Category Archives: DVD

Yasujiro Ozu’s gangster youth

Walk Cheerfully (1930)
Walk Cheerfully (1930)

Yasujiro Ozu wasn’t always quite the Yasujiro Ozu we know from Tokyo Story and Late Spring. And he was certainly nothing like the film-maker you would expect if you had never seen those films, just been told about them as slow, domestic dramas on the theme of loss. Ozu has always put the fun into formalism, with playfully picturesque compositions and his famous cutaway “pillow shots” inserting frames of pure, simple cinema into his simmering narratives.

Later Ozu films are so routinely described as distinctively Japanese, as distinctively Ozu-esque that it may surprise many to learn that the director was actually a huge fan of Hollywood cinema. When he first started work at the Shochiku studio as a young man, he horrified the boss by claiming to have only seen a handful of Japanese films, and hundreds of American pictures. The twentysomething Ozu first aspired to make comedies, aping the slapstick of Harold Lloyd and the wit of Lubitsch.

The BFI collected a handful of Ozu’s campus comedies in a box set last year – and while their subject matter and setting seem very different from Ozu’s sound films, there was much that was familiar: a certain poignancy to the humour; the awkwardness of social and family situations; the sense of change and loss on growing old and leaving friends and family behind.

Dragnet Girl (1933)
Dragnet Girl (1933)

Now the BFI has brought together more of Ozu’s earlier, funnier material for a second set, but this time with a darker theme. The Gangster Films set reflects Ozu’s Hollywood influences, sure, but also a changing Japan, more urban, more hi-tech, more susceptible to western influences. In the student comedies, our slacker heroes are horrified by the brazen manners of so-called modern girls – Ozu’s gangsters embrace them, at least for a short while. The films featured in this new set are Dragnet Girl, A Straightforward Boy (fragment), Walk Cheerfully and That Night’s Wife. I don’t want to lump these films together, certainly the fragment is its own beast, but they do share some characteristics. The three features are all set in an Americanised Tokyo, accented with deep shadows and populated by Japanese gangsters straight out of US novels and films – double-breasted suits, sharp-brimmed hats and shiny leather shoes. Their molls have bobbed hair and fur collars, high-heeled shoes and glint in their eye.

The beauty of watching the gangster movies is to see Ozu’s cinematic style grow despite his influences. Or to put it in David Bordwell’s words: “The exotic and formulaic genre allows Ozu to experiment stylistically, moving toward that highly overt narration that was to become his trademark.” While the gangster films offer us Hollywood thrills in the shape of guns, girls and skulduggery, the poetics, the cutaways and composition are all Ozu’s own.

That Night's Wife (1930)
That Night’s Wife (1930)

Full disclosure: I’d quite like you to buy this box set. I contributed one of the essays in the accompanying booklet, on Walk Cheerfully. You’ll find more erudite words there too from Tony Rayns, Bryony Dixon and Michael Kerpan. The films are the thing, of course, and they are beautifully accompanied by Ed Hughes’ scores. The set has been reviewed in Film International, by Wheeler Winston Dixon, and in Sight & Sound, by Philip Kemp.

However, I’m not just writing to plug the box set, but to bring you some information about a forthcoming screening of Walk Cheerfully at BFI Southbank on 22 April. This is a members’ ballot screening, and you should know by now whether you have a ticket, though I suppose there may also be some more available nearer the date. This is a special screening and will be an experience very different to watching the DVD. First, the music will be a live improvised score that combines traditional Japanese music with electronic distortions – and a 78rpm record player. Walk Cheerfully is certainly a toe-tapping film, so I have high hopes for this. More details below:

Sylvia Hallett and Clive Bell are the two musicians improvising a live score for Walk Cheerfully. The pair have worked together for several years on projects for film, dance and theatre, as well as numerous international concert and festival performances. Their duo album The Geographers is on the Emanem label.

Clive Bell is a specialist in Japanese traditional music; he lived in Tokyo where he studied the shakuhachi (Japanese flute). Later he learned to play the khene, a bamboo mouth organ from Thailand – a bright-toned, chordal wind instrument that is an ancestor of the accordion. Sylvia Hallett is a violinist, composer and instrument maker, with a unique personal approach to live electronics.

Clive Bell writes: “Walk Cheerfully is a film full of subtle surprises, that deserves a fresh-sounding score. Our musical accompaniment will blend these Far Eastern instruments, and the more familiar violin, with electronic looping and pitch-shifting. The live orchestra which accompanied Japanese screenings in the 1930s often mixed traditional Japanese instruments such as shamisen (lute) and taiko drum with trumpet, violin, clarinet and piano. Instead of a piano, we use electronics to extend the music’s range into magic and atmospheres.

“Ozu was a keen student of American cinema, but made films that remained essentially Japanese. We hope to return the compliment by creating a rich musical mix of Western and Japanese, of contemporary and traditional. And, when the gangsters play their 78rpm records in their club, we will activate an antique 78rpm record player of our own.”

The second surprise is that the film will be accompanied by live Benshi narration – as Japanese film screenings were in the silent era. The Benshi will be performed by Tomoko Komura, who will both translate the intertitles and narrate the film.

If you want to learn more about Ozu, and his silent work, I can’t think of a more enjoyable way to begin.

Walk Cheerfully screens at NFT1 on 22 April 2013 at 6.30pm. Read more here.

The Passion of Joan of Arc: DVD & Blu-Ray review

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Alex Barrett.

When Sight & Sound unveiled the results of their once-a-decade poll of The Greatest Films of All Time earlier this year, I was both relieved and disappointed to see Carl Th Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc riding high at number nine: relieved that the film was there at all (it has been literally in and out of the top 10 every decade since the poll was first conducted in 1952), but disappointed that it wasn’t higher. Why? Because, quite simply, it is more deserving of the top spot than any other film.

Rightly famous for its unbridled use of close-ups, The Passion of Joan of Arc is the nearest cinema has ever come to capturing and rendering the human soul on-screen. But lest you worry that that makes it little more than a relic of pious Christianity, the emphasis here is very much on human. As the opening titles state, the film is concerned with a “simple and human” Joan, one who should be seen not as a warrior, but as “a young woman who died for her country”. Dreyer’s choice of religious subjects has led to great misunderstanding of his oeuvre and, in no uncertain terms, his interest throughout his career remained grounded in a thorough examination of human (and often female) suffering.

Here, the suffering woman is Joan of Arc, The Maid of Orléans, a young peasant girl who led an army into battle in the hope of driving the English out of 15th-century France. Believing herself to be working under the auspices of three different Saints, Joan was eventually captured, tried and burnt at the stake at the age of 19. It is her trial and execution – her Passion – that Dreyer retells, basing his film upon the transcripts of the actual trial.

Avoiding the spectacle of many historically set films, Dreyer opted instead to keep his camera focused on the faces of Joan and her assailants. Condensing, as he does, the events of Joan’s lengthy trial and execution into a single day, Dreyer approaches a unity of time, place and action – and yet, for all his painstaking historical research, the film’s fractured use of cinematic grammar elevates the action beyond the physical world and into a metaphysical realm. The sparseness of the film’s sets eliminate depth, while the constant close-ups and broken eye-lines render the space unimportant (and, to an extent, unintelligible). Joan and her suffering are all that matter, all we must understand. The historical context and politics are secondary; first and foremost is a scared, tormented young girl. Dreyer may have denied that his film belonged to the avant-garde, but this is not conventional film-making: every aspect, from the architecture to the camera movements, from the rhythm to the compositions, conspires to contribute to Joan’s assault. Even now, after more than 80 years, Dreyer’s film is as fresh and as powerful as the year it was made: this is form and content synthesising at the highest level. And, while it would be a crime not to comment on the uniformly superb performances, to do so would be to undermine the purity of the film’s perfection. Falconetti does not play Joan. She is Joan. And Joan, for now and for evermore, is Falconetti.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

With this all said, then, it seems like something of a crime that the film has never been released on DVD in the UK (until now). When Masters of Cinema announced that it would be releasing this new restoration of the film on Blu-Ray and DVD, expectation and anticipation began to flutter. But there was also some concern about the fact that the new release would not feature Richard Einhorn’s beloved score, Voices of Light, found on the Criterion Collection’s Region 1 DVD. So, how do the two scores offered by Masters of Cinema compare?

Thankfully, Mie Yanashita’s piano score turns out to be something of a marvel. Echoing the rich simplicity of the film itself, Yanashita focuses on the film’s tenderness, allowing moments such as the shedding of Joan’s first tear a new beauty. Listening to this music with the breathtaking 20fps restoration was like seeing the film again for the very first time (a feeling no doubt cultivated by the insertion of the original Danish intertitles and their new English translation). There is a startling splendour to the restoration, and while the 24fps version may feel more familiar, moments there slipped over take on new resonances here, while the slower pacing allows a fuller savouring of the images in all their glorious detail. As the film progresses and the tension mounts, Yanashita isn’t afraid to pick up the drama, yet still manages to avoid the occasional heavy-handedness that marred Utley and Gregory’s recent score. While it’s perhaps true that Yanashita’s score never reaches the dizzying heights of Einhorn’s, it’s a moving and graceful accompaniment nonetheless.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Loren Connors’ tedious and barbaric soundtrack to the 24fps version, which somehow manages to do the impossible and actually take the life out of the film. Perhaps it will appeal to some, but I found it insensitive and intrusive, and for me it detracted from the viewing experience far more than it added to it. I would certainly urge first-time viewers of the film to steer well clear.

Carl Th Dreyer
Carl Th Dreyer

It should be noted, of course, that Dreyer expressed a preference for the film to be viewed silent, and Masters of Cinema has loyally made this the default option for playback, so in some respects the choice of soundtracks is irrelevant. However, being given the choice of two scores (or three if you count the silence) and two playback speeds makes this a very special package indeed.

Completing the package is another, alternative version of the film: the complete ‘Lo Duca’ cut. When the original camera negative was thought lost to a lab fire, Dreyer reassembled the film using alternative takes … only for this new version to be lost to a second fire. However, in the 1950s the French film historian Joseph-Marie Lo Duca stumbled across a print of Dreyer’s second version. After recutting the film, Lo Duca put his version into circulation, despite Dreyer’s disapproval. Generally considered a bastardisation of Dreyer’s original vision, the Lo Duca version of the film has been relegated to the status of curiosity ever since the miraculous discovery of Dreyer’s first version in the closet of a Norwegian mental hospital in the 1980s. Yet, for those with a passion for Joan, it’s a fascinating alternative version – an imperfect version of a perfect film. The first thing that struck me about it was the fact that the actual experience of watching it is nowhere near as horrendous as one would expect, given the interference. Additions such as an opening voiceover detailing the historical background may go against the very fabric of Dreyer’s intentions, but his genius still shines through. What’s more, a comparison of the Lo Duca and original versions teaches us much about Dreyer’s film-making choices.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Such a comparison is made easier by the excellent essay Two Passions – One Film? by the preeminent Dreyer scholar Casper Tybjerg, found in the accompanying 100-page booklet. Alongside Tybjerg’s essay are pieces by Chris Marker, André Bazin, Antonin Artaud, Luis Buñuel, HD, and Dreyer himself. But the bulk of the booklet is formed by a chapter from Jean and Dale D Drum’s Dreyer biography My Only Great Passion, which, in detailing the film’s production, puts lie to the idea of Dreyer as a cruel despotic director who tortured Falconetti’s performance out of her (written with approval and assistance from Dreyer, My Only Great Passion remains the definitive Dreyer biography).

Although the excellent booklet goes a long way towards making up for it, it’s a shame that no audio commentary was included in the package (especially given Tybjerg’s excellent commentary on the Criterion DVD). However, while Tybjerg’s commentary and Einhorn’s Voices of Light mean you shouldn’t throw away your Criterion disc just yet, it’s undeniable that the new restoration and the choice of versions take the Masters of Cinema release to the next level. This is an essential purchase in every conceivable way.

Passion of Joan of Arc packshotThe Passion of Joan of Arc is released on DVD, Blu-Ray and limited Edition dual format steelbook on 26 November. Available to pre-order from:  Amazon (DVD) (Blu-ray)  (Ltd Edition SteelBook); HMV (DVD)  (Blu-ray)  (Ltd Edition SteelBook); Play (DVD)  (Blu-ray) (Ltd Edition SteelBook); The Hut (DVD)  (Blu-ray)  (Ltd Edition SteelBook)

Alex Barrett is an independent filmmaker and critic. His Dreyer-influenced debut feature, Life Just Is, is released this December, both in cinemas and on DVD.

Die Nibelungen (1924): DVD & Blu-Ray review

Die Nibelungen (1924)
Die Nibelungen (1924)

Who needs to wait for Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit? Fritz Lang’s five-hour, two-part Die Nibelungen (1924) is the king of all fantasy epics. Burning palaces, bloody fight scenes, dragons, cloaks of invisibility – this beast has it all, and it’s breathtakingly beautiful as well.

Available for the first time ever on home video, Die Nibelungen still has the power to take your breath away, so we can only imagine how imposing this magnificent saga was for audiences in the 1920s. The first part is called Siegfried and follows our eponymous hero’s outlandish adventures. Early on, he slays a dragon, then bathes in its blood, rendering himself impervious to harm (about from a small patch on his back that was covered by a falling leaf and failed to absorb the blood). Thus super-charged, Siegfried sets about becoming a king of kings, rich beyond compare having won the Nibelungen’s wealth, but doomed, equally, because the treasure is cursed, you see … The second part, called Kriemhild’s Revenge, features his (spoiler) widow seeking vengeance for her husband’s death.

Visually, Die Nibelungen is consistently mind-blowing. The camera is largely static, but the vast, intricately decorated sets, shot from extreme perspectives and filled with massive crowds in extravagant costumes will throw you into a trance. These films are never dull to look at, and sometimes, as when the light falls in elegant slivers through the forest on to Siegried and his horse, or the northern lights dance above Queen Brunhild’s castle, they are simply exquisite. If you’ve seen Metropolis, that will give you some idea of the boldness, and magnitude of Lang’s vision here. This is a strangely modernised, stylised update of the story’s Wagnerian sources, and because it is all shot on sets rather than location (even the forests), Die Nibelungen looks like a fantastical stage play magicked into three-dimensions. And the special effects are meticulously realised, from the mechanical dragon to a “wipe” superimposition that turns the treasure-bearing dwarfs to silently screaming stone. The only time you’ll lose concentration is when you’ll start wondering: “How did they do they that?”

What you see on these discs is the end result of a restoration process bringing together several different camera negatives, fixing damage and replacing missing title cards. This release also replicates the golden tinting thought to have characterised the films’ original release, which soaks lushly into Carl Hoffmann’s high-contrast Expressionist photography (there’s a detailed note on the tinting in the booklet that accompanies the discs). The Blu-Ray HD transfer is excellent, so you’ll want to watch this on the best, biggest screen you can get your hands in and let yourself be swept away by all its glory. Turn up the sound too: frequent Lang-collaborator Gottfried Huppertz’s original orchestral score is available here in stereo or 5.1 mixes and nothing less bombastic or densely textured would do.

That said, it’s an awful lot to swallow in one sitting, and the acting here is of the chest-clutching, hair-pulling grand style. Paul Richter as Siegfried is a notable offender. And the scene in the first film in which Siegfried uses his magic to help his ally “subdue” his wife in the bedroom is unpleasant to modern eyes for an entirely different reason. The illuminated Gothic intertitles are very grand, but the English subtitles are sometimes hard to read because they have been translated so literally: “Invincible be he who is the dragon-slayer!” The second feature also suffers from having a less well-structured, eventful plot than the first, too, relying on endless fight scenes between the noble Burgundians and feral Huns rather than Siegfried‘s gorgeous flights of fancy. Don’t despair though: its flaming finale, and Rudolf Klein-Rogge’s grotesque Attila, are well worth putting in the hours for.

Die Nibelungen (1924)
Die Nibelungen (1924)

These are two big, big films, with lots to impart to us about Lang’s film-making style, about German nationalism and myth-making in the 1920s (they are dedicated “to the German people”), and more besides. So it’s valuable that this release comes with one of Masters of Cinema’s characteristically thorough booklets, containing essays from Lotte Eisner and Tom Gunning, some words from the director and a note from British film legend Michael Powell, as well a Geoffrey O’Brien poem, all of which will help you to explore and appreciate Die Nibelungen‘s strengths. There’s also a German-language (with subtitles) documentary, The Heritage of Die Nibelungen, which will bring home to you just how ambitious these films are, and also, what a gruelling experience it was for the actors.

Die Nibelungen will demand your time and attention both – but it is terrifically enjoyable, exciting stuff. This is a hugely welcome and well-considered release of an important epic.

120_DIE NIBELUNGEN_DVD_packshot_300dpiDie Nibelungen is released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK on 29 October 2012. It’s available to pre-order from all these places: Amazon (Blu-ray)  (DVD); HMV (Blu-ray)  (DVD); The Hut (Blu-ray)  (DVD); Play (Blu-ray)  (DVD)

Moroder’s Metropolis – the people have spoken

Metropolis, circa 1984
Metropolis, circa 1984

Ach, it’s no fun being a silent cinema purist sometimes. And while I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself that way very often, I was pretty sure I was in the fun-hating minority when the UK DVD release of Moroder’s Metropolis was first announced. Just to make sure, I ran a poll here on Silent London to find out what you guys think.

If you need to refresh your memory, Giorgio Moroder’s version came out in 1984 and looks very different to the latest restoration. Working with the most complete version of the film he could find at the time, Moroder added a rock soundtrack, washed some different scenes with bright tints and made the whole thing run faster by removing the intertitles and using the text for subtitles. It’s a strange beast, and perhaps needless to say, a cult favourite.

You ruddy love it. Well, some of you do. Quite a few of you like it, and while there’s a solid 20% with me, arms crossed and tutting in the outraged camp, you have convinced me to give Moroder’s Metropolis another go. What’s the worst that can happen? I first saw it many moons ago, on a worn-out VHS borrowed from the college library. Since then, I’ve seen the beautiful new restoration of the original film, and my appreciation for Metropolis has only grown. I hope I have lightened up a little, and I have even learned to play a Pat Benatar song on Guitar Hero.

So I’ll definitely be taking a look at the DVD when it is released on 23 July this year. Apparently it’s arriving in a smart “steelbook” edition, and interestingly, you’ll be able to stream it on demand from too.

In 1984, Oscar-winning composer Giorgio Moroder (Top GunMidnight ExpressFlashdance) reintroduced Fritz Lang’s 1927 science fiction epic METROPOLIS to a new generation of moviegoers. He colourised scenes, added new subtitles, plus a throbbing rock soundtrack to Lang’s iconic imagery. Featuring songs from some of the biggest stars of the early MTV era: Freddie Mercury, Pat Benatar, Adam Ant, Bonnie Tyler, Loverboy, Jon Anderson and others, it became a dramatic vehicle for Moroder’s visionary music and a beautiful retro-futurist timepiece. Through faithfully maintaining Lang’s intriguing and timeless storyline, today, it is this version of METROPOLIS that first comes to mind for millions around the world.

 Yeah, that last sentence does still grate a little… watch this space.

Moroder’s Metropolis – coming soon to a cinema near you?

Giorgio Moroder's Metropolis (Kino Video)
Giorgio Moroder's Metropolis (Kino Video)

UPDATE APRIL 2012: Eureka Entertainment has announced a UK DVD release of Moroder’s Metropolis for 23 July 2012

For some people, the Complete Metropolis will never be enough. They want more. To be precise, they want Pat Benatar. And those people are about to be very, very happy.

Inexplicably to many of us, Kino Video is following up its recent release of Fritz Lang’s restored, almost-full-length masterpiece with a DVD/Blu-Ray issue of the version that musician Giorgio Moroder made in 1984. If you don’t know this cut, believe me, it’s not for the purists. For a start, it’s only 80 minutes long. Moroder ran the film up to 24fps, sped it up some more by removing the initertitles and replacing them with subtitles, tinted the film and added a contemporary rock soundtrack. Yes, Freddie Mercury, Bonnie Tyler, the aforementioned Benatar and Adam Ant are all there – if the 80s revival is real, this should be a smash hit.

But there’s more, there’s going to be a theatrical release too. Kino is planning a limited release for the Moroder Metropolis, starting with midnight screenings at the Landmark Sunshine cinema in New York City, on 14 and 15 October 2011 and visiting other US cities over the following two months. The US DVD/Blu-Ray release should make its appearance on 15 November.

The thing is, the Moroder Metropolis is more than just a cult favourite. For a great number of people, it was their first introduction to the world of silent cinema – or at least the first silent film they really enjoyed. And heck, lots of people like the music too. It may not be an authentic silent film experience, but the other versions of Metropolis kicking around when it was made were hardly the real deal either. The film had been heavily cut on its release – so much so that Lang himself refused to watch it – and was languishing in an archive unloved for years. There was still a lot of footage missing, and as now, the intended frame speed was a mystery. So you could argue that Moroder did the film more good than harm, and that we wouldn’t have the subsequent loving restorations without the work he did to make Metropolis popular.

We know that London is home to hundreds of fans of what we call “cult cinema”, the weird and wonderful stuff that is at the heart of the Scala Forever programme, or on show at film clubs all over the city. So I’m assuming we will see some screenings of the Moroder Metropolis in our neck of the woods. It seems like a natural next step doesn’t it? Particuarly if the demand is there.

Would you like to see the Moroder Metropolis on the big screen here in London? Are you keen enough to book a ticket to New York? Or is this travesty a crime against cinema that is best forgotten? Let me know what you think.

Neil Brand and the BBC Symphony Orchestra to score Underground (1928)

Underground (1928)
Underground (1928)

There is a some very exciting news over at The Incredible Suit blog. According to the man we must refer to as Mr Suit (Incredible to to his friends), composer and silent film pianist Neil Brand has been commissioned by the Barbican and the BBC Symphony Orchestra to write a score for the new restored print of Anthony Asquith’s London-set romance Underground (1928).

So, make sure you’re in town on Wednesday 5 October, which is when the score is due to premiere at the Barbican – and then keep your eyes peeled for a forthcoming DVD featuring the new soundtrack.

This short video offers some technical details about the BFI restoration of Underground, and offers a snippet of the score that Brand performed at the Queen Elizaebeth Hall when the new print was first shown in 2009.

UPDATE: You can buy tickets here, on the Barbican website.

Underground screens at 8pm on Wednesday 5 October 2011 in the Barbican Hall at the Barbican Arts Centre.