DVD and Blu-ray Reviews

3 'Must Buy' Criterion Blu-rays: Clouzot's 'Diabolique,' Kurosawa's 'High and Low' and 'The Battle of Algiers'

Plus details on four other recent releases

The Battle of Algiers Criterion coverHigh and Low Criterion coverDiabolique Criterion cover

Time is an annoying thing, it ticks away, aging us all and leaving behind things we meant to do, but never got around to. This is a statement that can be related to just about anything in our short lives, but in this case it happens to be my opening for a large batch of Criterion Collection Blu-rays I, shamefully, never got around to fully reviewing after mentioning them in my weekly DVD and Blu-ray columns. For some of you that is enough, for others you would like more, this is my attempt to clean off the shelves and start anew.

Let's get started...

Diabolique

Thanks to my trip to the Cannes Film Festival I got so backed up with my Criterion reviews I was never able to recover, so I'm heading as far back as May 17, when Criterion issued brand new DVD and Blu-ray editions of Henri-Georges Clouzot's Diabolique, a stunning thriller that simply floored me the first time I saw it. Clouzot snatched the rights to adapt Pierre Boileau's novel right out from under the nose of Alfred Hitchcock and delivered a masterful thriller that stands up there with the best of Hitchcock's work if you want my opinion.

Diabolique tells the story of two women, both working at a boarding school, one is the wife to a cruel headmaster while the other is his mistress. Tensions brew and a plot for the perfect murder begins as the two women conspire to rid themselves of the man playing with their affections. The film boasts spectacular performances from two actors that would later team in Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows, Paul Meurisse and Simone Signoret, as well as a quiet and paranoid performance from Clouzot's wife, Vera, as the wronged wife.

Criterion originally released Diabolique on DVD back in 1999 but this is more than just a port of the previous DVD with a high definition transfer, this is an all-new digital restoration that elevates the image to new heights. Among the special features is a 45-minute selected-scene commentary (quickly becoming a regular thing on Criterion releases) by French-film scholar Kelley Conway, a new video introduction by Serge Bromberg, codirector of Henri-Georges Clouzot's 'Inferno' (a film I've been dying to see, but have yet to get the opportunity) and a new 2010 video interview with novelist and film critic Kim Newman.

As the headline insinuates, I consider this an absolute must buy on Blu-ray and you can do so right here.


High and Low

Next we come to Akira Kurosawa's High and Low, his 1963 adaptation of Ed McBain's detective novel "King's Ransom", which also served as the inspiration for Ron Howard's 1996 thriller Ransom starring Mel Gibson. However, to compare the two films is folly as Kurosawa once again is able to not only tell a riveting story, but do so while blending politics of his time, which still resonate today, with true suspense, pushing the envelope of captivating storytelling. Like his adaptations of William Shakespeare, Kurosawa makes the material his own and knows exactly who he needs to bring the story to life.

In the film's lead role is the undeniably excellent Toshiro Mifune, an actor whose talents are instantly confirmed no matter when you first see him on screen. For me it was in Seven Samurai, but just as impressive as he is as a rogue warrior, he is equally captivating as a buttoned down shoe manufacturer caught in the middle of a kidnapping as his chauffeur's son is snatched and held for ransom. He must now decide how he will deal with a situation that could destroy him and his family financially for the sake of the young boy in danger.

Shot and presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, High and Low is a film you particularly notice Kurosawa's use of the widescreen image as your eyes can scan the canvas and notice key differences in all corners of the frame. This is not a film to ever be squished to a pan and scan fullscreen presentation and try not to forgive anyone that says otherwise.

Among the feature highlights, the audio commentary by Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince is thorough and quite enlightening as is the always-included excerpt from Toho's "Masterworks" series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create, this time obviously focusing on High and Low and running 37 minutes. The only feature I would recommend you skip outright is the interview with Mifune from 1984. Wow, it is really bad as Mifune has to endure some of the worst questions imaginable from a clueless young woman more awestruck that Mifune is there in front of her than prepared to actually conduct a professional interview.

And once again, I recommend this as an instant purchase. However, if you already own the DVD edition you probably don't need to upgrade since the HD presentation isn't such an overwhelming improvement it demands you replace your previous copy. But, if you are yet to include this title on your shelves then please click here and rectify the situation.


The Battle of Algiers

I first saw Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers in December of 2008 and it left an immediate impression on me from the stunning photography, performances, direction and just overall emotional impact as it tells the story of the Algerian struggle for independence from the occupying French in the 1950s. It holds absolutely nothing back and with this new high-definition transfer supervised by director of photography Marcello Gatti you are getting down to the gritty meat of it all with a textured and film-like presentation of a movie I would definitely list among my all-time favorites.

The supplements and packaging are identical to the previously released three-disc. 2004 DVD edition, though the Blu-ray is taken down to a two-disc release thanks to the additional storage space on the Blu-ray disc. Thankfully, that doesn't mean the image has been compromised in the slightest as each of the features are still presented in high-definition, making for a bump up from the standard definition DVD in all corners.

The features are impressive and plentiful and rather than cherry pick favorites, I decided I would just present the lot:

  • Gillo Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth, a documentary narrated by literary critic Edward Said
  • Marxist Poetry: The Making of The Battle of Algiers, a documentary featuring interviews with Pontecorvo, Gatti, composer Ennio Morricone, and others
  • Interviews with Spike Lee, Mira Nair, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh, and Oliver Stone on the film's influence, style, and importance
  • Remembering History, a documentary reconstructing the Algerian experience of the battle for independence
  • Etats d'armes, a documentary excerpt featuring senior French military officers recalling the use of torture and execution to combat the Algerian rebellion
  • The Battle of Algiers: A Case Study, a video piece featuring U.S. counterterrorism experts
  • Gillo Pontecorvo's Return to Algiers, a documentary in which the filmmaker revisits the country after three decades of independence
  • Production gallery
  • Theatrical and rerelease trailers
  • A booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Peter Matthews, excerpts from Algeria's National Liberation Front leader Saadi Yacef's original account of his arrest, excerpts from the film's screenplay, a reprinted interview with cowriter Franco Solinas, and biographical sketches of key figures in the French-Algerian War

If it isn't obvious enough after watching it, just how relevant this film still is today, then perhaps the best place to start would be the "The Battle of Algiers: A Case Study - How to Win the Battle But Lose the War of Ideas" feature which runs just shy of 25 minutes.

It absolutely must be said that this was one of my treasured Criterion releases when I purchased the three-disc DVD and when I see how Criterion doesn't skimp when it comes to presenting the same release on Blu-ray it continues to impress me. The Blu-ray release is simply a slightly more compact version of the DVD release with improved video quality and remains a must own. The Blu-ray version does cost about $9 more than the DVD edition at Amazon so depending on your budget you may want to consider one over the other. The Blu-ray does boast an improved video transfer, but the DVD is an impressive package as well if you'd like to save some money. To help make your decision you will find both options at the link right here, but my suggestion is to certainly add one of them to your shelf.


Now I have a few other titles I wanted to discuss from previous months that I never got around to reviewing, despite actually writing up partial reviews for a couple of them and completely losing myself in my words to the point the reviews weren't salvageable.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Let me begin by saying I am not a very big fan of this film, but I considered several times actually buying the two-disc, 2003 DVD edition Criterion put out because I primarily wanted to listen to the Hunter S. Thompson commentary track. Now that I have, I am thankful I didn't buy it because the Thompson commentary plays like the ranting of a lunatic, which can be mildly entertaining for about five minutes, but once you learn he continues to babble like some incoherent nut for the entire 119 minutes it was just too much for me to handle.

As far as the transfer goes, it looked good and the rest of the features from that 2003 release have been brought over and they are plentiful. However, if you already own that previous Criterion release and are simply looking for the HD upgrade the Universal Blu-ray release, currently priced $13 cheaper at Amazon, may be the way to go. You can select from the lot right here, and if you would like to look at visual comparisons between the Criterion and Universal releases check those out at DVDBeaver.

Solaris

I'm going to say very little about Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris right now because I am waiting to watch it one more time along with Kino's Blu-ray edition of The Sacrifice, which Kino also recently released on Blu-ray.

This was the first time for me seeing Solaris and to immediately begin reviewing it is impossible. I could say I saw various metaphors here and there, but it's a film that's impossible to digest in your first sitting, let alone come away with a finalized opinion. My goal is to watch it again along with another sitting of The Sacrifice and see if I can come to any kind of conclusion about the late Russian director's work. It's a challenge to be sure. ($27.99 at Amazon)

Insignificance

I started rambling and rambling in a review of Nicolas Roeg's Insignificance to the point I had no idea what point I was even trying to make in the first place so I trashed it. This film features four characters that resemble (but aren't) Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio and Joseph McCarthy and it keeps the mind reeling. The most interesting thing about it is how I felt like I understood it completely, or at least came away with my own interpretation, but was unable to put it into words and still am struggling to do so. I wouldn't say it's a film I would recommend you buy, at least not until I can explain my thoughts of it to you concisely, and for that reason I will only suggest a rental for now.

On a side note, however, this film did make me think of how great it would be if someone like Jim Jarmusch (director of the spectacular must own, Mystery Train) would ever decide to make a film about the rumored story that had Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson and Marlon Brando fleeing New York on September 11th and road-tripping it back to California. There is a story to be told there and if the right screenwriter and director duo got together to bring it to the big screen it could be gloriously comedic and emotionally dramatic at the same time. How you would do it and tap into everything that day and those three late celebrities represent is beyond me, but if done right...? Wow, it could be great. ($28.60 at Amazon)

Black Moon

Whatever the hell is going on in Louis Malle's Black Moon I do not know. To be honest, I don't even know where to start with a film that is something of "Alice in Wonderland" on acid... which is really saying something since Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" isn't exactly a story you think of without a relationship to hallucinatory drugs in the first place. Maybe it's up your alley, but I just couldn't wrap my head around it. ($28.60 at Amazon)


So there you have it, over 2,000 words and seven different Criterion releases covered and I have more to work on. I fully plan on writing up reviews of the recent Criterion Blu-ray releases of Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (it's excellent), Jean-Pierre Melville's Leon Morin, Priest (fascinating) and Roman Polanski's Cul-de-sac (I'm just beginning to dig into it). So stay tuned, catch-up time is over and it's time to get on track.

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  • Katie

    You say Strike but you mean The Sacrifice. Strike is Eisenstein.

  • gerberzy

    Yes Katie. I'm not sure if you are talking about Tarkovsky's "Stalker" or "The Sacrifice" or perhaps Eisenstein's "Strike" (which was just released on Blu-ray from Kino).

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      You are both correct, my confusion, fixed the article.

  • C138

    Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a mess of a movie. Love the book, though.

  • Matt

    I just bumped High and Low to the top of my Netflix queue, can't wait to check it out. Also totally agree on "Diabolique", I can't wait to buy it (though I'll probably wait until Christmas... working at Wendy's can only get you so much :P)