Blu-ray review: Shane

Starring: Alan Ladd, Van Heflin, Jean Arthur
Director: George Stevens

shane 1This revered western tells a simple tale with monumental conviction. Despite the fact that they’re encumbered with one of the most children in movie history, humble homesteaders Van Heflin and Jean Arthur are befriended by a mysterious gunslinger, just in time to help them in their struggle with a rancher who is determined to drive them off their land by fair means or foul.

The irritating sprog aside, the result is a virtually flawless exercise in mythopoeia. Although the portrayal of the central baddie, Rufus Ryker, is actually surprisingly nuanced (passionately self-righteous, he sees himself as an innocent victim, only stooping to violence because his hand is forced), the film as a whole is elevated into a literally archetypal battle of good versus evil. The blond-haired Shane is like an angel in buckskins, and the scene where he and Heflin have a fist fight seems to echo the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel in the Bible. Meanwhile, as played by Jack Palance, Ryker’s hired gun, Wilson, is like a dark, crumpled serpent which has crawled straight up from the depths of hell. The majority of the film was shot on location in the Teton Mountains, Wyoming, in bronzed, burnished halo-vision Technicolor cinematography. Throughout, there’s a feeling that something deep and permanent is being expressed, and that’s why the carefully crafted set-pieces have such a power to haunt the memory. 9/10

A few touches of grain here and there, but generally a lovely transfer. The horse and rider moving across the landscape behind the opening titles looks pin-sharp, and the titles themselves glow with an almost 3D quality. A little later on, the grain on the famous tree-stump is beautifully clear and detailed. The prevailing cream and gilt colour palette is as lustrous as you could wish. Perhaps even more impressively, the darker scenes are also very crisp. The thundery, overcast sequence in which Wilson claims his first victim has a particularly life-like feeling of depth. 9/10

22-min piece with academic Neil Sinyard talking informatively about George Stevens’ shane 2eclectic career, with its distinctive his pre- and post-war periods. ~ Audio com with the film’s associate producer and the director’s son, particularly nice because the latter reads out some of Stevens’ own very interesting script notes. We also learn that Alan Ladd was wearing a hairpiece. ~ As well as the 4:3 print of the film, we also get two versions in 1:66:1 aspect ration (i.e., with very thin vertical borders). These seem just a little softer than the 4:3 version, but the wider picture certainly suits the epic sweep of the landscape. The “revised framing” version corrects some of the problems with cropping caused by the blowing up the print. 10/10


Blu-ray review: The Quiet Man

Starring: John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Victor McLaglen

quiet-man 1This bucolic tale has always been a popular favourite among John Ford’s movies, although less kindly regarded by the critics. John Wayne plays a “Yankee from Pittsburgh” who has come back to buy the cottage where he was born and set down roots. He quickly falls in love with and wants to marry a local girl (Maureen O’Hara), but her hulking, quarrelsome brother (Victor McLaglen) is a serious impediment to the nuptials.

Not for the first or last time in his career, Ford balances lyricism and sentimentality with rough knockabout comedy and generates a warm family feeling with his cast of regular supporting actors – burly Ward Bond as the fish-fancying parish priest, Barry Fitzgerald as the village’s drunken match-maker. Voices get raised and fists get clenched, but a singalong is never far away. The special added ingredient is Winton C. Hoch’s glorious Technicolor location cinematography, thanks to which the Emerald Isle has never looked more gem-like.

Granted, if you’re not in the mood, Ford’s mixture of humour and misty-eyed idealism can seem ponderous and cloying, but even so there’s an infectious charm and innocence to the film’s major set-pieces, such as the race meet on the sea shore, which can’t help but tug on the heartstrings. 7/10

The occasional process shots and a few of the interiors retain some graininess, but the quiet-man 2scenes filmed on location are extremely sharp and lush. During that first sight of Maureen O’Hara, the scarlet of her skirt really pops, and the subsequent waist-up shot of the actress looks very real and present. Throughout, that particularly Irish palette of plump greens and soft, slatey greys is delicious to behold. 8/10

Interesting 17-min piece discussing Ford’s attitude to the Irish, his simplified, fairy tale imagery and his depiction of real life as a form of theatre. ~ An old and slightly schalmtzy but very thorough 27-min “making of”, with contributions from Wayne’s family and a clip of the director and the Duke reminiscing in a ’50s TV show. 7/10

DVD Review: Coppelion – Complete Series Collection

COPPELION 1In this heartfelt 13-parter, a trio of schoolgirls head into a post-nuclear-meltdown Tokyo looking for pockets of survivors. Only they’re not ordinary schoolgirls, they’re clones genetically engineered to be resistant to contaminated environments (even in really short skirts). And with escaped convicts, mysterious military types, evil mutants, super-powerful rogue clones and toxic fly-tippers on the loose, it quickly turns out that their visit to the no-go zone is going to be busier than a night in Vegas.

Initially, there’s something slightly lacklustre about the depiction of the three girls and the early stages of their mission, but as the plot thickens the series becomes much more involving. Interesting new characters emerge, such as a community of hardy survivors who live in a high-tech bunker called The Shelter, and Haruto, the girls’ male counterpart, a languidly cynical schoolboy who works as a one-man clean-up crew. There are some outstandingly fast-moving, dynamic fight sequences, and in the quieter, more reflective moments weighty themes come into play to do with the way these COPPELION 2youthful clones, designed to be perfect, are having to sacrifice themselves to fix the mistakes of humanity – the sins of the fathers visited on the children.

Because it’s a self-contained story, the whole thing has a concentrated power which some more open-ended anime lack, and it steadily builds momentum towards a genuinely moving and nail-biting conclusion. Visually, Coppelion stands out from the crowd too. The use of extra-thick outlines for some of the character designs won’t be to everyone’s taste, but there’s no denying the beauty of the show’s panoramic urban backdrops, done in a scratchy pen-and-ink and watercolour style full of movement and subtle detail. The imagery of the city returning to nature is haunting, making Coppelion one of those rare anime that really lingers in the mind. 8/10

Blu-ray release: Love is the Devil

Starring: Derek Jacobi, Daniel Craig
Director: John Maybury

John Maybury’s elliptical yet powerfully disturbing feature debut charts the relationship between Francis Bacon and George Dyer, a young tough who attempted to burgle the gay painter’s flat and ended up becoming his live-in lover instead. Bacon introduces Dyer to his hard-drinking Soho cronies, draws him into his sado-masochistic fantasises and uses him as the subject for a series of paintings, but Dyer – more innocent and vulnerable than he seems – soon starts to exhibit signs of erratic, compulsive behaviour which tests the patience of Britain’s greatest painter.

Not your usual kind of subject matter for a British movie, and not your usual kind of directorial approach either. There’s a wariness, a distance to Maybury’s camera as he circles round the characters. The story unfolds in short, staccato scenes – voyeuristic glimpses. There’s an outwardness to everything. The actors are often framed against dark backgrounds, as though for oil studies. There’s an awareness of skin, the sweaty, shiny surfaces of the human body. And distorting effects are used to remind us of the effort, the sheer struggle, of seeing.

Yet for all its fragmentariness the film paints a vivid and convincing portrait of Bacon and of the calculated selfishness of the artist who lives only for his work. It doesn’t manage to explain quite why the relationship was so disastrous for Dyer, but what it does capture is the irony that a painter who seemed so alive to the psychic traumas of the mid-twentieth century was seemingly so oblivious to the mental disturbance of the person closest to him. It’s also brilliant on Bacon’s favourite stamping ground, a drinking club called The Colony, with its seedy, boozy atmosphere, its bitchiness and its gallery of grotesques.

Daniel Craig gives a self-effacing turn and very much leaves the limelight to Derek Jacobi in a role that’s one of the towering highlights of his career, a performance that captures the sometimes frightening public mask of the painter as well as the nuances of a complex inner life. 8/10

On the whole a very nice HD transfer. All those scenes of pasty skin and grimy walls come across with an almost palpable force, and the crowd scene in the foyer of the boxing club – a rare moment of period prettiness with flowered hats and printed frocks – has lots of depth and detail. The sound is also particularly clear and crisp. 8/10

17-min montage piece about The Colony, rich on atmosphere if somewhat short on info. ~ 20-min interview with the film’s producers which will be of great interest to anyone curious about the inner workings of the British film industry. Among other things, they discuss the film’s origins as an adaptation of a biography of Bacon sponsored by the British Film Board and explain why they weren’t allowed to use any of Bacon’s paintings in the film. ~ Audio commentary with John Maybury and Derek Jacobi, dominated by the director, who offers a stream of fascinating insights. For instance, he reveals, amazingly, that he originally wanted Malcolm McDowell to play Bacon; that it’s Daniel Craig spinning out of focus in the title sequence; and that he used an ashtray on a clamp for the “drunk-o-vision” effects in the Colony scenes. 8/10

Blu-ray review: Nosferatu – A Symphony of Horror (BFI release)

Starring: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schroder, Alexander Granach
Director: F.W. Murnau

nosferatu 3Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is less than ten years away from officially becoming an antique, yet it remains an odd, unsettling presence in the canon of world cinema. It started life in a disreputable manner, as an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (earning the fury of Stoker’s widow) and various legends have grown up around it, especially to do with its startling villain, played by the enigmatic Max Schreck – and so it has lived on, often in the shadows, but always lurking in the cultural bloodstream.

The film keeps to the broad outline of the novel and also imitates its polyphonic construction by employing on-screen glimpses of journals, ship’s logs and letters in addition to conventional intertitles. But what’s really interesting are the alterations Murnau made in hopes of avoiding litigation. The most famous of these, of course, is the substitution of the magnetic, darkly romantic Dracula for the frankly repulsive Count Orlok, with his bug eyes, rat teeth and corpse-like stiffness. There are, however, others that are just as intriguing. To begin with, Murnau shifts the action from late Victorian England with its typewriters and wax cylinder phonographs to a Brothers Grimm-style 1830s Germany of blood flow-constricting tailcoats and drainpipe-thin leggings. And then there are the strangely ineffectual male characters. Instead of the lusty vampire killer Van Helsing we get Professor Bulwer, who knows all about Venus flytraps but who contributes precisely nothing to solving the crisis as Orlock makes landfall after spreading his mysterious plague across the Black Sea. In the end, it is female resolve and self-sacrifice which puts paid to the deadly peril.

All of these changes are essential to the film’s two most striking attributes, its folkloric nosferatu-bluray 4quality and its air of waking nightmare, which in turn are only made stronger by the technical limitations of 1920s silent film-making. Just look at Orlok gliding slowly but unstoppably towards the heroine, Ellen, a sudden stutter in the picture – the film jumping forward a couple of frames – uncannily heightening the dramatic impact: accident throwing up the sort of eerie effect that a modern director would employ CG wizardry to replicate.

This masterly vampire flick is now more accessible than ever, with Blu-ray releases from Masters of Cinema last year and now this one from the BFI. The USP of this particular release is that it contains a meatily dramatic orchestral score by James Bernard (of Hammer fame) which will appeal greatly to horror fans. As one character comments, “Travel quickly, my friend, into the land of the spectres.” 10/10

This transfer retains a fair amount of the wear and tear which is now so much a part of the film’s character, but it also has plenty of sharpness, enabling the viewer to appreciate Murnau’s willingness to experiment (with devices such as colour tinting, stop motion animation and even, in one case, presenting a scene in negative) as well as his eye for the grotesque – the corrupt land agent Knock hunched over his desk like a beetle, the carriage with shrouded horses that takes the hero, Hutter, to Orlok’s castle, and the decrepit slum from which Orlok ventures out to wreak havoc in the latter stages of the film. 8/10

This BFI Blu-ray comes with a rather slimmer bundle of extras than the Masters of Cinemas release, but what it does have is well-known pundit Christopher Frayling talking eloquently for 24 minutes about the film’s production and enduring appeal. He looks at the way the film diverges from the novel and says some interesting things about Murnau’s handwritten annotations to the original script. Also: The Vampire, 8-min natural history short. ~ The Mistletoe Bough, 8 min short from 1904, attractively restored. 7/10

Blu-ray review: Robinson Crusoe on Mars

Starring: Paul Mantee, Adam West
Director: Byron Haskin

This updating of Defoe’s novel for the space race-obsessed 1960s strives for an air of similitude, but it’s most likely to be watched now for its above average FX and the lava-lamp colours of its glorious Techniscope cinematography. A two man (plus monkey) team are taking a mosey round the Solar System when they’re forced to ditch their craft and make an emergency landing on Mars. Separated from his co-pilot, Commander Kit Draper (Paul Mantee) has to find a way of surviving on the inhospitable(ish) surface of the red planet.

The first and best part of the film creates drama by posing a series of problems for Kit to solve – namely, finding food, shelter, water and some way of replenishing his oxygen tanks (there’s a constant danger that he’ll suffocate in his sleep if he doesn’t wake up in time to change them). No little green aliens – this is hard SF of the sliderule kind favoured by the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and John W. Campbell. At least for a while … later on director Byron Haskin and producer/scriptwriter Ib Melchior seem to lose their nerve and tilt the story in a more Burroughsian direction (which also, to be fair, shadows Defoe’s storyline). But it’s the earlier science project moments that are the more memorable.

Looks-wise, the film is full of period charm. The scale model work in the early sequences is surprisingly good, with Kit’s space probe zipping convincingly across the screen at a fair lick of speed. The cockpit is another visual treat, packed with lovely, chunky buttons and dials. Meanwhile, the fiery surface of Mars is evoked with a blend of mattework and sweeping panoramas shot in Death Valley, California, all captured in epic widescreen. Kitsch without being camp, soberly scripted but slightly trippy to watch, Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a worthy addition to any collection of ’60s sci-fi. 7/10

Aside from a few moments when the vintage process work causes graininess, the picture is extremely sharp and detailed. The rocky surface of Mars (i.e., Death Valley), the polished sheen of Kit’s space suit helmet, the lurid glow-stick colours all come with sparkling freshness. 8/10

Audio commentary by FX artist Robert Skotaki, who talks about his own career as well as that of Ib Melchior, with whom he became friends in the 1970s. 6/10

Blu-ray review: Closely Observed Trains

Starring: Vaclav Neckar, Josef Somr
Director: Jiri Menzel

Following swiftly on the tails of The Firemen’s Ball, another classic of the Czech New Wave comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Arrow Video. Based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal, Jiri Menzel’s delightful Oscar-winning feature debut is like an inspired mash-up of Kafka’s The Castle and Oh, Mr Porter! The central protagonist, Milos (Vaclav Neckar), is a callow youth from a family of layabouts and misfits who seems all set to follow in their footsteps when he becomes an apprentice railway dispatcher at a sleepy, ramshackle rural train station. Further down the track, WWII is in full swing, but Milos has more pressing problems on his mind, such as trying to lose his virginity – something Masha, a sexy train conductor, would be only too happy to lend him a hand with, but he’s unable to keep up his end of the bargain.

Gradually, the war impinges. There are bombs, SS paratroopers, and visits from the railway supervisor, a card-carrying Nazi who tries to make them all into better servants of the Reich. But despite these rude interruptions the mood that prevails at the rambling stationhouse is one of cosy idleness, enlivened by moments of romance and lechery.

All of this is brilliantly evoked by Menzel in scenes that are a triumph of whimsical, melancholic atmosphere. Throughout, the director’s touch is feather light, and he’s helped enormously by black-and-white location cinematography that is still achingly fresh and present. Intricate editing gives the movie a spry, almost musical quality, with carefully choreographed comedic business playing out against still lifes of clunky, decaying station equipment, remnants of the Austro-Hungarian empire. At the time of release, the film’s unheroic view of the Czech people had subversive political undertones which got it into trouble, but more lastingly it serves as a potent metaphor for that all too common feeling that life is passing you by. And it brims with magical vignettes that would make it into any showreel of the best moments in 1960s world cinema, such as the little scene where Masha leans down to kiss Milos, only to be whisked away in a puff of steam. Sometimes coarse, occasionally heart-stoppingly romantic, Closely Observed Trains is one of those rare films that seems as vivid and mercurial as life itself. 10/10

Presumably because of the location shooting, some of the scenes retain a little grain in this transfer, but on the whole the picture is very good, with pin-sharp detail to many of the medium and long shots and a finely etched quality to the exteriors of the station. There’s a satisfying inky texture to the more shadowy sequences, such as the famous one where the station’s young female telegraph operator gets marked on the rear with a rubber stamp. Overall a transfer that reflects and enhances the film’s mixture of lyricism and earthiness. 8/10

Enjoyable 23-minute piece with critic Peter Hames who talks about Menzel’s career and his close collaboration Hrabal and also reveals that Vaclav Neckar, who plays Milos, was a Czech pop star. ~ Wide-reaching 47-min introduction to Bohumil Hrabal by Michael Brooke which provides an extensive bio of the celebrated Czech author and looks at the various film adaptations of his works (with some interesting clips). Given how often the author is overlooked when doling out credit for a much-loved movie, this piece is particularly commendable and worthwhile. ~ 9-min “making of” in which the director has some interesting things to say about writing the script and casting the film. 9/10