DVD Review: Doomwatch

Starring: John Paul, Simon Oates, Robert Powell

SIMON OATES as Ridge JOBY BLANSHARD as Bradley JOHN PAUL as Dr Quist ROBERT POWELL WENDY HALL

SIMON OATES as Ridge
JOBY BLANSHARD as Bradley
JOHN PAUL as Dr Quist
ROBERT POWELL
WENDY HALL

This mammoth box set brings together all the surviving episodes of one of the iconic series of the early ’70s and a key entry in British sci-fi. Created by Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler – who also dreamt up the Cybermen during their long stint on Doctor Who – it’s a typically brooding, downbeat show in the manner of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass stories, but whereas Quatermass usually had threats from other planets to deal with, this group are battling problems of humanity’s own devising.

The series resolves around a scientific research department supposed to have oversight of possibly dangerous research projects, led by Dr Spencer Quist (John Paul), a Nobel laureate haunted by memories of his work on the atomic bomb (a “professional busybody” and his “staff of gestapos”, as one disgruntled scientist calls them). Doomwatch is the name of the room-sized supercomputer which helps them identify possible threats (“We’ve got to have more data!” is the constant clarion call), but again and again they find themselves hampered by Whitehall secrecy and the spinelessness of government ministers.

The topics touched upon are often extremely prescient – for example, in the first episode a plane is brought down by a virus originally created to destroy plastic waste (an issue which came to the forefront of people’s minds again with the recent introduction of the plastic bag charge). But the stories can also segue neatly into horror (a strain of sapient rats bred to eat each other but instead feasting on children and doomwatch 1pets). There’s usually a clever puzzle element to each of the tales, as well as a fascination with Whitehall manoeuvring expressed in rich, literate language (“What would you call this, blackmail or bribery?” “Politics. It’s the bastard of both.”). And all the while ethical issues are explored without any dumbing down.

Forty years on, Doomwatch isn’t a thing of beauty to look at, although it does its best to disguise its own limited production values and even comes up with some fun gloopy FX now and then. It was shot on videotape which looks quite soft and grainy on this transfer, and the audio can also be a little weak and reedy. But the quality of the scripts is so high, that even with these provisos it’s a must-have purchase for fans of vintage British science fiction. 8/10

Blu-ray review: Eureka

Starring: Gene Hackman, Rutger Hauer, Theresa Russell
Director: Nicolas Roeg

Loosely based on the real-life case of the Sir Harry Oaks – a notorious unsolved murder which took place in the Bahamas in the 1940s, and which also served as the basis for William Boyd’s novel Any Human Heart – Eureka is a typically Roegian mix of the baffling and the visionary, part courtroom drama, part mob story, part tale of the occult.

Gene Hackman gives a powerfully enigmatic performance as Jack McCann, a prospector who strikes gold in the Yukon and becomes the world’s richest man, only to apparently lose his soul and become bent on self-destruction. He’s backed up by a remarkable cast, including a lean, youthful Rutger Hauer as his playboy son-in-law who dabbles in voodoo and alienates his daughter Tracy (Theresa Russell); and Mickey Rourke as the smooth mobster who is dispatched from Miami to get McCann to sign off on a big casino deal, over his dead body if necessary.

Playing down the Agatha Christie whodunnit aspect, Roeg turns the whole thing into a picture of futility and a portrait of one man’s inner hell that acts itself out against a series of superbly shot backdrops, first turn of the century Yukon, with its deep frozen mining towns and plush bawdy houses, and then the decadent, leafy beauty of the Bahamas. It’s one of the most visually stunning of all Roeg’s movies, and as always with his best work, you’re gripped and disturbed and left wondering at the meaning of what you’ve seen. 8/10

TRANSFER A very good transfer which does justice to the film’s striking cinematography, with no dirt or grain. The early bawdy house scenes have glowing firelit tones and plenty of detail, and the later shots of McCann’s Bahamas home have beautiful pastel dues, with the sumptuous set-dressing coming up a treat. 8/10

EXTRAS 13-min interview with producer Jeremy Thomas, who covers a lot of ground very briskly – the origins of the film in a book about the Harry Oaks case, and the problems of location shooting in sub zero British Columbia. ~ Extremely interesting 55-min interview with scriptwriter Paul Mayersberg. He talks fascinatingly about how the material was reshaped into something suitably Roegian and delves into the film’s themes and symbolism. ~ 13-min piece with editor Tony Lawson, who describes splicing together the film while they were still shooting it halfway around the world. ~ Audio only interview with Nicolas Roeg recorded at the time of the film’s release and presented here instead of an audio commentary. Despite having his jaw wired shut at the time, the director manages to talk insightfully about how he got into movies, his theories of cinema and so forth. 10/10

Blu-ray review: Rocco and his Brothers

Starring: Alain Delon, Claudia Cardinale, Annie Girardot
Director: Luchino Visconti

rocco-and-his-brothers 1Coming at a midpoint between the social realism of Visconti’s early work and the operatic flavour of his later films, Rocco and his Brothers concerns a widowed mother and her family who move from the impoverished rural south to Milan in the wealthy and industrialized north of Italy. Her five strapping sons apply themselves in various ways, including taking their chances in the boxing ring, but there are complications. His plans to get married thrown into confusion by the need to take care of his throng of relations, the eldest son finds himself on the wrong end of a family feud. And on top of that there are various jealousies and romantic entanglements, plus further problems as one of the brothers slides into a life of crime.

Eventually it all dials up into full-blown melodrama, but not before the film has offered a powerful, concrete depiction of the divided state of Italy at the time. Detailing the plight of migrants, it offers a poignant worm’s eye view of the city, which matches documentary precision with lyrical, evocative black and white cinematography. Throughout, Visconti shows an energy level and firmness in handling the big ensemble set-pieces that you don’t always get in his more languorous later work. For the first reel or so, the film’s young stars, Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale, are buried in complex deep focus set-ups, so that their beauty becomes touchingly fugitive, faces glimpsed in a crowd. The result, particularly for Delon, is an aching sense of vulnerability that stays with you long after the machinery of the plot has closed around the characters.

With migration such a hot topic again, Rocco and his Brothers continues to be relevant, and it arguably has much more meat on its bones than the stately epics of the director’s later years. 8/10

TRANSFER
This 4K restoration has a slightly busy grain in some of the night-time scenes, but overall is very attractive, with plenty of detail and wet-looking inky blacks doing full justice to Visconti’s layered mise-en-scene. Vicenzo’s engagement ceremony is a riot of ribbons and dense floral wallpaper, and the high-key boxing sequences are all starkly impressive. 10/10

EXTRAS
This Blur-ray release is enhanced with an excellent selection of special features.~ 1 rocco-and-his-brothers 2hour documentary about Visconti, exploring his career in film and theatre and offering a very interesting picture of Italian cinema in the early ’40s when the director started. ~ Short but informative 20-min documentary going through the film’s shooting schedule on location in Milan. ~ 26-min interview with Guiseppe Rotunno, who talks about his career and along the way offers some fascinating insights into Italian cinema. ~ 30 min interview with Annie Girardot in which the actress describes working for Visconti on stage and screen, covering a lot of ground very briskly. ~ 23-min interview with Claudia Cardinale – the actress’ many fans with be pleased to have this piece in which she reviews her career, starting with winning a beauty pageant in her home country of Tunisia. 10/10

Blu-ray review: Valentino

Starring: Rudolph Nureyev, Michelle Phillips
Director: Ken Russell

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Ken Russell’s account of Valentino’s rise from penniless dance instructor to icon of the silent cinema sees the director at his most Fellini-esque, with lush Art Deco set-dressing, outstandingly lavish costumes and a dreamy silvery-pastel colour palette.

As you’d expect with Russell co-writing, the script – which uses the framing device of the star’s funeral and the reminiscences of the various women who knew him to tell his rags to riches story – feels more like a series of lurid tabloid headlines than an in-depth probing of character. But the whole thing has great energy, with much of the story played for laughs, and Nureyev has a good stab at the lead role, hoofing his way elegantly through Valentino’s pre-Hollywood cabaret act and throwing himself with gusto into several nude scenes.

And as always with Russell, there are the fascinating incidental oddities – Felicity Kendal doing an American accent as a powerful talent scout, Leslie Caron chewing the scenery as a silent era diva who takes the rising star under her wing, and the very whitebread Michelle Phillips (from ’60s pop group The Mamas and the Papas) giving a shrill but quite effective turn as Valentino’s wife, who immediately starts alienating everyone around him by acting as his de facto manager and spiritual guru. Zipping along spryly, the film is less tortured and more high spirited than Russell’s other biopics, and people with a taste for the director’s work will be very glad to have in on this well-packaged Blu-ray. 7/10

TRANSFER
The transfer wrings plenty of detail out of the rather soft film stock. The scene where Leslie Caron sweeps into Valentino’s lying-in wearing a cape of frothy white flowers looks absolutely spectacular, with its lush contrast of colours. You can count the sequins on Phillips’ glittery gowns, and the scenes replicating the famous moment

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inside the tent in Valentino’s hit The Shiek are a riot of exquisite rugs, tassels and beads. 8/10

EXTRAS
A very nice archive interview with Ludovic Kennedy quizzing Nureyev, only 9 minutes long but covering a lot of ground. Speaking fluent English, the star emerges as very humble and intelligent, talking about Russell’s “predisposition to unpluck the feathers from the bird, to unmake idols”. ~ 22 min piece in which Dudley Sutton (of Lovejoy fame) chats in garrulous, uninhibited fashion about working with Russell on this film and The Devil. ~ Audio only interview with Ken Russell, made around the time of Gothic, in which he talks about his return to Britain after working in America. ~ Audio commentary with Tim Lucas – the Video Watchdog editor does his usual thorough job, supplying actor bios and lots of background to the production. 8/10

Blu-ray review: Wild Orchid

Starring: Carre Otis, Mickey Rourke, Jacqueline Bisset
Director: Zalman King

Zalman King’s follow-up to Two Moon Junction was the film that finally did for Mickey Rourke’s career, and it was pretty much hello and goodbye for its debutante leading lady Carre Otis as well. But in retrospect the critics’ treatment of this erotic psychodrama seems rather harsh.

Otis plays a lawyer with a gift for tongues who accompanies high flying real estate developer Jacqueline Bisset to Rio, where she falls under the sway of Rourke’s mystery man entrepreneur. Rourke essentially reprises his control freak character from 9 ½ Weeks, only this time with a deep-frozen libido which causes him to play twisted mind games and a mahogany tan that would raise eyebrows even in TOWIE.

The chemistry isn’t quite there between the two leads, mainly down to Rourke, who’s a bit too blue collar macho in the sort of chilly, reptilian role that would be eaten up by any number of British actors. As for Otis, she has a slightly reedy voice but otherwise gives a perfectly decent performance, believably tremulous and inhibited. Meanwhile, Bisset puts in solid work as the comic relief, and there’s a gutsy turn from Assumpta Serna (one of Sean Bean’s girlfriends in Sharpe) as a frustrated housewife who gets drawn into their erotic play.

Compared to the really rather good Two Moon Junction, Wild Orchid feels a little compromised – there are some rough edges, especially towards the end, which suggest some heavy-handed interventions in the cutting room, while King (or someone) seems to have sharply dialled down the nudity (the heavy petting is much tamer than the film’s reputation would suggest) and dialled up the travelogue. Despite this, though, the director’s flair for sultry atmospherics, exotic locations and striking compositions shines through. Flawed though it can be, King’s work has dated much less than that of many 80’s directors, and on Blu-ray releases such as this, it’s appeal can be pretty irresistible. 7/10

TRANSFER
A little soft and grainy in a few of the early New York scenes, but on the whole well up to the standard of 88 Films’ release of Two Moon Junction. Skin tones are delicate, close-ups are vividly detailed, the various interior and exterior shots of the dilapidated hotel which serves as a central location are sharply textured, and there are some lovely pops of colour, as with the parrots in the foyer of the restaurant where Otis and Rourke schmooze. 8/10

Blu-ray review: Deep Red

Starring: David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi
Director: Dario Argento

In Deep Red, Dario Argento sticks close to the classic giallo formula – the black-gloved serial killer, the damsels in peril, the eyewitness who becomes an amateur sleuth – with undeniably stunning results. David Hemmings plays Marcus, a mild-mannered teacher of classical piano who witnesses his neighbour, a well-known psychic, being brutally murdered and embarks upon some sleuthing (and property renovating) in an attempt to unmask the culprit. Why does he investigate? Awkward questions of motivation evaporate into an atmosphere that from the first feels doomy and dreamlike, the characters compelled like sleepwalkers. The script is light and bantering, with the meek Marcus comically thrown by his encounters with tough-talking feminists, flirty transvestites, aggressively spurting cappuccino machines and other aspects of modern Italy. But beneath the chatty, twittering surface the atmosphere of clenched fear never lets up, and there’s a real nightmare flavour to the setpieces, with a bathtub murder which is an coldly savage as the shower scene in Psycho. Lush, decadent Art Deco design, velvety smooth ‘Scope cinematography and an intense, fetishistic attention to detail all combine to demonstrate that Argento truly is one of the master stylists of Italian horror. 8/10

TRANSFER
Argento fans will be delighted with this 4K transfer. All of the setpieces and elaborate setpieces look spectacular. You can practicality stroke the plush crimson interior of the opera house in the opening scene. Shortly afterwards, the moody scene by the fountain has rich, inky shadows and a sharp glitter of mica from the granite wall behind. Throughout, the three-dimensional feel of the transfer gives an extra weight to the director’s brooding tracking shots. 10/10

This release comes with two versions of the film and a host of extras.

Blu-ray review: The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Starring: Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan
Director: Peter Yates

Godfather of the likes of Fargo, The Wire and even Reservoir Dogs, this adaptation of George V. Higgins’ classic crime novel showcases the author’s rhythmical, laconic dialogue and leery, jaundiced view of human nature, while director Peter Yates shows an eye for the humdrum and seedy as he evokes a world of small-time hoodlums and hustlers. An excellent Robert Mitchum rolls back the years to his halcyon film noir days in the role of doomed protagonist Eddie “Fingers” Coyle, a low rent felon facing a long stretch in jail who is tempted to try and keep himself out of the slammer by giving up a gang of bank robbers to the cops. Really, though, it’s an ensemble piece, with a cast of character actors familiar from other prime slices of ’70s cinema giving chillingly convincing turns as the “friends” (in heavy inverted commas) of the title – urbane, morally shadowy, deadly and dead-eyed as sharks. The ending is breathakingly downbeat and nihilistic even by ’70s standards, but the film doesn’t stint on tension with slow-burning set-pieces, including a grippingly cold and clinical heist. 8/10

TRANSFER
A little soft and grainy in some of the two shots and dimly lit interiors, but the exteriors have a nice sparkle and Yate’s more ambitious compositions (as in the shot from inside the robbers’ car just before the heist) come across very crisply. 7/10

EXTRAS
Lengthy interview with Peter Yates recorded in front of a live audience in the 1990s. Slightly juddery audio, but the director is on excellent form chatting about, among other things, Steve McQueen and the value of having a writer on set. ~ 22-min piece with film critic Glenn Kenny, who has some interesting things to say not only about the movie but about Higgins’ novel. 9/10