25 August 2014

Blu-ray Review - Werner Herzog Collection (2014)

Rating: 15
BD Release Date:
25th August 2014(UK)
Werner Herzog
Buy:Werner Herzog Collection (8-Disc Blu-ray Box Set)

BFI has compiled a Blu-Ray boxset of Werner Herzog’s features and shorts (both fictional and documentary) from the 60s to his final collaboration with Klaus Kinski Cobra Verde. BFI previously released Aguirre, the Wrath of God and his version of Nosferatu, I reviewed those films here.

The discs includes along with the aforementioned films The Enigma of Kasper Hauser, Stroszek, Heart of Glass, Woyzeck and Fitzcarraldo along with 8 short films and two feature length documentaries. Every film pushes the boundaries of cinema, 6 of the films are complete masterworks and should be seen by any fan of cinema. However even the ones that don’t quite make “the masterpiece” cut they still are more interesting, haunting and thought provoking than most people’s entire bodies of work.

My personal favourite film in the set is Stroszek which over the years has became most associated with Ian Curtis of Joy Division as it’s was the film he watched the night he committed suicide. Despite the sad connections with Ian Curtis’ suicide, it’s actually a bizarrely hilarious comedy. It concerns 3 Berliners a mentally handicapped street performance called Stroszek (Bruno S.) who has just been released from Prison along with an eccentric old man and a prostitute Eva (Eva Mattes). Her pimps harass Stroszek and after they destroy his accordion, Stroszek decides to move to America with Eva and the old man.

The film is an achingly beautiful film about the failure of the American dream. It’s somewhat a “road” film but it’s as far from the Wim Wenders road movies of the 70s as you can get, it’s a surreal, grotesque and has a dancing chicken. A lot of the film was inspired by the star Bruno S.’s own life experiences. Despite being based on the historical case of Kasper Hauser, The Enigma of Kasper Hauser shared some similarities with the life of Bruno S. (who plays Kasper) who identified so much with the character he often slept in his costume during production.

Bruno S. was also supposed to star in Woyzeck but Herzog realised that his best friend Klaus Kinski was more suited for the part. It’s the story of soldier is humiliated constantly who slowly losing his mind and having visions. The performance from Kinski remains of his most frenzied but also one of his more affecting and Eva Mattes is also fantastic at his wife, she won best actress at Cannes for his performance.

Fitzcarraldo remains of Herzog’s most well known and most loved films. It’s a film almost parallels what Herzog does on many of his films; he tries to make the impossible possible and/or reach the most inaccessible places on earth. It’s about Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald who wants to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon jungle. He has to make it rich from the rubber business and his plan includes tugging an enormous boat over a mountain. Klaus Kinski is at his most frenzied maniac best as Fitzgerald, and the cinematography throughout is to die for. Kinski and Herzog famously fought throughout the film, Herzog in his documentary about their relationship My Best Friend tells about how one of the native chiefs seriously offered to kill Kinski. He declined but only because he had to finish shooting. The troubled of the shoot is documented in Les Blank’s brilliant documentary Burden of Dreams that is included in the set.

The set climaxes with Cobra Verde, which was the final film Herzog, and Kinski made together Kinski would die only a few years later. Kinski plays a bandit who is banished to Africa after impregnating a plantation owner’s daughters. The plantation owner decides not to kill him but send him off to Africa hoping he will die in the process, but he is able to trade guns for slaves. However he is the only White man on the island, and is tortured and loses his mind in the process. The film is considered by many to be a lesser Herzog; it may not quite be up to the usual standards of Herzog and Kinski’s previous efforts, but it is still solid as a rock and visually brilliant; Kinski is calmer than usual which is fascinating. The film naturally was a problematic shoot, the original cinematographer walked off due to Kinski’s behaviour.

The boxset includes many bonus features as well; the feature films include commentaries with Herzog with other participations. It also includes an audio lecture with Herzog from 1988, a South Bank documentary on Herzog from 1982, the hilarious Les Blank short doc called Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (which he does just that) along with some other features. The transfers are all fantastic as you would expect from BFI and a many of the films include both English and German dubs. The German dubs are far superior, however it’s worth noting a great majority of the Kinski films were actually shot in English so both versions are dubbed.

It’s a worthy package of one of the finest living directors who is still hard at work today even if it’s mostly documentaries he is making today. The only problem with the boxset is it’s sadly missing Even Dwarfs Started Small, My Best Friend, the making of Cobra Verde documentary Herzog in Africa. It’s would have been nice to also include Signs of Life and Where The Green Ants Dream which were made in the set’s timeframe and Herzog still owns the rights too and haven’t even received a UK release on DVD never mind Blu-Ray. Hopefully BFI may due a second boxset down the line.

Ian Schultz

25 August 2014

Blu-ray Review - Kelly Reichardt Collection (2014)

Wendy And Lucy
River Of Grass
Old Joy
Meek's Cutoff
Soda Pictures
Release Date:
25th August 2014 (UK)
Kelly Reichardt
Buy:Kelly Reichardt Box Set [Blu-ray]

When Night Moves is released this weekend it will be to little fanfare. There will be no comic con star appearances, no posters adorning the sides of double-decker buses and no shrieking crowds jostling for places next to the red carpet in a glitzy Leicester Square premiere. It will, in other words, hold true to the quiet, toned down nature of director Kelly Reichardt’s films to date, films that shun the bombastic in favour of understated, naturalistic stories told in hushed tones and played out in the Oregon landscape she calls home.

The Jesse Eisenberg starring eco-thriller has won plaudits on the festival circuit for its Hitchcockian suspense and looks set to nudge the 50 year old director towards the limelight she has so comfortably been working outside of ever since her 1994 debut River of Grass. In light of what is looking likely to become her ‘breakout’ film, Soda pictures are releasing a collection of three previous films for fans to reacquaint themselves with or discover for the first time.

It’s a retrospective that displays Reichardt’s ability to shine a light on the silent, telling stories about those who are marginalised or overlooked and forcing the focus upon life’s underwhelming majority. These are films which celebrate the everyday characters, often isolated, whose lives not might have neat dramatic arcs but whose experiences are real, and no less worthwhile for being so.

2006’s Old Joy goes some way in establishing the Reichardt template. It was the directors first work with fellow Oregonite, author Jonathan Raymond and the pair have since collaborated on 3 works, 2 of which feature as part of this packaged overview. Old Joy can be viewed in part as a buddy movie where neither buddy feels as close to the other as they once did.

Daniel London and musician Will (Bonnie Prince Billy) Oldham star as estranged friends seeking a reunion of sorts out in the Oregon countryside. That the plot could be successfully scribbled on the back of a fag packet is something of a misnomer with the films astute focus carved around atmospherics and often what isn’t said as oppose to what is. Thy meet as the pair are at other opposite ends of life’s spectrum – Kurt a drifting, almost hippy-like man of the world and Mark settled with a wife on the verge of having a first child. Their weekend in the wilderness serves as a reminder of how far they have drifted apart jarring against the shared knowledge of how close they once were. The character dynamics share traits with the two protagonists in Joe Swanberg’s Humpday, another independent American filmmaker carving out his own niche, but where that is all mumblecore laughs Old Joy is a quieter beast. The awkwardness between the Kurt and Mark leads to much of the tension and keeps the film above navel gazing for its compact 76 minute running time. The two being different breeds of the modern man but equally suffering when it comes to emotional awareness make it that bit more affecting when one dares to confess how much he misses the other.
The life off the beaten track is replaced for one on the road in 2008’s Wendy and Lucy, yet the sense of the solitary remains firmly up front. Again it’s a work with Raymond as the pair conjure up a tale of our times with lives affected by economic woes and a cautionary tale of those who can easily ‘slip through the cracks’.
Michelle Williams turns in a wonderfully pared down performance as Wendy, a woman on the hunt and on the road for a lucrative job with only her dog, Lucy, as companion. Before long events conspire against her and leave her scrapping around in search of food and firmly in survival mode. There are characters she encounters along the way that offer a glimpse of a life she could well end up facing. A group of homeless people provide us with an insight into how those who were previously functioning members of society can become destitute, dependent on and derided by a society more eager to ignore than engage with them. It’s a film that feels not only timely but important. Reichardt eschews the story at the top of the financial world to focus on the effect their decisions and failures have on everyday lives. Wendy becomes our eyes into a world we hope we never have to face but is often right on our doorstep regardless of circumstance. It’s a typically personal take on a wider issue that she excels in telling.

Meek’s Cutoff reunited director with star Williams to bring us her unique take on the well worn western genre. It’s also an early opportunity to witness Reichardt’s ability to harness the impressive levels of suspense on show in Night Moves.

Set in the early days of the Oregon Trail in 1845 most of the action is in the wagon crossings of the great desolate plains of mid America. Three travelling families are in search of the promised golden land of the west led by a supposed expert of the terrain, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who promised them a short cut and a safe journey. It soon transpires that his expertise has landed them in no man’s land and at the mercy of the cruel elements.

When they meet a Native American familiar with the land offering to lead them their loyalties are tested and suspicions arise. It’s here where Reichardt slowly and expertly cranks up the tension. The families are forced into double guessing the moves of their appointed guide and his rival expert, a person of whom they have an inbuilt mistrust. At 104 minutes it’s comfortably the longest of the three films in the collection and arguably her most conventional, offering a familiar, if skewed, setting and following the closest she comes to a narrative arc.

Viewed individually the films are impressive, as a whole they mark out a director of true vision. Her austere stories and characters are gripping American works that should sit comfortably alongside more celebrated independent filmmakers of her generation. Above all they are stories about people, those we might recognise, those we may misunderstand and the motivations that lead them to act in the way they do. It’s a collection worthy of discovery, whose merits lie in the quietness and deserve to be shouted about.

Matthew Walsh

24 August 2014

Blu-ray (Masters Of Cinema) Review - Fritz Lang's Frau im Mond (1929)

Sci-fi, Drama
Eureka! Entertainment
BD Release Date:
25th August 2014(UK)
Running Time:
170 Minutes
Fritz Lang
Klaus Pohl, Willy Fritsch, Gustav von Wangenheim,
Buy:Frau Im Mond [Woman In The Moon] (Masters of Cinema) (DUAL FORMAT Edition) [Blu-ray]

Frau im Mond was the last science fiction film Fritz Lang ever made, as well as his last silent film. It was also the first film to present the idea of rocket travel to a mass audience and even the first ever countdown of a rocket launch not only in film but ever. It may not have the fame of his other science fiction film Metropolis but it’s equally important.

The film has a sprawling narrative, which includes espionage (a theme Fritz Lang often used), melodrama and space travel. A group of spies blackmail the entrepreneur Helius (Willy Fritsch) to let them join him on his mission to the moon. It’s believed there is gold to be found on the far side of the moon.

Fritz Lang’s cinematic storytelling is some of the most precise ever, so it’s hardly surprising Alfred Hitchcock idolized him. The film is the better part of tree hours in length and it certainly takes its time to tell the story, it beautifully unfolds over the running time. Fritz Lang is meticulous with every small detail and plot point; it’s awe-inspiring to watch a film by such a master.

The film was billed as “the first scientific science fiction film” and the “science” aspects of the film are certainly laughable to modern audiences, but the set design and special effects are utterly breathtaking. It’s truly stunning to think this film came out in 1929 and remains one of the quintessential journey to a moon films ever made. It’s also one of the great shames of cinema: Fritz Lang never made anymore science fiction films after this; he tried for years to get them made in the US to no avail.

The Blu-Ray disc includes a new High Definition transfer from the F.W Murnau-Stifung. It also includes a short German documentary about the film by Gabriele Jacobi, along with the usual length booklet with a film analysis and a casebook expect with a Eureka release. Frau im Mond makes a very welcome Blu-Ray debut and hopefully Eureka can release some more Fritz Lang films in the future such as Destiny and even some of his American Noirs down the road.

Ian Schultz

18 August 2014

DVD Review - Lizzie Borden Took an Axe (2014)

Crime, Drama
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Rating: 15
DVD Release Date:
18th August 2014 (UK)
Nick Gomez
Christina Ricci, Billy Campbell, Clea Duvall, Stephen McHattie, Hannah Anderson
Buy:Lizzie Borden Took An Axe [DVD] [2014]

In 1892, a young American woman named Lizzie Borden was tried and acquitted for the axe murders of her mother and father after a controversial trial. Even if you didn’t know about the acquittal you’ve most probably heard the name or the rhyme:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother 40 whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father 41

In all seriousness, the blows actually only number 19 and 11, showing how the story of a young woman murderer in a small town can cause quite the uproar. Add the lesbian undertones found in Borden’s relationship with actress Nance O’Niell, and Borden becomes understandable as a late 19th century figure of controversy. This is the part of the story Nick Gomez’s TV movie Lizzie Borden Took an Axe focuses on, telling the story in a fairly historically accurate way and making room for sibling dispute and a bit of zeitgeist whilst briefly alluding to the Borden story’s potential gay aspect.

Here, Lizzie is reimagined as a burgeoning bad girl, at least the closest thing 1892 would allow; getting moody with her father, stealing from her mother, shoplifting, axe murdering. Christina Ricci is pretty good as Lizzie, but the film’s attempts to muddy the waters of Borden’s story are upset by her continuous relapses into acting guilty as sin. If the film wants to depict a turn of the century trial with reasonable doubt, it lets Borden away with looking too cool for school and that pops the bubble. It both wants her to be calculating whilst introducing significant doubt and that ends up a bit too aimless.

Another thing that oddly works for and against the feature is its contemporary soundtrack of blues rock. The first few times you hear it, it might have the Marie Antoinette effect, updating a certain sensibilities to reveal the roots of contemporary interests. After a while, the idea becomes laboured: Borden is the blue print in our lust for scandal and outrage, rock music follows her down the streets, up the stairs, everywhere and anywhen. A good old fashioned house party shot like a discarded scene from Skins, covered by garage blues, kind of works, whereas the blaring rock chords that momentarily follow Andrew Borden (the fantastic Stephen Mchattie) on a wander down the street, reveal a film uncomfortable with silence or contemplation. This film had great potential to examine a hundred facets of a 19th century woman’s trial along with our frankly unsettling desire for controversial figures, but it seems wasted on an overtly bland retelling of a well-known story.

Lizzie Borden continued to live in her small town for 34 years after the acquittal until her death, it would have been interesting to examine that part of her life and how she lived since we know little of it. Still Lizzie Borden Took an Axe is a fine wee examination of the Borden case, lacking in zest or flare, but fairly passable as a rounded version of the story.


Scott Clark

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