over the death of a former lover, but the root of his own attempt at suicide. Resnais' approach to sci-fi is so subtle that it never feels like "sci-fi" as we often think of it. It recalls the work of Chris Marker in its philosophical poetry (and would go on to inspire films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), taking a seemingly random tour through the events of one man's memories. It's a boldly experimental work, seemingly caught in a temporal loop of repeating moments and ideas, giving the audience a constant sense of deja-vu. Have we seen this already? Didn't he just say that? The effect is both disorienting and exhilarating, as Resnais constantly pushes the boundaries of cinematic logic in favor of something that borders on the surreal. Based in part on stream-of-consciousness writings by Belgian surrealist, Jacques Sternberg, Je T'aime, Je T'aime is a work of fragmented genius, conjuring images and moments like randomly firing synapses of a dying brain. Seemingly random, yet anything but, Resnais crafts a confounding portait of a life that is at once chaotic yet perfectly calibrated, evoking the nature of both memory and time in thrillingly ingenious ways.

9
DIARY OF A LOST GIRL
(Kino)

Has there ever been a movie star with the same luminosity as Louise Brooks? Her darkly seductive features make up the expressive core of G.W. Pabst's 1929 silent masterpiece, Diary of a Lost Girl, a tragic tale of a young woman who is sent off to boarding school after becoming pregnant out of wedlock. After escaping boarding school to find her child, she ends up working as a high class prostitute before returning to upend the society that shunned her. One of the things that makes the film so striking today is just how startlingly contemporary it feels. Pabst's fluid camera movements, the lingering close-ups, the masterful compositions, it's a gorgeous film. And while the plot often feels like one of those old melodramas where tragedy and misfortune happen so frequently that it threatens to become laughable, Pabst handles the material with such a gentle hand that it transcends its pulpy source material with a kind of delicate lyricism. Pabst knew how to use Brooks better than anyone, and she was never more breathtaking than she was here. Heavily censored upon its original release in 1929, the film has been restored to its original glory as intended by Pabst, and it is a masterpiece of the silent era.


10
TROLL/TROLL 2
(Scream Factory)

Maybe this is the fanboy in me talking, but I loved this release so much. I've been a Troll 2 fan ever since seeing Michael Paul Stephenson's Best Worst Movie at SXSW in 2009, and having the two films together in one set is great. Best Worst Movie is kind of the ultimate special feature for Troll 2, while stars George Hardy and Deborah Reed provide an amusing commentary track for the film. Also included is Troll, which is actually a good movie (unlike the so-bad-it's good Troll 2), but so rarely gets any attention because of the infamy of its more famous not-sequel. Troll 2 is not a film you need to see on Blu-Ray to appreciate (beautiful it is not), but this is a must-have set for Nilbog fans of all ages.


LABEL OF THE YEAR
Flicker Alley

With their continued dedication to quality over quantity, their trio of substantive sets (Masterworks of American Avant-Garde Experimental Film, Chaplin's Essanay Comedies, and Dziga Vertov: The Man with the Movie Camera), plus releases of 3-D Rarities, Sherlock Holmes, and a new VOD program for silent classics, lifts them to the top of the class. Flicker Alley had an amazing year, and their dedication and passion to their products places them firmly as 2015's Blu-Ray MVP.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Blu-Ray Review | "Moana with Sound"/"Tabu"

Ethnographic films had been all the rage in the 20's, as film gave audiences unprecedented access to cultures they had never been able to see before. Robert Flaherty was one of the foremost directors of ethnographic film, and is perhaps best known for directing the classic silent film, Nanook of the North.  Kino Classics has released two Flaherty films, Moana with Sound (1926) and Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931) in stunning new Blu-Ray editions that give us a deeper look into the island world that Flaherty so fell in love with.

Normally I would not be an advocate for putting sound into silent films, but a film like Moana almost demands it. Robert and Frances Flaherty's documentary about life in a Samoan village was meant as a kind of travelogue, a document of another civilization. One of the filmmakers' greatest regrets about the film is that they could not capture the people's singing, leaving a film that, to them, felt somehow incomplete. In 1975, the filmmakers' daughter, Monica Flaherty, returned to the island to record the sounds her parents could not, and breathed new life into Moana. The resulting film, known as Moana with Sound, feels like a whole new film, and a completely new experience. It feels like a more complete version of the film, a deeper immersion into the cultures that Robert and Monica Flaherty set out to depict. While the sounds don't always fit perfectly, it's remarkable how natural they often seem, providing a more accessible portrait of Savai'i, even if it is no longer 100% authentic. Still, you can't help but feel this is what the Flahertys really wanted to bring back from the island, and Moana with Sound is the most fully realized version of their vision.

Several years into the sound era, Flaherty, along with F.W. Murnau and  bucked the current Hollywood trend and set out to Bora Bora to make a make an ethnographic document of island life. Flaherty was known for his ethnographic films, and in teaming up with legendary German filmmaker, F.W. Murnau, they created something of a perfect marriage between their two styles. Less authentic, perhaps, than Flaherty's previous ethnographic work, but thanks to Murnau, more artistically satisfying, Tabu is a Romeo & Juliet-esque tale of star crossed native lovers.

A young woman is chosen to be a virgin symbol of the tribe, but her young lover refuses to give her up. So the two run away together, bringing a death warrant upon their heads, as they navigate the tricky political waters of an island paradise being encroached upon by western civilization. Tabu is a more political work than Flaherty's other, more observational documentaries, a fact probably more attributed to Murnau, who brings a kind of shadowy tension to the pristine beauty of Bora Bora. Murnau lends a sense of inevitable tragedy to the proceedings, placing an idealistic young couple in the middle of a clash of cultures, of tradition vs. modernity. It's a relatively minor Murnau film, lacking the director's usual visual flair (perhaps due to the almost documentary-like shoot), but Murnau's mastery of film as a visual language remains on display, along with Flaherty's clear love of its island location.

MOANA WITH SOUND - ★★★ (out of four)
TABU - ★★★½ (out of four)