Full transparency: all Blu-rays reviewed were provided by Kino Lorber, Arrow Video, Vinegar Syndrome, Fun City Editions, and Imprint Films.
Believe it or not, I’ve been doing these reviews for over a year at this point and it’s been lovely watching how much it’s all grown. This originally started with me desperately wanting to review the Criterion Collection’s The Complete Films of Agnès Varda boxset and it has grown into something I couldn’t imagine. Over the past 12 months, this has gone from just the lovely folks over at Kino Lorber and the Criterion Collection to also working with other lovely folks over at Arrow Video, Fun City Editions, GKIDS, Code Red, MVD Entertainment, Synapse Films, and Cohen Film Collection to help bring awareness to the wide world of well-curated and pristinely-packed cinema you could experience from the comfort and safety of your home with no more than a TV and a Blu-ray player (no internet required). This started as a way to keep people engaged with repertory and arthouse titles while theaters were closed and tech companies continued to gobble up the scope of cinema, but it’s now evolved into blog discovery and being intentional and passionate about cinema I consume. It’s been great hearing all the feedback over the past 12 months and getting to hear from people who found this column by chance. I love doing it and I hope you guys still like listening to and reading it.
So what better way to celebrate a one-year anniversary than with the addition of two new distributors! From the UK but bearing “All Region” gifts comes Imprint Films with its releases of Basil Dearden’s penultimate film, The Assassination Bureau starring late greats Oliver Reed, Telly Savalas, and of course Diana Rigg, a romp about assassins who clearly don’t understand there are more efficient ways to kill a person than bombs (more on that later). They also have released a handsome boxset containing both the 1951 Anthony Asquith/Michael Redgrave and 1994 Mike Figgis/Albert Finney adaptations of Terrence Rattigan’s The Browning Version. Also making their debut is the long-awaited and oft-asked-for Vinegar Syndrome! We’re starting off with their exclusive release of the very exciting reconstruction of the nearly lost and soon-to-be-cult-favorite New York Ninja.
We also have our usual suspects with Kino Lorber giving us releases of director John G. Avildsen and composer Bill Conti’s unlikely but welcome follow-up to Rocky, Slow Dancing in the Big City starring unlikely romantic lead Paul Sorvino. John Huston’s Freud biopic starring Montgomery Clift and Susannah York makes a welcome appearance, which prompts me to once again think about what makes a biopic work artistically in the first place. There is also the season 1 release of Rod Serling’s horror-tinged Twilight Zone follow-up Night Gallery.
Arrow Video brings us two welcome releases for cinephiles who have their sights set on lesser-known Japanese genre cinema: Gamera director Noriaki Yuasa’s adaptation of Kazuo Umezu’s manga “Hebi shōjo (Snake Girl)” into a horror film aimed to traumatize children everywhere, The Snake Girl and the Silver Haired Witch, and there’s also the genre-bending mash-up that is Shinji Somai’s Sailor Suit and Machine Gun, which somehow threads the needle between quiet coming-of-age drama, yakuza movie, and Japanese “idol movie.” Finally, we have my pick of the month from Fun City Editions with their recent release of Christopher Petit’s New German cinema-inspired and new wave-scored British road movie Radio On, a gem I hope won’t remain hidden for long.
After a year of doing this, I hope some of you have found something you’ve enjoyed that you would have otherwise missed or overlooked, and if you haven’t yet, I hope this month can change that.
Also out this month…
As with most months, there are a small crop of films I felt deserved some recognition but had no space on the audio portion of the round-up. So, here are four films for you to check out once you’ve made your way through November’s other offerings.
We toss the word “Hitchcockian” around quite a bit but sometimes it feels like we neglect the other possible meanings when we apply that adjective to a film. Generally we mean something that is tense and suspenseful, containing a cast of characters all speeding towards a “MacGuffin.” However there’s the other more specific meaning, which is a spy thriller of a certain build. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, an auteur in his own right, has jumped around in genre quite a bit since establishing himself as a horror auteur of the late 20th and early 21st century, bouncing from terrifying pieces such as Pulse and Cure to a light family drama in Tokyo Sonata or the science-fiction present in Before We Vanish, so it makes sense that he would try his hand at something in the vein of The 39 Steps or Saboteur.
Set on the eve of WWII in Japan, import-export business owner and filmmaker Yusaku Fukuhara (Issey Takahashi) and his wife and actress Satoko (Yu Aoi) become involved in espionage when Yusaku is harassed by the Japanese military police after being suspected of subversive activity given Yusaku’s dealing with the British and his affinity for western goods. After taking a trip to Manchuria, Yusaku decides to become involved in the cause of exposing the ills of war conducted by Japan. Once Satoko learns the truth of her husband’s involvement, she has to decide to stand by the person she loves or her home country.
It’s a set-up ripe with all the little things that make Hitchcock’s spy thrillers so engaging to watch: the aforementioned MacGuffin, usually a means to an end for the plotting, actually carries some weight (in this case, a piece of film with some very revealing truths); ordinary people being swept up into extraordinary situations but doing so because they feel as if it’s the right thing to do; and the lovers negotiating their own wellbeing and romance while caught up in an incredibly dangerous scenario. On paper, it all sounds like a lay-up, but unfortunately Kurosawa never quite makes it as impactful as he’s aiming for. The moments where he allows the film to slip into melodrama and the external and internal strife between Yusaku and Satoko sing, but the plotting holds it back just enough that it never quite becomes the arthouse version of Sabotage you want it to be. Still, you can tell a lot of care and craft went into the production and Yu Aoi carries the film beautifully when she’s given the space to shine.
Along with a bonus “making-of” featurette and a trailer, you can find Wife of a Spy through Kino Lorber.
From Dekanolog, released exclusively through Vinegar Syndrome, we have French absurdist Quentin Dupieux’s first fully French production Keep an Eye Out!, or Au Poste! At a tight and almost blistering 73 minutes, the story centers around a commissaire (played by Benoit Poelvoorde of Man Bites Dog fame) questioning a perturbed and confused man named Fugain (Gregoire Ludig) about a dead body he discovered outside of his apartment building. If that sounds pretty simple and straight to the point, let me welcome you to the wide and wild world of Quentin Dupieux.
While I’m only familiar with his early 2010s cult hit Rubber (a staple of cinephiles who adopted Netflix’s streaming service early on) and past IU Cinema-programmed Reality, I can say with some confidence that Keep an Eye Out is a textbook example of what Dupieux is all about: repeated lines of dialogue that begin to lose all meaning after a while, a blending of subjective and objective reality, characters that seemingly waffle between very intelligent and nearly brain-dead, a subversion of expectation, violence, non-sequiturs, and very funny explosive bursts of comedy. I’d be hard pressed to tell you everything his films are going for outside of the characters he uses as mouthpieces (the final act of this movie being a prime example), but rhythms he implements in the dialogue between characters is what keeps me engaged with his movies. Sometimes those words flow like a tennis ball being ping-ponged across a court with only minimal control and other times it stops and stutters in fascinating ways.
You’ll laugh, you will probably be put off or grossed out occasionally (another Dupiex trademark), and you’ll likely be confused but you may find yourself wanting more. I mentioned this being only 73 minutes and, based on my experience with the other two films I mentioned, I’d say this is a great starting point for anyone looking to dive into a little French absurdism.
Packaged with a booklet containing interviews with Dupieux, Poelvoorde, and Ludig and special features including audio commentary from Dupieux, rehearsal footage, make-up test footage, and a theatrical trailer, Keep an Eye Out is available through Vinegar Syndrome.
I can’t sit here and pretend to know about how momentous (or not) it is to have someone like Pablo Picasso sit and create paintings either in real time or through the means of stop-motion animation. I also can’t sit here and pretend that while I tend to acknowledge the wrong but complicated nature of the artists I cover in this column, there isn’t too much ground to cover with Picasso to get into why a documentary like this will be an instant “absolutely not” from some people. Maybe all I can do and tell you is that this is a landmark documentary from Henri-Georges Clouzout, the director behind one of the all-time great suspense films, The Wages of Fear, documenting and playing with the real-time creative process of one of the eminent artists of the 20th century and that my reaction to watching such a document can be summed up by paraphrasing The Big Lebowski:
“F**kin’ Picasso…that creep can paint, man.”
Including a trailer, restoration demonstration, audio commentary by the former head of the film department at the National Gallery of Art, Peggy Parsons, audio commentary by muralist and Brooklyn College Presidential Professor of Art Archie Rand, and an interview with Picasso’s daughter Maya (all great contextual tools at your disposal), you can find The Mystery of Picasso through Kino Lorber.
As someone with a background in jazz, it’s always nice stumbling upon old Hollywood movies that have famous themes that later became jazz standards that a mediocre saxophonist will find themselves struggling through in a practice room… not speaking from experience, of course. Night Has a Thousand Eyes is one such movie, known to me as the movie that brought us the opening track off of John Coltrane’s Coltrane’s Sound but known to others as the almost poor man’s Nightmare Alley starring Gail Russell, John Lund, and Little Caesar himself, Edward G. Robinson.
Touted as a supernatural film noir, it follows a stage magician/mentalist named John Triton (played with an appropriate level of torment by Robinson), who after unexplained circumstances becomes gifted with authentic precognition. At first the gift proves itself useful. It allows his partner Whitney Courtland (played by Jerome Cowan) to place winning bets and adds a level of verisimilitude to their shows. However, once he realizes that he can’t prevent anything he sees in his visions, he takes on a life of solitude only to be pulled back out when he begins to see visions concerning Whitney and his daughter Jean. John attempts to do the right thing by trying to save the lives of the ones he loves while confronting the ever maddening proposition that our fates are sealed.
Earlier when I said this was a poor man’s Nightmare Alley, I didn’t say so as a big jab… just a small one. The supernaturally tinged nature of this movie owes more comparisons to director John Farrow’s other paranormal noir film, Alias Nick Beal, including a long-suffering protagonist struggling to find a way to do the right thing, but the rise-and-downfall story centered around a mentalist is sure to draw comparisons on a surface level. However, what sets this film apart from Nightmare Alley is the way its doomed protagonist handles their plight. Tyrone Power’s Stanton Carlisle can’t help but give into his avarice despite having a clear picture of what awaits him should he fail, whereas John Triton is constantly torn with how to interpret this vision and the usefulness of such a gift. There’s a great scene in which he describes precognition as seeing time as an entire forest of trees as opposed to passing by one tree at a time. He engages with the complicated nature of his fate and the fate of others instead of trying to ignore it. I think that’s why this one has stuck with me since viewing it earlier this month. It wrestles with its overarching doom instead of just trying to escape it.
Featuring an audio commentary from film historian Imogen Sarah Smith and a theatrical trailer, you can find Night Has a Thousand Eyes through Kino Lorber.
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.