Friday, July 25, 2008

DVD releases for July 22

Let's not muddy the waters with last week's hum-drum releases and focus on this week with what may turn out to be two of the best DVDs of the year and one of the most interesting releases to hit the US market:

Satantango (1994) directed by Bela Tarr
After a very long gestation period, Facets has finally released Bela Tarr's Satantango. And while I don't have this DVD set in my hands yet, other people do and it really exists. Access to this has dogged me for over five years. I became somewhat obsessed with finding a copy when rumors started floating around that, despite the fact that the film did not have a distributor, Tarr himself was willing to sell copies. (This rumor seems absolutely absurd at this point, given what I now know about Bela Tarr.) Since this rumor was just that, I forgot about it, until a couple years later a friend said he knew a guy who had a copy and he could probably get a copy. (He has been reduce from friend to smack-talker, who obviously never produced a copy.) Once again, I threw in the towel assuming I would never see this film. (Ironically, bootlegs were popping up around this time, and I am glad I was distracted.) Then Facets announce in 2006 that they would be releasing the film on DVD with a release date that kept moving until finally the title just came off the release calendar. Once again, a dead end, but at least there was some hope. Then 2007 became the year of Bela Tarr in Minneapolis. Not only did Satantango get two screenings early in the year, but then got a third in the form of a retrospective and a visit by the man himself! Who needs a damn DVD! Well, I have subsequently been wanting to revisit the film, and it may as well be on DVD because I don't think it is coming back in theatrical form.

This release, two years in the waiting, is not without controversy, the most obvious being the reason for the wait itself. It seems that Tarr was relatively unforgiving regarding the quality of the transfer and obviously had a deal with Facets that it would not be released without his blessing. More power to him. Despite the grumblers, this release seems hard to pass up. Tarr's involvement seems to mostly stem from setting the greyscale to where he wants it, as this seems to be the marked difference between the Facet release and the UK Artifical Eye release last year. Not only that, the Facets DVD has a host of extras, including the two-shot made-for-TV Macbeth (1982), his short Prologue (2004) and Journey on the Plain (1995), in which actor-composer Mihaly Vig revisits the Satantango locations. At $50 at Deep Discount, this DVD is a steal, and I am really excited to own it. (Just looking at the screen shots again, I realize that I have no idea how to process this film.) Of course, being committed to this seven-and-a-half hour epic on DVD in one sitting would be hard (although I am planning a pot luck at my house for willing revelers this winter for just such a marathon.)

(If you have some time on your hands and are interested, check out the detailed comparison between the Artificial Eye release and the Facet release on DVD Beaver, and check out the epic release saga (which started in 2005) and its many facets (no pun intended) on the Criterion message board. Check out the amazing opening sequence on You Tube.)

Vampyr (1932) directed by Carl Theodore Dreyer
Just when you thought you got rid of those pesky black bars on the top and bottom of your favorite widescreen films with your new HD TV, get ready to go retro with the black bars on the side and beautiful digital mono sound. Vampyr has been available in the US for some time in the form of terrible VHS and a marginal DVD from Image Entertainment, but with an incorrect aspect ratio of 1.33. Criterion's new 2 disc set of Vampyr does everything it possible can to not only restore the quality of the original work, but make it available to just about as many people as possible. (If I were a rich person, a really rich person, I would be collecting prints, not DVDs, but this print would no doubt be out of reach.) The DVD set contains a new digital transfer in the correct aspect ratio of 1.19 from the German original, a 1966 documentary by Jørgen Roos chronicling Dreyer's career, commentary by Tony Rayns (who I could listen to all day), a "visual essay" by scholar Casper Tybjerg on Dreyer's influences in creating Vampyr, a radio broadcast from 1958 of Dreyer reading an essay about filmmaking (also good for the new HD TV), and a booklet full of stuff to read. A very very similar version will be released in the UK in August. It is with implied sarcasm that I note that this release is not anamorphic.

Help Me Eros (2007) directed by Lee Kang-sheng
Lowering the bar abit from Bela Tarr and Carl Dreyer comes this titillating surprise. Given how long it took for Wayward Cloud to surface in the US, I am surprised to see this released so soon. Lee Kang-sheng is better know as an actor who has a permanent place in Tsai Ming-liang's film. Help Me Eros is his second film as director and shows that he is no less modest or audacious than the platforms that Tsai sets up for him. Help Me Eros got mixed reviews, to say the least, and, if it isn't obvious, this film is not for everyone. However, anyone interested in Tsai Ming-liang would not want to miss at least the opportunity to check this film out.

High and Low (1963) directed by Akira Kurosawa
Like some kind of mean trick, Criterion releases High and Low, one of my favorite Kurosawa films, for a second time. If you were thinking about buying High and Low, now is the time. Criterion has added a bucket full of special features and a new transfer to what was a pretty bare-bone early release. And for those monitoring the spine numbers, this retains the #24 spine of the original release.

The Last Winter (2006) directed by Larry Fessenden
For those looking for an interesting horror film, The Last Winter is worth checking out. From the director of the equally interesting Wendingo (2001), Fessbenden creates a modern day folk tale in the heart of the Northern Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The ending may be somewhat overt, but the path there is pretty engaging.

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