Monday, September 20, 2010

Movie Meme #3: The Sixth Sense (1999)

Movie Meme#3 The Sixth Sense (1999) - M.Night Shyamalan quote describing the appeal of ghost stories around the world

About the Movie Meme

The Sixth Sense is the third entry in my movie meme for 'films I can happily watch over and over again', and which I'm revealing one film a day over the period of a month. You can find photographic 'clues' to all 31 of the films I've selected in my introductory post about the meme here

The Film

Child psychologist Malcolm Crow (Bruce Willis) is celebrating an award for his work when an unhappy, and clearly disturbed, ex-patient he wasn't able to help breaks into his home and shoots him before committing suicide. A few months later, the disillusioned psychologist agrees to take on a child, Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), who has similar problems to the ex-patient he wasn't able to save. But Crow struggles to help the child, and finds the case dominating his life to the extent that his previously happy marriage now seems threatened. Can he help the boy who is convinced he is being haunted by dead people, and succeed with this patient where he failed with his previous one?

At the time of release the film was widely praised for being that rare thing - a 'horror film' that women were happy to see. So happy that many were going to see it a second time, mainly to revisit the film after its surprising (to most) twist had been revealed right at the end of the film. Much as had happened with Hitchcock's Psycho, the film's director begged reviewers not to reveal the 'surprise' twist, and most thankfully complied.

The film has received mixed reviews once its initial flourish of success was over. Some are now pooh-poohing the film claiming it is 'totally reliant' on its twist ending for effect, and if you take that away there's not much left. I strongly beg to differ. I suspect more of the recent negativity towards the film is revision of history based on the 'law of diminishing returns' that has become evident with M. Night Shyamalan's subsequent films to this, which was his debut. With each successive release, just when you think the director couldn't possibly release a worse film, he proves you wrong, whether we're talking Signs, Lady In the Water, The Happening or The Last Airbender. It's hard to watch any of those films and make the connection with this far superior piece of work.

Background to Why It's On My Meme List

I saw this film on its first theatrical release, encouraged by the enthusiastic press reviews and explanations that one should see it quickly before someone spoilt it for me (I wish I'd done the same for The Others and Shutter Island - both excellent films, ruined by knowing the twist ending before seeing the film). I came out the theatre feeling annoyed with myself for having been so stupid as falling for the set-up that leads you down a blind alley at the start of the film - a scene that seemed so fake, I'd actually issued an 'Oh come on!' out loud at the cinema just after the first caption indicating time had passed appeared. Others have guessed the 'twist' based simply on the much-repeated trailer that features Joel Osment's troubled character finally breaking down and confessing to his psychologist 'I see dead people', but if the twist were the only thing that made the film, as some have suggested, it wouldn't stand up to repeated viewings the way it does.

For me the twist isn't the main thing about the picture (and, to be honest, I think the much earlier Jacob's Ladder does a much more shocking twist with the same basic idea), it's the simple, clear and consistent story telling that make the film work. The needed horror touches are all there, and add chills down the spine no matter how often I view the film, but essentially this is a love story which, presumably, is why women flocked to see it again and again on its theatrical outing. It's a love story between a psychologist and his patient, between a terrified child and his even more terrifed mother, and between a man and his wife who realise their marriage is going wrong but can't seem to quite put their fingers on why. It's a film that needs a large box of Kleenex by your side because if you're not blubbing like a baby at several key points in the film, well you have a heart made of stone.

The main story is a fairly simple one, but in a world where screenwriters are usually writing their scripts on set as actors are waiting for the latest franchise to be filmed, it's one that has been polished to perfection. The central conceit may require something of a leap of faith ('How could the central character not have known over all that time?') but once you buy into that conceit the rules are strictly adhered to. Shyamalan builds up intriguing sub-plots that all carry the main story through to a conclusion that on first viewing totally shocks you, but on subsequent viewings reveals itself as the only possible outcome. It's never dull and even though I've seen it many times, if it suddenly show up on TV and I have other things to do I invariably find myself watching the end credits where I'd just expected to 'watch a minute or two to remind myself of what it was like'.

The direction is classy, without being too showy, and M Night Shayamalan shows remarkable restraint with his first feature film. There's really nothing surplus to requirements or any weak scenes that add padding to the script. Some may regard his choice of colour palette and use of the colour red to subliminally warn the audience that something is amiss as erring to the pretentious, but it works and isn't over-used to the point of distraction, the way it has been in other films. Even his own, now obligatory, cameo serves a useful purpose and moves the story forward.

Acting wise, everything is pitch perfect - in stark contrast to Shyamalan's later films. Newcomer Haley Joel Osment is simply astonishing in the title role. Off-screen in the 'Making of' he comes across as a scary, precocious American 'adult trapped in a child's body', but in the film he comes across as an astonishingly vulnerable and emotional 10 year-old. It's not hard to see why his performance, like that of Toni Collette as his mother, was oscar-nominated. The relationship between mother and son, one terrified out of his wits but not wanting to scare his single mother, the other upset at how ill her son appears to be, and fighting hard against all the experts who think she is exaggerating, is core to the sympathy one feels for these characters and the commitment we make to them on their journey.

But it's perhaps Bruce Willis' performance that is the most surprising. Leaving his cliched 'dumb action hero' persona behind him, Willis plays vulnerable and sympathetic - and it actually works! It would have been easy to overplay the role, and lose the audience in the process, but Willis judges wisely and his performance is never overly-sentimental, nor wooden. It's a shame we don't get to see him play more roles like this.

The (still) high rating on Internet Movie Database for The Sixth Sense shows I am not alone in finding this film better than its 'one trick pony' detractors would imply. I suspect that the reason M. Night Shyamalan's subsequent films have still done relatively good box office (despite the universally terrible reviews from both critics and the public) is because even with all the evidence to the contrary fans hope to see a spark of the greatness the director showed in this film, but then seemed to completely lose on his subsequent efforts. It's an astonishing debut, and an astonishing piece of work in both the writing, acting and directing stakes. It's just a shame that none of those responsible for this success seem to have gone on to do anything anywhere near as good subsequently.

Shiny Disc Release

The Blu-Ray transfer of the film is good, but not stunning. On the plus side, there is very little grain or digital noise, and no evidence of print damage. On the negative side the the picture is surprisingly soft most of the time. There is no director commentary track, which is probably a mixed blessing given the writer/director's penchant for self-aggrandisement, and the featurettes, which typically run at 40 minutes a piece are supplied in standard definition rather than High Definition. Director boasting aside, the 'Making of' feature does give some real insight into the actors' interpretations, particularly the short but remarkable performance from Donnie Wahlberg (brother of the much more famous, but seemingly less talented Mark Wahlberg), and an interesting argument between Bruce Willis and M Night Shyamalan about how laid back his performance had just been.

The UK Blu-Ray is skimpy to say the least but has the advantage of costung under a tenner online.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Movie Meme #2: A Single Man (2009)

Movie Meme#2 A Single Man (2009) - Tom Ford quote describing the film as a deeply spiritual story

About the Movie Meme

A Single Man is the second entry in my movie meme for 'films I can happily watch over and over again', and which I'm be revealing one film a day over the period of a month. You can find photographic 'clues' to all 31 of the films I've selected in my introductory post about the meme here

The Film

The film opens with a surrealistic dream sequence where George imagines the scene of the car crash where his lover Jim died

Adapted from a novel by Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man is, to quote the blurb from the back of the British Blu-Ray release, "a romantic tale of love interrupted, the isolation that is an inherent part of the human condition, and ultimately, the importance of the seemingly smaller moments in life. Set in Los Angeles in 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, [the film] tells the story of a British college professor who dwells on the past and cannot see his future. We follow him through a single day, where a series of events and encounters, ultimately leads him to decide if there is a meaning to life after the death of his long time partner, Jim."

George imagines lying down to rest with Jim

Background to Why It's On My Meme List

When I saw the online trailer for this film (a different one from that included on the UK Blu-Ray release) I was blown away by the sheer poetry of the imagery. I don't think I've ever seen such a stunningly beautiful piece of work - a sort of movie version of one of those coffee-table books that are full of stunning photographs. A couple of friends warned that the film was 'slow, boring and pretentious' but having missed the film on its theatrical run, I couldn't wait to see it on shiny disc. Happily, I was not disappointed, and despite the fact it's been on sale for barely four months I've already seen it more times than I watch most films in a decade. Each viewing shows new subtleties, and there is no doubt in my mind that this is a film I'll still happily be rewatching in a decade's time.

Jim's death is a black stain on George's life where he's existing rather than living, and has decided to make today his last day.

A surrealistic opening scene shows us the scene of a car crash, and it becomes clear that we are witnessing George's dream interpretation of the moments just after his partner Jim was killed in a car crash. From this moment on we move forward through 24 hours of George's day, starting with his awakening to find a large black stain on the bed where his partner should be - a metaphor for the dark stain on his life caused by his partner's absence. As George dabs his finger in the messy black ink and scratches his lip, we're being set up for the rest of the film with the message that Jim's car crash has been 'the kiss of death' for George.

Flashbacks show us how much happier George was in his life before Jim's death

Flashbacks throughout the running time of the film show us how the two lovers met, hinting at their happiness together, but we start with the day George learnt of his partner's death in a cold, emotionless phone call from a relative of Jim's (Mad Men's Don Draper in the form of actor John Hamm no less) who makes it clear George will not be welcome at his partner's funeral.

George learns of Jim's death in a heartless phone call from one of Jim's relatives

I have to confess I've never been a huge fan of Colin Firth, finding him bland and rather charisma-free in most roles, even that of Mr Darcey in the BBC's award-winning TV mini-series Pride and Prejudice which made him a household name. However his oscar nomination for this film is totally deserved, and would be if just for the scene where he takes the phone call bearing him bad news. It is an amazingly subtle piece of acting, showing the simmering anger, upset and disbelief raging beneath the polite exterior of a college professor who's been taught that appearance is everything. The phrase 'career best' is over-used, but surely applies here. Firth is in practically every scene in the film, and there isn't a duff line or move in any one of them.

George struggles with life in his daily routine

What's astonishing about the film though is the quality of the acting from even the most minor supporting cast member. I've long been a fan of Julianne Moore, but she's been over-exposed playing pretty much the same role (herself) in recent outings, so her performance here as a 60's fashion icon and George's best friend who's still in love with him, complete with an impeccable British accent, is a pleasant reminder of how good she can be when given a role to get her teeth into.

George struggles with life in his daily routine

Matthew Goode can also be hit and miss, but as George's lover Jim, he too is note perfect in a performance that shows why George was so happy, and feels that now Jim has gone he has nothing to live for. Nicholas Hault, best known for his work in the excellent ITV youth drama Skins, also delivers in a tough role where we're never quite sure of his motives, and which requires him to deliver a convincing American accent (he succeeds!)

Matthew Goode plays George's lover Jim, here seen in a flashback sequence

Even the relatively minor role of a Spanish hustler who bumps into George and has a short conversation with him at a liquor store is beautifully paced and played. Everything about every little bit part smacks of attention to detail and perfection. The Times called the film " a thing of heart-stopping beauty" and I find it very hard to disagree.

Tom Ford's direction leads to a film which The Times called 'a thing of heart-stopping beauty'. I can't disagree.

The beauty of the film is undoubtedly down to the perfectionism of its first-time director and co-screenwriter, Tom Ford. Every scene is perfectly paced, with subtle visual clues to show us George's state of mind and indicate where his character is heading. The use of desaturated colour to show George's general depression, bursting into over-saturated color whenever he remembers why life is worth living is just one of the visual tics the director uses to underscore the narrative thrust of the film. As one would expect from a former fashion guru, the director's taste is impeccable, and his choice of popular (but not too popular!) music from the 1960's, coupled with one of the most haunting scores I've heard, from original composer Abel Korzeniowski, are the icing on the cake of a film that is pretty much perfect in every way.

Nicholas Hoult plays a young student, fascinated by the humanity of his college professor and worried that he seems to be very unhappy

Those friends who found the film 'slow, boring and pretentious' have completely missed the point in my opinion. One hears a lot of complaints about the 'brain dead' blockbuster garbage that Hollywood is producing these days, and how it means the death of cinema. When films this perfect - so perfect I really can't find a single flaw in it - are still being made, I don't think we have too much to worry about. The Oscars may have snubbed it when it came to dishing out the actual statuettes, but for once BAFTA got it right. I can't wait to see what Tom Ford does next!

Set design is perfect, and the film contains much iconic imagery, such as this shot of George's car parked alongside a large poster for Alfred Hitchock's Psycho movie

Shiny Disc Release

The UK Blu-Ray transfer of the film (which is region locked :-( ) is stunning, reproducing the different digital effects perfectly. There's a lot of grain and noise in parts of this film, but that's deliberate. The Blu-Ray was issued with a 16-page full-colour booklet and a slipcase, despite the fact it retailed at a lower price than is usual for a very recent title like this. There's a very short Making of and a trailer, but the standout extra is a commentary from the co-screenwriter and director Tom Ford. He explains the reasons for his decisions throughout the film, highlighting all kinds of subtleties that you may miss on just a couple of viewings.

The UK Blu-Ray from Criterion comes with a slipcase and 16 page booklet.

Movie Meme #1: The 400 Blows (1959)

Movie Meme#1 The 400 Blows (1959) - Francois Truffaut quote describing the film as quite pessimistic

About the Movie Meme

Les Quatre Cents Coups, to give the film its original French title, is the first entry in my movie meme for 'films I can happily watch over and over again', and which I'll be revealing one film at a time over the next 31 days. You can find photographic 'clues' to all 31 of the films I've selected in my introductory post about the meme here

The Film

Jean-Pierre Léaud (left) plays Antoine Donel, who becomes the class clown and frequently plays truant from school with his best friend René (centre)

The 400 Blows takes its name from the French expression meaning "To sow wild oats" or "to raise hell". A semi-autobiographical film, made in black and white to save costs, by famed New Wave film director Francois Truffaut 400 Blows is an astonishing free-form account of young adolescent Antoine Doinel's experiences as circumstances conspire against him, told very much from the boy's point of view. The film follows Antoine as, neglected by his parents, he plays truant from school, sneaks into movies and to the funfair, steals a typewriter and then, with disasterous results, tries to return it.

Background to Why It's On My Meme List

I first saw this film, like several others on this meme list, when I was in my late teens. I guess that's probably the most impressionable period for most movie fanatics. I saw it on late-night Friday/Sunday night TV, rather than at the Southampton cinema that I used to attend most Sunday afternoons, having become obsessed with cinema after being given a Super-8 camera for my birthday. Like the other films on this list which I saw for the first time around the same period, I caught it more by accident than design, intrigued by a rave review in The Radio Times I read just before intending to head for bed, and found myself incredibly moved by it.

On paper it sounded like the sort of pretentious French nonsense ('Is there not a proper story?') I would usually avoid but I was gripped from the start, despite the 'loose', apparently largely improvised, dialogue and the obvious disadvantages of a foreign language film that was transmitted in black and white with sub-titles. Thanks to the advent of DVD and then Blu-Ray I've rewatched the film many times, and it still moves me as much on subsequent viewings as it did on the first.

Antoine's parents argue frequently, with his mother having no love for the child she bore out of wedlock, and his step-father being more interested in his weekend rallies than parenting

A large part of the reason the film has the reputation and longevity it has is due to the incredible performance from the lead actor, a very young Jean- Pierre Léaud. As Antoine Doinel, Léaud gives a performance that is significantly enhanced by the free-form 'natural' New Wave filming style which favoured location work over studio sets. Unlike many of the other films on my meme 'comfort' list this film is widely acknowledged as a true movie classic, and was key to the success of the originel French 'La Nouvelle Vague' (New Wave) film-making movement.

A rare moment of joy, on 'The Rotor' ride at the fun fair. This scene has special memories for me as I have a similar, rather vague, memory of enjoying the exact same centrifugal forces ride on a rare trip to Battersea Fun Fair in London as a young kid

More than 30 years (and multiple viewings) after first seeing it Leaud's performance still astounds. It's the actor's completely natural performance, combined with stunning writing and directorial work, that mean the film is the first choice on my list.

For a simple example of what I mean by 'natural performance', take the relatively simple scene mid-way through the film where Antoine's mother shows her first and only act of kindness towards the boy she never wanted and is incapable of loving, as she tucks him up in bed one evening. There is nothing at all in the dialogue to indicate her treatment of the boy is in any way fake. The idea that she is being manipulative to keep Antoine quiet about the infidelity he has witnessed whilst playing truant from school is ALL in Léaud's eyes and facial performance.

What's really astonishing is to discover, many viewings later, that the actor's dialogue, like everyone else's, was entirely dubbed in post-production because the film-makers couldn't afford the higher costs of filming sound on location.

Worried that her son will tell his step-father about seeing his mother kissing a stranger whilst playing truant from school his mother fakes affection to keep him on-side

I challenge anybody not to be moved by the young actor's tearful but under-stated reaction when he is pushed into a police van to be sent away to a remand school, or by that final, crushing freeze-frame shot at the end of the film as Antoine realises that although he has achieved his dream of reaching the sea he has no idea where to go or what to do next. There is no Hollywood treacly sentimentality here, and the film is all the more moving for it.

Truffaut's real-life story is apparently much bleaker than portrayed here, in a film which is surprisingly upbeat, given the sadness of the central storyline. It's not hard to guess why the film's co-writer/director decided to change the story to reflect the more optimistic, 'young scallywag' real-life personality of its lead actor. In a 'life imitating art' scenario Léaud apparently played truant from school to attend the auditions in Paris, when he saw them advertised in a local paper.

Despite Truffaut's initial impressions that the boy was better looking and less skinny than he'd envisaged for a part intended to tell his own life story, the director quickly recognised that Léaud really was the embodiment of the spirit of the central character he'd based his script on. His decision to adjust the tone of the film and the personality of its central character so that the film became a true collaboration between the director/writer and the young actor who, astonishingly, had never made a film or even acted before, was clearly the right one.

Antoine is interviewed by a psychologist at the boy's remand home where he is sent for stealing a typewriter. The quick-cut editing of the interview, deliberately emulating TV documentaries of the time, was considered controversial when the film was initially released.

Whilst the conclusion of the film, and its overall tale of a child let down by every adult he encounters, is a sad one the film has many joyous moments and celebrations of youth: the pranks at school, the 'Pied Piper in reverse' scenes with the P.E. teacher, a trip to the fun fair and a puppet show, as well as the genuine loyalty of the schoolfriend from a much wealthier middle-class family who comes to be the Leaud character's only real friend are all highlight moments, enhanced by an excellent music score from composer Jean Constantin. That these moments are all achieved without even a hint of false sentimentality is no mean achievement.

The film is technically a real tour-de-force too, with some wonderful framing in its unusual (at the time) cinemascope format, as well as some very clever, genuinely innovative directorial tricks, which include clever whip-pans, the staccato 'TV style bad-edit' of the scenes showing the character's interview with a psychologist that so shocked critics when the film was originally released, and that crushing, final scene where Leaud's character achieves his previously stated wish of making it to the sea, only to then realise he has no idea where to go next. This final moment, captured so perfectly in a sudden, abrupt freeze-frame followed by an optical zoom, is one that would be copied by many other film-makers in the years after the film first debuted (perhaps most notably at the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). The ending is as powerful today, as it was audacious when originally released.

Truffaut and Leaud went on to make several more films that explored what happened to the Doinel character, but none were as perfect as this astonishing first film. More than 50 years after its original release, and after multiple viewings, it still astonishes and reveals new subtleties on each re-viewing. It is a quite astonishing piece of work from both lead actor and director, and one I never tire of re-visiting.

The film's final shot - an optical zoom and then freeze-frame on the face of Antoine as he realises he does not know where to go next, was considered audacious at the time of release. It is an effect that has been much copied since.

Shiny Disc Release

You can buy the film on UK DVD for a bargain £6.99 online, but if you want an HD version you'll need to pay around £21 for the US import Blu-Ray from Criterion (as well as a region-free Blu-Ray player to play it on as it's locked to Region A). In truth the film doesn't really shine in High Definition owing to the quality of the source material, but what you do get on the US import is a superb English-language commentary, packed full of research and interview quotes in the English language, as well as the French language commentary 'interview' that is the only real extra on the UK release. Despite having seen the film many times over the last 30+ years, the Blu-Ray commentary track revealed new insights and depths to the film which I hadn't picked up on before, even after multiple viewings. So, even at the premium import price (which includes all import duties if ordered from MovieTyme the Blu-Ray is my recommended version!

The region-locked US Blu-Ray from Criterion is the best version available of the film costing £21 including delivery from, but the British DVD is currently available at a bargain price of £7 from and, having initially retailed for £13.99.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Movie Meme: Films I Can Happily Watch Over and Over Again!

OK, so it's been a while since I last updated my personal blog, but now I've got no excuse because I've been tagged by Brian Sibley to take part in a Film Fun Meme. The whole thing was kicked off, so far as I can tell, by Good Dog.

The basic idea is that you post the films you can happily watch multiple times. The rules are as follows:

  1. Provide a non-exhaustive list of films you’ll happily watch again and again. [Note you don't have to match my 31, which I artificially chose to fill a month's full of daily blogging!]

  2. There is no rule 2

  3. Reprint the rules.

  4. Tag three others and ask them to do the same.

I'm going to break Rule 4 because it seems unfair to saddle others with work (but if you're reading this Steve Langton I shall be disappointed if you don't take up the challenge!)

The meme has got me thinking hard about what my 'comfort' films are vs the ones I really admire but wouldn't want to necessarily sit through multiple times. You might think they're both the same thing, but in my case that's definitely not true. Some of my 'comfort' films depicted below can also irritate the hell out of me because of the poor continuity, the badly written dialogue in places, or just things that really could have been better. Others are 'comfort' films because they just seem so perfectly constructed and composed in every way.

I'll start posting mini-reviews of each film, one-a-day over the next month, starting next Saturday (18th September 2010) and indicating why they are on my list. See how many films you can guess from the small photo clues below, and if you want to take up the challenge of compiling your own meme please add a comment with a link to your meme for others to follow.

31 films I can happily watch over and over again

Bonus points if you can identify the film which is STILL only available on VHS. And also if you can identify which titles will be available in HD Blu-Ray format by the end of the year!

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Blu-Ray Review: Sunrise (1927)

Sunrise: A Song of two Humans (1927)

One of the things I love about cinema is that it's an art form that hasn't been around that long - just 100 years more-or-less. This makes it possible to follow the history and growth of the medium from its very beginnings.

Alas, too many of the early 'film studio' books that documented the early years have been out of print for years so that the main source of historical information these days tends to be in the form of DVD and Blu-Ray releases: either of the old films themselves, the best of which contain accompanying historical commentary tracks or small booklets, or of new historical documentaries made by the studios to celebrate an anniversary.

An excellent example of the latter is the 6 hour documentary on MGM Studios history, introduced by Patrick Stewart, that was put out as three two-hour TV documentaries in the United States and given away as a double-sided DVD with import sets of the Blu-Ray versions of The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind.

One of my new year resolutions (again!) was to delve a bit more into older 'classics' that were made before I was born or which I missed as a kid when TV was the main way of catching up on old classics, in an era when video tape recorders and DVD players didn't exist. Fortunately Eureka's "Masters of Cinema" imprint has now started releasing some of the most important or interesting classics on Blu-Ray. Curiously "Title #1" in their Blu-Ray series is NOT their first Blu-Ray release, arriving at the tail end of 2009 when other titles came out in 2008, and I really haven't been able to work out how their odd title numbering system works, but "Title #1" seemed a good place to start. And "Title #1" is Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans by the highly praised German silent film director F.W. Murnau.

I should be upfront here about the fact that I find many of the old so-called classics dull beyond words, and I've never really been a fan of the so-called wonderful 'silent era'. Even as a kid from the generation that returned home from school to find children's hour prefaced with 'Laurel and Hardy' episodes on BBC1, I tended to want to turn over to the other channel.

Sunrise has been described by several critics as 'the most beautiful silent film ever made', and won oscars for Best Picture, Best Cinematography and Best Actress in 1928 so seemed to be a good film to start with, even though the thought of watching a silent film that runs for more than 90 minutes doesn't sound like much of a treat. The film was originally released just two days before the first talkie, and, apparently, was commercially a flop, despite all the critical praise it's received over the years.

Fortunately many of these silent classics have been issued with new music recordings that improve the 'silent' experience, and Sunrise is just such a title with the original mono Movietone score being joined by an 'Alternate Chamber Orchestra Score' in stereo that really enhanced the viewing experience for me. If you're watching the film for the first time, and assuming you're not a film student who insists on seeing the film 'as it would have been seen in 1927', I'd recommend going with the new stereo recording soundtrack over the original Movietone one.

still image from Sunrise

The basic plot, adapted from a German-published short story, is a deceptively straightforward one. A farmer with young wife and child in a marriage that's going stale has an affair with a 'city girl' who tries to lure him away from his farm, suggesting that he arrange a boating accident that kills his wife so that he can sell his farm and join her permanently in the City. In the event, the farmer can't go through with the murderous act, and he and his wife re-find their lost love on a day trip to the big metropolis. A storm arrives as the couple head for home and the wife goes missing, presumed dead. Nevertheless, realising the error of his ways, the farmer tells the City girl he is not prepared to resume his relationship, just before rescuers find his wife alive and well. This last point is a 'happy ending' apparently forced on the director by the Fox film studio - it seems nothing much changes in Hollywood!

The set-up and failed attempt at the murder are dealt with in the first 20 minutes, and the bulk of the film is spent covering the farming couple's reconciliation trip to the big city, where they visit a church wedding service, get pampered at a hair salon, have a professional take their photograph, and visit a circus fair and dance hall - all in a city that looks rather futuristic for its time.

This probably sounds less than thrilling, but what makes the film work is that it's a story of emotions - a story that's incredibly well told and still works well today. If you're a fan of cinema, basic story-telling well put together, excellent acting and direction or just quite spectacular special effects (no, really!) then Sunrise really is the must-see that its 8.3 score on imdb indicates it to be.

It's easy for those of us who aren't film students to dismiss film of this era, with its implicit exaggerated facial poses, dated dress sense etc seeming so irrelevant to today's times, but films like Sunrise demonstrate that in reality human nature and story telling really hasn't changed one jot in the last 100 years - it's just the technology and fashion that's changed. Thankfully the over-exaggerated gurning that plagues most silent films is mainly absent from this film, and the performances from Janet Gaynor and George O'Brien are superb, even subtle at times. It's not hard to see why Gaynor won the Best Actress oscar for her performance in this film.

For me, there were some very pleasant surprises in the film. There was a lot more humour than the dark subject matter had indicated: from the farce of the couple accidentally breaking a photographer's sculpture and trying to cover it up by substituting a golf ball for its broken head, to the slapstick of a drunk and an escaped pig and a dress that has straps which won't stay up, to the naivety of the 'out of town' couple. 'Come again', the hair salon owner says (via cue card) to the departing couple. 'And you must come and visit us' says the farmer's wife, sincerely by way of response.

But what surprised me most about this beautifully put together film was the special effects. There are one or two back-projection scenes where one can spot the joins (eg where the couple are kissing in the middle of a busy street and the traffic backdrop 'jumps' but the couple don't) but there are other scenes, such as one where the farmer walks across busy traffic, where I still couldn't work out how it was done. Murneau uses special effects - most of them, amazingly, performed 'in camera' - to help tell a story that would otherwise need sound, and as a result is able to convince the viewer over 90 minutes that sound really isn't needed. Indeed I barely noticed that this was a 'silent' film I was watching! There's some wonderful dissolve sequences too, such as the opening title scene where a drawing of a train station dissolves into the real thing, or where 'The Man' is tormented by images of 'The Girl from the City' carressing him.

still image from Sunrise

You can view the trailer for Sunrise on YouTube. However note that this is not taken from the Blu-Ray and doesn't, in my view, give the best indication of what the film is like.

As for the picture quality .. well if you're expecting a million pound makeover look elsewhere. The original print was destroyed by fire in the 30's and the two versions presented here (a Movietone version, and a shorter, but better preserved, Czechoslovakian version) have been pieced together from various fourth or fifth generation copies. The accompanying booklet details the various sources and explains that it's impossible to tell what the 'definitive' or originally edited film looked like. Different copies of the film use different takes, and two camera's were used so that the Movietone score could be accommodated on US prints which meant some cropping of the picture to accommodate it on the film strip, vs the non-Movietone version that could use the full frame. No attempt at repairing print damage has been attempted and although there is a high throughput of about 26-30MB/sec on the 1080p restoration Blu-Ray I suspect that the difference for most between the DVD and Blu-Ray versions, at least on smaller screen-sizes, is minimal because of the softness of the source material. A few crazy people on Amazon are talking about this Blu-Ray featuring a pin sharp picture - they clearly need to make an optician's appointment - and quickly!

Sunrise is indeed the classic many have said it is. Masters of Cinema have produced an excellent, comprehensive Blu-Ray version of the film, complete with an informative booklet about the restoration and a 'must hear' historical commentary track from cinematographer John Bailey. I can't wait for their Blu-Ray versions of the same director's City Girl, and also the classic Fritz Lang's "M", scheduled for release on Blu-Ray on 22nd February.

More info on this title on the supplier's website: supplier's web site.