Blu-ray Review: Nosferatu – A Symphony of Horror

Starring: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schroder, Alexander Granach

Director: F.W. Murnau

Rating: 5/5

The equivalent of precious blood to budding filmmakers and lovers of horror, F.W. Murnau’s 1922 film has only grown more influential over the years, and if you want to understand why, you only have to look at its technical inventiveness, its dreamlike ambience, and its clever use (following Stoker) of diaries, ship’s logs and letters to tell the story. And this masterly vampire flick is now more accessible than ever, thanks to this new Blu-ray from those nice people at Masters of Cinema.

Fans often point out that silent films aren’t really silent, and never was that truer than here, with Hans Erdmann’s lush orchestral score available in two audio tracks, stereo and 5.1 surround, the latter especially sparkling and full of bite. Moreover, this restoration of Nosferatu isn’t even noticeably black-and-white – it’s based upon a tinted nitrate print, so the scenes come in attractive washes of blue, yellow and sepia, with coloured intertitles.

The transfer retains a fair bit of wear and tear to the negative and the natural flicker that resulted from the cranking of the camera, but for the most part it has impressive clarity and depth. You can see practically every brick of the row of tumbledown warehouses that Orlok moves into after leaving his castle, and the shimmer of Elsa’s satin dress as she sits beside the sea awaiting her husband’s return, and details that hitherto might have passed you by stand out sharply – such as the delightful pair of Black Forest chairs with legs carved into the shape of lapdogs that flank Orlok’s fireplace (Hutter, the ill-fated estate agent, slumps down upon one of them, suggesting that he is being moulded into a lapdog too).

Extras include two scholarly audio commentaries packed full of insights and background info. There’s an enjoyably shambolic video intro by Abel Ferrara, and another, much more polished one by critic Kevin Jackson, which delves for 20 minutes into the film’s occult imagery, its use of visual quotations from German romantic works of art, and the importance to the whole project of producer/designer Albin Grau, a mystical adept who, if anyone, was this movie’s auteur (a poster by Grau graces the front cover). These themes recur in The Language of Shadows, a 53-minute, German-made documentary that takes the viewer through Murnau’s early films (all lost bar a few fragments) before looking in detail at the shooting schedule of Nosferatu and revisiting some of its real-life locations. A few have disappeared, but a surprising number have survived more or less unchanged, including, would you believe it, those sinister warehouses. To judge by how rapidly he reeled off shot after shot, far from the tortured genesis one might have expected, Murnau seems to have gotten his masterpiece in the can with remarkably little fuss. The only disappointment, extras-wise, is that there is nothing about the fascinatingly enigmatic Max  Schreck, but otherwise this release offers you everything you need to become an instant expert on one of cinema’s enduring classics.

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DVD Review: Milius

Starring: John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas

Director: Joey Figueroa, Zak Knutson

Review: Julian White

Rating 4/5

In his heyday, John Milius revelled in being one of Hollywood’s mavericks. Regularly posing in photos with a gun and/or a king-sized cigar, he assiduously cultivated a macho image, and he outraged liberals with his outspoken far right views (he first coined the phrase “Apocalypse Now” in response to a widespread hippie mantra of the ’60s, “Nirvana Now”). At the same time, he was much more than just a flamboyant prankster. He was a fine director, and a brilliant screenwriter who left an indelible mark on some of the most famous films of the ’70s. This enthralling documentary charts the rise and fall of a man who is the living embodiment of Gloria Swanson’s remark in Sunset Boulevard: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

The story starts with Milius washing out of the military due to chronic asthma and winding up at the University of Southern California Film School, where he swanned around in a sombrero and struck up close friendships with the likes of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. In short order, he was snapped up to write for exploitation flick studio AIP, progressing quickly to mainstream movies.

This was at a time when Tinsel Town was on the ropes commercially and studio execs were desperately looking for young talent able to offer a fresh voice. Milius gave them just what they needed, doing uncredited work on Dirty Harry that elevated a grizzled San Francisco cop into a towering cinematic icon with an instantly recognizable catchphrase. But he also gave them plenty of attitude, raising hell and on at least one occasion bringing a loaded gun to a meeting.

Nonetheless, his ascent was meteoric, and he rapidly became one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood, selling his script for The Life of Judge Roy Bean for a then-record $300,000. He had his own very successful directorial efforts, such as Dillinger and The Wind and the Lion, but it was through films helmed by friends and colleagues that he was to have his most lasting impact on cinematic history: Quint’s famous monologue in Jaws, for instance, was dictated by Milius to Spielberg over the phone. This pattern reached its apogee towards the end of the decade with his screenplay for Apocalypse Now. “He poured his soul into that movie,” according to Oliver Stone. Unbelievably, he lost out on Oscar night to the pleasant but forgettable Kramer Vs Kramer.

The documentary evokes this fondly remembered era in a vibrant, lively manner, with big guns such as Spielberg, Lucas, Harrison Ford, Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann all pitching in with sparkling anecdotes and observations. But, to its credit, it also spends just as much time wondering where it all went wrong. Although there are no easy answers.

Culturally, Milius’ most significant contribution to the ’80s was probably the dubious one of introducing Arnold Schwarzenegger to mainstream movie audiences (“if we didn’t have Arnold, we’d have had to build him,” he’s said to have quipped), but commercially he was in good shape, notching up back-to-back hits with Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn. And yet these were his last directorial credits of note. Milius himself vehemently and repeatedly claimed that he was blacklisted by liberal Hollywood for his right-wing views, but that’s an argument that is dismissed out of hand by other interviewees, most notably Clint Eastwood, who remarks, “They wouldn’t care if you were Lenin himself,” so long as you pull in the big bucks.

More likely, the game had changed, and a Hollywood that was increasingly corporate and that had learned all it needed to from Milius about penning hard-boiled button lines no longer felt inclined to tolerate his over-the-top antics and planet-sized ego.

The latter stages of Milius’ career were to see not just professional disappointments but also crushing personal losses, and it’s in handling these that the documentary really surprises and wins you over on an emotional level. Suddenly, Milius the showman of the right, the cigar-chomping buffoon, is gone and you’re face to face with Milius the man – a felled titan wreathed in tragedy. It’s an unexpectedly moving conclusion to a stellar documentary that, as well as providing an insight into Hollywood in the ’70s and ’80s, manages to humanize one of its most polarizing characters.

DVD Review: The Broken Circle Breakdown

Starring: Veerie Baetens, Johan Heldenbergh

Director: Felix Van Groeningen

Rating: 3/5

The  title refers to the old country standard May the Circle Be Unbroken, and it’s country music which forms the unexpected backdrop to this quirky and touching film from Holland. It recounts the plight of Didier (Jodan Heldenbergh), a quietly spoken farmer and banjo hobbyist with a passion for Appalachian bluegrass music, and Elise (Veerie Baetens), a tattoo artist who’s been around the block a few times – an odd couple who find themselves living out a tale of heartbreak the equal of any country song.

Taking its structure from a county ballad, the film cuts back and forth between present and past, looking at the highs and lows of their relationship – the first flourishing of their love; the bond tightening as Elise joins Didier’s country band and duets with him on stage; the unexpected gift of a child, Maybelle, and then the love being crushed out of them by misfortune as they discover that their beloved daughter has cancer.

It’s a film that deals in the sort of raw emotions that Hank Williams or Patsy Cline would have sung about, but director Felix Van Groeningen handles everything with a light touch, and the two leads are pitch perfect. Country fans seeking out this movie might grumble about the extent to which the music takes a backseat to the drama, but they should be mollified by the lovely soundtrack, with various standards such as I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger and Townes Van Zandt’s If I Needed You performed beautifully by the cast.

Blu-ray Review: World Cinema Foundation Volume One

Overall rating: 3/5

This box set gathers together three neglected films from around the world in loving restorations.

First up is Metin Erksan’s Dry Summer (1964). On paper, an old black-and-white film from Turkey might not sound all that appetising, but it’s an absolute corker and quite the opposite of the dull but worthy offering you might expect.

It concerns a greedy landowner named Osman (Erol Tas) who cuts off access to the spring on his property, much to the fury of his neighbours. “Water is the earth’s blood!” they exclaim, and reprisals inevitably ensue. Meanwhile, Osman also has his eye on Bahar (Hulya Kocyigit), the drop-dead gorgeous wife of Hasan, his easygoing younger brother.

At its core, Dry Summer is the most simple and basic of melodramas, but Erksan shoots with enormous inventiveness and flair. Pictorially, it’s a stunner, with every frame looking like it could have been torn out of the pages of a 1950s Time Life, and it also has a confident, spaghetti western swagger. For example, the first glimpse we have of Bahar is when she gets his attention by flashing a mirror in his eyes, dazzling him and us at the same time – it’s a wonderfully arresting intro to the one character in the whole story who has the measure of Osman. On top of that, a soundtrack of clangy zither music adds to the visceral, sunbaked feel.

His moustache bristling with machismo, Erol Tas is mesmerising as the villainous Osman – and the sight of him drinking milk straight from a cow’s teat is one of the most disturbing things you’ll ever see. But then the whole film is mesmerising, a wonderful rediscovery. The audio is a little tinny on this transfer, but the sharply dramatic, high contrast cinematography looks glorious. A five star classic, and this box set is worth buying for this film alone. (5/5)

Revenge (1989) couldn’t be more at the other end of the scale from Dry Summer’s brutal simplicity. It revolves around the murder of a child and a father’s desire for retribution, but it’s not a conventional revenge story, or a conventional anything else for that matter. Instead, spread over three decades from 1910 to 1940, it follows a wandering, unpredictable course as the father tries and fails to exact an eye for an eye, and then entrusts the duty to his sensitive, poetry-writing son.

A mystical, elliptical, fairy tale-like film about the urge for violence and the need for grace and compassion, It’s a bit of a head-scratcher at times, but very assured and compelling, with a powerful otherworldly atmosphere. Helmed by a Khazak director and scripted by a Korean-Russian writer, and with a story that shifts from Korea to China to Russia, perhaps the most striking thing from a modern perspective is the film’s focus on rootless, stateless characters, with national borders and individual identities equally porous.

The picture is just a little soft at times, but it’s another very strong transfer, with the costumes and landscapes coming up vibrantly. 3/5

Trances (1981) is probably the least accessible of the three films on offer. About the Moroccan band Nass El Ghiwane, this is a documentary in the loose-jointed idiom of the 1970s, with lengthy concert footage intercut with scenes of bustling street life (one of the band members drives around in a rusty little Fiat) and long chats about musical influences.

Quite what you get from the film with depend, obviously enough, on how much you like the music of Nass El Ghiwane, which is more rhythmic than melodic and is therefore unlikely to suit all tastes. But even if you are a fan, the documentary still has its flaws – a lack of structure and context makes it hard to glean a clear storyline about the band from the assembled footage, while the band members themselves come across as guarded and standing on their dignity, revealing little of their human side. That said, it’s undoubtedly a vibrant snapshot of a place and time, and the audio on the Blu-ray transfer in very good. 3/5

The video introductions by Martin Scorsese aren’t much to write home about, but the box set comes with a nice, thick booklet.