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Sokurov: Early Masterworks
SPECIFICATIONS
  • 1.33:1 Standard
  • Russian Mono
  • English subtitles
  • 3 Discs
FEATURES
  • Includes the films Whispering Pages, Stone, and Save and Protect
  • Soviet Elegy
  • An Example of Intonation
  • Questions About Cinema, a documentary on Alexander Sokurov
  • Audio Commentary for Stone by film critic and curator James Quandt
  • Diary of St. Petersburg: Kozintsev's Flat
  • "The House That Chekhov Built," a BBC audio program on Anton Chekhov's house in Yalta, the setting for STONE
  • Sonata For Hitler

Sokurov: Early Masterworks

Dual Format Edition
Reviewed by: Chris Galloway

Directed By: Alexander Sokurov
2012 | 282 Minutes

Release Information
Blu-ray | MSRP: $64.95 | Series: Cinema Guild
Cinema Guild

Release Date: December 18, 2012
Review Date: February 3, 2013

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amazon.com  amazon.ca

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SYNOPSIS

A deluxe collector's set featuring three early masterworks by visionary Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov in newly translated and restored director's cuts: WHISPERING PAGES, a brooding, beautiful film inspired by nineteenth-century Russian literature, primarily Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment; STONE, a mysterious fable about a young night watchman's encounter with the ghost of Chekhov; and SAVE AND PROTECT, a visually sumptuous adaptation of Flaubert's Madame Bovary.


PICTURE

Cinema Guild puts together an impressive box set for three early works by Russian director Alexander Sokurov, aptly titled Sokurov: Early Masterworks. The set presents Whispering Pages, Stone, and Save and Protect. Whispering Pages is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.40:1 on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc, while the other two films are presented in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on individual dual-layer DVDs. Whispering Pages is given a 1080p/24hz high-definition transfer.

Text notes indicate the rough conditions of the materials, which have been poorly stored and treated over the years (and in the case of one, Whispering Pages, the negative was completely destroyed so another source had to be used.) Little to no restoration appears to have been done on them. Because of this damage can be pretty heavy. There are scratches and tears littered throughout all of them, though Whispering Pages, the only one to receive the high-def treatment, is the cleanest of the three. Stone, the lone black-and-white film, is surprisingly decent when all things are considered, but there’s always some bit of damage in every frame. Save and Protect varies wildly throughout from very clean moments to heavy stains, scratches, and marks raining through the frame, almost obliterating the image.

Sokurov’s style also lends to some of the issues. The director, if I understand correctly, made his own lenses and these lenses lend some interesting effects including warping and distortion. The lenses in some cases also look to be dirty or gritty, so in many moments during the films, and just about the entirety of Stone, you can make out the dirt on the lens.

Past all of the issues with the source materials or how the director shot his films the transfers themselves are perfectly fine. Whispering Pages’ high-definition transfer is especially impressive. Yes, the film is in rough shape, the image can come off distorted, and the “colours” (what exists of them) are muted beyond recognition, but it looks like a projected film. The transfer is clean, natural, surprisingly sharp, and free of any noticeable artifacts, with cleanly rendered film grain. This really helps counter against any damage left in the film source.

The other two films are unfortunately only given standard-definition transfers across their two DVDs but their transfers are decent for what they are. Stone’s may be the weakest. I noticed more artifacts while watching, particularly jagged edges, aliasing, and then blocking in some of the black areas of the screen. Detail is lacking delivering a softer image (though this could be inherent in the source and/or a side-effect from filming.) But it has its strong points as well. Textures in some scenes look particularly sharp, there’s a strong sense of depth in a few sequences, and contrast levels look good for the most part. In all it’s easy to still make out everything but it presents some of the more obvious digital problems.

Save and Protect comes off a bit sharper and artifacts aren’t as problematic, except for a few darker scenes where the film’s grain structure comes off like heavy noise. Colours are very weak as are black levels, which cause some crushing, but it’s strong enough and upscaled I thought it looked very good.

In the end the films are in rough shape and the restoration work has been minimal but the transfers are all rather sharp and serve the films well.

6/10

All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.

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Stone

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Save and Protect

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AUDIO

All three films present Russian Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound tracks (no lossless track on the Blu-ray.) They’re very weak but I suspect this has more to do with the equipment used to record. Dialogue is very hard to hear, near impossible at times, and this is across all of the films. Yet oddly the music that appears on occasion sounds clean, sharp, and newly recorded. Damage is also noticeable, and pops and drops are easily apparent. They’re all pretty hard to listen to but I honestly doubt much could have been done considering it sounds like we’re lucky to still have these films around at all.

4/10

SUPPLEMENTS

Cinema Guild has put together a fairly impressive set of supplements for this release, including some documentary work by the director and some scholarly material.

The Blu-ray first presents two documentaries by Sokurov, both portraits of sorts of Boris Yeltsin. The first, Soviet Elegy (37-minutes), was made before he became president of Russia, and shows the man just basically slugging through a day of work. The second, An Example of Intonation (50-minutes) was made afterwards and can be seen as the more conventional “documentary” of the two if only because we sorta get to hear from Yeltsin—the director seems to intentionally tune out the man at times. This set marks my introduction to the director and I was absolutely fascinated with the three main features on this set. His films have this odd, other-worldly feel and they look absolutely beautiful, but I did find these two films incredibly frustrating, even though they are far shorter than the main features. Soviet Elegy was particularly frustrating as it chooses to reminisce (I felt at least) on the past. Though we see Yeltsin, who looks absolutely miserable, get through a day the feature begins with long takes of a cemetery and then a third of the film is devoted to showing photos of some of the country’s past leaders and great minds while a narrator slowly rhymes off their names, all of this of course leading to Yeltsin. I liked the idea of what I think Sokurov was trying to do here, placing this man with these other men while also showing how ordinary (and rather dull) Yeltsin is and how all of these other men probably were, but the whole thing comes off very trying and even a bit cruel. I liked his fiction films on this set but I found his style far more frustrating and alienating than interesting with these two documentary films.

Both films are presented in standard-definition. In fact, I’m pretty sure both were possibly sourced from a video cassette (at least Example of Intonation was) and neither look particularly great.

A bit better is an interview with Sokurov. Entitled Questions on Cinema the 60-minute piece features the director talking about his films, along with literature, and art. While he talks about his films and his series of “elegies” he spends a lot of time talking about film as an art form, and interestingly doesn’t seem to consider it a true form of art since as, he more or less says, it doesn’t allow you complete freedom because you have to involve so many. He also talks about sound, which I feel he sees more as an intrusion, though he makes great use of it in his films, and then other thoughts on the medium. It’s a bit stuffy yet interesting, though it’s not aided by its subtitle translations. They’re pretty rough and filled with errors, with some translations appearing as “it’s a swampy” when I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be “it’s a swamp”, to “[one needs to] chose 5 or 6 ideas” instead of “choose 5 or 6 ideas.” Stuff like this is scattered all about so you may catch yourself working harder to translate what he’s saying than need be.

The disc then closes with a theatrical trailer for another Sokurov film, Alexandra, and then a list of other titles available from Cinema Guild.

The second disc presents some more scholarly material devoted mostly to Stone, the film that appears on that disc. First is an audio commentary by film critic and curator James Quandt. It’s obvious the man is reading from notes, which can make it a bit of chore at times since I felt it lacked any real enthusiasm, but he still offers a decent primer on the director and his work, going over his history, influences, style, and themes. It focuses on Stone more than any of Sokurov’s other work but it does manage to help in gaining a better understanding of the director and his work.

Also presented as an alternate audio track that plays over the first 30-minutes of the film is a segment from BBC radio called The House That Chekhov Built. In it actor Michael Pennington travels to Chekhov’s house, which was built in 1898 and turned into a museum a while after his death. Stone was filmed in and around the location. Pennington visits this site and goes over some of its history, including political issues between Russia and Ukraine over the property that are leading to its lack of upkeep. The piece features interviews with scholars and those trying to raise money to go towards its preservation. A lot of it consists of Pennington describing the property as he works his way through it but it’s a great inclusion on Cinema Guild’s part.

Diary of St. Petersburg: Kozintsev’s Flat is a 48-minute documentary by Sokurov about the late filmmaker Grigori Mikhaylovich Kozintsev. Sokurov takes his camera to the Kozintsev’s flat and simply moves the camera about each room and then focuses on a number of his belongings in an attempt to get a feel for the man and his influences, while mixing in photographs and clips from the Kozintsev’s films. Though there’s music that plays over it once in a while, some voices heard in the background, and samplings of dialogue from his films this film might as well be silent and would probably be just as effective if it was. Of the documentaries to be included on this set I found this one to be the more captivating if only because it felt like a loving tribute to a man Sokurov obviously admired and doesn’t have the distant feel the other documentaries on here had.

Sonata for Hitler is a 10-minute film made by Sokurov in 1979 but was banned until 1989 when it was first publicly shown. Here the director takes archival footage of Hitler before and during the war, showing the leader addressing and winning over the German people and the populace reacting happily to him. With a score that seems to become more ominous and distorted as the film progresses the film then quickly edits in images of the horrors and atrocities Hitler was responsible for. It then seems to try to relate how Hitler and his crimes led to the crimes of Russia’s own infamous dictator, Joseph Stalin. Maybe the least subtle of all of the films on this set it’s an intriguing experiment by the director.

This disc then closes with notes about the transfers, explaining the poor condition of the source materials.

The third disc, which features Save and Protect, has no other features to speak of. It does feature a standard-definition version of Whispering Pages as well, which appears to be sourced from the same transfer that’s found on the Blu-ray. Since it has the odd aspect ratio of 1.40:1 on standard televisions is does feature slight black bars on the top and bottom while widescreen televisions present thick black bars on the left and right and the slim back bars on the top and bottom. Notes about the transfers also appear on this disc.

Disappointingly the set lacks a booklet with essays but the set as a whole does offer some great material, even if I personally didn’t care for all of it. More scholarly material would have been appreciated but the supplements have been lovingly gathered and put together.

8/10

CLOSING

The films unfortunately look rough, a product of shooting style and poor storage, but I think Cinema Guild have done an outstanding job in delivering the films to Blu-ray and DVD. Despite the poor condition of the films the transfers themselves deliver the films about as best they can. Mix that in with some strong supplementary material further showcasing the director’s work we get a fascinating, if incredibly dense, introduction to the director and his work. The set comes highly recommended.




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