DVD Review: Klown

Starring: Frank Hvam, Casper Christensen
Director: Mikkel Norgaad
Rating: 7/10

Danish comedy Klown is a film that hides a heart of gold under a whole lot of inappropriate behaviour and coarseness. The protagonist, Frank, a gawky, maladroit man-child, discovers that his girlfriend is pregnant but that she’s having second thoughts because she doubts that he has “father potential”. The perfect opportunity to prove her wrong seemingly presents itself when her nephew Bo comes to stay. Impulsively, he drags the meek 10-year-old off on a canoeing trip with his sleazy friend Casper, who is thoroughly disgusted by this turn of events because he has been keenly anticipating a wild time: “This is no trip for a kid, this is the Tour de Pussy for Chrissake!” Quickly forgetting that there’s a minor present, Casper is soon involving Frank in all manner of unsavoury peccadilloes, being chased by angry campers, smoking dope and engaging in an awkward threesome with a woman who helps them out when their canoe capsizes.

This all plays out in a European comedy style that’s so dry and deadpan, it’s more like a Dogma movie that the Farrelly brothers (the Hollywood version, apparently greenlit, will doubtless amp up the volume). Frank and Casper (played by co-writers Frank Hvam and Casper Christensen) at first come across as greyly ordinary – one boss-eyed and dull, the other car salesman-seedy. But eventually the pair establish themselves as an all too memorable comedy duo as Frank struggles to do the decent thing while Casper – who gets out of tight situations with a technique he calls “man flirting” – lands them in ever deeper trouble.

The themes – Frank’s desire to stop being a big kid and learn to be a proper man – have potential to be soft and sticky, and so does the humour, which abounds in dodgy willy jokes (Bo is so under-endowed he can’t pee standing up), gross-out nudity and bad taste gags (there’s a funny sequence concerning Frank’s potential mother-in-law and a pearl necklace). But Mikkel Norgaad’s directorial style is as brisk and disciplined as the characters are self-indulgent, ensuring that the bad taste never lingers. Meanwhile, the script saves its very best punchlines for last, with a shocking final twist guaranteed to leave you speechless – with laughter or offence depending on your tastes.

The film’s willingness to base some its more outrageous gags around the prepubescent Bo could conceivably be viewed as exploitative or even sick, but it’s just as likely to seem refreshingly honest and earthy. And because of the undemonstrative, casual way in which it unfolds, Klown is a film that actually seems funnier and more accomplished in retrospect that it does upon a first viewing, making it a movie you’ll want to return to. And that’s a sign that it’s probably a very good one.

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Blu-ray Review: White of the Eye

Starring: David Keith, Cathy Moriarty

Director: Donald Cammell

Rating: 8/10

If you’re willing to concede, as some are, that Performance (1970) is among the dozen or so most significant British films ever made, then anything its director, Donald Cammell, did afterwards was likely to pale in comparison. Even so, his subsequent career marks a terrifying falling off. Before his death in 1996, Cammell completed just three more feature films. Of those, one was a for-hire job, and one was removed from his hands and re-cut. That leaves just 1987’s White of the Eye to stand as his follow-up and swan song all rolled into one.

The film concerns one Paul White (David Keith), amiable family man, installer of high-end customized audio equipment and prime suspect in the violent deaths of a number of bored, rich housewives. Accepted unquestioningly by the locals as one of their own, you only have to scratch beneath the surface to discover that he harbours some very strange ideas (he seems, for instance, to believe that he’s in possession of a kind of dolphin-like sonar which helps him in his work). But this is a place where people are seemingly content to allow surfaces to speak for themselves.

You can see why the studios, expecting a cheap, nasty, sellable horror, must have been baffled by White of the Eye. Cammell casually jettisons most of what you would expect to find in a slasher movie – escalating violence, the ramping up of tension as you wonder who the killer is and how he will be stopped. Here, there’s hardly any of that. Despite the script languidly offering up a red herring in the form of Paul’s wife’s emotionally volatile ex-lover, there is little doubt that Paul’s the culprit, and with the police liking him for the murders, it seems only a matter of time before he’s caught. As for the slayings, apart from one chilling sequence, they’re represented with conceptual montages that look like modern art (most strikingly, a goldfish flapping about, gasping for breath, on a bloody rack of lamb).

Instead of the usual contrivances, Cammell serves up… well, nothing. Or more precisely, emptiness. The bleak emptiness of the Arizona desert, a lunar landscape of opencast copper mines; the emptiness of sleek, minimal interiors; the emptiness of small talk and small lives; and most of all, the emptiness at the heart of the central character. At one point, Paul starts ranting about black holes, and that’s what he is, a black hole – his pathology sucking in, among other things, Native American mysticism, the way of the samurai, theology and the outer reaches of science fiction.

So not a very scary movie then – not unless you find the human condition scary. But it is infused with a very ’80s sense of alienation and numbness. Cammell’s directorial style is chilly and remote, stalking his characters rather than engaging with him, and the visual aesthetic has the blurry blankness of a sedative haze. At first glance it might not seem to have much in common with the lush, seedy decadence and restless technical experimentations of Performance, but it shares several potent ingredients with the earlier film  – a pervasive air of dread, a portrayal of the fragility of the human persona, an oppressively powerful sense of place.

The picture quality is rather speckly on HD – not Arrow’s fault, it’s apparently the look Cammell was going for. Fortunately, the extras are first class. As well as an audio commentary by Cammell’s biographer and various deleted scenes, there’s The Argument, a long-lost 11 minute short about a documentary maker trying to interview an uncooperative genius loci (played by Cammell’s then partner Myriam Gibril). Strikingly shot in the Utah desert, it bears more than a passing resemblance to Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising (made around the same time, and in which Cammell and Gibril appeared in front of the camera). In Into the White, cinematographer Larry McConkey speaks extremely entertainingly of Cammell as agent provocateur, sabotaging his own movie (for instance, by hiring two directors of photography) and “always looking to tear apart the process”. It leaves a slightly bad taste in the mouth though – in the nicest possible way, McConkey seems to be taking credit for  the movie, much in the same way as some people claim that the real auteur behind Performance was his co-director Nicolas Roeg, and not Cammell himself.

Best of all is The Ultimate Performance, Kevin MacDonald’s wonderful feature-length documentary from 1998, with thoughtful contributions from James Fox, Mick Jagger and the cockney geezer who played Harry Flowers in Performance, and footage from 1992 of Cammell talking with an acuity and intelligence which belies his artist-as-anarchist image. Indispensable viewing for Cammell aficionados, it’s the cherry on top of what is a thorough and worthwhile release.

Blu-ray Review: Blind Woman’s Curse

Starring: Meiko Kaji, Makoto Sato

Director: Teruo Ishii

Rating: 7/10

The Japanese cinema industry spawned countless exploitation movies (known as “pink films” or “pinky violence films”) in the ’60s and ’70s. Blind Woman’s Curse (aka The Tattooed Swordsman, 1970) is a product of that fevered epoch, and it’s amazing that it’s had to wait this long for its UK home video debut.

Helmed by Teruo Ishii, a director known for his mix of comedy and Grand Guignol, it concerns one Akemi (Meiko Kaji), the (young, female) leader of a yakuza gang, who is cursed by a cat demon (or something) during a violent street ruckus. When, several years later, one of her gang goes blind and mad, and another one turns up dead with the dragon tattoo (their clan emblem) flayed from her back, Akemi is convinced that she has brought supernatural doom upon everyone she loves. As if that weren’t enough, a rival yakuza boss – a sleazy bloke who keeps an all-girl opium den in his cellar – is trying various underhand means to oust them from their turf, and he looks set to succeed thanks to a traitor in Akemi’s ranks.

What no synopsis can hope to convey is just what a strange, almost improvisational amalgam of traditional Japanese ghost story, yazuka thriller and ’60s psychedelia Blind Woman’s Curse is. The story makes many a segue into the outlandish and grotesque, with Ishii much more interested in mood, colour, funny gags and hideous spectacle than coherent narrative. Logic takes a backseat, but on the plus side, nothing plays out quite the way you expect it to, and there’s always plenty going on, with regular bouts of cartoony violence, eerie spookiness and knockabout humour to entertain. Besides, you can’t go far wrong with a cast of characters that includes a hairy hunchback who licks people’s faces and can jump backwards onto a roof in one leap; a blind female assassin who can smell whether a man is good or bad, and who also throws knives in a creepy variety show; and a suave alpha male who can fend off an armed opponent with a pot of wasabi.

Untidy and uneven though it might be, it’s an extremely lovable film, more Russ Meyer than Akira Kurosawa, with a devil-may-care, freewheeling, anything-goes attitude that is very refreshing. The sword fights are rather ponderous by modern standards, and Akemi herself is a disappointingly inert character for much of the time, but even the biggest sceptic will come away from Blind Woman’s Curse with a handful of treasured moments – the gory showdown, for instance, in which Akemi goes into battle assisted by a bunch of girls with dishrags tied around their heads; or the bit where blood sprays upwards out of a baddie’s chest wound, drenching his glasses; or maybe the way everyone, male and female, is forever shrugging off their tops to flex their muscles and display their yakuza tattoos.

This Blu-ray release presents an extremely clean restoration with only a couple of scratches and blemishes from the negative remaining. The transfer retains a small amount of grain and is a little soft on detail, but this is all in tune with the Grindhouse aesthetic,  and the pastel hues of the Japanese film stock are very pretty and lend an extra gloss of exoticism to what is already a decidedly different kind of movie.

Extras including an informative audio commentary and a brace of spellbinding trailers for the Kaji-starring Stray Cat Rock series of pinky violence films, which are packed with some truly wicked taglines: “They cower in fear at one female kitten!” “Long live LSD! Long live machine guns!” “20th century youth will challenge everything with a sardonic laugh!” Be warned, though, after watching these trailers, you won’t want to rest until you’ve seen every one of the films in full. Thankfully, Arrow is releasing them later this year. “Idleness intensifies and wild excitement escalates!”

DVD Review: The Lady Assassin

Starring: Tang Thanh Ha, Ngoc Quyen, Kim Dung

Director: Nguyen Quang Dung

Rating: 7/10

This Vietnamese smash hit martial arts flick revolves around a group of feisty maidens who work in a tavern-cum-brothel, murdering any men who happen to cross their threshold. (So, not much interest in repeat custom or word of mouth then?) One day they accidentally free a girl from the clutches of some corrupt officials. Learning that she seeks vengeance on a nasty local warlord who is a thorn in their side, they take her in and train her to be one of their own. But unfortunately for them, she’s not what she seems…

You can’t help wondering at the historical accuracy of some of it (did they really have beach volleyball in 19th century Vietnam? Not that I’m complaining), but there’s no gainsaying that The Lady Assassin is an enjoyably lavish period adventure, decked out with gorgeous, brightly coloured silk gowns, whirling wire work and high-kicking action. The settings are vivid, the leading ladies look stunning, the martial arts sequences are witty and intricate in the best Chinese manner, and I promise you, you’ll fall in love with the cute bamboo cups in which the drinks are served in the lethal tavern.

The film is not exactly over-burdened with plot, mind you, with a lot of time being devoted to those games of volleyball (important lady assassin training). It’s also a shame that the villain – who is excellent, with hilarious eyebrows – makes such a late appearance. But the movie makes up for its shortcomings with bags of charm and an endless parade of vibrant hues, and you forget the issues with pacing as you get swept up in a final twenty minutes which is basically one long sword fight. The DVD transfer is decent, but what a pity the film isn’t also being released on Blu-ray – this is a movie meant for HD and it would make for an extremely tempting purchase in that format.

DVD Review: Frankenstein – The True Story

Starring: Leonard Whiting, James Mason, Jane Seymour

Director: Jack Smight

Rating: 7/10

You might think you need another DVD of Frankenstein like you need a bolt through the neck, but tarry a while, because this TV adaptation from 1973 does interesting things with what can seem like an all too familiar story.

Shot on film and set in a plushly realized Regency England, with attractive locations and spacious sets, it also has a lengthy three hour running time, which it uses to good effect, fleshing out a number of interesting subsidiary characters. David McCallum’s Henry Clerval, the mentor who sets Victor (Leonard Whiting) on his path, is a twitchy nerd with a big brain and bad social skills; James Mason’s Polidori is a deliciously smiling villain, ever suave as he bounces back from endless setbacks; and his Prima, Frankenstein’s mate – played by a perfectly cast Jane Seymour – is a chip off the old block, flirty, sadistic and sharp as a whip. Even the usually dull Elizabeth, Victor’s wife, here has a distinct edge as she rages and plots like a jealous lover against the two shady scientists who keep on stealing him away from her.

It’s also an adaptation that abounds in unexpected subtexts. The script, co-written by Christopher Isherwood of Cabaret fame, treats Victor’s experiments like an elaborate metaphor for “experiments” of another kind – namely, experiments in homosexuality in a less enlightened age. Various parallels are drawn between the two: the criminality, the secrecy, the desire to get their hands on the strapping young bodies of ploughboys and miners, even the bitchiness and gossip, with Clerval christening Polidori with the very camp-sounding nickname Polly-dolly.

Victor’s whole relationship with the monster has the dynamic of an amour fou. “You’re beautiful,” he gasps when he first sees the living monster, who, as played by Michael Sarrazin, is sensitive, slender and has lovely teeth. But when the monster develops some unsightly lumps and bumps, Victor’s enthusiasm for his creation quickly cools, and the monster finds that he can’t do anything right. He goes from being the apple of Victor’s eye to being disowned, an embarrassment, a failed experiment.

Although never made up to appear that scary-looking (he’s the spitting image of indie rocker Nick Cave most of the time), Michael Sarrazin puts in a good performance as a kindly spirit who is eventually brutalized into being the monster everyone tells him he is. On top of that, the show delivers a few flashes of gore and some lurid weird science moments, including a splendid sequence where Polidori brings Prima to life in a brightly coloured bubble bath.  The picture quality is a little blurry but very bright on this transfer, and the production values are easily the equal of Hammer at its best. Given its age, this is an adaptation that stands up well, and it’s certainly one of the most interesting Frankensteins after the two original Universal films.

DVD Review: Fairy Tale Killer

Starring: Sean Lau, Elanne Kwong, Joey Meng

Directed by: Danny Pang

Rating: 3/5

SUMMARY: A slice of Hong Kong horror from the creators of The Eye.

Danny Pang pops up at the beginning of this DVD to thank you for buying it. No, thank you, Mr Pang, because what we have here is a nice little murder mystery with some pleasantly lurid trappings.

Our grizzled hero is Inspector Wong (Sean Lau, Keifer Sutherland if they ever do a US remake), a grumpy cop who works all hours to avoid spending time at home with his severely autistic son. One night he questions a weird guy with a white-painted face who claims that he’s about to murder someone, but doesn’t take him seriously and lets him go. Lo and behold, the murder is committed, and Wong and the rest of his team find themselves scrabbling to cover up their incompetence.

In the meantime, the baddie goes on a spree, offing people in a manner that alludes to various fairy tales such as Cinderella, the Red Shoes and Hansel and Gretel – culminating in a standout moment when a hogtied and roasted corpse comes rolling into sight during a kiddies’ panto. The clues all point to a psychiatric hospital and to one of its erstwhile inmates, a crazy painter lady whose nightmarish canvases seem to have inspired the killer’s actions. But no matter how straightforward the case may be, you can rely on this particular police department to muck it up with a combination of stupidity and infighting (by the latter stages of the investigation, Wong and his team aren’t even on speaking terms).

The story follows a slightly predictable course, but it’s handled in a fresh and stylish way, with plenty of oddball characters, slick, energetic direction from Pang and some intense performances from Lau and co. It all builds towards a suitably OTT runaround last reel with hostages, trials and booby traps. More style than substance perhaps, and it does rather test the limits of just how many crazy people you can have in one film, but overall a taut, enjoyable thriller. The DVD comes with a “making of” featurette and an interview with Lau.

Blu-ray Review: Il bidone

Starring: Broderick Crawford, Richard Basehart

Director: Federico Fellini

Rating: 4/5

Il bidone (The Swindle) finds Fellini in neo-realist vein, and it has to stand as one of the bleakest of all his films. It concerns a trio of petty hustlers who prey on the ignorant and wretched. There’s Picasso, a smiling hustler by day, a doting husband and father by night; Roberto, a flashy thug; and the central character, Augusto. Pushing fifty in what is a young man’s game, he’s cast in their scams as an authority figure, but treated with disrespect by Roberto behind the scenes. Is a sudden reunion with his daughter the chance at redemption he so evidently needs, or simply a cruel, crushing reminder of all he has lost?

As with many a Fellini film, Il bidone offers a potent mix of high life and low life, a round of parties, nightclubs, casual encounters and trips into the ugly hinterlands, all crowned, on this occasion, with a virtuoso sequence when a scam to do with the allocation of council houses almost causes a riot in the streets. But here the melange is especially dark and cynical, the exchanges oozing weariness and cut-throat desperation. And it’s all summed up in the figure of Augusto himself, as played by Broderick Crawford, broken down, forlorn, but with something shifty and reptilian about the eyes.

Packed with hostile, unpleasant characters and serving up an unremittingly downbeat ending, Il bidone is definitely a feel-bad movie par excellence, but it’s also impressive for its artistry and its controlled disgust. On this Blu-ray, the stark, pitiless, sun-baked cinematography comes up as beautifully as you would expect from Masters of Cinema, with only the occasional speckling, and the release is rounded out with a charming 50-minute interview with Fellini’s assistant on the movie.