Fast Scans: Top Foreign & Indie Picks, February 15, 2012

Birth of a Nation. 3 discs. 192+ min. 1915. DVD UPC 738329083427. $29.95; Blu-ray UPC 738329083526. $39.95.
Way Down East. 149 min. 1920. Blu-ray UPC 738329083724. $34.95.ea. vol: color tinted. Kino Lorber.

Bigoted in its portrayal of blacks, D.W. Griffith’s silent-film classic Nation about the post‚ Civil War rise of the Klan in a South where whites are shown as victims teeters between art and propaganda. Scant scholarly bonus commentary places the feature in a context with previous Griffith short films about the war without tackling his epic’s racist ideology. Despite the prevalence of spots, scratches, and other minor defects, the picture resolution is considerably sharper than on a previous release. Long on spectacle‚ owing to its battle scenes‚ but short on insight, Nation justifies circulation for historical reasons and so viewers can decide for themselves on its artistic merits. Decidedly less divisive, East (making its Blu-ray debut) finds Griffith going in another direction. Impregnated and abandoned, a small-town girl (Lillian Gish) looks to start her life over in a new place until her past comes back to haunt her. With its iconic scene of Gish perilously drifting on ice floes, this work offers guilt-free melodrama.

Brighton Rock. color. 111+ min. IFC Films, dist. by MPI Media Group. 2011. DVD ISBN 9780788614354. $24.98. Rated: R.

Based on Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, Rowan Joffe’s arresting feature-film debut (a remake of the classic 1947 film) tells the amoral tale of a driven young hoodlum, Pinkie Brown (Sam Riley), who seduces an innocent girl (Andrea Riseborough) capable of fingering him for murder. Determined to protect her, Helen Mirren as her self-styled mum is as tough as nails going up against the punk with ice water in his veins. Capped off by a killer ending, this crime thriller sits atop its genre, guaranteeing an enthusiastic audience.

The Lady Vanishes. b/w. 96+ min. Criterion Collection. 1938. Blu-ray ISBN 9781604655285. $39.95.

Two years before emigrating from his native England to America, Alfred Hitchcock made this slyly charming thriller about a little old lady (Dame May Whitty) gone missing from a train traveling across Europe. Only her determined compartment-mate (Margaret Lockwood), along with another passenger (Michael Redgrave), is intent on solving the dis appearance. A bonus video essay reveals this alluring Lady‘s secrets. With scant Hitchcock films available on Blu-ray, this addition should be welcomed by his fans. (A decent-looking DVD, issued in 2007, is also available from Criterion.) (See Trailers, LJ 11/1/11)

The Names of Love. color. 102+ min. In French w/English subtitles. Music Box Films. 2010. DVD UPC 736211213853. $29.99. Rated: R.

Taking the term free-spirited to a lofty level, a young half-French, half-Algerian woman (Sara Forestier) uses her considerable feminine wiles to convert politically conservative men to her leftist viewpoint, at least until she finds herself drawn to a straight-laced but socialistic Jewish scientist (Jacques Gamblin), whose call-in radio appearance she brazenly crashes. Director Michel Leclerc makes fun of racial and cultural prejudice, and hard-line politics, in a paean to nonconformity. For French-comedy buffs.