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​Off-beat indie films new to Blu-ray

Cinema | February 11th, 2015

The Fargo Film Festival is just a month away, providing area moviegoers with a week of interesting, off-beat and non-mainstream movies by independent filmmakers.

People with Blu-ray players and HD projectors can have their own private festival experience with some recent and upcoming Blu-ray releases from distributors like Kino and Milestone Video.

Brooklyn filmmaker Tim Sutton’s “Memphis” premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2013, played at Sundance last January, got a limited theatrical release last fall and just came out on Blu-ray from Kino Video this January. It’s something of an experimental blend of fact and fiction that tells a loosely-constructed narrative about an independent-minded musician by relying heavily on its often-spectacular visuals, with some improvised dialogue and snippets of music.

In other words, it’s not standard multiplex entertainment.

Musician Willis Earl Beal plays a freestyle variation of himself: a singer-songwriter wandering through Memphis in search of inspiration and meaning to his life. He seems to be a success at the start, but his stubborn attitude about creativity versus marketability tends to alienate business associates, his wife/girlfriend (it’s never made clear), a boy who may be his son and others he comes into contact with, causing a steady decline in his fortunes.

The movie is essentially an exploration of mood and atmosphere, depicting various aspects of life in the city of Memphis and the various stages and states of mind of its protagonist. The style shows a strong influence of filmmakers like Michelangelo Antonioni, the French New Wave and recent directors like Terrence Malick.

Although there is a narrative thread, it is shot more like a documentary and an art film, with scenes that frequently are cut off before they seem to be over, without being resolved in later scenes. The city is as much a character as Beal’s musician.

This will likely confuse and/or alienate many viewers looking for a coherent, carefully spelled-out story, making its 78 minutes feel like a lifetime. Those who can sit back and simply observe, the way the camera observes, can enjoy the striking imagery, the strong sense of place, the scattered outbursts of philosophy and, of course, the underlying blues/gospel music that tie it all together.

Picture quality on Kino’s Blu-ray is outstanding, as is the audio. Bonus features include a 10-minute deleted scene, the director’s interview of the star, a half-hour podcast interview of director Sutton and a brief recording session with two of the studio musicians, which is mostly close-ups of their faces and frustratingly never shows their instruments. There’s also a creative essay of reflections about the film printed on a flyer insert in the box.

“MEMPHIS” on Blu-ray -- Movie: B / Video: A / Audio: A / Extras: B-

The semi-documentary, improvisational approach to storytelling is also the preferred method of French New Wave director Jacques Rivette in his 1982 film “Le Pont du Nord,” coming out on Blu-ray Feb. 17 from Kino.

“Le Pont du Nord,” however, has a much stronger and more immediately intriguing sense of narrative, with multiple plot threads that gradually unravel through a running time of 128 minutes that rarely seems to drag. It’s a character-driven thriller whose structure and techniques hark back to the classic New Wave films of the early 1960s.

The two protagonists, Marie and Baptiste (mother-daughter team Bulle and Pascale Ogier), are newly-arrived in Paris. Once they accidentally meet and soon become inseparable, we follow them around town and start to realize how mysterious each woman and her background really is.

The claustrophobic Marie has just been released from prison for a politically-motivated crime, and Baptiste is a somewhat paranoid young street-person convinced they’re being watched constantly, even by statues and posters.

Marie meets up with her old boyfriend Julien (Pierre Clémenti), who claims they can reunite after he delivers a briefcase that he ominously refuses to explain.

Then another man (Jean-François Stévenin) starts following all of them. When Baptiste switches the briefcase with an identical one, Marie learns it’s full of clippings of old political crimes, as well as an odd spiral game board and a map of Paris with the pattern of the game drawn on it.

Here the film develops into an involving mystery-thriller while simultaneously playing with the boundaries of reality and fantasy, the concept of life as fate or a game of chance, and cinematic/literary allusions that may give clues to character and plot.

Still, the film is as much about the streets of Paris in fall of 1980 as it is about its characters and their problems.

Kino’s Blu-ray has a nice HD transfer of the original 16mm film. The audio is decent, especially when there’s music, but the dialogue frequently sounds muddled. Bonus features are sparse: an illustrated booklet reprinting some of the original press material and a new appreciative essay, a featurette detailing where in Paris many of the scenes were actually shot and an oddball experimental movie compositing visually-manipulated scenes from the film with two women discussing its relationship to “Desperately Seeking Susan,” “Three Women” and works of literature.

“LE PONT DU NORD” on Blu-ray – Movie: A- / Video: A / Audio: B+ / Extras: C

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