Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) is the kind of labor of cinematic love that I live for: six great but neglected movies from six film cultures underrepresented in American. The restorations were funded by the World Cinema Project in collaboration with various national archives and digitally mastered for release on Blu-ray and DVD by Criterion.
With disc sales slipping and streaming taking over as the primary delivery system for home viewing, releases of this scale are gambles. It takes the combined branding of Scorsese and Criterion to get this noticed by all but the most dedicated film fans, and to hopefully get them past the idea that these films are dry pieces of history. Because in fact they are vital, exciting, entertaining movies that, like all great film, live on long past their release dates.
I began my journey through the set with The Housemaid (1960, South Korea) because I had seen and liked the 2010 remake by Im Sang-soo but knew he had taken a very different approach. In every way, it turned out. Where the remake was controlled and icy, a precise (and sexually explicit) portrait of privilege and power in a tale of the corrupt rich destroying the lives of the helpless poor, Kim Ki-young’s original is a wildly melodramatic story of middle class ambition set almost entirely in a two-story home that becomes something of a prison as the web of desire and anxiety and loathing and social standing closes in on them. No one is innocent here, except perhaps the daughter (on crutches, recovering from an illness) and a newborn baby, and their survival seems precarious. The husband (Kim Jin-kyu), a piano teacher, has dubious moral character but devoted to making his family happy, the hard-working, physically fragile wife (Ju Jeung-nyeo) is just as concerned with appearances as she is with the family’s well-being, the bratty youngest son has a sadistic streak to his mean-spirited teasing. And then there’s the young housemaid (Lee Eun-shim) who is clearly unstable from the moment a vengeful factory girl discovers her smoking in the barracks and recommends her to the family. Shake well and the pressure builds….
Kim designs the film beautifully, from the separate social spaces of the second story connected by a balcony and sliding glass doors (through which the camera peers to view the transgression of boundaries) to the central staircase where so much of the power struggle plays out, both symbolically and physically. And he uses the close quarters well, to build pressure on the increasingly savage relationships and to cut them off from the rest of the world, like a purgatory to which they’ve condemned themselves. The framing sequence plays like a barbed joke, a bit of black humor that plays like the old “happy ending” twists to mollify the production code in Hollywood films of the forties, but with an attitude that, quite literally, laughs at its very contrivance.
The original negative of this 1960 film is missing two reels and the missing footage was replaced by a very damaged and compromised release print. The contrast is night and day: most of the film looks superb, with a clean, clear image and strong contrasts in the black and white, while the replacement footage is weak, washed out, and soft. Given the state in which it was found, even that is a small miracle.
Djibril Diop Mambety’s Touki Bouki (1973, Senegal) is a lively African road movie about a pair of young lovers (Magaye Niang and Mareme Niang) who resort to petty crime to fund their dream: to escape to Paris. This one brims with French New Wave energy and a reminder of the vitality of the New African Cinema of the seventies, which at its best appropriated western narrative conventions and adapted them to African rhythms and storytelling traditions.
The oldest film in the set, Redes (1936, Mexico) predates Italian Neorealism with a semi-documentary dramatization of the political awakening of Mexican fishermen. A collaboration between Austrian émigré (and future Oscar-winning director) Fred Zinneman, Mexican filmmaker Emilio Gomez Muriel, and American photographer Paul Strand, it was shot on a minimal budget in primitive conditions.
Dry Summer (1964, Turkey), a landmark of Turkish cinema, won the Golden Bear at Berlin, and Trances (1981, Morocco), the sole documentary on the set, profiles the Moroccan musical group Nass El Ghiwane and their mix of political lyrics and a sound drawn from the Moroccan trance music tradition.
A River Called Titas (1973, Bangladesh/India) was the film most in need of preservation, restored from an incomplete and damaged negative and material preserved in a Berlin film archive.
The Blu-ray+DVD Combo presents the films and supplements on six DVDs and three Blu-rays separated in three digipak cases (two films per case) in a paperboard box. The set features introductions to the films by World Cinema Project founder Martin Scorsese, interview programs featuring filmmakers Abderrahmane Sissako (on Touki bouki), Kumar Shahani (on A River Called Titas), Metin Erksan and Fatih Akın (on Dry Summer), Bong Joon-ho (on The Housemaid), filmmaker Ahmed El Maânouni with producer Izza Génini and musician Omar Sayed on Trances, a new visual essay on Redes by filmmaker and critic Kent Jones, and a booklet with essays and notes on each film and an introduction to the project by Kent Jones.
The Nature of Genius: Inspirations / Me & Isaac Newton (PBS, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) collects two documentary features by Michael Apted (of the Up series) that explore the nature of creativity and invention in the arts and sciences. Inspirations (1997) delves into the arts with interviews with musician David Bowie, painter Roy Lichtenstein, glass artist Dale Chihuly, choreographer Édouard Lock, dancer Louise LeCavalier, architect Tadao Ando and sculptor Nora Naranjo-Morse and Me & Isaac Newton turns to primatologist Patricia Wright, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, pharmaceutical chemist Gertrude Elion, environmental physicist Ashok Gadgil, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, roboticist Maja Matarić and geneticist Karol Sikora to explore their inspirations, philosophies and dreams. Apted clearly in awe of these people but his hero worship is tempered with a concerted effort to humanize them. Features 30 minutes of bonus interviews.
Mary Poppins: 50th Anniversary Edition (Disney, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) has the timely arrival on disc just as Saving Mr. Banks, which dramatizes Disney’s struggle to get the screens rights from the book’s prickly author, gets awards buzz for its upcoming theatrical release. Julie Andrews floats through the sky on an umbrella and uses a spoon full of sugar to help the medicine go down in this colorful fantasy about the magical nanny who brings a little joy to a stiff and disciplined British household. Dick Van Dyke is her pal, the chimney sweep Bert (it’s an abysmal cockney accent but his enthusiasm makes up for it), David Tomlinson is the very proper father looking for a stern English nanny, Glynis Johns the suffragette mother, and Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber are the children, Jane and Michael Banks. Directed by Disney house pro Robert Stevenson with supercalifragilisticexpialidocious songs by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, including “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Chim Chim-eree.” There’s a new interview with composer Richard M. Sherman conducted by actor Jason Schwartman (who plays him in the new film) and a sing-along function along with the supplements from the previous release: commentary, a 50-minute documentary, featurettes, a deleted song, and other supplements and activities.
Also getting a new release is Big: 25th Anniversary Edition (Fox, Blu-ray+DVD Combo), the Tom Hanks hit directed by Penny Marshall, with both theatrical and extended cut, an “audio documentary” commentary track, featurettes and deleted scenes.
Chris Marker conceived and edited Far From Vietnam (Icarus, DVD, VOD), a 1967 anti-war anthology of short films directed by some of the most important filmmakers of its time. Marker is joined by nouvelle vague legends Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais, documentary legend Joris Ivens, American expatriate William Klein, and French hit-maker Claude Lelouch, each contributing their own protest statement in film. Includes the bonus short film The Sixth Side of the Pentagon (1967) by Marker and François Reichenbach.
Sage Stallone (son of Sylvester) launched Grindhouse a decade or so ago to revive and release forgotten cult films that he loved, but he was also a filmmaker in his own right. He died in 2012 and the company he launched remembers Stallone with a release of his 2006 short film Vic (Grindhouse, DVD) starring Clu Gulager as forgotten movie star with a shot at a comeback. Features an interview with Gulager.
Post Tenebras Lux (Strand, Blu-ray) marks the debut Blu-ray release from the distributor that specializes in foreign and independent cinema. The film, directed by Carlos Reygadas, was originally released on DVD a few months ago.
Muppet Treasure Island / The Great Muppet Caper (Disney, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)
Fanny Hill (Vinegar Syndrome, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)
The Big Gundown (Grindhouse, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)
TV Terrors: The Initiation of Sarah / Are You Alone in the House?! (Scream Factory, DVD)
Grey Gardens (Criterion, Blu-ray)
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Warner, DVD)
Stella Dallas (1937) (Warner, DVD)
The Snake God (Mondo Macabro, DVD)
Bible! (Vinegar Syndrome, DVD)