"I had thought at first that it was too cold to snow." - Russell Banks

01.2023

1 boxset from Criterion

'Lars von Trier's Europe Trilogy' (Denmark, 1984/1987/1991)

Danish writer-director Lars von Trier has long had a reputation as a deeply troubled genius, one who has courted controversy as an alcoholic, depressive, male chauvinist who has treated actresses abominably, abused animals on set and proclaimed himself a Nazi. Nevertheless, as co-founder of the innovative Dogme 95 movement, one-time darling of the Cannes Film Festival, and man responsible for such prized films as Breaking the Waves, The Kingdom, Dancing in the Dark and Antichrist, von Trier has secured a place in modern cinema as an meticulous craftsman and inventor unafraid to break taboos and revel in exhibitionist hubris (even the "von" is pure invention, much like Hollywood's Josef von Sternberg). Now 66 and suffering from Parkinson's disease, the flawed genius is perhaps due some generosity of spirit, and that's what the film curators at prestige New York distributor The Criterion Collection have done in creating an elaborate Blu-ray boxset of the director's first three feature films. Packaged as 'The Europe Trilogy', there's the  moody English-language thriller The Element of Crime (1984); a quasi-horror movie within a movie about the creative process (mostly in Danish and co-starring von Trier himself) called Epidemic (1987); and finally, the better-known and more conventional road (or rather, rail) movie Europa (aka Zentropa) (1991) set on a train moving through post-WWII Germany, narrated (in English) by Max von Sydow and starring Jean-Marc Barr, Eddie Constantine, Barbara Sukowa and Udo Kier (as well as von Trier in a brief but intense scene in which he plays a newly liberated Jewish Holocaust survivor). Besides some very fine restorations in 4K and 3K, Criterion's set comes loaded with special features; none are new, but brough together in one place they do deepen and inspire a re-appreciation of von Trier's early work. On The Element of Crime, you get: an audio commentary from 2005 by von Trier with his cinematographer Tom Elling and editor Tomas Gislason; a second commentary track from 2005, this time with experts Peter Schepelern and Stig Björkman; an hour-long documentary by Björkman from 1997 called "Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier";  a half-hour making-of shot on set; 11 minutes of Elling explaining his storyboards in 2005; 20 minutes of reminiscences by other crew members in 2005; two shorts von Trier made in film school, "Nocturne" (1980, 9 mins.) and "Images of Liberation" (1982, 52 mins.); and a trailer. By contrast, the Epidemic disc is comparatively light on extras: an audio commentary by von Trier and co-star Niels Versel from 2005; a half-hour interview with the director shot for Danish TV in 1991; 17 minutes of cast-and-crew anecdotes from 2005; and from the same year a career look-back by veteran cinematographer Henning Bendtsen; there's also a trailer. Lastly, on the Europa disc, there are two audio commentaries (one by von Trier and producer Peter Aalbaek Jensen, the other, of select scenes, by the director with Barr and Kier); a 39-minute making-of, shot on set; 21 minutes of cast-and-crew anecdotes from 2005; 17 minutes of testimonials by von Trier's collaborators and 12 minutes of composer Joachim Holbek describing the movie's score, also from 2005; two 45-minute documentaries (a sit-down interview with von Trier in 2005 and another with him from 1991, with clips shot on set and at Europa's premiere and press conference at Cannes; and a trailer. Rounding out the boxset is a 26-page, stapled, full-colour booklet featuring an essay by American critic Howard Hampton, repurposed from the one he wrote for Criterion's 2008 DVD release of Europa.

The Best of 2022

Who put together the best boxset? Which neglected classic finally made it to Blu-ray?  What cover art really popped? Once again, I and close to 120 reviewers and critics rank the year's best home-video releases.

12.2022

1 from Powerhouse

Remember the Night (U.S., 1940)

A jewel thief faces jail time but is sprung for the Christmas holidays by a friendly prosecutor, in this moving hybrid of a courtroom comedy, road-movie romance and good ol' fashioned Hollywood weepie starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. Travelling full circle from bustling New York City to rural Indiana, past the Canadian border at Windsor and onto Niagara Falls, Ont., and winding up back in NYC, the movie pairs Stanwyck and MacMurray for the first time, several years before the co-stars' most famous outing in Billy Wilder's 1944 noir Double Indemnity. With a scintillating script by writer and soon-to-be director Preston Sturges (Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story), the film is helmed by Mitchell Leisen, who coupled a background in costume design and art direction with an intuitive gift for helping actors in his dramedies inhabit their roles, just as he would again in 1941 with another classic road movie, Hold Back the Dawn, starring Charles Boyer and Olivia de Havilland. Despite its Yuletide setting, Remember the Night isn't on the average viewer's (or TV broadcaster's) list of Christmas movies, and that's a shame, because this one has it all: laughs, tears, celebration, forgiveness, and ultimately, love. Now given a proper Blu-ray release complete with 80-page book and colourful cardboard box, the film comes with a number of contextual extras as well. There's a new audio commentary by film historian Adrian Martin; a half-hour appreciation of the movie by veteran critic and author Geoff Andrew ; another half-hour appreciation, this time with critic Pamela Hutchinson, who sketches out the life and times and movies of Stanwyck, born Ruby Stevens; and two Lux Radio Theatre adaptations of the story, the first from March 1940 with MacMurray, Stanwyck and co-stars Beulah Bondi, Elizabeth Patterson and Sterling Holloway, the second from December 1941 with Jean Arthur taking Stanwyck's part. There's also an original theatrical trailer and an image gallery of dozens of stills and publicity shots, lobby cards and posters of the film. The illustrated book has a new essay by critic Rick Burin, archival interviews with cast and crew, articles on the careers of Leisen and Sturges, a round-up of reviews from the time, and full film credits. Oh, and there's a foldout poster, which you can hang by the tree or spread out under the mistletoe, take your pick.

1 boxset from Second Run

'The War Trilogy: Three Films by Andrzej Wajda' (Poland, 1955/57/58)

In the mid- and late 1950s, just barely 30 years old, Poland's Andrzej Wajda directed a series of three harrowing feature films about his country's brutalization under Nazi occupation in the Second World War that are landmarks not only of postwar East European cinema but of world cinema as a whole. Last issued in an English-friendly DVD boxset by The Criterion Collection in 2005, the trilogy now premieres on all-region Blu-ray courtesy of niche U.K. distributor Second Run, whose promotional material describes these films as "powerful and often harrowing accounts of the Polish Resistance through World War II and after, and a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the struggle for personal and national freedom." Transferred from new 2K restorations by Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych i Fabularnych (WFDiF), Poland, the set includes all three movies from Wajda's famous opus, including A Generation (Pokolenie, 1955), Kanał (1957), and Ashes and Diamonds (Popiół i Diament, 1958). On each disc are several extras, old and new. There are 10-minute clips of interviews done with Wajda late in his career, new introductions by Polish film scholar Michał Oleszczyk, new audio commentaries by film historian Michael Brooke, and three of Wajda's early short films, newly remastered: "The Bad Boy" (1951), "Ceramics from Iłża" (1951) and "While You’re Sleeping" (1953). The three booklets have new essays by critics Ewa Mazierska, Tony Rayns and Peter Hames. One remark on the transfers of the films themselves: Kanal looks best, while A Generation and Ashes and Diamonds often appear, to my eyes, overly contrast-y, with the lovely grey scales of the Criterion transfers now lost in overboosted blacks, from start to finish. This is quite evident in the long, 360-degree opening tracking shot of the first film, where shadow robs clothes of their creases and people disappear momentarily into unnaturally dark alleyways, as well as in the unforgettable final tracking shot of the third film, where star Zbigniew Cybulski's dying Resistance fighter collapses in a blindingly black-and-white field of garbage.