DVDs for 3/17/09 – Murnau, Shimizu, ‘Elegy’ and more

Last week, there was a plethora of New Releases fighting for attention. This week, the attention belongs to just a few impressive pieces, including two trememdous box sets: one in tribute to one of the most acclaimed directors of the silent era (or any era, for that matter), one to celebrate a neglected Japanese director.

The Haunted Castle
The Haunted Castle

Murnau: A Six DVD Box Set is an upgrade from Kino’s five-disc The F.W. Murnau Collection from 2003. The disc of Tartuffe is the same the rest of the set is either upgraded or brand new: the recently restored German editions of Nosferatu and The Last Laugh (previously available from Kino in two disc “Deluxe Editions”) and the DVD debuts of The Haunted Castle and The Finances of the Grand Duke and the original German version of Faust, which are also available separately (with Faust offered in a two disc “Deluxe Edition” featuring the earlier DVD release). Made before Nosferatu, The Haunted Castle (1921) is not a horror film or a ghost story but a psychological drama and murder mystery set in a magnificent country manor. Murnau shows real skill building the story in clever crosscutting while maintaining dramatic tension and an ominous mood. The Finances of the Grand Duke (1924) couldn’t be more different, a lighthearted espionage thriller scripted by Thea von Harbou that feels more like a Lubitsch lark than the dark expressionism that Murnau specializes in. And Faust, Murnau’s final German film before he left for Hollywood, is one of the most visually magnificent films of the silent era. His reimagining of the Faust myth as a holy battle between good and evil is full of magnificent visual effects (Emil Jannings’ Lucifer envelops a mountain town in his dark cloak of plague) and gorgeous images created in the play of light, shadow, and mist on his beautifully designed sets. This new reconstruction and restoration is the most beautiful it has looked since, surely, its original release, and it is now the definitive version of this essential silent masterpiece.

I go into detail on every film at Parallax View  here.

Look up Hiroshi Shimizu on the IMDb and you’ll find 42 films made between 1924 and 1957 listed under his name. According Michael Koresky in the liner notes to the box set Travels With Hiroshi Shimizu (the 15th set from Eclipse, Criterion’s budget-minded label), he made over 150 films. That’s a lot of films for a director largely forgotten to time, even in Japan, but it isn’t the number of films that’s most alarming about his neglect. It’s the deftness and stylistic joys, the humor and humanity, the unexpected rhythms and a delightful stories on display in this set of four features. The silent film Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933) is a lovely character piece about best friends who follow very different life paths, marked by evocative, startlingly modern direction Mr. Thank You (1936) is a buoyant road movie set on a bus ride through mountain roads with a cross-section of travelers whose stories spell out the desperation of Japan’s depression. The Masseurs and a Woman (1938) and Ornamental Hairpin (1941) are both set in mountain resorts in the lazy atmosphere of summer vacation, both full of lovely rhythms and a meandering pace that favors personality and character of plot and defined by a melancholy tone of impermanence. The title Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu is perfectly evocative of the films, not simply because they are about characters in transition but because Shimizu is as much travel guide as storyteller, taking us on a tour of people and places and the stories of their lives.

I also review the set on Parallax View here.

The major New Release of the week is Elegy, starring Ben Kingsley as a college literature professor and Penelope Cruz a gorgeous and self-possessed former student in a May-December romance.

Adapted from Philip Roth’s novel “The Dying Animal,” it’s a fantasy affair from an aging male writer, to be sure, but Spanish director Isabel Coixet surveys the complicated terrain of desire and jealousy and possessiveness in the emotionally guarded professor and draws rich performances from the cast (which also includes Dennis Hopper, Peter Sarsgaard and Patricia Clarkson). Screenwriter Nicolas Meyer’s thoughtful DVD commentary discusses writing and adaptation and the ways in which artworks communicate.

I also review March 10 releases Ben X and A Secret in my MSN DVD column this week, and Blu-ray editions of Brokeback Mountain and Quo Vadis. For the rest of the highlights, visit my weekly column, which goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment, or go directly to the various pages dedicated to New Releases, Special Releases, TV and Blu-ray.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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