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Snake Woman's Curse
Snake Woman's Curse
DVD ~ Nobuo Nakagawa
Offered by Badlands DVD
Price: $12.98
18 used & new from $3.64

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Second-tier Nakagawa but first-rate DVD, May 3, 2008
This review is from: Snake Woman's Curse (DVD)
Nobuo Nakagawa is generally considered the father of the modern Japanese horror movie (J-horror). As such, his status in Japan is analogous to Mario Bava's in Italy and Terence Fisher's in Britain. All three directors burst onto the scene in the late-1950s/early-1960s after having labored in relative obscurity for decades, and their individual visual styles were so powerful that they basically reinvented the horror-genre traditions in their respective countries. (Personally, I think they also stand head-and-shoulders above their imitators, thanks to an intelligence, tastefulness, and humanism that they all shared.)

"Snake Woman's Curse" provides a decent introduction to Nakagawa's work and to what makes it special. The supernatural elements are treated ambiguously. (Are the ghosts real or the products of psychological guilt?) Nakagawa makes striking use of color, lighting, and especially darkness. There are hints of transcendence through death and entry into the afterlife. And there is ample evidence of Nakagawa's ambition to transcend the perceived limitations of a genre picture, with provocative commentary on capitalism and the exploitation of women: The plot concerns a family of peasants who return from beyond the grave to exact revenge on the family of silk merchants who wronged them.

Unfortunately, "Snake Woman's Curse" was one of Nakagawa's last feature films, and it was made several years after his peak. (Most fans and critics regard his 1959 "Yotsuya Ghost Story" and his mind-bending 1960 "Jigoku" as his masterpieces. Criterion already released "Jigoku" and apparently owns the rights to "Yotsuya Ghost Story," which desperately needs a release.) The supernatural aspects of "Snake Woman's Curse" are fairly conventional, which is not what one watches Nakagawa for. And the movie's moral point of view lacks subtlety, which makes it seem sentimental and didactic.

Nevertheless, Synapse Films are to be commended for making this film available and giving us a more complete picture of Nakagawa's career. And of course, they deserve a lot of praise for treating the film with so much respect. The transfer is a beauty, with incredibly vivid and vibrant colors -- which are essential to any Nakagawa film. It really is one of the best DVDs of a color Japanese film of this vintage that I've encountered. (It's probably the most pleasant surprise I've had since I bought Animeigo's equally wonderful DVD of Shiro Toyoda's "Portrait of Hell," which itself would make for a fantastic double-feature with "Snake Woman's Curse.") As far as extras go, there's some nice info about the film and Nakagawa's career via liner notes, poster galleries, and text-only screens. The only disappointment for me was the commentary, which was recorded by a film scholar, who tries to make the case that "Snake Woman's Curse" is actually a more important film in Nakagawa's career than most critics/fans believe. But apart from making a few fairly obvious points about the film's social message, he doesn't really say much. In fact, the commentary doesn't take up more than half of the film, and you have to fast-forward past the gaps several times. I think a video essay, like Criterion sometimes does, would have been far more effective.

All in all, if you're new to Nakagawa, "Snake Woman's Curse" is a good place to start, though you need to seek out "Jigoku" as well. This DVD, however, is an essential purchase for those who love and admire the work of the great masters of horror, like Nakagawa, Bava, Fisher, and Roger Corman.

Black Cat John Brown
Black Cat John Brown
Price: $14.72
31 used & new from $0.01

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best bands you've (probably) never heard of!, July 24, 2007
This review is from: Black Cat John Brown (Audio CD)
Alamo Race Track is one of those bands that, once discovered, I never know whether to introduce to all my friends or to keep to myself and savor privately. That's probably because the two defining characteristics of ART are their quirkiness and eclecticism. After all, how many of my friends are going to realize that "The Killing" is a meditation on the characters played by Elisha Cook Jr. and Marie Windsor in Stanley Kubrick's film of the same name? Or how many are going to get the joke inherent in the title of the song "Lee J. Cobb Is Screaming a Lot"? And then there's ART's sound, which has been compared variously to Modest Mouse, Arcade Fire, Radiohead, The Strokes, and Peter Bjorn & John. Frankly, I don't think that ART sounds very much like any of those other bands -- except in passing moments. In fact, on the whole, ART doesn't really sound "like" anyone else, which is a large part of their charm. If anything, their eclecticism reminds me vaguely of the Belgian band dEUS. At different times, ART seems to channel blues ("Black Cat John Brown"), 90s Britrock ("The Northern Territory"), and John Barry's music for the early James Bond movies (the intro to "On the Beach").

Perhaps the reason ART seems simultaneously familiar and different is that they're Dutch. For one thing, lead singer Ralph Mulder's voice bears traces of an accent. It frequently takes on a sing-song quality that perfectly complements the band's bouncing bass and staccato guitar style (most noticeably on "The Northern Territory" and "My Heart"). Likewise, although all the songs are in English, there's an almost stream-of-consciousness obscurity to the lyrics, as if the band chooses words for their sound rather than meaning. More importantly, however, I find bands from "smaller" countries more apt to blend multiple musical influences, and that's very much on display here.

But it's not simply the exoticism of ART being foreign that appeals to me. They've got a knack for developing intricate structures around catchy hooks. The title track, for example, centers around a straightforward 4-bar phrase on acoustic guitar, but the band keeps it interesting by piling on multiple layers. (By the way, if "Black Cat John Brown" sounds familiar, it's probably because you ran across it on You Tube. ART earned a lot of buzz when an acoustic version of the song logged something like 200,000 views in two weeks.) Plus, the band's energy is extremely infectious. To put it bluntly, they can really rock, as "The Northern Territory" and "Lee J. Cobb Is Screaming a Lot" show. But they're just as good when in their darker, more melancholy moods, like "The Killing" and "Breaker-Breaker 1-2."

I discovered Alamo Race Track two years ago, when I came across their first album (BIRDS AT HOME, still unavailable in the U.S.) in an Amsterdam record shop. At the time, I thought they were an extremely interesting band that deserved a much wider audience. BLACK CAT JOHN BROWN is even better, and it would be criminal if they didn't get that audience now.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 14, 2014 6:39 PM PDT

Animated Soviet Propaganda: From the October Revolution to Perestroika (4 DVD Set) with ENGLISH SUBTITLES
Animated Soviet Propaganda: From the October Revolution to Perestroika (4 DVD Set) with ENGLISH SUBTITLES
Offered by bunny_express
Price: $27.99
2 used & new from $20.00

30 of 32 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating? Yes! Entertaining? Not exactly..., June 29, 2007
Extremely difficult to evaluate both for content and presentation, this collection offers a fascinating glimpse into the cultural life of the former Soviet Union. As the title implies, all these cartoons are heavily propagandistic. They were designed to instill the values of patriotism, self-sacrifice, and collectivization in the Soviet populace. As such, it's sure to appeal to anyone with an interest in the history of the USSR or Cold War. Likewise, the animation itself is generally compelling and frequently beautiful, so animation buffs are going to find this collection very rewarding.

However, as propaganda, these cartoons are extremely didactic and heavy-handed. Even viewers already familiar with classic live-action Soviet cinema will be shocked at some of the messages these cartoons convey. For instance, in "Someone Else's Voice," cute Disney-like birds drive a magpie out of their forest for singing an American jazz song, preferring quiet conformity instead. Other cartoons contain songs praising Stalin and advocating blind obedience to his policies. Many are also abstract, with protagonists that are rarely individuated in the way Americans expect. Characters are usually bland, too-good-to-be-true representations of an idealized Soviet type. Ultimately, it's very difficult to identify with them in any meaningful way. As a result, most viewers aren't going to watch these cartoons for fun in the same way they might watch Bugs Bunny or Donald Duck. Intellectual curiosity really trumps aesthetic enjoyment here, which means that this collection certainly belongs in university libraries but may not get much play-time at home.

Yet I don't want to scare anyone away. The company that produced it, Films By Jove, deserve all the support they can get for releasing films this obscure. Nevertheless, even their presentation has pros and cons.

Pros: the cartoons are organized thoughtfully, given good transfers, provided with more than adequate subtitles, and supplemented with special features totaling about two hours.

Cons: the subtitles are non-removable (which will irritate animation buffs), and the extras aren't really as in-depth as they should be. Each of the four documentaries contains the same two-minute opening and includes long excerpts from the cartoons themselves. They are basically explanations of what you've just seen rather than explorations of the historical context. Sometimes these explanations are helpful. How else could anyone figure out a bizarre cartoon like "Interplanetary Revolution"? (Footnote: if you haven't seen the 1924 Soviet sci-fi film "Aelita," you're probably never going to get it, even with the docu's explanation.) Still, I'd like to have learned more about how these cartoons were made. How were the cartoonists trained? How did their techniques differ from animation studios in Hollywood? What was the censorship process like? These questions don't get addressed satisfactorily. Fortunately, some PDF files are available on Jove's website, and I encourage viewers to check those out.

It's also worth pointing out that film preservation in Eastern Europe is in a notoriously sad state of affairs. If you've ever purchased a DVD from Ruscico or Second Run, you'll know that companies frequently have to rely on what's made available to them. As a result, some of these cartoons are fragmentary ("China in Flames"), lack original soundtracks ("The Vultures"), seem to be cropped ("The Shareholder"), or use such dark prints that they're almost indecipherable at times ("Tale of a Toy"). But knowing how difficult it can be to track down good film elements from Eastern Europe, I'm willing to cut Jove some slack. Potential consumers just need to be aware of these problems.

If you buy this set, I have some advice. By far, the best of the four documentaries is the one of the last disc ("Onward to the Shining Future"). If you watch this docu first, you'll get a much better sense of the historical context, and you'll be alerted to look for certain recurring images: capitalists are always depicted as either fat and greedy or ugly and hypocritical, etc. To get used to these cartoons, it's also best to start with disc 2 ("Fascist Barbarians"). Some of these compare favorably with propaganda cartoons created by MGM, Disney, and Warner during WWII. "Kino-Circus" is one of the funniest cartoons in the entire collection, and some of the later ones on this disc are among the most visually imaginative. ("The Pioneer's Violin," "Attention Wolves!" and "Tale of a Toy" are disturbing but beautiful.) I also recommend that you seek out "A Hot Stone" and "The Millionaire" early on, since they're the best cartoons in the collection. In my opinion, "The Millionaire" is the only one that equals the manic genius you'll find in Tex Avery's work. Finally, it's worth supplementing this collection with some of the less propagandistic animation that Soviet studios were producing during the Cold War. Not all cartoons from the USSR were this abstract and didactic. If possible, you should try to pick up one of the volumes in Jove's "Masters of Russian Animation" series. In terms of content, those cartoons are much more palatable.

Japan's Longest Day
Japan's Longest Day
DVD ~ Seiji Miyaguchi
14 used & new from $23.65

67 of 68 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating story told well, October 14, 2006
This review is from: Japan's Longest Day (DVD)
At Noon on August 14, 1945, Emperor Hirohito took the unprecedented step of ordering his government to accept the Potsdam Declaration and surrender unconditionally to the Allies. (Although regarded as divine, the emperor was little more than a figurehead, being too exalted to bother with politics. Though recent historians have shown that Hirohito often worked behind the scenes to influence policy.) Fearing that the populace might fight on anyway, the government took another unprecedented step and made a recording of Hirohito's voice that would be broadcast to the nation, confirming the surrender. That broadcast was scheduled for 24 hours later -- hence the title of the movie. In the meantime, a group of over-zealous officers attempted to stage a coup, capture the emperor and the recording, oust or kill any politicians or generals who stood in their way, and continue the war. The subsequent events make for a story as tense and surprising as any fictional film. As far as I can tell, the movie sticks pretty close to the facts. The only major omission I noticed was that the film leaves out a U.S. air raid that caused a black-out, which in turn helped the emperor's staff hide the recording from the coup's leaders.

"Japan's Longest Day" is a cross between political thrillers like "Seven Days in May" and "Thirteen Days" and spot-the-stars WWII epics like "The Longest Day" and "Tora Tora Tora." It was designed to celebrate Toho Studio's 35th anniversary, and just about every major male star who worked at Toho in the 1960s makes an appearance. Most notable are Kurosawa-regulars Toshiro Mifune as war minister, Takashi Shimura as information minister, and Tatsuya Nakadai as narrator, as well as Ozu-favorite Chishu Ryu as prime minister. Most of the actors are excellent, and anyone who thinks Mifune was a ham should see his subdued but intense performance here.

For western audiences unfamiliar with the events, the movie can be a little confusing. It helps to see recognizable faces in the major roles, and director Kihachi Okamoto (who was an heir to Kurosawa at Toho) keeps a fast pace by filming in a documentary style. His approach isn't as kinetic as Kurosawa's, but he injects some stylishness here and there -- like the exaggerated spurts of blood that samurai movies use. Although I think Okamoto could have cut a few unnecessary characters (like two air force commanders who don't do much) and used more music to increase the tension, the movie is good at revealing the characters' motivations, especially how they rationalized their actions when caught in a paradox: receiving an imperial order that went against their sense of military honor.

AnimEigo's anamorphic DVD is good but not superlative. The print looks fine, though as lovers of Japanese films probably know, a 40-year-old Toho film can always benefit from the sort of loving care that only Criterion provides. It just doesn't glow like the rerelease of "Seven Samurai," and I think the transfer is interlaced, too. However, AnimEigo obviously cares about the movie, and their subtitling is thorough. They also include the movie's trailer, a photo gallery, and some liner notes that contextualize the events. I only wish that the DVD also included some sort of non-fictional documentary. The History Channel made a superb documentary on this topic, and it could have been a fantastic extra.

If you're a WWII history buff, an afficionado of Japanese cinema, or a fan of real-life political thrillers, then "Japan's Longest Day" is well worth your time. It's an absorbing recreation of an event that too few western audiences know anything about. And it's a movie that virtually every Japanese person has seen at least once. (It's shown on Japanese TV every August 15.)
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 26, 2011 3:23 AM PDT

The Bridge: Die Bruecke
The Bridge: Die Bruecke
DVD ~ Bernhard Wicki
7 used & new from $17.88

22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What about the DVD itself?, October 2, 2006
This review is from: The Bridge: Die Bruecke (DVD)
Other reviewers have praised this film at length, so I don't have much to add there. However, none of the other reviews addresses the question of how the DVD itself looks. Here are my impressions:

This DVD was made by a small company called Belle & Blade, which mainly distributes war movies released by other home video companies. I'm a little apprehensive of buying DVDs from such companies because they sometimes border on bootleg quality. (I won't name names.) Happily, this release of "The Bridge" is a pleasant surprise. While not in pristine condition, the print is very good, with excellent contrast and sharpness. The DVD is not progressively encoded, but it looks fine on regular tube TVs. (You may see some blurriness during action sequences if you watch it on a computer or another HD source.) For a DVD originally released in 1998, it holds up well.

It's worth pointing out that Belle & Blade has transferred two separate versions of "The Bridge": the original 102-minute German-language cut and the slighly abbreviated 100-minute English dub. There are some differences between the two, and I prefer the German-language original. My biggest complaint is that you can't turn off the subtitles when you watch the German-language version. In my opinion, all subtitles ought to be optional -- that's simply one of the advantages of the DVD medium. (And other reviews are correct: the subtitling is not completely accurate. But it's not bad.)

Furthermore, "The Bridge" has been such an important and influential movie (particularly in Germany) that it deserves an extra feature or two. Belle & Blade has thoughtfully included the intro by Chet Huntley that accompanied the film's showings in the United States in 1960. (It's of historical interest because Huntley sets the film up as a rejection of totalitarian government, with anti-Communist overtones. That's an obvious misreading. "The Bridge" is primarily about the contrast between youthful idealism and the brutal reality of war, and it can be read as an out-and-out anti-war film.) Still, it would have been nice to hear a military historian provide a commentary track, or perhaps a current German director or critic could have been interviewed about the film's importance. Not to mention that most of the actors who portrayed the boys are still alive and working.

With the above caveats, I recommend this DVD. I don't know if Belle & Blade's other releases are of similar quality, but you should have no worries about this one. I do think that the Amazon price is much too high, though, so keep an eye on the Marketplace sellers.

There's Only Now
There's Only Now
10 used & new from $0.01

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Yet another very good Scandinavian band, August 9, 2006
This review is from: There's Only Now (Audio CD)
Like Kent, Mew, and Saybia, Eskobar is a very good indie pop/rock band from Scandinavia that deserves much wider appreciation. All the songs on this album (originally released 2001/02) are in English, so there's no language barrier to prevent Americans from listening to it. In fact, one of the songs ("Someone New," featuring the Bermudan singer-songwriter Heather Nova) got some airplay on MTV, so I'm surprised nobody's bothered to review any of Eskobar's albums on Amazon.

So far, Eskobar has released four albums, but I think that this one provides the best introduction to their music. Like the other Scandinavian bands I mentioned, Eskobar is heavily indebted to recent Brit-pop: lead singer Daniel Bellqvist emphasizes the fragility of his voice, there are a lot of electronic/ambient effects, and so forth. What distinguishes Eskobar is that they're also influenced by technopop, so most of their tracks are dance-oriented rather than shoe-gazing. I've never heard them live, so I'm not sure how the three members recreate all these effects live. Fortunately, this release includes five bonus tracks, all of which are acoustic and may give an inkling of what they're like live.

Besides "Someone New," which is a really lovely duet, my favorite tracks are "Move On," "On the Ground," and "Tell Me I'm Wrong" (though "Why London" and "Snowman" are also quite good). These songs achieve a well-balanced mixture of upbeat dance tempos, haunting lyrics, and minor-key melodies that make perfect listening for late-night dancing or driving.

If you want to explore the current Scandinavian music scene, then Eskobar is a key band you need to know. The import price Amazon is asking is a little high, but maybe you can pick it up through the Marketplace.

Tallis: The Tallis Scholars Sing Thomas Tallis
Tallis: The Tallis Scholars Sing Thomas Tallis
Price: $19.97
74 used & new from $8.36

97 of 100 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Tallis Scholars do their namesake proud, July 26, 2006
In the last couple of years, the Tallis Scholars have been compiling their sizeable recording output into attractive two-disc editions. Here, they've collected a large number of their interpretations of their namesake, Thomas Tallis. Tallis (c. 1505-1585) is, of course, one of the giants of Renaissance music, and he was certainly the greatest English composer of liturgical music between John Dunstable and William Byrd. I personally consider him the second-greatest Renaissance composer after Palestrina, but I'm not dogmatic about it. I love the music of Josquin, Victoria, and Byrd almost as much. Let's just say that, if you're interested in immersing yourself in the work of a single Renaissance composer, you can't do much better than Tallis.

These recordings were made 1985-1998, and they all sound great. Included in this collection are most of Tallis best and best-known works: the two Lamentations of Jeremiah, O Sacrum Convivium, Gaude Gloriosa, Tunes for Archbishop Parker's Psalter (which contains the theme that inspired Ralph Vaughan Williams' famous Fantasia), and the incredible 40-part motet Spem In Alium (which is one of the supreme masterpieces of the 16th century). Unfortunately, there are some notable absences, such as the Tallis Scholars' own recording of O Nata Lux. The Mass for 4 Voices, certainly one of Tallis' major works, is also nowhere to be found. Of course, there's only so much music that will fit onto two CDs, but it's still a shame that they couldn't fit at least one of Tallis' masses. Nevertheless, the music that's here is beautiful and powerful.

The Tallis Scholars themselves need no introduction. They're one of the most famous groups specializing in Renaissance music. It needs to be said, however, that if you're looking for "authentic" recordings (that is, recordings that approximate what the music originally sounded like in the 16th century), you might want to look elsewhere. The Tallis Scholars use female singers instead of boys or (ahem!) castrati (though it's doubtful that Tallis would have used or written for castrati himself). And one could complain that these recordings use too many singers for some of the smaller pieces or that the sopranos overpower some of the larger ones (like Spem In Alium). I'm neither an enthusiast nor an opponent of the authentic-performance movement; since we're listening to recorded music anyway, these issues strike me as moot. The Tallis Scholars are experienced and accomplished singers, and they achieve their primary goal: to provide superlative-sounding recordings of important early choral compositions. If you're looking for a fine compilation of Tallis' music or an excellent introduction to Renaissance music, this is it.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 2, 2013 7:55 PM PST

King & Country
King & Country
DVD ~ Dirk Bogarde
Price: $10.11
25 used & new from $3.99

30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Losey & Bogarde's worthy follow-up to The Servant, June 17, 2006
This review is from: King & Country (DVD)
The year prior to making King & Country, director Joseph Losey and actor Dirk Bogarde had made their break-through film The Servant and scored a major critical success, becoming one of the leading actor-director teams of the English-language art-house circuit of the 1960s. King & Country was their follow-up, and it was a worthy one. The film concerns a private (Tom Courtenay) who deserts and is court-martialed during WWI. Bogarde plays the officer who defends him -- reluctantly at first, more sympathetically as he gets to know the private and the stressful battle conditions that led to his desertion.

As an anti-war film, King & Country holds few surprises, but that's not the point. Losey had worked with the great dramatist Bertolt Brecht, who believed that the content of a story mattered less than the way you told it. That logic is on display here. Losey is primarily concerned with criticizing the bureaucratic nature of military thinking and with exploring the dynamic contrasts between the upper-class officers and working-class enlisted men, each of whom understand duty and fate in very different ways. The movie is deliberately paced, but the running time is quite short, and the performances of the ensemble cast are uniformly excellent. Losey also avoids inadvertantly glorifying war, as so many otherwise sincere anti-war films do when they give us the vicarious thrill of battle by aestheticizing military conflict (like Kubrick's Paths of Glory) or when they give us solace in the male cameraderie of soldiers (like Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front). In that regard, King & Country is one of the more successful anti-war films because we never want to be with these characters even though we do sympathize with them.

VCI's DVD is pleasing but flawed. The print is very clean and in the correct 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Unfortunately, VCI used a short-cut by simply porting over the British transfer (which was released on DVD by British Home Entertainment, I believe). The drawback is that British TVs use the PAL system, whereas American TVs use NTSC. As a result, VCI's DVD runs a little too fast and exhibits "ghosting" (a slight blurriness during panning shots). The print is good enough and the movie is static enough that it isn't distracting on regular tube TVs. It's just a shame that VCI didn't pay for a better transfer.

I also sympathize with Robert's review below: There is indeed no subtitle option on this DVD. That's unfortunate because the combination of various British accents with the poor recording equipment of the British film industry of the 1950s and 1960s means that making out what's being said can be difficult. (I lived in Britain for a time, where I got used to some of the accents, but even I had to concentrate very hard.) Finally, VCI has not anamorphically enhanced this film, which means it won't fill up a widescreen TV. That doesn't bother me with films in 1.66:1. Apparently, many labels have difficulty making that aspect ratio anamorphic.

In sum, this is a thoughtful movie that deserves wider appreciation. It serves as one of the more accessible of Losey's "difficult" films, and the DVD is worth purchasing, especially since you can regularly find it for under $10 now.

Our Daily Bread & Other Films of the Great Depression
Our Daily Bread & Other Films of the Great Depression
DVD ~ Thomas Chalmers

36 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Look for the 2005 re-release, January 9, 2006
If you're interested in getting this excellent compilation of films about the Great Depression, then please note that Image Entertainment re-released this DVD in late 2005. The cover is slightly different, featuring a still photo of two children from "The River." For some reason, Image hasn't been on the ball lately, and many e-tailers (including Amazon) continue to list this title -- as well as the silent documentaries "Grass" and "Chang" -- as out of print. It isn't. You can still find it here occasionally and with e-tailers who specialize in rare and hard-to-find DVDs (like Facets). There's no reason to pay more than $30 for this title unless you want the OOP 1st issue.

The movies themselves: As John Marr points out in his review below, "Our Daily Bread" is a little dated and corny in its story and acting, but it's still a fine movie made by a superb American director, King Vidor. Vidor made this movie independently -- hence some of the non-professional actors. But it's well-crafted and features an astonishing and now-classic irrigation sequence at the climax. The other films vary in quality, but all of them are historically important. "The New Frontier" is a short piece of fluff news about the kind of cooperative community that inspired "Our Daily Bread." The two California newsreels are infamous for having used professional actors and not "average joes"; historians think that these propoganda pieces helped defeat the left-wing Upton Sinclair during his gubernatorial bid in 1934. (The first newsreel is actually quite subtle, but the second is pretty transparent.) More artistically interesting are the three documentaries: Pare Lorentz's "Plow that Broke the Plains" and "The River" and Joris Ivens' "Power and the Land." These docus used to be part of the standard curriculum in film classes, and they're excellent examples of montage (juxtaposing different images to create a sense of connection between two seemingly distinct events/ideas). "The Plow that Broke the Plains" famously connects the Dust Bowl of the 1930s to WWI, when farmers were encouraged to cultivate all their land for the war effort rather than leave any portions fallow. Personally, I prefer Ivens' "Power and the Land" -- he humanizes/personalizes his story by focusing on one (very photogenic) Ohio family.

As for the DVD: Quality varies quite a bit here, too. The centerpiece, "Our Daily Bread," is superb. Film preservationist David Shepard bought Vidor's private copy of this film -- even though the movie had fallen into public domain -- just to conduct a high-quality restoration. In my opinion, Shepard's work on "Our Daily Bread" ranks as one of his finest achievements. It's clearly superior to all other (and cheaper) editions of this movie. The shorter pieces are OK. Fortunately, all but "The New Frontier" were transferred progressively, so even though they aren't in the best of shape, they look quite good on high resolution monitors.

Overall, this DVD is a real gem for movie buffs and especially for fans of King Vidor or historic documentaries. Although it may be hard to find the 2005 re-release, it's well worth your while. (And shame on Image Entertainment for not marketing this title more aggressively.)
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 4, 2007 9:21 AM PDT

The End of Saint Petersburg / Deserter
The End of Saint Petersburg / Deserter
DVD ~ Vera Baranovskaya
7 used & new from $4.97

22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fine double-feature, October 29, 2005
For most people, classic Soviet cinema basically begins and ends with Eisenstein. Of course, the Soviet/Russian film tradition is a particularly rich one, so there's far more to it than Potemkin and Alexander Nevsky. If you haven't encountered the movies of Dovzhenko, Kalatozov, Vertov, and Tarkovsky, then you've got some wonderful discoveries in store. As much as I love the work of all of those directors, including Eisenstein, I've got to say that Pudovkin, who made these two films, is my favorite Soviet filmmaker. Arguably, he's also become the most influential because his approach to editing (bricking montage, in which each successive image is built upon the one immediately preceding it) has won out. That is to say, his theory and practice of editing have proven themselves to be the most successful in terms of telling a story cinematically. Watching these two movies, you're going to understand where the genius of later masters like Peckinpah, Scorsese, Tarantino, and the Coen brothers originated (historically speaking). If you think of yourself as a student of cinema, then your education simply isn't going to be complete until you view some of Pudovkin's films.

The two films in question are quite different from one another. The End of St. Petersburg was the second of Pudovkin's three silent masterpieces -- Mother (1926) and Storm over Asia (1928) being the other two. This film, like Eisenstein's October, was commissioned to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the 1917 Revolution, which swept the czar from power and led to the establishment of the USSR. Consequently, the story is pure propoganda, criticizing the decadence of the bourgeois industrialists and celebrating the brotherhood (and sisterhood) of the workers. A peasant boy moves to St. Petersburg to obtain work but becomes the tool of greedy factory owners until he sees the error of his ways and joins his fellow workers in their revolution. If you can't see beyond the propoganda, then you're probably not going to enjoy this film; however, if you can take the propoganda with a grain of salt, then you're going to see Pudovkin near the height of his powers, creating certain montage sequences that are breathtaking and as fresh today as the work of any living director.

The second film, Deserter, was Pudovkin's first sound film and illustrates his attempts to create a montage of sounds to work alongside his montage of images. While it's interesting, insofar as it depicts the international workers' struggle from the point of view of Germans, it's simply not up to the same high standards of Pudovkin's silent work. He seems to have been one of those directors (like King Vidor and Rex Ingram) who continued to make a few interesting films during the sound era but whose real genius lay in the use of film as a truly international artform, which the sophisticated techniques of late silent film directors very nearly achieved just before the coming of sound in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

The DVD, which was released by David Shepard's Film Preservation Associates through Image Entertainment, is very good -- though I'm a little skeptical of putting 193 minutes of film on one single-sided DVD. Ideally, this should have been a two-disc set with a couple of good extras. (Unfortunately, Pudovkin has slipped into obscurity in recent years, and none of the currently in-print DVDs of his work include so much as a commentary track.) Still, the prints are good and the music score for End of St. Petersburg is decent, even though it dates back to 1969 itself. (If you don't care for it, then you might try playing a CD of Prokofiev's music, which surprisingly seems to fit just about any silent Soviet film.) The sound for Deserter is not terribly impressive, but I'm not sure how much to expect out of a soundtrack from a 1933 Soviet film, so I certainly won't hold Shepard responsible for that. I believe that the print for End of St. Petersburg is the same as the one that Kino uses on their DVD, but for some reason, the image on this DVD looks a little better. So if you're trying to decide which one to get, I'd recommend that you get this one, and pick up Image's 2004 release of Bed and Sofa, which also contains Pudovkin's short comedy Chess Fever. (Unfortunately, Dovzhenko's Earth, which comes on Kino's release of End of St. Petersburg is in extremely bad condition and needs some serious restoration.)

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