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Blu-ray Reviews
Blu-ray Disc reviews by Todd Doogan of The Digital Bits

The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky: El Topo (Blu-ray Disc)

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The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky: El Topo
1970 (2011) - Abkco Films (Anchor Bay)
Released on Blu-Ray on April 26th, 2011
Released previously on DVD


Film Rating: A-
Video (1-20): 17
Audio (1-20): 15
Extras: B+

Alejandro Jodorowsky is a man of many hyphens: mystic, scholar, teacher, shaman, comic book creator... artist. It's his artistic persona that we're here to discuss, because as an artist, he has chosen the film medium as one of his "canvases". I may be a snob, but there honestly aren't a whole lot of filmmakers I would put into this category.

Of course, there are plenty of great filmmakers whose work have become art through cinema, but there are many filmmakers who aren't filmmakers at all... they are simply artists who use celluloid as their showcase. Jodorowsky is certainly one of those filmmakers, proven time and time with his short but visually, spiritually and philosophically stirring films. And the king daddy of those films is El Topo, a film that is so many things; it's a very hard film to "explain" to anyone not already in awe of it what it is exactly. The very first time I saw it, it became one of my all-time favorite films - and I had no clue what I just watched. Honestly. The tone shifts, story jumps and visual cues come so fast and so furious, no one but Jodorowsky can possibly know what it all truly means. Sure, you could devote a few years breaking everything down, pulling out the pieces that are biographical to Jodorowsky concerning his life, personal passions, gender politics, battles with family, friends and lovers. You can glean bits about Eastern religion, philosophy, and Jungian psychology and all of that would give you a better understanding of what it all means - but in the end, all of these things you pick out of the film are simply moments and those moments add up to the man giving us this film. El Topo is a summation of Jodorowsky. It is he, and he is it.

All of that out of the way, it's probably not a surprise that I don't really want to say too much about the film in terms of "story," except that I'll go out on a limb and just tell you... you have to see El Topo; all of you who are reading this. It's important. It's a major milestone in cinema, and it should be part of every film lover's collection - both physical and mental. On the surface, El Topo is a surreal western in the Italian style. Except that it's not. Really, it's not. When it's all over, you'll find that El Topo is Jodorowsky's journey as an artist, as a man and as a thinker. It's a biography told in a genre. We start the film with a man who is taking his son and making him throw away his childhood (a moment many people consider a riff on Kazuo Koike's Lone Wolf and Cub, yet both the manga and this film debuted in 1970 at roughly the same time - so it's just a case of great minds thinking alike). The man (El Topo or The Mole) then goes on a journey where he first destroys the memory of his own father and then dedicates himself to learning about violence, religion, spiritualism and mysticism by meeting up with, and besting a series of Masters. Along the way, he abandons his son, turns his back on his past and learns he has no respect for women, so much so that even his feminine side manifests itself as a separate being and proves to be no kinder. It all culminates with El Topo learning who he truly is and dedicating himself to his life, his art and a woman who needs him. Once out in the world again with his eyes wide open, he sees a world that is dirty, shallow and filled with religious contempt. And it's all too much for him to accept. As a film, El Topo is mesmerizing. It's just a wonderful piece of cinema. It's brain candy, yes... so don't expect a fun-filled romp. But if you love movies as art, and look for inspiration through the experience of handing yourself over to something, El Topo is one of the greatest ways to do so. It's not hard to understand why so many love this film.

El Topo was released a few years back as part of a box-set after almost 40 years of obscurity due to a fight between Jodorowsky and Abkco Films' Allen Klein, the film's distributor and rights holder. The DVD was a beauty and well worth picking up. Anchor Bay releases this Blu-ray using, what I suspect is the exact same transfer (using a negative Jodorowsky found locked in a Mexican lab for 25 years) with no additional restoration. It looks beautiful in its original full frame aspect ratio (a 1080p high definition transfer). The image looks very good for it's age, but it does show its low-fidelity indy production roots. Grain is minimal, and there are some moments where minor print damage is evident. Use of noise reduction is minimal, with incredible detail and texture present throughout the film. Colors are solid, with incredible blue skies, solid blacks and flesh tones that defy the age of the film. Considering Jodorowsky supervised the transfer for the DVD, and the same transfer was used here - having that transfer upgraded to Blu was a solid win, though you really need to have some remarkable eyes to see the improvements.

Sound is available in Spanish DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio and LPCM 2.0 Stereo. There's also an English dub track, in LPCM 2.0 Stereo. All three sound quite good, but my money goes on the Spanish stereo track, which fits the film better as far as I'm concerned. Track separation in the 5.1 track is good, however, so it's not a critique of that track, just a preference. Subtitles are available in English, Spanish, Portuguese and French.

All the disc-based extras from the original DVD set are here and all are quite fun and very informative. The most important one has to be the commentary with Jodorowsky, where he breaks the film all down for you. There's his endless thoughts on philosophy, religious discussion focused on every possible denomination, talk of the autobiographical elements he brought to the film - just about everything you need to know about the film and its wonderful history is here. Do yourself a favor: the minute you finish watching the film, turn right around and watch it again with Jodorowsky talking you through it. Also on board here is a short interview with Jodorowsky (shot around 2008 for the DVD). A lot of what he discusses in the commentary pops up here, but to see him saying it is a joy. I hope I get to meet this man someday. You'll also a find the original trailer and a reproduction of the shooting script with art and notes peppered throughout - this one slightly interactive feature is an improvement over the DVD version BTW, truly served by this HD format. Sadly, the soundtrack CD for the film in exclusive to the DVD box set, so if you have that set, keep it as the score is as wondrous as the film, even on its own.

Todd Doogan

The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky: The Holy Mountain (Blu-ray Disc)

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The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky: The Holy Mountain
1973 (2011) - Abkco Films (Anchor Bay)
Released on Blu-Ray on April 26th, 2011
Also available on DVD

DTS-HD Master Audio

Film Rating: B-
Video (1-20): 18
Audio (1-20): 17
Extras: B+

The Holy Mountain is a kinda/sorta companion piece to El Topo, but it has nothing really to do with the earlier film at all. All told: both are epic tales, both have more going on than meets the eye, and both are journeys toward the inner-self organized by Jodorowsky - any connection ends there.

The Holy Mountain is symbolically based in religious mythology (Christian, Hermetic Qabalah and Hebrew) astrology and the tarot. Some of this is quite obvious (the Jesus stuff on the front end, the "Seven" living lives as dictated by their champion planet), while other things here will need to be researched and uncovered to fully get explained. And like with El Topo, the best tour guide for the film is Jodorowsky himself, present in the form of another stupendous commentary track. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The film focuses on "The Thief" who wakes up on the streets covered in his own filth. He is subsequently abused by his fellow man, taken advantage of by the Church and manipulated to attempt a robbery on "The Alchemist" who lives high up in a tower - sending bags of gold down on a hook in exchange for food. Once the Thief and the Alchemist meet, the Thief is taken in as a student of the Alchemist and attends the journey of enlightenment. It culminates in the Alchemist joining the Thief up with a group of seven of the richest, most powerful people in the world (and the Alchemist's female assistant) who are sent on a journey of rebirth in search of the "holy mountain," where, much like El Topo, they meet a series of Masters who pass vital information on - ending with a coda to the audience that there is more to the journey of live than learning: life must be lived.

Though I love The Holy Mountain, I'd find it hard to believe anyone could consider themselves a big a fan of this film. It's a huge film, filled with a lot of symbolism and actual symbols; but to "get" this film you either have to have studied Eastern religion and philosophy for years (decades), or pour over manuscripts, texts and (yeah, sure) websites looking at screen grabs of the film to research the various... things (it really is the best word) going on in the film... which, in the end, would ultimately leave you an expert on Eastern religion and philosophy. The Holy Mountain is a great piece of cinematic art, but it's a bit heavy handed in places and the acting is a bit stiff here and there (considering most of, if not all, of the cast aside from, Jodorowsky, were amateur actors). It's something, you'll learn through the commentary, Jodorowsky intended, as he wanted real people playing their types and not actors acting a type. Go in with an open mind, and expect to be wowed visually and The Holy Mountain will be a pleasant experience.

Originally restored for the Jodorowsky DVD box set, the upgrade to Blu-ray really helps this film. The 2.35.1 widescreen encoded for 1080p HD is a remarkably colorful and vibrant transfer. Unlike the Blu-ray for El Topo, this is a noticeable leap-up over the DVD. Digital noise reduction is noticeable here and there, but nothing to squirm in your chair about. Line definition is solid, with solid black levels and no sign of compression artifacts. Sound is available in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio and PCM 2.0 Stereo with no hiss or distortion to speak of. The 5.1 track fits the film quite well, but the 2.0 isn't too shabby either. Both do well to draw you into the film with ambient noise and a well-honed track of Eastern-influenced music. Subtitles in English, Spanish, French and Portuguese are also on board.

Extras begin with the above referenced commentary. Like El Topo, you really should watch the film once and then again with the commentary to get the full blown experience. There's also a short documentary of sorts about the tarot; narrated/explained by Jodorowsky, who is considered an expert in the field. You also get the film's trailer, a restoration demonstration that's quite enlightening narrated by Joe Burn from New York's PostWork who worked on a full recreation of the film's negative to get the film to look as gorgeous as it does and copy of Jodorowsky's shooting script that actually fares better on Blu than it did on DVD. And finally, like El Topo, the soundtrack CD for this film that was in the box set is missing so don't go trading that in because you have Blu-fever.

Alejandro Jodorowsky is an artist. His films are art. They stare at you and demand you stare back. It's taken decades for us here in the states to get these films into our homes, and they look remarkable on Blu-ray. The upgrade isn't necessary, but with The Holy Mountain especially, if you're a fans of these films or this remarkable filmmaker - you'll definitely be glad you picked them up.

Todd Doogan

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