The Ascent Is the Pick of the Week

The late filmmaker Larisa Shepitko (1938-1979) was an incredible director with an original sense of style and detail. She had only made a few features and short films before her life was unforunately cut short due to a tragic car crash. However, those few features and shorts were enough to establish her as one of the often overlooked, but important (female) filmmakers in the history of the medium. Her bleak, but chillingly beautiful 1977 masterpiece The Ascent, wasn’t her first feature film, but it was the one that put her on the path to what would have been a promising career.

The story centers on two partisans who are sent to retrieve food for their famished group. After coming across the burned farm where one of them grew up and not having much luck with the local village elder, they eventually end up at the home of tough and hostile mother and her three children. Things get even more dour when she has to hide them in her attic from the Germans. They are both captured and thrown onto a sleigh, along with the mother, and are sent to a barracks lead by a lecherous Russian investigator who has sided with the Nazi Germans. One of the partisans betrays the other, the mother, the elder (who is there for helping them), and a young Jewish girl to save his own life and get a job with the Germans. After the group is executed, he tries to commit suicide but fails to do so. Instead, he has to live the rest of his life with guilt, regret, and never-ending shame.

I have to admit (which I didn’t do in my review) that the plot of the film isn’t exactly unfamiliar, but in the hands of Shepitko, it transcends to be an involving and highly emotional portrait of how war can truly bring out the worst in humanity, and where it has the disturbing power to reveal one’s true nature. Great war films definitely do that, and do it quite well.

Previously available in an Eclipse set from Criterion, the good folks there are releasing the film on its own standalone special edition. The new 4K restoration is incredible, and there are also some amazing supplements, including a new introduction with Anton Klimov (son of Shepitko and director Elim Klimov); new selected-scene commentary by film scholar Daniel Bird; two short films by Shepitko: The Homeland of Security and Larisa; documentaries about Shepitko’s life, career, and relationship with Elim; and a 1999 program featuring a vintage interview with Shepitko. I know that this is only January, but I think that this release will be one of the most essential of the year, and obviously 100% recommend adding it to your collection. It should be a discovery or rediscovery for many buffs.

Other releases:

After The Thin Man (Warner Archive): The second film in the delightful Thin Man franchise, this time with Nick and Nora investigating a missing man’s murder involving Nora’s high-strung cousin.

Synchronic: The fourth film by acclaimed filmmakers Aaron Moorehead and Justin Benson about two New Orleans paramedics (Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan) whose lives are torn apart after coming across a series of bizarre murders caused by a drug with sinister after-effects.

Southland Tales (Arrow): Richard Kelly’s cult classic starring Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Seann William Scott as an action star with amnesia, an adult film star who is developing a reality show, and a policeman, who meet up and discover a vast conspiracy taking over the world.

Family Portraits: A Trilogy of America: Douglas Buck’s unflinching and incredibly disturbing look at the underbelly of the America, with three separate narratives (“Cutting Moments”, “Home”, and “Prologue”) combined to create an unique trilogy of a very broken family.

The Court Jester: The great Danny Kaye stars in this classic costume comedy as a medieval rebel who is mistaken for a traveling actor/assassin.


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