Friday, November 22, 2019

Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (1922)

Classic F.W. Murnau Silent Era German Expressionist Film


5 Stars; MPAA Rating: Unrated
Director: F.W. Murnau 

The Grandfather of Horror Films

A mid-silent era masterpiece by F.W. Murnau, Nosferatu almost became a "lost" film. Its production company, Prana, was sued by Bram Stoker's estate. The court ordered all its negatives and prints destroyed and Prana declared bankruptcy to get out from under the damage award. Nosferatu was the only film Prana produced. Seems a copy or two got buried in collections or archives, to be exhumed decades later bringing it back to life, ironically fitting for a vampire movie. A number of characteristics of vampires, as depicted in the movies (but not necessarily in the book), were established in Nosferatu, most notably the deadly allergy to direct sunlight.

The grandfather of horror films, Nosferatu terrified its audiences. Banned in Sweden 1922-1972 for being too horrifying. The latter date is more related to its exhumation, resurrection and re-release than any great enlightenment taking fifty years. The movie serves today as a superb study in the use of cinematography framing and lighting with use of light and shadow, as well as post-production tinting and some other techniques, to help tell the story and express emotion in the silent era. The modest over-acting is what one normally expects in the silent era, but it's not as high an over the top melodrama as seen in other silents. This was not a high budget film and the special effects are nearly non-existent beyond makeup and Nosferatu's prosthetics. However, there was considerable thought put into every aspect that was filmed for the mood it created, particularly with use of light and shadow, and its contribution to the story telling. Murnau used the equivalent of story boards and the script contains considerable notes regarding locations used and production design, on location and at the Berlin Prana studios sets. Pacing is good and consistent for the silent era and intertitles. The story has a very logical sequence and doesn't bog down anywhere. Likewise, the character development is decent for the principals; while there is some for the major supporting roles, it's noticeably less, likely for efficiency and maintaining the pacing.

Finally, the movie must be put into the context of Berlin in its early interbellum years. The war ended in 1918 with Germany's monarchy collapsing creating a political vacuum. German lands held since the 1870's and earlier were ceded by the 1919 Versailles Treaty to other countries, along with submitting to massive war reparation payments. Germany was in continuous political turmoil within the Weimar Republic, including rampant economic inflation induced by the crippling war reparations and restrictions on its heavy industry. Within a country trying to find a new identity and recover from a war, Berlin became a freewheeling "anything goes" social hotbed. It was in that environment the German film industry rose in prominence and the German Expressionist films were created. German Expressionist cinema production emigrated to the UK and US during the early 1930's with the rise of the Nazi party, its rabid antisemitism, and rigid absolute state control of all cinema production. The result was heavy influence on US and UK horror films, film noir, suspense and other crime films through the 1940's. Nosferatu is one of several silent era films that show the basis and origin of this influence. In particular, compare Nosferatu with Universal's 1931 Dracula.

Nosferatu may have lost its ability to terrify contemporary audiences, but it hasn't lost its ability to entertain them and illuminate the basis from which the horror genre's basic principles originated and grew. Count Orlok is as repulsive an evil villain today as he was over 90 years ago.

The USA Kino Blu-ray release contains two discs, one with English intertitles and the other with German intertitles and English sub-titles. Blu-ray transfer is quite good given the condition of the source material, and includes some restoration work including missing intertitles. The sharpness and detail (within the limitations of the film source) is undoubtedly an improvement over the DVD. Recording of the original musical score is excellent. There are some extras that give a very good background about F.W. Murnau, Prana studios, the film's production, and Murnau's associates.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Magnificent Story Told Magnificently Well


5 Stars; MPAA Rating: R
Director: Wes Anderson

I scratch my head at times wondering why a movie is nominated for the Academy Best Picture award . . . or maybe not realizing there are socio-political reasons within the Academy beyond artistic merit . . . but I cheered when this one showed up as a nominee. While it didn't take home the Oscar (losing it to Birdman, another superb movie), it was nominated for all the right reasons. Often touted a comedy I found it to be mostly a drama with major comedic elements. The movie starts with a teenage girl entering a cemetery and placing a hotel key onto a grave monument decorated with hundreds of other hotel keys. The grave is that of an author, and the girl is holding his published memoirs about The Grand Budapest Hotel, which she begins reading after decorating his grave marker. The story about the hotel begins, as told through the author’s memoirs she is reading.

The four time periods:
  1. The present in 2.35:1 aspect ratio with the author's grave and the teenage girl reading his memoirs.
  2. 1985, also 2.35:1 aspect ratio with the author writing his memoirs about a trip he made there 17 years earlier.
  3. 1968 in 1.85:1 aspect ratio when the author traveled to the hotel and met Zero Moustafa, the hotel's owner.
  4. 1932 in 1.33:1 aspect ratio when Zero first started working at the hotel as a boy.
The first provides a simple framework at the beginning and end within which the rest of the story is told. The movie proper periodically moves between the other three timelines. Unlike some non-linear films, the different time lines in this one are easy to follow with different characters in each, obviously different eras and the different aspect ratios. The hotel is a resort in the fictional Central European Republic of Zubrowka. When the author visits in 1968, it’s a run-down shell of its former glory with few guests. The author befriends the elderly owner, Zero Moustafa, and they agree to meet over dinner. Moustafa begins his tale of how he acquired ownership of the hotel and why he keeps it open. The tale then fades back in time from 1968 to 1932 when Moustafa was taken on as a lobby boy after his town was razed and his parents executed. Zubrowka is on the verge of war with a neighboring country, which has equally fictional symbols, flags and emblems, but all the trappings of being governed by a militaristic, fascist dictatorship.

The hotel’s concierge takes Moustafa under his wing, mentoring him. There is plenty of mystery, adventure and intrigue with a war looming, the mysterious death of the hotel owner and the machinations of the hotel owner’s cruel and evil son. The drama is generously peppered with wry comic relief throughout. Wes Anderson’s touch in the story and the directing is quite evident. Production design is lavish, with the hotel’s interior and exterior inspired by a combination of the Palace Bristol Hotel and Grandhotel Pupp in the Czech Republic, and the Grandhotel GellĂ©rt in Hungary.

A grandly executed production, with excellent pacing and unpredictability in the plot making for some suspense and numerous surprises. The non-linear author’s memoirs framework greatly enhances it. It’s a Wes Anderson triumph deserving five stars for a magnificent story told magnificently well.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

The Emperor Has No Clothes


½ Star; MPAA Rating: R
Director: George Miller

Porn film formula:
Nonstop full nudity with raw unsimulated sex acts, tied together with little more than a few patches of duct tape, a half foot of baling wire and the producer's wad of old chewing gum for a story. Overload it with closeups of raw sex acts and the buyers of it won't see there's no plot (nor will they care). It sells DVDs by the rail car load.

Formula for some current Hollywood action films:
Use porn film formula. Substitute the raw sex with spectacular stunts, copious quantities of GFX and VFX, and cause permanent hearing loss  inducing tinnitus with the SFX, all at a nonstop ADHD breakneck pace. Make it spectacular and loud enough with a fast enough pace and the audiences won't realize there's no plot with any substance. It sells tickets by the theater load and popcorn in 5 gallon buckets by the rail car load.

So now we have the latest Mad Max movie, "Fury Road," using the Hollywood action film formula outlined above. It's little more than a two hour extended chase scene. There's just barely enough miniscule plot to launch and maintain the chase; less baling wire holding it together than the car they're using. Forget about story depth or character development. It's all about sensory numbing overload, including giving you permanent tinnitus. Take a good dose of Ritalin before watching and you might realize the emperor has no clothes. The original Mad Max had a real plot that provided background and character development that gave cause to care about the anti-hero. Its two sequels extended the original premise and further developed the Mad Max character. "Fury Road" does none of that. Why is it even called a "Mad Max" movie? The Max anti-hero has been reduced to supporting role, with the lead taken by a new character, "Furiousa." Should have been titled "Furiousa: Fury Road" which would be much more accurate. Oh, but wait, the studio and producers wouldn't be able to sell as many tickets as they could by invoking a past franchise's name recognition, so they add a "Max" supporting character and call it a "Mad Max" movie!

Buy or rent the original trilogy movies with (a very young) Mel Gibson and watch them. They contain substantially greater depth in their stories and principal character development. "Fury Road" gets ½ star because it's not the worst movie I've ever seen, which would get 0 stars.

Jurassic World (2015)

Behemoth Dinosaurs with Pea-Size Brains
Gargantuan Special Effects with Pea-Size Plot Originality

1 Star; MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Colin Trevorrow

The Jurassic Park franchise joins the ranks of the Paranormal Activity, Final Destination and Saw franchises in completely wearing out its formulaic plot until it's threadbare. The original directed by Spielberg with its story adapted from the Crichton novel was a creative achievement. Number four is neither creative nor original. It does nothing whatsoever to advance the original premise or further the story.  Pull out the original script, list its major plot points, characters and plot devices used, put new window dressing on it for a screenplay, crank it out in time for a Summer release, and wow audiences with a spectacular display of current technology visual and sound special effects. The strategy is maintaining sensory overload with the action and special effects at a continuous breakneck pace so the audience doesn't have any respite to realize there's absolutely nothing original in the plot. I'm dismayed Spielberg is one of the executive producers. I would have washed my hands of it until there was something creatively  original to further the Jurassic Park franchise story line.

The first two sequels were weak compared to the Spielberg original, and now there's a third Jurassic Park sequel that contains nothing new. They've been completely formulaic including this one: Dinosaurs on the loose dramatically munching up the people left and right who deserve a gruesome end for one karmic reason or another, all because a clueless moron ignores all the likely consequences for personal scientific glory or greed and does something incredibly stupid that eventually turns them loose. Let's not forget about the kids who need to be rescued, an estranged couple that need to be reconciled with each other, and an ending that has an obvious setting for yet another Jurassic Park movie. Compare the Jurassic Park franchise to Sam Raimi's Spiderman trilogy, or Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, or the Iron-Man trilogy, or George Lucas' Star Wars franchise, or even the live action series of Resident Evil movies. All of those franchises have sequels that build on the original movie with with original, creative story and principal character development. Just like its behemoth dinosaurs with pea-size brains, Jurassic World has magnificently impressive special effects and ADHD non-stop action on a gargantuan scale, with pea-size originality.

Rent the first Jurassic Park directed by Spielberg, or buy it used, and watch it instead (I recommend it over the first two sequels). Afterward you won't need to see this one. You'll have already seen it. I'm extremely disappointed with Jurassic World, the Jurassic Park franchise, and with Steven Spielberg as its producer. All three sequels have been great opportunity badly squandered. One star because at least it's got a little more character development than the latest Mad Max movie.

The Zero Theorem (2013)

Existential Crisis and Collision


4½ Stars; MPAA Rating: R
Director: Terry Gilliam

While not his best it's definitely among his much better films, with underlying themes similar to "Brazil" and "12 Monkeys," of which it's the third in a dystopian, Orwellian trilogy. It helps to understand what Zero Theorem is with some discussion about what it is not. There are many misconceptions about this film. Sadly too many of them come from film critics who should know better by now. Some will bash films if they're not high concept realistic narratives, or if they don't conveniently fit completely into an expected genre, or if they break from a director's past style. Finally there are those "haters" that will bash everything from a specific director.

Zero Theorem isn't a comedy, although it has some frequent comedic relief. Likewise, it's not a prima facie narrative reality story. It's surreal with symbolic metaphors and deeper themes. It's also not a high concept "popcorn" film for casual viewing while browsing the Internet on your laptop or texting your BFF on your cell phone. Paying attention captures details that reveal the underlying existential themes. It doesn't fit into the classic characteristics of a specific genre either. If it's not a comedy and it's not really Sci-Fi, then what is it? Most of Gilliam's films are a genre of their own. This one is no exception. Is it that important to have a genre in which it can be binned and cataloged? It's very easy to miss what this film is about if it's approached superficially or with preconceived notions about what it ought to be or is supposed to be. Terry Gilliam's body of films span a range of method, genre and style.

Qhoen Leth (Chrostoph Waltz) is a genius mathematician working on reducing mathematical "entities" to prove a mysterious "Zero Theorem." Socially isolated and reclusive, he anxiously awaits a phone call he knows will eventually be forthcoming to reveal to him the meaning of life and his existence. His angst regarding this with fear he may have missed taking the call gradually build to the very end of the film. Gilliam doesn't bog us down with any details about the Zero Theorem because we don't need them; to do so would only be a distraction from the underlying existential themes. The surreal environment is reminiscent of Gilliam's Brazil. The hazard is assuming it's Brazil reworked or restated, which it's not. Brazil's is depressingly drab and nearly monochromatic. Zero Theorem's is saturated in bold colors. Their similarity is in keeping both from being reality so we can see the underlying themes better. While they may be existential, they're different. Brazil is about pursuing happiness and fulfillment. Zero Theorem is about pursuing the meaning and purpose of one's existence.

The real power of The Zero Theorem is in its underlying themes and the metaphors used to convey them, with some comic relief to keep it from becoming too heavy philosophically. Without spoiling it with further details, look for the Grand Irony between what Qohen desperately seeks personally and the project's goal his thankless, unrewarding and mentally grinding job has him working to achieve. Every element of the story as it unfolds contributes to one, the other, or both of these as Qohen hurtles toward a personal collision of the two. Gilliam uses a surreal fantasy world to distance the audience from a plain narrative reality to better expose the underlying themes, and enhance or amplify them. Christoph Waltz gives a stellar performance; the supporting actors and actress are excellent. Production design is surreal with bold saturated colors in a highly detailed steampunk style.

Keep this in mind when viewing it and you'll understand Zero Theorem. The audience is ultimately left to draw its own conclusions about the two halves of the irony that dramatically collide at the end.

Venus in Fur (2013)

Unique Two-Actor, One-Set Film; Captivating Erotic Tension


4 Stars; MPAA Rating: Unrated (see rating note)
Director: Roman Polanski

The compelling power of this film is in the interaction between a stage director and an actress that shows up quite late to audition for the lead role in his play, a stage adaptation he has written of Austrian Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 "Venus in Furs" novella. It was adapted from the 2010 two-person stage play of the same name by David Ives.
For those not savvy to the etymology of "masochism," von Sacher-Masoch is its namesake, primarily from some of his writings of which this novella is the most famous. It was coined in 1886 by Austrian psychiatrist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing. Leopold was not pleased by this.

The uniqueness of this film is two actors on a single set, a traditional proscenium theater, containing a handful of props on the stage. The actress Vanda (Polanski's wife Emmanuelle Seigner) convinces the stage director Thomas (French actor Mathieu Amalric) to read the script with her and grant an audition in spite of being late past the time when he had planned to leave for the day. Their role playing gradually devolves from a very well-played switching between being "in character" to actress and director as the reading progresses until it begins to blur. She has an uncanny knowledge of the play and brought with her some costuming and personal props for the role. The unpredictability of this and where it will ultimately lead is captivating as the tension between them builds to a final and an unexpected twist at the end. It's one that has enough ambiguity about the two characters' personalities, emotions and motives that it begs multiple viewings of the entire movie. I've no doubt Polanski did this deliberately to leave interpretation of it to the audience.

The power of this film is not in the minimalist costuming, set or its props, and there are no special effects. It's all in the dialog, the dialog delivery, and the body language of the actors, who carry it exceptionally well. Combined with Polanski's direction, the tension ratchets up at a relentless steady pace to the very end. Venus in Furs is not Polanski's "best" film but it is most certainly near the top of  his better ones, well deserving of the awards and award nominations it has received.

Current Blu-ray Release Notes:
This movie has not been released on Blu-ray in North America. I have the locked Region B (Europe) U.K. Blu-ray release locked to Region B (Europe) with French dialog (only) and English subtitles. Not a problem for me as I have an "all-region" Blu-ray player. It is a problem for nearly all retail Blu-ray players sold in North America that are locked to Region A. There is a Region A Hong Kong Blu-ray release with French dialog (only) and English subtitles that will play in North American Region A Blu-ray players. The Blu-ray transfer is quite good. The dialogue is French (only; no dubbed sound tracks) with subtitles. Those not fluent in French will need to pay attention as both dialogue and actor body language are quite important. This demands more than casual viewing. I found the subtitles to be a good translation as I do understand some basic French and it captures the mood well (i.e. it's not a purely literal one that would lose mood, emotion and feeling).

MPAA "Unrated" Note:
This movie was produced in France. Like most foreign produced, foreign language films it has never been submitted to the MPAA for a rating and I doubt it ever will be as it costs money to have one rated, and the fee isn't chump change. I would give it a definite a very hard "R" rating, but not from some of the occasional cursing, nor from any graphic sexual content as there is no exposed nudity. It's the pervasive masochism subject material in an erotically charged dialogue with matching body language and the actors' synergy. That makes this quite decidedly an "adult" movie.

The King of Comedy (1983)

Not the Typical Scorsese, Jerry Lewis, or Robert De Niro Film


4 Stars; MPAA Rating: PG (see rating note)
Director: Martin Scorsese

If you're expecting the typical Jerry Lewis slapstick comedy, you won't find any of it in this film. Aside from a few lines of talk show host monologue he plays a completely straight non-comedic role and does an excellent job of it. It's blatantly obvious his character, Jerry Langdon, is portraying Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show. For those too young to remember, Johnny Carson, who hosted the show for 30 years, was Jay Leno's predecessor, who was Jimmy Fallon's predecessor (not counting the brief Conan O'Brien debacle).

Robert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is a stage door autograph hound who is obsessed with becoming a stand-up comedian. He has enormous ambition, but unfortunately zero talent, and even worse, he's utterly oblivious to his lack of talent. Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), is a world famous comedian and late night talk show host, whose stage door Pupkin frequently hovers around for autographs. He has a brief "chance" meeting with Langford by interdicting Masha (Sandra Bernhardt), a woman stalker romantically obsessed with Langford who is preventing him from getting into his limo. Pupkin deludes himself into believing from this that has found his "Big Break" as Langford now knows him. An audio tape of his "act" is rejected by Langford's staff and he is repeatedly rebuffed by them at their offices, until Langford does so himself. Pupkin is escorted out of the building by security officers as persona non grata and told never to return. Eventually he conspires with the obsessed stalker Masha in a plot to force his way onto Landon's show as the lead-in act. Nothing goes as planned, but nothing shakes Pupkin's grandiose delusions either. What they do and how it all ends would be too much of a spoiler.

 Jerry Lewis should have received more recognition for his excellent performance. Sandra Bernhardt (Masha) is nearly over the top with her portrayal of a manic obsessive. In my opinion it's deliberate to provide sufficient contrast with Pupkin's delusional obsession. Robert De Niro is completely immersed in his Pupkin role and plays it with his usual mastery throughout. The magnitude of his role compared to the rest of the cast dominates the story, its dialog and its limited action. De Niro's skill as an actor playing the inept, pathetic Pupkin clearly shows and he carries the film.

The very dark comedy and its style is atypical of Scorsese. It's a significant departure from three previous film collaborations with De Niro: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. (New York, New York with De Niro and Liza Minnelli is another substantially different departure in a musical.) I found De Niro's character, Rupert Pupkin, painfully embarrassing to watch at times. I wanted to feel some sympathy for his pathetic bumbling life filled with delusions, but it's impossible as he's also an obsessively obnoxious jerk oblivious to how he's continuously humiliating himself without any respite for the entire film. I was left at the end feeling this was deliberate on the part of Scorsese, that he didn't want Pupkin to have anyone's sympathy. The discomfort I felt regarding Pupkin during the first 2/3rds of the film eventually gave way to the absurdity of his self-destructive actions. If "Greatness" wasn't possible he was determined to go down in a blaze of "Glory," which he does quite dramatically. Even then, at the very bitter end, he still cannot give up his lesser obsession with the barmaid he thinks is his girlfriend (a high school acquaintance) and his delusions of grandeur.

Overall an excellent job by Scorsese with excellent performances from Lewis, De Niro, Bernhardt, Diahnne Abbott (plays a barmaid, Rita Keane, who Pupkin thinks is his girlfriend; another delusion) and the other principal supporting actors and actresses. Don't expect the norm though for Scorsese, Lewis or De Niro.

Cinematography Note:
The scenes showing Langon's broadcast TV program are quite soft. This was intentional in the original filming. Scorsese deliberately filmed those scenes using the low fidelity videotaping systems used for studio recording TV programs to make them realistic looking as they would have been seen in analog NTSC TV broadcasts (this film was made fifteen years before HDTV). Might not be evident on the DVD, but is quite evident on the Blu-ray as it undoubtedly was in its theatrical projection.

MPAA Rating Note:
This film was produced and submitted to the MPAA when there were only four ratings prior to the 1984 PG-13 implementation: G, PG, R and X (now NC-17). Its content didn't rate an "R" and therefore it was given a "PG." Today it would undoubtedly be given a PG-13 rating.

Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (1922)

Classic F.W. Murnau Silent Era German Expressionist Film ★★★★★ 5 Stars; MPAA Rating: Unrated Director: F.W. Murnau   The Grandfather ...