"Vienna ... It was the winter of 1933, and the streets were either covered with ice or damp with the suicidal Föhn." - Kay Boyle

03.2022

1 from Second Run

Coach to Vienna (Czechoslovakia, 1966)

Czech writer-director Karel Kachyňa is best-known for Ucho (The Ear), a claustrophobic film about surveillance of (and by) the apparatchiks of his country's old Communist regime. Banned for 20 years until the Velvet Revolution, the drama finally premiered at the Cannes Film Festival of 1990, where it was nominated for the Palme d'or. But that wasn't Kachyňa's first experience with making a film that took two decades to get released. In 1966, he shot Kočár do Vídně (Coach to Vienna), another atmospheric tale of suspense, this time set in the waning days of the Second World War. Again co-written with Jan Procházka, with a neoclassical score by Jan Novák, the film follows a young Czech widow who, after her husband is executed by the Germans, is ordered at gunpoint by a Wehrmacht deserter, barely out of his teens, to hitch up her horses and take him and his badly wounded comrade on a long wagon-ride away from the advancing Russian army. Along the endless southern forest roads they trundle, trying to get home to Austria, the kid soldier jabbering away all the while in German, the peasant woman sitting mute at the reins, taking orders yet understanding little else that's said to her. Several times along the way, she gets a chance to turn the tables on her abductors and avenge her husband's killing – but will she take it? And who is the real enemy, anyway: the retreating Germans, the Russian liberators, or the Czech partisans waiting in ambush? Is the poor young woman safe from any of these men, in the end? Little wonder that Kachyňa's movie was banned by the Communists: offering no easy answers, it's the kind of black-and-white film where shades of grey dominate the moral actions of its characters. Clocking in at a crisp 80 minutes, Coach to Vienna never slackens in its quiet intensity. Alternating between forward movement and circlings back through manmade and natural worlds (the warring humans, the indifferent woods), the movie reminded me, strangely enough, of "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," a 1961 short-film adaptation of the Ambrose Bierce story, set during the American Civil War, about a hanging that ends abruptly when the rope breaks. Haunting stuff. For its Blu-ray premiere, Coach to Vienna has been newly restored in 4K by the Czech National Film Archive and transferred to a region-free disc by British boutique distributor Second Run. It comes with a new audio commentary by Projection Booth podcasters Mike White, Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger, and one big extra: "It's Not Always Cloudy" (1949), about the Krušné hory borderland with Germany and how farming was restored by the Czechs as a collective venture after they kicked the Sudetens out in the summer of 1945; Kachyňa and his fellow Moravian filmmaker Vojtěch Jasný (All My Good Countrymen, also available from Second Run) co-directed the 68-minute propaganda exercise as their graduation project at the famed Prague film school FAMU. There's also a trailer, an image gallery of rare Hungarian lobby cards for Coach to Vienna (28 in all), and a 20-page booklet with a new essay by Czechoslovak-cinema scholar Jonathan Owen.

1 from Criterion

Le cercle rouge (France/Italy, 1970)

"Alain Delon plays a master thief, fresh out of prison, who crosses paths with a notorious escapee (Gian Maria Volontè) and an alcoholic ex-cop (Yves Montand). The unlikely trio plot a heist, against impossible odds, until a relentless inspector" –  Bourvil (La grande vadrouille), for once cast against type in a non-comic role – "and their own pasts seal their fates. With its honorable antiheroes, coolly atmospheric cinematography, and breathtaking set pieces, Le cercle rouge is the quintessential film by Jean-Pierre Melville – the master of ambiguous, introspective crime cinema."  So goes the distributor's blurb and I would add as an advisory to first-time viewers that this is neo-film-noir done à la française by an independent director inspired by America but determined to give it a touch of the French nouvelle vague. Born in 1917, Jean Pierre Grumbach (later to adopt the name Melville, after the author of Moby Dick), was drawn to the corrupt, fatalistic, criminal worlds depicted in Hollywood B-movies of the 1930s and '40s, and went them one better with classics of his own: Le doulos, Le samourai, and this, his masterpiece, Le cercle rouge. At 140 minutes, the movie has more temps morts (literally) than a conventional thriller but that's partly the point: like moviemaking itself, organized crime isn't just about the flash of action but also about the patient buildup to action required of seeing the best-laid plans succeed. Crime doesn't always pay, of course – and here, well, let's just say its victims are the hors-la-loi who think it does, and learn otherwise. 

For its new Blu-ray edition, U.S. distributor Criterion reprises its 2011 Blu-ray edition (which was an upgraded copy of its 2004 double-DVD edition) but with a big bonus for fans of ultra-high definition home video: there's not just the Blu-ray disc but also a 4K UHD disc, and on both the film has been newly restored in 4K (making the visual crisper while also darker) by French distributor StudioCanal. The 4K UHD disc has just the film, presented in Dolby Vision HDR. The Blu-ray has the film and the same extras as the previous BD and DVD editions, all focused on Melville and featuring archival footage of him drawn from French TV programs of 1970 and 1971. There's a half-hour look at the director from a show called "Cinéastes des notre temps," 10 minutes from "Morceaux de bravoure," five minutes from "Pour le cinéma," another five from "Midi magazine" about Le cercle rouge, and four from "Vingt-quatre heures sur la deux." Also included are two half-hour interviews from 2003 with assistant director Bernard Stora and with Rui Nogueira, author of the 1972 illustrated study Melville on Melville, in conversation with film historian Robert Fischer. Lastly, there's the film's original trailer. The 28-page booklet has essays, as before, by film critics Michael Sragow and Chris Fujiwara, excerpts from Melville on Melville, a 2000 interview with composer Eric Demarsan, and an appreciation by filmmaker John Woo.

02.2022

1 from Eureka! Masters of Cinema

The Indian Tomb (Germany, 1921)

Does the title sound oddly familiar? Be prepared to lose your bearings as you descend into the subterranean vaults of German cinema in pursuit of Fritz Lang and a twisted tale of jealousy set in colonial India. In 1959 the renowned director of such classics as Metropolis, M and Ministry of Fear made a two-part Technicolor talkie from a screenplay he adapted with his ex-wife, Thea Von Harbou, from her1918 novel The Indian Tomb. But it was not their first stab at the story. Nearly four decades earlier, in 1921, Lang and Von Harbou collaborated on a silent-movie version directed by Lang's Austrian compatriot Joe May. Shot in black-and-white with colour tints and presented in two parts – The Mission of the Yogi and The Tiger of Bengal – they star Conrad Veidt as a jealous mararajah who commissions an architect (played by Olaf Fønss) to design and build a magnificent mausoleum in which he will wall up his princess (May's wife, Mia) on suspicion of infidelity. (Lang's colour remakes were slightly different, presented in reverse order as The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb, and starred Walther Reyer, Paul Hubschmid and Deborah Paget.) As part of its 'Masters of Cinema' series, U.K. distributor Eureka! has made both the silent and sound versions available for home viewing: Lang's films came out in a region-free DVD set in 2011 and May's are now being issued on region-B Blu-ray. Restored in 2K by the F.W. Murnau Foundation, the silent films feature a musical score from 2018 by Czech composers Irena and Vojtěch Havel, optional English subtitles, a new 46-minute video essay by David Cairns and Fiona Watson, and a collector's booklet with a new essay by Philip Kemp.

1 from Paramount

Wayne's World / Wayne's World 2 (U.S., 1992-93)

They're back, in different packaging. Mike Myers and Dana Carvey reprise their 'Saturday Night Live' TV personas, Chicago rock-and-roll fanboys Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar, in two full-length movies, Wayne's World and Wayne's World 2, now re-released by Paramount in a regular Blu-ray duopack and also in steelbook format. Collectors might fancy the new hardcase but will be disappointed by the lack of any upgrade in quality of the transfers themselves – no 2K, let alone 4K – or any new extras. One other failing: Wayne still doesn't play "Stairway to Heaven" at the guitar store, as in the original film, because even 30 years on, the video rights to the Led Zeppelin song are presumably still too expensive to procure (we fans remain "not worthy"). On the technical side, with both films you still get the option of hearing Wayne and Garth speak and sing ("Bohemian Rhapsody") in a French or Spanish dub, and there's the same old directors' commentary tracks from 2001, the same twin standard-definition featurettes called "Extreme Close-Up" (23 mins. and 14 mins.), and the original trailers.

1 from Criterion

Boat People (Hong Kong, 1982)

The Hong Kong New Wave of 1970s and '80s cinema was cresting when Boat People was released in 1982, and to this day it remains a high-water mark in a movement that produced such classics as Allen Fong's Father and Son and Sui Hark's Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind. Directed by Ann Hui, Boat People probes what drove hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees to flee their homeland in the wake of the Vietnam War, as told through the eyes of a Japanese photojournalist (in an odd choice of of casting, played by Hong Kong pop singer George Lam) who's sent to cover the country's full transition to Communism. In the coastal city of Da Nang, he meets a teenage girl (Season Ma) and, through her plight and that of her impoverished family, gets a firsthand lesson in political repression and poverty – enough to understand what makes people desperate enough to want to take to the sea in search of freedom abroad. Interestingly, in a first for a Hong Kong director, Hui shot her movie on location inside Communist China, on giant Hainan Island east of Vietnam. Viewed today, Boat People can also be seen as a vision of what Hong Kong itself has increasingly become since returning to Chinese rule in 1997: a place where liberty struggles to stay alive under the crush of authoritarianism. The film's independent spirit suffers, however, from a rather formulaic presentation of the story, unaided by statically delivered dialogue recorded not live but looped in afterwards, making the chararacters sound almost disembodied at times. Criterion's Blu-ray (also available as a two-disc DVD set) features a newly restored 4K digital transfer approved by the director, along with a number of extras: a new conversation between Hui and her assistant director Stanley Kwan;  "Keep Rolling," a 2020 documentary about Hui by her production designer and art director Man Lim-chung; "As Time Goes By," a 1997 autobiographical documentary by Hui; footage of the press conference for the film held at the 1983 Cannes International Film Festival; and a trailer. The English subtitles for the Cantonese and Japanese dialogue are newly translated and the accompanying booklet features essays by film critic Justin Chang and scholar Vinh Nguyen. 

1 from Second Run

The Devil's Trap (Czechoslovakia, 1961)

Before Marketa Lazarová and before The Valley of the Bees, there was The Devil's Trap, and like those two better-known Czech historico-religious epics, František Vláčil's second feature film is a feast for fans of the Middle Ages. The setting is 16th-century Bohemia, in the town of Valeč, and the Inquisition is out for blood: a priest named Probus investigates a local miller  who's suspected of witchcraft after he confronts a landowner for trying to build on unstable land. A potent allegory of faith versus science (in this case, geology, as the miller has a gift for divining water), The Devil's Trap was awarded a special prize at the Locarno Film Festival. For its premiere on Blu-ray, the movie has been restored in high-definition and arrives via U.K. distributor Second Run on an all-region disc. There are two vintage extras: "In the Web of Time," a 1989 documentary portrait of Vláčil by cinematographer František Uldrich; and "The Week Starts on Friday," a 1962 short by Elmar Kloss about contemporaryCzech cinema exhibition that includes clips of The Devil's Trap. The accompanying booklet features a new essay by author and Czechoslovak cinema specialist Peter Hames.

01.2022

1 from Criterion

Festen, aka The Celebration (Denmark, 1998)

Denmark in the mid-1990s: when family and friends gather at the country hotel of a wealthy businessman (Henning Mortizen) to celebrate his 60th birthday, it seems the sumptuous affair will be a time for well-wishing, wining-and-dining and many a humorous toast to the beloved patriarch. But when the man's son (Ulrich Thomsen) stands up at the banquet table and delivers a shocking speech accusing his father of incest, the stage is set for a series of revelations and recriminations, revealing the underbelly of the hypocritical haute bourgeoisie. Festen – in English, The Celebration – was writer-director Thomas Vinterberg's second feature (after his 1996 road movie The Biggest Heroes) and the first in his and Lars von Trier's 'Dogme 95' movement of stripped-down filmmaking, presaging the democratizing changes to the industry wrought by video-camera technology. There's some irony, perhaps, that Festen is now getting the deluxe treatment on Blu-ray, via prestige U.S. distributor Criterion. Previously only released beyond Denmark in a variety of barebones DVD editions, the movie now comes in a special two-disc package featuring a 2K restoration done in 2018 and approved by Vinterberg, who's also seen in a 19-minute interview Criterion shot last September. The other extras are old but until now were unavailable outside Denmark: there's an audio commentary by Vinterberg; a 10-minute interview from 2005 in which he discusses the actual events that inspired the film; two early short films by him: Last Round (1993, 33 mins.) and The Boy Who Walked Backwards (1995, 39 mins.); a 2002 Danish documentary about Dogme 95 titled "The Purified" (68 mins.); interviews and footage of Festen's cast and crew at the film’s premiere in Copenhagen (24 mins.); "ADM:DOP," a 2003 profile of Festen's English cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) (12 mins.); 13 deleted scenes with optional audio commentary by Vinterberg; and a trailer. Festen's soundtrack is authentically monaural and uncompressed on this Blu-ray; as befits Dogme 95 rules, no stereo bump is provided. The special edition's packaging goes for a cleanly minimalist look: two clear plastic inserts nestled back-to-back in the double-disc case and printed with the film's title, synopsis and credits, and a narrow 18-page booklet of photo grids and essay by Michael Koresky, editorial director of New York's Museum of the Moving Image. Reprinted on the booklet's front and back and inside covers are Vinterberg and von Trier's original Dogme manifesto and their famous "vow of chastity," a list of 10 dos and don'ts: yes to things like real locations, natural light, and handheld cameras shooting 35-mm colour film; no to things like musical scores, special effects and even any crediting of the director. "The document took half an hour to write," Koresky confides, citing Vinterberg himself. In the end, he continues, "these films would quite naturally still call attention to themselves as creations, just with swagger and flourish recast as spareness and rigidity ... The Celebration foregrounds its own artificiality in this way." Reason enough to revisit it now, eyes wide open.

1 from Eureka! Masters of Cinema

The Sun Shines Bright (U.S., 1953)

John Ford wasn't happy with how his 1934 Hollywood drama set in a Kentucky town, Judge Priest , starring Will Rogers, had been cut by 20th Century Fox, including one disturbing scene of an attempted lynching. So he waited two decades and remade it under a different studio, Republic Pictures, this time casting Charles Winninger (Show Boat, Nothing Sacred) in the lead role and calling the movie The Sun Shines Bright. It takes place at the turn of the 20th century around the time the popular judge is up for re-election, opposed by a lone Yankee prosecutor (Milburn Stone). Ford's second attempt at the story wasn't entirely free of production problems: Republic, too, removed 10 minutes of footage (but not involving the lynch mob) for the film's release in 1953. Unlike Fox, however, the studio preserved an uncut master of the film, and that original version has now been restored for release on Blu-ray as part of the 'Masters of Cinema' collection of Eureka!, a leading British distributor. Playable on U.K. and European players, or on an all-region player, the region-B-coded disc includes a new audio commentary by film historian and Ford scholar Joseph McBride and a new video essay by Tag Gallagher, author of John Ford: Himself and His Movies. The accompanying 40-page booklet reprints the Irvin S. Cobb short story "The Lord Provides" from the Saturday Evening Post which inspired the film, along with new essays by James Oliver and Jonathan Rosenbaum.

1 from Second Run

The Party and the Guests (Czechoslovakia, 1966)

Banned until the Prague Spring of 1968 and then banned again until the Velvet Revolution of 1989, Czech director Jan Němec's The Party and the Guests is a hoot of the black humour kind. Seven friends are having a country picnic when they're suddenly waylaid by a strange group of men, whose Lenin-lookalike leader coerces them into joining him for a fancy dinner party, outside, on the shores of a lake. By the time someone notices that one of the picnickers (played by another director of the Czech New Wave, Evald Schorm) has mysteriously disappeared, fraternal harmony turns to mutual suspicion and the fate of the missing man is sealed. By sending up the weakness of his Communist compatriots and their need to accept authority and conform, even to the point of fatally turning on one of their own, Němec succeeded in making a satire at once funny and biting – and in the end, terrifying. For their new all-region Blu-ray, U.K. distributor Second Run provide a new 4K restoration of the film and two new audio commentaries (by author Jonathan Owen, and by Projection Booth podcast film historians Mike White, Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger). There are two extras: a 2007 appreciation by Czechoslovak cinema specialist Peter Hames (13 mins.) and a 1965 short by Czech master animator Jiří Trnka called "The Hand" (19 mins.) The accompanying booklet runs 24 pages and features an essay by Michael Brooke. The Hames piece and the Brooke essay were previously available in Second Run's DVD edition of the film released in 2007.