With the world turned topsy-turvy over COVID-19, now might be the best time to catch up with some of the latest Blu-ray releases of classic and foreign films. Here are ten capsule reviews of new releases from famous labels like the Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber.
ANTONIO GAUDÍ  (Criterion Collection, Spine #425, Blu-ray Re-Release) ★★★★
It’s fitting that the first thing we see in Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Antonio Gaudí are giant illuminated fountains blossoming like flowers in the night. The son of an ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) grandmaster, Teshigahara’s choice of flower-like Catalan fountains as an opening image serves as a semiotic bridge between himself and Gaudí, one of the greatest architects of the twentieth century. Both Teshigahara and Gaudí were obsessed with the interplay of different styles and influences in their art: Teshigahara blended his ikebana background with other traditional Japanese fine art forms to create an avant-garde filmography that combined the austerity of Yasujirō Ozu with the aggressive leftist politics and experimental stylization of his fellow Japanese New Wavers like Nagisa Oshima; Gaudí synthesized advanced mathematics, esoteric Catholic imagery and theology, and Middle Eastern architectural flourishes to perfect the Catalan Modernism movement that galvanized Spanish art. It’s small wonder that Teshigahara would instantly fall in love with Gaudí’s work while traveling through Spain with his father. Several years later he recalled: “[His] use of space fractured all my previous concepts of architecture, drawing me in with overwhelming magnetism.” This 1984 documentary is his attempt to grapple with the Catalan architect’s legacy, traversing his work in a state of raptured reverie like a shell-shocked museum guide. There’s almost no narration or explanation of Gaudí’s life or inspirations—he lets the architecture speak for itself: bulbous curves of stone and mortar; splintering window columns shaped like femurs; cavernous rooms without right angles that swirl and turn like ossified flesh. Frequently Teshigahara will pause and contextualize Gaudí’s work within its larger Catalan milieu with scenes of quotidian Spanish life: townspeople dancing in a city square; fishmongers chopping seafood in a marketplace; children mounting colorfully tiled fountains and roller-blading between massive columns in a palatial courtyard. The film is almost other-worldly in its loveliness, but even at only seventy-two minutes its lack of narration makes it a difficult sit. Thankfully the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray re-release is full of special features that fill in the blank spaces perfectly: there are two informative documentaries on Gaudí himself, transcribed interviews, and even one of Teshigahara’s earlier short films about his father’s sculptures entitled Sculptures by Sofu—Vita that served as a stylistic dry run for Antonio Gaudí. The documentary might be regarded as minor Teshigahara, but this release makes a tantalizing argument otherwise.
CONNECTING ROOMS  (Kino Lorber) ★
Franklin Gollings’ British drama Connecting Rooms (1970) is most striking as a time capsule of late 60s British style. Working with cinematographer John Wilcox, a regular of mid-century British genre films who cut his teeth as a cameraman on Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), Gollings’ transforms Marion Hart’s stage play The Cellist into a phantasm of modish decadence. Everywhere one looks the eye is overwhelmed: delicate white flowers on mustard yellow walls; naugahyde couches on white shag carpets; museum galleries of stark geometric paintings framed by candy-red support columns. This is the Swinging London immortalized by Euro spy thrillers and merciless American parodies (the sets could easily be mistaken for those of an Austin Powers flick). Yet for all its visual vibrancy, Connecting Rooms is one of the most confounding dramas of its time, disarmingly ill-conceived and misdirected. The film charts the relationship and eventual romance between two lost souls sharing neighboring rooms in a seedy London apartment. Michael Redgrave plays James Wallraven, a former schoolmaster fired from his post after being wrongly accused of a pedophilic relationship with one of his young pupils. Struggling with thoughts of suicide, Wallraven tries and fails to find a new posting in other schools before finally settling on demeaning janitorial work. Bette Davis plays Wanda Fleming, a former concert cellist fallen on hard times who must busk to make ends meet. But the thread between these two characters is a third, Mickey Hollister (Alexis Kanner), a parasitic young conman who deceives Fleming into thinking he loves her so she’ll give him lavish gifts. Quite simply, whenever the film focuses on Wallraven and Fleming as a couple, it works. But the film is overburdened with Hollister’s various intrigues and wickednesses, commandeering the film more than once for jarring digressions into London’s music scene with not one but two musical performances. He also shares a sickeningly uncomfortable and graphic sex scene with a young musical starlet ripped straight from a softcore porn. Imagine, if you will, a placid Henry James adaptation interrupted by a sequence from an early Radley Metzger film. The resulting juxtaposition of the tender love story between two elderly strangers and the counterculture freak-out of late 60s Britain cheapens the former and makes the latter grotesque. Combined with shoddy storytelling and a scatterbrained script, the film is a painful failure. Buyers beware: for Bette Davis completionists only.
THE DOUGLAS MACLEAN COLLECTION (Undercrank Productions) ★½
It wouldn’t be a Retro Set roundup without at least one title from Undercrank Productions, purveyors of forgotten, obscure oddities from American silent cinema. Unfortunately, their latest release The Douglas MacLean Collection might be their weakest yet and their first I might actively dissuade non-completionists from considering. Why? The films here—and their star—simply aren’t very good or particularly interesting. The release features two movies with Douglas MacLean, a largely forgotten silent comedian billed as “The Man with the Million Dollar Smile.” Undercrank’s release material describes his onscreen persona as “energetic, industrious and charming…very much in the mold of Douglas Fairbanks.” And while these first two adjectives are quite astute, the third one is a bit of a stretch, at least in the two included films where he comes across as alternatively spoiled and subtly sociopathic. The first, Jack Nelson’s Once in a Minute (1921), sees MacLean as the son of a midwestern druggist who returns from the big city to take over his father’s shop. When the store is threatened by a rival, MacLean comes up with an ingenious idea to save the business: pharmaceutical fraud. He invents a quack medicine called Knight’s 99, fooling a bunch of seriously sick and disabled people via the placebo effect, sells the “formula” for $1.5 million, and marries the woman of his dreams. It’s disingenuously inspirational and not very funny (although it does have the best comedic scene on the DVD, a sight gag worthy of Harold Lloyd where MacLean fools a bunch of elderly naysayers into thinking he’s rich by breaking into a parked car near them and coming out the opposite passenger’s door in front of them and acting as if it belonged to him). The second film, William A. Seiter’s Bell Boy 13 (1923), at least has more pep to it: MacLean plays the son of a wealthy financier who gets disowned for loving the wrong woman and hijinks ensue when he skips town and gets a hotel bellhop job. However, our goodwill sours when he tricks all the hotel’s staff into a “Bolshevik strike” under the assumption of better wages and working conditions only to use them as a tool to force his uncle to let him marry his sweetheart. The only interesting thing on the DVD is the short documentary exploring Thomas H. Ince’s film studio, but it’s largely an eye-rolling puff piece.
HOLIDAY  (Criterion Collection, Spine #1009) ★★★★
I’ve always felt that the best possible special feature for a movie is…another movie. One of my favorite DVD releases ever was the three-disc special edition of John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) which included copies of the previous two attempts to adapt Dashiell Hammett’s novel: Roy Del Ruth’s The Maltese Falcon (1931) and William Dieterle’s Satan Met a Lady (1936). In addition to being a cinematic completionist’s dream come true, these extra films helped bring the excellence, vitality, and originality of Huston’s version into starker relief. Such is the case with the Criterion Collection’s release of George Cukor’s much beloved romantic comedy Holiday (1938). In addition to all the usual special features—an excellent 4k digital restoration, an oral history about the making of the film, an essay by the inimitable Dana Stevens—it also includes Edward H. Griffith’s 1930 original adaptation of Philip Barry’s play. If the Griffith film serves any singular purpose, it’s to underscore how blessed late 30s filmgoers were to have such dull, occasionally dour material transformed by such a singular talent as Cukor. Consider if you will the story’s central character: self-made man Johnny Case, an upstart workaholic who finds himself engaged to the heiress of one of the richest families in New York City. In Griffith’s film Johnny is played by Robert Ames who portrays the characters as emotionally burdened and self-serious. Compare this with Cukor’s Case played by Cary Grant. Even at his most self-reflexive, Grant’s Case is effused with a certain detached aloofness as if he knows that life is one big game and his unexpected betrothal into Manhattan royalty a bizarre plot twist. Then there’s Linda Seton, the sister of Case’s fiancé who eventually falls in love with him when she discovers he’s disinterested in maintaining and expanding the family’s fortune, instead wanting to travel the world and “find himself” now that he’s made something of his life. In Griffith’s film Linda is played by the wispy Ann Harding whose lack of presence is so strong she’s overshadowed by her shrew of a sister Julia. (Though this may have been inevitable even with better direction considering that Julia was played by future Oscar-winner Mary Astor.) But in Cukor’s film Linda’s played by Katharine Hepburn in full manic screwball mode. Now I ask you, dear readers, which of these two films would you rather see?
A MAN CALLED PETER  (Twilight Time) ★★½
If we’re truly seeing a resurgence of religiously contemplative films in the late tens/early twenties from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Terrence Malick, and more, then some credit must be given to the Hollywood religious films of the forties and fifties for setting a precedent of serious theological thought in popular American cinema. Not the big-budget Biblical epics, mind you (though they do have their place); not David and Bathsheba (1951), The Ten Commandments (1956), nor the various adaptations of Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Instead, the films that can be seen as the progenitors of our modern religious dramas are the more intimate spiritual films that ran parallel to these proto-Blockbusters: biographical hagiographies like Henry King’s The Song of Bernadette (1943); musical dramedies like Leo McCarey’s Best Picture-winning Going My Way (1944); missionary dramas like John M. Stahl’s The Keys of the Kingdom (1944). Frequently restrained, understated, and unapologetically didactic, these films could at times feel like feature length sermons. Nowhere is this more glaring than in Henry Koster’s A Man Called Peter, a biopic of Scots-American preacher Peter Marshall who in little more than a decade went from an immigrant to the Chaplain of the United States Senate. A full thirty minutes of its near-two hour runtime are comprised of literal sermons delivered by its subject to expectant congregations of college students, high society bourgeoisie, and American lawmakers. They’re very good sermons—great ones, in fact, that challenge the effete, comfortable Christianity of the masses in favor of a faith more in tune with the egalitarian love and compassion of a man with “knuckles big in his carpenter’s hands” and who kept company with prostitutes and tax collectors. And Richard Todd, an excellent Irish-born actor who sadly fell through the cracks of film history despite winning a Golden Globe, delivers said sermons as Marshall with all the fire and passion of a man called by God to not just preach but to prophesy. But the effect is still that of attending Sunday school, an experience helped in no small way by the CinemaScope cinematography which favored static widescreen long shots that made even the more passionate scenes between Marshall and his wife Catherine (Jean Peters in her last feature film) seem detached and overly mannered. There’s beauty, meaning, and truth here, but precious little lifeblood.
SALESMAN  (Criterion Collection, Spine #122, Blu-ray Re-Release) ★★★★½
History remembers the year 1967 as one of momentous social change and artistic flowering. As young men fought and died in Vietnam and race riots spread like wildfire, somewhere in London a young guitarist named Jimi Hendrix reinvented the sonic limits of the electric guitar as the Beatles redefined pop music with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. It was the year of the carnage of Bonnie and Clyde, the sexual frankness of The Graduate, and the West Coast cool of Point Blank. Not that any of this would be apparent watching the Maysles Brothers and Charlotte Zwerin’s ground-breaking documentary Salesman, a Direct Cinema examination of four door-to-door Bible salesmen. Shot in 1967, the world it examines seems as timeless as it is bleak—a perpetual purgatory of working class desperation, exhaustion, and failure. It’s so detached from the outside world that it might as well be from a different planet, stripping away all the detritus of American society until all that’s left is its bare, beating heart: the endless hustle to succeed and get rich. Watching these four desperate men migrate from poor, working class immigrant neighborhood to poor, working class immigrant neighborhood trying—and more often that not failing—to hawk $50 Bibles (adjusted for inflation that’s almost $400 in 2020!!) to housewives who can barely afford to feed their families, the capitalist myth of American upward mobility is mercilessly excoriated. The Maysles and Zwerin expertly weave a tapestry of the salesmen’s existential purgatory: them crowded around the table of a greasy spoon, trying and failing at small talk as they suck cigarettes; them waiting in line to share a single hotel room phone so they can call their wives; them buddy-buddying with their “clients” who clearly wish they’d leave. Nowhere is their plight better summated than a brilliant sequence where one of the salesmen gets helplessly lost trying to navigate a planned community in Opa-locka, Florida where all the streets have kitschy Arabian Nights names while a big band cover of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” blares on the radio. This Criterion Blu-ray re-release is especially remarkable for its new inclusion of a 2016 episode of IFC’s mockumentary series Documentary Now! starring Fred Armisen and Bill Hader spoofing the film which knowingly alchemizes the high tragedy of the documentary into high farce without losing any of its pathos.
THE SONG OF SONGS  (Kino Lorber) ★★★½
Rouben Mamoulian found one of the more unusual Pre-Code workarounds to full frontal nudity restrictions in his romantic melodrama The Song of Songs. If he couldn’t actually show his lead actress Marlene Dietrich naked, he could make one of the central props a nude statue of Dietrich. The statue keeps popping up in scene after scene for actors to admire, physically caress, and lust over, the camera panning this way and that to follow the performers without actually letting it disappear off the sides of the frame like it’s some kind of visual anchor. Mamoulian, whose knack for genteel quasi-Lubitsch comedy remains widely unrecognized, clearly understood the joke and hammered it as hard as he could; nowhere is this more obvious than in the film’s most inventive sequence where Dietrich’s character, a naive peasant named Lily who travels to Berlin after her father dies, strips for her first lover, a sculptor named Richard (Brian Aherne). As Lily nervously undresses, one of no less than three scenes of Dietrich undressing on camera in the film—the undressing scene was, after all, Pre-Code Hollywood’s answer to softcore pornography—the camera whip-pans to other naked statuary in Richard’s atelier, specifically the respective naughty bits being…*ahem*…denuded. It’s a breath of fresh air in a film that quickly abandons Mamoulian’s soufflé-light breeziness in favor of more traditionally rote melodrama. The Song of Songs is essentially a Fallen Woman story that sees Lily descend from virginal shopgirl to icy prostitute as she’s tossed from selfish lover to selfish lover, all ignoring her as a person as they try to mold her into their own fantasy of the perfect woman. Richard literally objectifies her into a statue and a Baron who “purchases” her from her aunt tries to transform her into a high society woman. The main pleasure in the film is Dietrich’s performance. For most of it she plays the waifish ingenue, raising her voice register to a higher pitch and keeping her eyes saucer-wide. But by the end she’s transformed fully into Dietrich the Screen Icon. The first time we see her as a prostitute in a nightclub after fleeing the controlling Baron is like a slap in the face: finally, there she is, the Teutonic Fantasy herself, all droopy-eyed, chisel-jawed, and thick-accented. It makes an otherwise threadbare Kino release worthy of a rental.
SUPERNATURAL  (Kino Lorber) ★½
What exactly is Victor Halperin’s Supernatural? On paper, it seems a grab-bag of early Thirties Hollywood talent randomly thrown in a blender. A Paramount horror film directed by Victor Halperin of White Zombie (1932) fame starring Carole Lombard as a possessed killer and Randolph Scott as her aw shucks boyfriend. You read that correctly: Carole Lombard, one of the great comedic actresses of her generation, played a violent murderess while Randolph Scott, one of the great American cowboys, played a bourgeois stick of arm candy. The mind simply reels. This is cinéma du Mad Libs. But stranger things have happened. After all, plenty of masterpieces feature against type performances. Unfortunately Supernatural isn’t one of them. At only sixty-five minutes, it’s simultaneously too short and overlong, over-rushed and laboriously under-paced. The central issue comes from the film’s having not one but two plots smashed haphazardly together. The first follows Ruth Rogen (Vivienne Osborne), a strangler executed on death row for killing three former lovers. It turns out she was betrayed by her fourth, a fraud spiritualist named Paul Bavian (Alan Dinehart). She dies swearing vengeance on him, but not before agreeing to donate her body to a scientist who believes evil people live on after death as spirits to commit more crimes. Now things get tricky; take a deep breath. Meanwhile, a grieving heiress named Roma Courtney (Lombard) visits Bavian to communicate with her recently departed twin brother. But the spiritualist wires get crossed during Bavian’s fake séance and Roma gets possessed by Ruth’s ghost who then proceeds to take her revenge. None of this would have happened, though, if Roma hadn’t been friends with the doctor doing the experiments on Ruth’s body and accidentally gotten the ghost’s attention while visiting his lab. If none of this makes sense, rest assured that watching the movie doesn’t actually help. Halperin’s storytelling is cluttered and messy, intercutting between the two “plots” so rapidly they play like competing rising actions in the first act. Even though Lombard reportedly resented the role, her dual ingenue/murderess performance is the film’s highlight. Rarely since Brigitte Helm in Metropolis (1927) has an actress been able to communicate so much malice with a single raised eyebrow. Cinematographer Arthur Martinelli has some decent fun with ghostly double exposures, too. But otherwise the film, and its bare bones Kino release, is a big fat goose egg.
TEOREMA  (Criterion Collection, Spine #1013) ★★★½
A few months after his film Teorema debuted at the Venice Film Festival, causing controversy among audiences and Catholic authorities, director Pier Paolo Pasolini was asked by journalist Cécile Philippe what his film was actually about. “This film is a parable, or if you prefer, an enigma…it’s a mysterious theorem,” he answered. He went on to address the film’s contentious response by quoting a review in Le Monde: “One part of the audience is scandalized…one part of the audience laughs to defend itself [and another] part of the audience admires it.” There are many ways to react towards Teorema, and barring the harassment of cast and crew, none are wrong. For some, it’s a severe Marxist critique of bourgeois living; for others it’s an allegorical religious mystery. Some might see it as a queer annihilation of the heterosexual nuclear family; some might think it nothing more than two-dimensional art-house bunk. Considering Pasolini’s notoriously heterodox opinions towards sex, politics, philosophy, and religion, it’s possible all these interpretations are right, wrong, or anywhere in between. The film follows the mysterious appearance of an angelic/demonic visitor played by Terence Stamp in the lives of an upper-class Milanese family. Within the first thirty minutes of the film, he seduces all four members of the family—the shy son, neurotic daughter, sexually frustrated mother, soul-anguished father—as well as their devoutly Catholic maid from the countryside. One-by-one he shatters the psychic barriers and traumas of their lives—quite literally screwing them to wholeness—and sets them on the path of personal recovery. And then, just as suddenly as he appeared, he vanishes, leaving the family in a state of spiritual turmoil that sees some of them learn to cope and some simply self-destruct. Teorema reminds one less of Pasolini’s austere literary adaptations and tragic neorealist films than the more allegorical and abstract flourishes of Michelangelo Antonioni—the vanishing protagonists of L’Avventura (1960) and Blowup (1960) or the desert orgy of Zabriskie Point (1970). Yet the film’s unmistakable heretical treatment of Catholic imagery and scripture is all Pasolini’s own. It’s a difficult film among Pasolini’s oeuvre which makes the somewhat deficient Criterion Blu-ray all the more disappointing. There’s a booklet, a commentary, a Stamp interview, and a critic interview, but little that truly pokes into the religious underpinnings of the film or its Marxist provocations.
TOKYO OLYMPIAD  (Criterion Collection, Spine #155, Blu-ray Re-Release) ★★★★★
As a collector of vintage Criterion DVDs, I can personally attest that their original 2002 release of Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad was one of the Holy Grails of the Collection’s out-of-print catalogue. Only their trilogy of 1940s Alfred Hitchcock films were more elusive…and expensive. (I distinctly remember once seeing their release of Notorious  on eBay with a starting bid of several hundred dollars.) One can only speculate as to why the film went out of print, although the best bet would be rights issues. With both the Olympics and the film’s original distributor Toho releasing their own versions into the marketplace, it only makes sense that whomever owned the rights wouldn’t consider a boutique label like Criterion very important. Speculation aside, the fact is that with Criterion’s 2017 release of 100 Years of Olympic Films: 1219-2012 under an exclusive license from the IOC, Ichikawa’s film is now back on the market. Anyone at all interested with documentary filmmaking’s potential as an art form needs this film, even if they’ve never heard of it. Made with a small army of technicians and cameramen with state-of-the-art cameras and lenses, Ichikawa’s record of the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo isn’t just one of the best sports documentaries ever made, it’s a milestone of filmmaking whose pictorial grandeur is matched, if not surpassed, by its compassionate humanity. Bucking the Japanese government’s expectations that it would primarily glorify their nation’s postwar reconstruction and reintroduction to the world as an economically vibrant democracy—the 1964 games were held just over a decade after the end of America’s postwar occupation—Ichikawa instead focused on the potential of competitive sport for being a showcase of human drama. (Although, in fairness, the film isn’t absent of Japanese iconography and pride. An early shot of an Olympic torchbearer dwarfed by Mount Fuji is, literally, one of the most spectacular shots in sixties cinema.) Ichikawa turns his gaze to the minutiae of the athletes’ behavior: a Soviet shot putter’s Tourette’s-like pre-throw ritual where he repeatedly pets his stomach and groin; a Japanese hurdler grabbing a broom to help brush off the track before her 800-meter race. He’s equally concerned with defeat as he is with victory, finding a compassionate nobility in the losers and their need to compete and struggle in the face of impossible odds. Citius, Altius, Fortius, indeed.
WAR AND PEACE [1966-67](Criterion Collection, Spine #983) ★★★★★
In his 2006 reappreciation of Giovanni Pastrone’s silent epic Cabiria (1914), Roger Ebert wrote: “When a modern film like Troy creates a vast Greek city out of digital information, we aren’t fooled…watching these silent films, we feel a kind of awe, because we see that the sets are really there, and really that size.” It’s that same sense of awe one feels watching Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace. Made in a fit of incensed patriotic fervor in response to the financial success of King Vidor’s 1959 adaptation starring Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda, this goliathan four-part version of Leo Tolstoy’s immortal novel was produced by Mosfilm between 1961 and 1967 with the full support of the post-Stalinist Soviet government. As Ella Taylor explains in her insert essay for the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray release of the film: “by official order, the director was provided with military planes, fifteen thousand soldiers, and the free run of museum collections for props, along with an estimated 120,000 extras.” The result was a maximalist piece of historical filmmaking with every ruble shimmering onscreen. There truly is something ineffably harrowing in watching so many moving parts coalesce—to see Bondarchuk’s recreation of Napoleonic warfare is like gazing upon an architectural marvel of a long dead empire like the Great Wall of China or the ancient Roman aqueducts. The images Bondarchuk draws forth are equally transcendent, whether it’s a bird’s-eye view of French troops surrounding the Russians at Austerlitz in the shape of a god’s eye, camera tracks of competing cavalry charges at Borodino, or frenzied French soldiers swarming over the burning carcass of Moscow like termites. But Bondarchuk gave equal care to the “Peace” parts of the story as he did the “War”: his portraits of the existentially deadened Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, the mercurial nymph Natasha Rostova, and the spiritually conflicted Pierre Bezukhov reveal explicitly Christian spiritual interiors made all the more shocking by their approval by Soviet authorities. (Although the depictions of the Tsarist aristocracy as a waxworks of the living embalmed, the Russian Orthodox church as grotesquely opulent, and the reappraisal of General Kutuzov as a fourth-dimensional chess-playing military genius remind us who paid the bills…) This Criterion release is as intimidating as the film itself, with several documentaries about its making accentuating the gobsmacking 2K digital restoration. This is an essential release of an essential masterpiece.