Note: For archiving purposes, I've included my personal contributions to this column below. Please follow the link provided in the introduction to read the entire feature.
"While most people reading this feature might struggle with only visions of sugarplum dragon tattoos dancing in their heads, there's plenty else deserving of your attention in the realm of movies at present. With a great puff of hot air, Jordan Cronk and I attempt to pin-down the fall’s best DVD and Blu-ray releases, and just in time for your wish/shopping list. As a matter of fact, the twelve releases below may just suffice as replacement for the ol’ partridge, turtle doves, French hens and colly birds." Kathie Smith [InRO]
Le beau Serge / Les cousins [Criterion; Region A]
Time clouds history. In the world of the arts in particular, it’s easy to streamline events into convenient narratives. The nouvelle vague movement has experienced many a revisionist history lesson, its inception and concluding dates blurred between films, directors, and political incidents. Nowadays, it’s François Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” that’s generally considered the new wave’s first dispatch. But going by the school of thought that birthed the movement, and which was taught in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema, the first two films by critic Claude Chabrol more accurately mark the new wave’s official demarcation point. Released in 1958, a year prior to Truffaut’s coming-of-age classic, Chabrol’s debut, “Le beau Serge,” finds maturity itself stunted in its title character’s (Gérard Blain) adolescent misconceptions about adult responsibility. When Serge’s lifelong friend, foil and attempted savior, François (Jean-Claude Brialy), arrives home after a prolonged absence, a series of intimate considerations and interventions are staged by Chabrol in soberingly direct fashion. Chabrol had yet to abandon optimism, however, and the look of exhausted hope on Serge’s face as the film closes reflects the sense of progress the new wave was hoping to instill on a stagnant French film industry.
1959's “Les cousins” again posits Blain and Brialy as mirror images of each other; however, in a clever bit of role reversal, Brialy plays the troubled bohemian to Blain’s visiting innocent. The titular duo are staged by Chabrol engaging in verbose debates similar to those in “Le beau Serge,” though the closed confines of much of “Les cousins” bespeaks Chabrol’s increasingly conscious attention to composition and detailed mise-en-scène. Further, the sanctity which eventually marks the characters of “Le beau Serge” is stripped bare in “Le cousins,” Chabrol’s much more severe outlook manifesting in a series of misgivings which lead to tragic consequences for all involved. These bleaker tendencies would eventually find their greatest compatibility in Chabrol’s ultimate genre of choice, the thriller, but restricted to the chic modern interiors of “Les cousins,” they instead give rise to one of Chabrol’s most pointed character studies.
Criterion recently debuted both these early nouvelle vague gems in pristine Blu-ray transfers, enhancing the natural exteriors and countryside sprawl of “Le beau Serge” while highlighting Chabrol’s intricate use of interiors in “Les cousins” with appropriately precise clarity and contrast. And while both discs feature worthwhile extras, “Le beau Serge” is the more robust package. Supplements include a lengthy making-of documentary entitled “Claude Chabrol: Mon premier film,” featuring interviews with Chabrol and Brialy; a vintage 1969 television program that finds Chabrol visiting his hometown of Sardent, where “Le beau Serge” was shot on location; and a wonderful audio commentary track by Guy Austin detailing the history and significance of Chabrol’s debut feature. The “Les cousins” disc features a commentary track of its own by Adrian Martin, but misses out on any further interview or documentary materials (which is unfortunate since this is the better of the two films in my view). Both releases also feature informative and handsomely designed booklets with critical essays and A/V specs. Each package is sold separately but if ever two films felt thematically and historically conjoined, it’s “Le beau Serge” and “Le cousins,” two works that gave realization to the dreams of a new generation of French film theorists.
Kuroneko [Criterion; Region A]
The Samurai class has been so romanticized in 20th century Western art and culture that it can frequently paint an inaccurate portrait of Japan’s top-tier warrior demographic. The cinema has helped propagate broad opinion concerning this nominally noble, militarized sect of pre-industrial Japan, and while the bushidō code certainly tied loyalties close to the regime at hand, there were those—just as in every successive strata of nobility the world over—who used their status as a means for personal or political gain. Born into a farming family, Japanese journeyman director Kaneto Shindo frequently parlayed his adolescent experiences with rebel Samurai into opportunities for less than flattering cinematic portrayals of the East’s most lasting cultural coterie. Shindo’s 1968 J horror-anticipating “Kuroneko” treads similar ground to that of his 1964 masterpiece “Onibaba,” both of which pit two women against an evil strain of wandering Samurai. However, only "Kuroneko" accentuates its supernatural and spiritual elements, elevating the narrative into the realm of fable. After a mother and daughter are left for dead by a troupe of rouge Samurai, a mysterious black feline (the film's title literally translates to “black cat”) tends to their wounds as the deceased spirits of the women make after-life plans to enact punishment on their abusers. Commingling the characteristics of both apparition and bakeneko, the women execute a series of comeuppance rituals on anonymous Samurai before coming face-to-face with their long-absent son/brother—now a Samurai himself—inevitably pitting new-found instincts against memory. Through an innovative use of wire choreography and immaculate stage lightning and cinematography, Shindo orchestrates a series of thrilling ariel dance showdowns against eerily shadowed backdrops. But it’s his expert balance of the humane, the spiritual, and the metaphysical which ultimately provide the necessary dimensions—both cerebral and visceral—to canonize this masterful work.
After rolling out a theatrical restoration of “Kuroneko” in 2010, in association with Janus Films, the Criterion Collection debuts this jewel of the kaidan genre in an equally impressive 1080p transfer. Together with a new, uncompressed soundtrack, the aural and visual flourishes of Shindo, cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda, and composer Hikaru Hayashi translate in the highest possible regard. Extras are slim but informative: an hour-long interview with Shindo conducted in the late ‘80s highlights the set, and though it doesn’t touch on “Kuroneko” at any great length, there’s enough contextual and biographical information that is touched on to make it a very worthwhile inclusion here. A second interview rounds out the video supplements, this time with critic Tadao Sato, and running about ten minutes in length. Included in the requisite booklet is a historically detailed essay on the film by Maitland McDonagh, as well as an excerpt from Joan Mellen’s 1972 interview with Shindo, which first appeared in the book “Voices from the Japanese Cinema.” Criterion have always done an admirable job representing Japanese film in the collection, but “Kuroneko” is one of their best recent acquisitions and their presentation of the film is both aesthetically pleasing and satisfying for its many annotations.
Aki Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys [Criterion; Region A]
You could label everything Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki has done as deadpan comedy. But it pays to differentiate: great works such as “Ariel” and “Drifting Clouds” are downright melodramatic as compared to the Leningrad Cowboys series, which took as its subject the ongoing exploits of the titular collective, an outlandishly coiffed troupe of rock ‘n’ roll-bred optimists who travel halfway across the world looking for Stateside success, only to find fleeting fame in Mexico and eventually fall prey to the temptations of the bottle. The whole thing plays like “Spinal Tap” for the arthouse set: like everyone’s favorite classic-rock parodists, the Leningrad Cowboys achieved their own real-world success, touring throughout the ‘90s and on through to today with a repertoire consisting of stadium rock fixtures and cliché-riddled originals.
The three films and five music videos included in Criterion’s new Eclipse set, “Aki Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys,” represent the complete works the band created in collaboration with Kaurismäki. The collaboration's 1989 debut, “Leningrad Cowboys Go America,” remains the most indelible: traveling cross-country to Mexico, frozen guitarist in tow, stopping off for comic vignettes with Jim Jarmusch, and unsuccessfully avoiding run-ins with the law. The more thematically ambitious follow-up, “Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses,” turns their estranged manager into a prophet, who, upon reconciliation, exoduses them from the purgatory of Mexico. With the CIA now tailing the group, they head north on a tip for Coney Island before deciding to seek spiritual enlightenment in the Promised Land of Siberia.
Together the films form a circular sort of narrative and can easily stand alone as the fictionalized account of these earnestly elfin entertainers. Fiction meets reality in “Total Balalaika Show,” Kaurismäki’s concert film documenting the Cowboys’ 1993 homecoming in front of 70,000 (!) fans. It’s as ridiculous as it sounds, but as both time capsule and victory lap, also kind of charming in its way. As per usual, this Eclipse set has virtually no supplements—only the five original Cowboys' music videos (most of which play like short films), made between 1986 and 1993, and one-page liner notes by Michael Koresky on the inner case sleeve of each keep-case. It’s a modest set, one more for Kaurismäki completists or Leningrad Cowboys super-fans (there are at least 70,000 of you out there, apparently) than those unfamiliar with Finnish black comedy. But it's an oddity of such consistent delight that an Eclipse set of this sort seems like the perfect vehicle to bring the films to those who crave them.
Identification of a Woman [Criterion; Region A]
As Michelangelo Antonioni grew older, his release schedule became ever more methodical, reflecting his films’ patient narratives, while instilling even more weight on each subsequent image he deemed worthy of immortalization. Seven years passed between “The Passenger” and 1982’s “Identification of a Woman,” and it would mark not only a homecoming after 25 years of filmmaking in other parts of the world, but a final, completely solo effort for the Italian modernist. (His true final film, 1995's “Beyond the Clouds,” was facilitated by the efforts of Win Wenders, who shot and helped edit portions of it as Antonioni’s health waned.) In terms of precedence, “Identification of a Woman” can be seen as something of a sister film to “L’Avventura,” concerning as it does the disappearance of a leading female character and our male protagonist’s subsequent search and growing relationship with another, emotionally antithetical woman. 'Identification' bears all the hallmarks of late-period Antonioni: hypnotizing longtakes, powerfully evocation compositions, beautiful imagery, and risqué sequences of passionate sexuality. Always less a narrative filmmaker, more a purveyor of themes, these tools service three of Antonioni’s most memorable standalone moments: an extended sequence along a fog-enshrouded highway, an emotionally purging exchange set on a horizon-swallowing lagoon, and a climatic vision with sci-fi implications which stands as probably the loopiest, most left-field ending in Antonioni’s oeuvre (which is saying something).
Criterion’s new Blu-ray upgrades a blown-out, previously available import DVD of the film whose region-free capability was just about its only positive attribute. But beyond the darker, sharper hues exported by the 1080p transfer and the upgraded PCM audio track, there isn’t much else to mark this as a definitive release of the sadly underrated work. Unfortunately, there are no supplements included on the disc—a rarity for a debuting Criterion release in 2011—and only an essay by critic John Powers and a concurrent interview with Antonioni are included in the accompanying booklet (which is typically well-designed). It’s certainly great to see the film finally looking so fantastic for the home video market—and it’s certainly worthy of inclusion in the Collection—but it’s slightly disheartening that a film such as this, which could really use a serious critical reexamination, has been left so blankly staring back at the viewer when the resources that are presumably available for some sort of contextual supplements.
Hickey & Boggs [MGM Limited Collection; Region A]
The 1970s gave us enough high profile crime films for a near-lifetime of enjoyment, but there are just as many overlooked—or in some cases, flat-out forgotten—genre efforts from the era that deserve critical reassessment. Peter Yates’s “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” for example, is a recently rediscovered classic from this fertile period of morally ambiguous crime thrillers. A curio on a similar level but unfortunately without the digital distribution of a company like Criterion, MGM’s unexpected made-on-demand DVD-R of Robert Culp’s 1972 detective saga “Hickey & Boggs” grants this under-seen work its first legitimate digital home video release. As the titular, odd couple detective duo, Bill Cosby and director/actor Robert Culp make for a surprisingly compatible comedic and dramatic team, ricocheting off screenwriter Walter Hill’s realistically urban-centric dialogue. The intimate chemistry between the actors alone is enough reason to seek out the film, but from the director’s chair is where Culp does even more impressive work, staging a number of action set-pieces to rival anything your Freidkins or your Lumets were doing concurrently. (The centerpiece shootout at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, in particular, seems to have made at least a peripheral impact on filmmakers such as Michael Mann.)
This being a made-on-demand disc, no extras have been appended—nor were any expected. Here’s a film good enough to warrant a legitimate release but apparently without sufficient interest to make manufacturing and distribution of the title financially feasible. That’s why these M-O-D discs can prove worthwhile, as the simple availability of a film such as “Hickey & Boggs” is endorsement enough for the trend to continue. For those curious, this is the only game in town; and seeing how the film's been treated the last forty years, this could be it for the foreseeable future. Plenty of films deserve the digital red carpet treatment; most receive nothing of the sort. Perhaps we should be glad “Hickey & Boggs” has arrived to us in even this form, as availability is the first step toward remembrance and reconsideration.