Posts tagged with Blu-Ray

New reissues challenge views of the Holocaust and man’s capacity for murder

The famous German playwright Bertolt Brecht fled his home country when Hitler came to power, and in 1942 at the invitation of renowned film director Fritz Lang, co-scripted the only screenplay he ever wrote for Hollywood.

The result is “Hangmen Also Die,” a stirring piece of anti-Nazi propaganda that blends hyper-real staging and cinematography with the very real threat of a Nazi takeover. Originally titled “Never Surrender,” this thriller-with-a-message has been restored for a new online streaming, DVD, and Blu-ray release, along with an ending that had been mysteriously lopped off during its theatrical run.

Although the movie is almost entirely fictionalized, it’s set in occupied Czechoslovakia and based on the 1942 assassination of the chief architect of the Holocaust, Reinhard Heydrich — also known as the “Hangman of Prague.” As the Nazis start rounding up and executing any Czech patriot they can get their hands on in retaliation, pressure mounts on the citizens of Prague to turn in the assassin.

While it’s an effective cat-and-mouse thriller, “Hangmen Also Die” is also a paean to resistance, designed to give strength to those under Nazi rule and a reminder of why the war was being fought. For a propaganda movie, however, it’s surprisingly dark and not afraid to show the human cost of resistance. It ends on a rousing note with Oscar-nominated Hanns Eisler’s song “No Surrender” playing and the word “NOT” appearing onscreen right before “The End.”

Another historic film about the Holocaust is new on Blu-ray, DVD, and HD digital this week as well. The interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein that make up the most fascinating parts of the 2013 documentary “The Last of the Unjust” were recorded in 1975 for his nine-and-a-half hour 1985 film “Shoah,” but have gone unreleased until now.

“The Last of the Unjust” is as complicated and hard-nosed as Holocaust stories get. Murmelstein was The Elder of the Jews at a Czech concentration camp, and his role was to negotiate “a world upside-down.”

Because of his manipulation of Jews in the camp, Murmelstein was accused of collaboration after the war by Czechs. The case was dropped, but it illustrates the blurry line of moral compromise that he walked as he tried to limit the amount of Jewish casualties.

Hannah Arendt famously coined the phrase “banality of evil” to describe Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, but Murmelstein dealt with the man every day and says, “He was a demon.” ”The Last of the Unjust” not only overwhelms with its depiction of human malevolence, but it asks thorny questions about brokering an atrocity with a fascinating first-hand account, the likes of which will not be captured ever again on film.

Several cold-blooded killings happen right at the outset of “Vengeance is Mine,” an angry and oddly captivating Shōhei Imamura film that won best film at the Japanese Academy Awards in 1980.

Loosely based on a real serial killer’s 1963 spree across the country, “Vengeance is Mine” is newly restored on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection, and it feels as fresh today as when it was made.

Although it starts out with detectives capturing killer Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata), this remarkable film is not a mystery or a procedural. Instead, it explores man’s capacity for murder, and lays the blame squarely at the feet of a guilt-ridden post-WWII Japanese society.

This isn’t an action thriller that glorifies violence and gore. In fact, after the two bloody murders that open the film, it’s all slow character-building and context.

Ogata is a menacing presence but his Enokizu is also a desperate and frustrated man. He’s already an outcast in Japanese society for being raised Catholic, and he learns at a young age to hypocrisy everywhere. When he’s released from an early stint in prison, a doomed view of his life overtakes him and he sets out on a course for self-destruction.

The title “Vengeance is Mine” sounds more like a violent soap opera than a serious challenge to contemporary culture, but that’s exactly what it is. Enokizu dispassionately wanders through the underbelly of Japan, swindling and killing people, but he’s clearly flailing. Imamura injects an air of inevitability into Enokizu’s spree, and projects his own commentary into the situation.

I won’t blow the famous last scene of the movie for you (is it even possible to issue a spoiler for a movie from 1979?), but it reiterates Enokizu’s rebellious nature in the most absurd way possible — and is prescient in suggesting that this kind of societal alienation and its resulting loss of life won’t stop anytime soon.


Why the Blu-ray format is essential to film literacy, and a local ‘Triumph’

At no other time in the last hundred years have there been more movies available to the general public as there are right now. Thanks to streaming video, hundreds of thousands of movies from the dawn of film to today can be accessed and played back on all kinds of HD-ready devices.

So why is it that the last bastion of film literacy is still in the hands of a physical format that you can actually hold in your hand and put on a shelf?

The answer is simple: The Blu-ray format can hold enough information for not only the highest-quality film transfer but also a large amount of supplemental content that functions as a sort of instant film school. I like streaming a movie as much as the next person, but when I want to dig deeper, I look to extra features. Nobody is putting out better Blu-rays right now than The Criterion Collection, and three of its newest releases illustrate this point perfectly.

To the casual moviegoer, it may not seem like there’s any point in going back to check out old films, but in fact, it’s a great way to trace the lineage of current filmmakers and trends and discover where the new movies you love came from.

Fans of Oscar-winning visionary director Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity”) can see an earlier mastery of genre-defying in “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” a 2001 road-trip movie starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna as teenagers who fall under the spell of a beautiful older woman. What could have been a simple teenage sex comedy instead becomes a coming-of-age film with startling emotional depth and complexity, set against the backdrop of class differences in Mexico.

Besides the treat of seeing Emmanuel Lubezki’s gorgeous cinematography in a 2K digital film transfer, there are 50 excellent minutes of interviews and making-of material put together in 2014 for this release, a 9-minute feature from author and philosophical thinker Slavoj Zizek about the film’s themes, and a host of other extras.

If this sounds too heady and boring, it’s not. I mean, this isn’t “Armageddon” (which, weirdly, also has a Criterion release). There’s a lot to ponder and negotiate with “Y Tu Mama Tambien.” A couple hours of back-patting and chatty hi-jinks with Bruce Willis and Michael Bay would get old real soon, but with in-depth pieces like the ones on this Blu-ray/DVD dual-format combo, you can deepen your film knowledge and appreciation for the work, sending your mind off in all kinds of fascinating directions.

The Criterion re-issue of 1997’s “Insomnia” has an instant link to the present as well. The last five years in Scandinavian television is widely seen as a Renaissance, with Nordic noirs like “The Killing” and “The Bridge” pushing boundaries and inspiring American remakes. It’s easier to point to “Insomnia” as an opening shot in the genre, especially after re-watching it in this beautiful 4K restoration on Blu-ray.

Stellan Skarsgard plays a hotshot Swedish detective tracking down a killer in Norway. A series of bad choices lead him down a dark path (though the constant summer sun never relents), and he begins to lose his grip on right and wrong. “Insomnia” is a paranoid noir thriller in broad daylight, and Skarsgard inhabits his role so naturally that when he starts going off the rails, it’s as disorienting as it is disturbing.

A new conversation reuniting Skarsgard with director Erik Skjoldbjærg shows the amount of collaboration that was involved in this seminal movie. Like the influential Scandinavian TV dramas of today, “Insomnia” was re-made for American audiences in 2002 by no less a director than Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight”), and it starred Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank.

A haunted 1970s film revolutionary if there ever was one, Paul Schrader wrote “Taxi Driver” and co-wrote “Raging Bull.” He introduces the Criterion dual-format Blu-ray/DVD of Robert Bresson’s 1959 film “Pickpocket” by talking about how the French filmmaker inspired him to make movies. Non-actors are used regularly these days on TV, and to some extent, the movies, but usually as part of some “reality” show or to approximate reality for a docudrama feel.

Bresson’s strategy was to employ non-actors and stylize their actions in a very specific way to reveal something deeper about their characters. In “Pickpocket,” a professional magician performs the slight-of-hand tricks of the main character and his cohorts as they prey upon the people of Paris, but it’s the strange quality of non-actor Martin LaSalle that sets the film apart. Is he as dead inside as he appears to the outside world? His criminal existence alienates him from the people he cares about even as he continues to pursue it.

“Pickpocket” is certainly dated, but it’s so dated, it almost feels fresh. A commentary track by film scholar James Quandt points out even more of the film’s oddities, while Bresson himself is featured on a 1960 TV show, and the “actors” get their due in two features. Illusionist Kassagi, who consulted on the movie, is featured in some amazing excerpts from a 1962 TV appearance.

So while everyone else is flipping through VOD listings to find the latest Nicolas Cage-Morgan Freeman thriller that wasn’t good enough to warrant a theatrical release, I’m more than happy to spend a weekend afternoon with a classic movie and a ton of extra content that gives me a wider perspective. There’s more to movies than escapism, and I love exploring how films were made and how they affected the world.

A local “Triumph”

A local script about a high-school wrestler with mild cerebral palsy is gaining some traction, thanks to reported interest in the lead role from RJ Mitte (“Breaking Bad”).

Screenwriter and co-director Mike Coffey has started a Kickstarter campaign to fund “Triumph,” which would be produced and shot in Lawrence.

Financing is still up in the air but the project, in tandem with local Through A Glass Productions, aims to start shooting in October over four weeks, but if Coffey can keep talent like Mitte, Jonathan Lipnicki, Graham Greene and Charles Dutton, as well as Lawrence actress Laura Kirk, on board he could have quite the project on his hands.

Reply 1 comment from Blackcopter