Blu-ray review: Valentino

Starring: Rudolph Nureyev, Michelle Phillips
Director: Ken Russell

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Ken Russell’s account of Valentino’s rise from penniless dance instructor to icon of the silent cinema sees the director at his most Fellini-esque, with lush Art Deco set-dressing, outstandingly lavish costumes and a dreamy silvery-pastel colour palette.

As you’d expect with Russell co-writing, the script – which uses the framing device of the star’s funeral and the reminiscences of the various women who knew him to tell his rags to riches story – feels more like a series of lurid tabloid headlines than an in-depth probing of character. But the whole thing has great energy, with much of the story played for laughs, and Nureyev has a good stab at the lead role, hoofing his way elegantly through Valentino’s pre-Hollywood cabaret act and throwing himself with gusto into several nude scenes.

And as always with Russell, there are the fascinating incidental oddities – Felicity Kendal doing an American accent as a powerful talent scout, Leslie Caron chewing the scenery as a silent era diva who takes the rising star under her wing, and the very whitebread Michelle Phillips (from ’60s pop group The Mamas and the Papas) giving a shrill but quite effective turn as Valentino’s wife, who immediately starts alienating everyone around him by acting as his de facto manager and spiritual guru. Zipping along spryly, the film is less tortured and more high spirited than Russell’s other biopics, and people with a taste for the director’s work will be very glad to have in on this well-packaged Blu-ray. 7/10

TRANSFER
The transfer wrings plenty of detail out of the rather soft film stock. The scene where Leslie Caron sweeps into Valentino’s lying-in wearing a cape of frothy white flowers looks absolutely spectacular, with its lush contrast of colours. You can count the sequins on Phillips’ glittery gowns, and the scenes replicating the famous moment

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inside the tent in Valentino’s hit The Shiek are a riot of exquisite rugs, tassels and beads. 8/10

EXTRAS
A very nice archive interview with Ludovic Kennedy quizzing Nureyev, only 9 minutes long but covering a lot of ground. Speaking fluent English, the star emerges as very humble and intelligent, talking about Russell’s “predisposition to unpluck the feathers from the bird, to unmake idols”. ~ 22 min piece in which Dudley Sutton (of Lovejoy fame) chats in garrulous, uninhibited fashion about working with Russell on this film and The Devil. ~ Audio only interview with Ken Russell, made around the time of Gothic, in which he talks about his return to Britain after working in America. ~ Audio commentary with Tim Lucas – the Video Watchdog editor does his usual thorough job, supplying actor bios and lots of background to the production. 8/10

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Blu-ray review: The Birth of a Nation

Starring: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh
Director: D.W. Griffith

birth-of-a-nation 1Infamous for its racist views, D.W. Griffith’s three-hour epic is also an undoubted landmark of cinema’s silent era. And in the first half at least there’s still a lot to enjoy. The early scenes establishing the Camerons and the Stonemans – two families linked by ties of friendship who find themselves on opposite sides of the Civil War – have a breezy, relaxed charm that’s still infectious, and it’s impossible not to be swept up in set-pieces such as the burning of Atlantic, with its pioneering use of optical FX and red tinting to sum up a hellish vision of warfare, or the assassination of Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth (meticulously recreated to the last detail, down to the exact dimensions of the theatre where the murder took place).

It’s hard to imagine anyone, though, not having a problem with the second half, which recounts the rise of the Ku Klux Klan (“the organisation that saved the South from the tyranny of black rule,” as the film’s intertitles would have it). But even here, Griffith’s flair for the picturesque and the lavishness of his art design are constantly in evidence. As you watch, you can practically feel Griffith shaping the medium of cinema in front of you, with sequences such as an impressive shootout in a shack which seems to foreshadow ones in The Outlaw Josey Wales and Heaven’s Gate to name but a few. And then there are strange, hyper-real moments which seem to leap out at you from the distant past, such as an off-the-cuff vignette of Elsie and the Little Colonel taking turns kissing a dove. Like it or loathe it, it’s a film whose DNA has seeped into movie history. 7/10

TRANSFER
Probably no other director of the silent era benefits from the upgrade to Blu-ray quite as much as Griffith, because of his control of atmosphere, his use of plumes of smoke and dust to give depth and a living bloom to his scenes. Aside from a few lower-grade inserts, this is a lovely transfer, with hardly any print damage and a sharp, crystalline quality different from the soft, grainy texture you so often get with silent movies. The early scenes in the cotton fields have a gauzy beauty, and the long shot of the army marching on Atlanta by night is packed with detail. The sequence in Ford’s Theatre looks particularly rich and flamboyant. 8/10

EXTRAS
This 100th anniversary release from the BFI comes with a whole slew of extras which birth-of-a-nation 2help to put the film in context. ~ Stilted yet revealing 5-min chat between Griffith and Walter Huston from 1930, in which the director reminisces about his mother sewing costumes for the clan. ~ 38-mins of outtakes and camera tests, with a lot more battle footage. ~ Concise, interesting 20-min piece in which expert Melvyn Stokes gives a potted bio of the director (whose parents were slave-owners) and discusses the origins of the film and its critical reception (it received the accolade of being shown in the White House. ~ 32-min panel discussion which gives further historical background to the movie. ~ 21-min behind the scenes at the recording sessions for John Lanchberry’s orchestral score, with the relevant scenes shown in split-screen.

Also included in the extras are a series of other Civil War-themed shorts by Griffith. ~ The Coward, 68 min. A yarn in which a callow youth discovers his courage at the propitious moment, rather slow to begin with but with a decent battle scene towards the end. A clean, fresh tinted print with chamber music score. ~ The Rose of Kentucky, 16 min. A romance of the cotton fields, in which, interestingly, the Clan are baddies. Grainy picture but some nice location shooting. ~ Stolen Glory, 13 min. Lightly comic piece about an old soldier telling war stories. ~ The Drummer of the 8th, 28 min. A charming piece about a boy determined to follow his elder brother to the front, well acted by the juvenile lead and once again showing Griffith’s feel for period detail. A lovely tinted print. 10/10

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

TRANSFER
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

EXTRAS
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: Pasolini

Starring: Willem Dafoe, Ninetto Davoli
Director: Abel Ferrara

pasolini 1Perhaps the most shocking thing about Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini is that it shows the notorious film director living quietly with his mother. As portrayed by Willem Dafoe (who is certainly cadaverous enough for the role), Pier Paolo Pasolini emerges as an austere, donnish figure, who lives largely in his head and keeps his taste for rough trade on the down-low.

The film charts his last day in faithful detail, interweaving scenes of intellectual discussion about poetry, film festivals and politics with dramatisations from a novel and screenplay Pasolini was working on in his final months (the last a Bunuelian fable about a pair of holy innocents who go to a modern Sodom divided into lesbian and gay sectors).

This “final 24 hours” format was an obvious go-to for Ferrara, who has used something like it before on multiple occasions. The trouble is that, apart from in the tragic way it ended, Pasolini’s last day doesn’t seem to have been very significant. Conspiracy theories abound about how Pasolini met his end, but what is surely true is that it was a pattern of behaviour that killed him, not a random bolt out of the blue. In which case, a bolder, more wide-ranging approach might have served Ferrara better.

As we listen to Pasolini giving his views on Montale and chitchatting with friends and family, there’s a sense of cast and director working hard to establish certain documentary truths, but the film doesn’t really seem engaged in trying to elucidate either him or the epoch in which he lived. It touches on certain glaring contradictions in his character – the way, for instance, he preaches communism and the evil of possessions while dwelling in chic middle class comfort and driving around in a fast car which is the envy of the working class boys he cruises – but seems reluctant to explore them in any detail.

Instead, it luxuriates in a fatalistic reverie, the feeling of an inevitable drift towards death. The circumstances of Pasolini’s murder are presented here less as the appallingly thorough and sadistic obliteration of a human being that it was than as a darkly muffled, ritualistic slaughter not unlike the demise of Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.

And as a slow, hypnotic dance with death, lushly shot and well acted, Ferrara’s Pasolini has its own kind of beauty and elegance, albeit one that’s a world away from the sound and fury of the Italian director’s own work. 6/10

EXTRAS
A pleasantly chatty and light-hearted 42-min Q&A with the director and some of the cast, with Dafoe emphasising their use of factual sources including Pasolini’s own words. ~ An extremely funny and engaging 23-min interview with Robin Askwith (of Confessions of a Window Cleaner fame), who describes meeting the avowedly communist director in the swanky surroundings of the Hyde Park Hotel and then parrying his requests for real-life acts of peeing and fornication on the set of his version of The Canterbury Tales. It’s a lovely piece, although you can’t help noticing his Pasolini sounds nothing like Ferrara’s. 8/10

Blu-ray review: Rashomon

Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Michiko Kyo
Director: Akira Kurosawa

rashomon 1Although it was the film that launched him in the west, in retrospect Rashomon stands slightly apart from Kurosawa’s other work. Not just because of its famously complex structure, in which the violent death of a wealthy man and apparent rape of his young wife are examined and re-examined from the viewpoints of different witnesses and participants. What really makes Rashomon unique among the director’s costume dramas is its tight focus on a small group of characters and the psycho-sexual tensions between them.

As the stories diverge and contradict each other, the film’s message seems to be that people rarely tell the truth where their sexual pride is at state. And it’s a hang-up that lingers on after death: when, late in proceedings, the spirit of the slain man gives his testimony via a medium, there’s a kind of masochistic fervour to his account of his humiliation and demise that makes it hard to completely trust.

Fittingly, this is perhaps the most purely sensual film Kurosawa ever made, thanks to black-and-white cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa which brilliantly evokes the torrid, stifling, sun-dappled atmosphere in the forest where the crime takes place. As the braggart bandit who waylays the couple, Toshiro Mifune gives a trademark turn, showy and feral yet capable of disarming charm, but the standout performance comes from Machiko Kyo as the wife – considering that (unlike Mifune, who wears little more than a loincloth) she spends the entire film swathed in voluminous robes, the sexual heat she gives out is truly remarkable.

All of which is to say that, even if you’re left cold by the great thumping epics of Kurosawa’s later career, the small but perfectly formed early masterpiece still has the power to disturb and excite. 9/10

TRANSFER
A scattering of grain and occasional softness, but generally a very nice transfer from therashomon 2 2008 restoration. The opening two-shot of the priest and woodcutter has an etched sharpness and impressive range of skin tones, rather like an old silver nitrate print. Some of the close-ups of Mifune are quite something, all bristling hair and glistening sweat, and the forest scenes are all packed with crisp detail. 8/10

EXTRAS
5-min interview with John Boorman, who talks about meeting Kurosaws at a dinner (David Lean was there too!). ~ A 34-min documentary which returns to the location of the original Rashomon gate in Kyoto and the forest of Mount Wakasuka where the exteriors were shot. Not exactly thrilling, but nice for those interested in modern Japan, and some details to do with shooting with live sound and other technical matters eventually emerge. ~ A thorough, knowledgeable audio commentary with Stuart Galbraith, with info about the source material, the shooting schedule, actor bios and Kurosawa tricks such as the way he added black ink to the rain to make it stand out better on screen. 7/10

Blu-ray review: Eyes Without a Face

Starring: Pierre Brasseur, Edith Scob, Alida Valli
Director: Georges Franju

eyes without a face 1Eccentric French director Georges Franju brings a uniquely cold, clinical sensibility to this Grand Guignol tale concerning Doctor Genessier (Pierre Brasseur), an eminent surgeon who disfigures his daughter Christiane(Edith Scob) in a car crash and then attempts to repair the damage by grafting the faces of kidnapped girls onto her. The first forty minutes or so are slow, methodical and eerily quiet, leaving the viewer completely unprepared for what was then (and is still now) a disturbingly graphic scene of surgical gore. Throughout, there are profound musings on the meaning of faces and masks – the eerie white mask Christiane, rendered faceless by her accident and cut off from humanity, is forced to wear, and the surgeon’s mask that Genessier puts on as he butchers his victims, driven by impulses he doesn’t acknowledge or understand – expressed, not in words, but through unforgettable imagery: the dogs (kept for vivisection) howling in the basement which seem to express Genessier latent insanity and Christiane herself, half ghost, half Pierrot. A stone cold classic. 10/10

TRANSFER
The transfer is a little grainy and rough-textured but very atmospheric, with plenty of detail and depth of field. In the masterful opening scene with Alida Valli driving the 2CV, you can see blood tricking under the hat of the shadowy figure in the backseat. Deep focus compositions such as the sequence of Genessier mounting the staircase and the funeral scene have a solid, 3D quality, and in the surgical sequence you can see the individual beads of sweat sparkling on Genessier’s forehead. 7/10

EXTRAS
A mini biopic of Marie Curie by Franju which reflects the director’s interest in scientific methodology, something that was to stand him in good stead in Eyes Without a Face. Slightly scratchy picture quality. ~ A lovely, crisp transfer of La Premiere Nuit, Franju’s celebrated, beautifully shot 19 min short about a young boy spending time on the Paris Metro after hours and seeing eerie figments in the subterranean gloom. ~ A 49 min French language documentary about the director, with Edith Scob and others talking about the director’s troubled career, unusual techniques and fragile, unworldly character. ~ !7-min interview with Edith Scob in which she talks with great insight about their collaboration. ~ A typically scholarly and densely wrought audio commentary – really more of an essay – by American critic Tim Lucas, with detailed bios of the cast and analysis of scenes. 10/10

Blu-ray review: Charlie Chaplin – The Mutual Comedies

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance
Director: Charlie Chaplin

Chaplin_Mutuals 2The 12 two-reeler comedies gathered together on this box set represented a turning point for Charlie Chaplin. It’s not just that the contract he signed with Mutual made him, at the time, the highest paid entertainer in the world. These pieces also show him honing his art – by trial and error and under pressure of time – and taking great strides forward in confidence and sophistication.

The first couple of two-reelers, The Floorwalker and The Fireman, are both still steeped in the influence of the Keystone Cops and Victorian melodrama. They feature stylized, vaudevillian makeup, heavy plots packed with intrigue and lots of pratfalls and boots up bottoms. Only with the third film, The Vagabond, does the distinctive Chaplinesque combination of humour and pathos come into play. Suddenly you’re in the laughter and tears world of City Lights and The Gold Rush. A penniless musician rescues a Cinderella-like gypsy girl who is being violently abused by the thuggish leader of her clan – there’s some brilliant action, a tender evocation of the world of the have-nots, the theme of goodness going unrewarded.

After this little gem, the next five films feel like a step back, but they all have something going for them. One AM is a virtuoso solo piece in which Chaplin brings his knack for playing drunks to the screen, while The Count and The Pawnshop show him beginning to move to a more situational kind of humour. Behind the Screen is interesting because it’s a film about making a film, shot in Chaplin’s very own Lone Star studio. Here you see an increasing realism in terms of makeup and hair-styles, and there’s a brilliant gag in which Chaplin puts on a knight’s helmet to protect himself from a noxious smell of raw onions. The Rink, meanwhile, is a fast-paced and intricate comedy which makes use of bigger, more expansive sets and which allows Chaplin to display his roller-skating skills.

At this point Chaplin suddenly made a trio of masterpieces. In Easy Street, he plays a Chaplin_Mutuals 3derelict who turns a new leaf, joins the police force and finds himself tasked with cleaning up a rough, no-go neighbourhood. Its a role that shows Chaplin the performer at his most sympathetic, but you’re also aware of a new confidence in Chaplin the director, with tighter editing and a greater variety of shots. This is even more apparent in The Immigrant, whose set-pieces have a new boldness and visual impact – the early vignette of the Tramp retching in tandem with a seasick Russian, or the wild rocking of the ship’s galley that was achieved by mounting the set on rollers. Perhaps even better, although less well-known, that either of these two films is the last of Chaplin’s Mutual comedies, The Adventurer, in which he plays an escaped convict who comes to the aid of some drowning women. Again, it’s another leap forward in Chaplin’s skills as a filmmaker. The early exterior scenes, as the title character is pursued by the police over a rocky shoreline, feature some of his most complex, visually dramatic compositions so far, and the first sighting of Chaplin, when he suddenly pokes his head out of the sand dune where he’s been hiding, has a wonderful Beckett-like absurdity. Later on, there’s a spirited chase scene, with Chaplin darting around like a cat, and a marvellous gag where he’s trying to schmooze a girl while shaking a block of ice-cream down his trouser leg.

Over recent decades, Chaplin’s reputation has suffered a decline from the world-wide adulation he once used to enjoy, but the work the BFI has done in bringing together these 12 enjoyable shorts in glorious hi-def should go a long way towards making his work accessible to new generations. 8/10

TRANSFER
These HD transfers have been painstakingly assembled from fine grain positives, nitrate prints and other high quality elements, restoring the comedies to a state of Chaplin_Mutuals 1completeness that many of them have not enjoyed for many decades. Visually, there’s some variation in sharpness, but on the whole the result is a clear, pleasant picture, with deep inky blacks. In The Fireman, for instance, the exteriors look very fresh, and there’s a lovely velvety sheen to the chequered dress of the socialite who visits the fire station. In The Cure, you now appreciate small details such as the faint stripes on Chaplin’s shirt, while in The Adventurer there’s a strong contrast between the black and white of his stripy convict outfit and the backdrop of craggy grey rocks. In several instances, the picture is so sharp that you see things you don’t want to see – the flies crawling over the picnic in The Vagabond and the kitchen tablecloth in The Count, and the way Edna Purviance’s skirt teems with insects in The Immigrant. 8/10

EXTRAS
5-min newsreel of Chaplin travelling across the Atlantic on a White Star Liner (odd to see him without the moustache) and being mobbed on his return to Britain. ~ 9-min interview with composer Carl Davis, who talks about how he became interested in scoring silence films and gives some background on the BFI’s Mutual comedies project. ~ A choice of soundtracks for each of the films ~ 12 audio commentaries by various critics that be accessed in the individual films’ audio options. These comment on the restorations and point out long-lost material, supply background info and bios of Chaplin’s cast of actors, discuss recurring themes, draw attention to his use of trick shots and other techniques, and generally make a very pleasant accompaniment to the films. 8/10