Blu-ray Review: Alain Robbe-Grillet – Six Films 1963-1974

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Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Francoise Brion, Anicée Alvina, Catherine Jourdan
Director: Alain Robbe-Grillet
Rating: 10/10

A brilliant polymath, the author of novels which deconstructed the contract between author and reader, screenwriter of Alain Resnais’ exquisite but notoriously incomprehensible Last Year at Marienbad, and a director in his own right of ten slippery and occasionally shocking films, Alain Robbe-Grillet is the sort of French cultural figure who can seem, to British sensibilities, dauntingly high-brow, not to say wreathed in pretentiousness. Now the first six of his films, made between 1963 and 1974, have been gathered together on this 3-disc Blu-ray box set from the BFI, along with 2 ½ hours in total of interview footage with the man himself. If we’re ever going to make sense of Robbe-Grillet, this seems like a fine time to start.

This review goes through the films chronologically. You’ll find comments on the high-definition transfers and extras at the end of each individual critique.

Shot in Turkey (apparently a Belgian wool merchant had some money tied up there Alain-Robbe-Grillet-Six-Films 3which he decided to spend on making a movie), The Immortal One (1963) has a distinct feeling of Last Year at Marienbad 2, or Last Year at Istanbul (although Robbe-Grillet actually claimed to have started work on it before collaborating with Resnais). Like Marienbad, it’s a love story that plays out through stylised tableaux and cryptic colloquies, only this time with various Istanbul beauty spots as a backdrop. A dull, black-suited man (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze) falls for a beautiful but mendacious woman (the gorgeous and immaculately coiffed Francoise Brion) who seems, on balance, not to exist – which perhaps says something about the nature of infatuation. He then pursues her, full of questions, around a city where nothing is quite as it seems – the ancient mosque the woman visits is more likely to have been built in the 20th century and an antique he buys for her is a mass-produced fake. Meanwhile, he in turn is shadowed by a sinister heavy with a pair of hunting dogs.

alain-robbe-grillet 16Like Marienbad, the film forks and doubles back and reboots and plays various tricks with perspective, creating a maze-like structure with no exits and a feeling of dream-like anxiety. They might have the unnatural calm of tailor’s dummies, but there is something about the film’s sleek, evasive, rootless, self-mythifying characters which makes them chime with modern concerns for belonging and self-realization. But the movie can also be enjoyed on an entirely superficial level. Again like Marienbad, it is ravishingly, stupendously chic. Especially so on this demonstration quality HD transfer, which brings out the smooth allure, the stunning sharpness and depth of field, of Maurice Barry’s cinematography: an early wide shot of the protagonists sitting in an open-topped car, while a steamer passes in the background and the waters of the Bosphorus sparkle like crushed diamonds, is enough to make you catch your breath in wonder.

Perhaps because it was a commercial failure, Robbe-Grillet had reservations about Thealain-robbe-grillet 15 Immortal One. But on Blu-ray, it is a revelation – even leaving aside everything going on beneath the surface, it has a moody glamour that puts many an upmarket perfume ad and Vogue photo shoot to shame. It’s certainly more like Marienbad than anything else Resnais himself ever made. If you’ve ever fallen under the spell of Resnais’ masterpiece, then you will certainly want to seek out this magical and mysterious film.

At this point we might as well mention the extras. Five of the films on this box set come with commentaries – actually, dense spoken essays – by Tim Lucas. Short introductions to four of the films are provided by Catherine Robbe-Grillet, the director’s widow. There’s also a series of five half-hour conversations (recorded circa 2006) between Robbe-Grillet and well-known French TV personality Frederic Taddei. Taddei proves to be an ideal interviewer. These conversations are a real highlight, witty, animated and full of insights into the filmmaking process. In the chat accompanying The Immortal One, Robbe-Grillet casts some light on what is going on in the film and also explains his dissatisfaction with his working methods at that the time. His mistake, he asserts, was that he planned everything out in advance to the smallest detail and then stuck inflexibly to it rather than taking advantage of what chance and his cast and crew could bring to the table. The Immortal One was also a film that took time to make and lost money. From then on, his emphasis (surprising to anyone who might have assumed him to have been above such petty concerns) would be on making films quickly and to a tight budget – films that would please audiences and turn enough of a profit to enable him to get more projects off the ground. (It says a lot for the broad-mindedness of French audiences that several of his movies apparently performed quite well at the box office.)

alain-robbe-grillet 1Robbe-Grillet put this into practice with his next film, Trans-Europ-Express (1966), a movie that – in feel and mood if not in theme – could hardly be more different to The Immortal One. It’s a playful riff on American film noir and dime novels in the manner of early Godard or Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste. The luxurious Trans-Europe-Express train travelling from Paris to Antwerp was at that time very new and state of the art. A trio of filmmakers (including Robbe-Grillet and his wife Catherine, playing themselves) are on board, working on a story about a drug-runner heading to Antwerp to collect a suitcase of cocaine. There, too, sharing a compartment with them at one point (although they mistake him for Jean-Louis Trintignant, the actor playing him), is the drug-runner they are writing about, but it soon becomes apparent than he is less interested in drugs than in having S&M-tinged dalliances with a coquettish Belgian prostitute (Marie-France Pisier).

It’s a film that seems to be in transit, in search of a settled purpose and meaning. The story changes as it goes along, hiving off false starts and all manner of inconsistencies which Catherine Robbe-Grillet’s embattled script girl (standing in for the viewer) desperately tries to keep tabs on, even as the director heads off on his next flight of fancy. Which might sound too cute by half, but it’s all done with a brio and a raffish, shoulder-shrugging charm that defuses criticism. Uniquely among Robbe-Grillet’s films, it has the feel of the street. The use of locations is bold and imaginative – not just the TEE itself (they shot on the real train, mingling with real passengers), but the Gare du Nord, the port of Antwerp and Antwerp Central Station (the TEE didn’t actually arrive there, but never mind, that’s the magic of cinema for you). Willy Kurant’s camerawork feels loose and improvised, letting light and air and a sense of the outdoors into Robbe-Grillet’s shadowy universe.

alain-robbe-grillet 10Maybe because the film was shot so quickly (in the same raw, grainy black and white you see in early Nouvelle Vague movies), the transfer has a misty-soft, almost charcoal texture, with some of the close-ups almost as spotty as a blown-up newspaper photo. But it also has plenty of nuance and luminosity (plus no blemishes to speak of), and the sketchy quality of the visuals adds to the pell-mell, off-the-cuff feel of the movie.

Trans-Europ-Express comes with a 6-minute introduction by Catherine Robbe-Grillet in which she mentions the director’s long-term interest in detective stories. In conversation with Taddei, Robbe-Grillet talks about the locations in the movie and reveals that the strip club scene at the end was shot on the revolving stage of the Crazy Horse with one of its performers. (Taddei puts Robbe-Grillet on the spot by boldly asking him whether filming such a scene turned him on. His answer: not at the time, but perhaps afterwards when he saw it again.)

The director’s next film, The Man Who Lies (1968), set out to do for war movies what Trans-Europ-Express had done for gangster films (with nods to the Borges story, Theme of the Traitor and the Hero, that was to be the basis for Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Stratagem). The setting is an unnamed occupied country. Claiming to be a long-lost comrade in arms, a rather hapless interloper (Trintignant) tries to inveigle his way into the lives (and beds) of the widow and sister of a famous war hero, spinning various unlikely stories in an effort to impress them.alain-robbe-grillet 3

Once again, Robbe-Grillet plays games with the viewer. The protagonist, whose name might be Boris, gets shot and comes to life again; he provides a voice-over narration which is no more to be trusted than the things he tells the girls. (Lying is a common thread in these movies – it’s in The Immortal One and it crops up again in Successive Slidings of Pleasure.) But compared to its immediate predecessor, The Man Who Lies is rather plain and uninviting. The plays of fancy in Trans-Europ-Express are rooted in specific, recognizable locations, but here a dreamy lack of context (this was a Slovakian production, shot in a gloomy, forest-enshrouded ski resort in the High Tatras) works against the story and drains it of exuberance.

Still, the stark, high-key cinematography by Igor Luther (The Tin Drum, The Handmaid’s Tale) comes across well on Blu-ray, and in the accompanying interview Robbe-Grillet talks in a fascinating way about his travels in the region. There’s also an amusing moment where Taddei asks him, “What do you say to someone who has seen one of your films and says, ‘I don’t get it’?” Answer: “Neither do I.”

Robbe-Grillet’s next two films, Eden and After (1970) and N. Took the Dice come as a alain-robbe-grillet 8pair (in French the second title is an anagram of the first). They’re a cinematic counterpart to the sorts of experiments with randomness and accident that the avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez was carrying out in the late ’60s. In Boulez’ concert piece Domaines, a solo clarinettist moves around five groups of instruments, choosing the order in which they will play, with the conductor taking over this role in the second half. Similarly, Eden and After developed out of group improvisations by the cast, while N. Took the Dice reworks the same material according to principles of chance (a character rolls a pair of dice on screen).

At least that’s the theory. To a dispassionate observer – and it’s very much a movie you look at rather than enter into – Eden and After is first and last Robbe-Grillet’s psychedelic film. It even seems to enact the period’s hippy trail east for spiritual enlightenment by packing its characters off to the island of Djerba for a trippy idyll. Robbe-Grillet elaborates upon his interest in all things ludic by presenting us with a group of students who play games as a way of staving off existential boredom. Then they meet an older man (Oliver Reed lookalike Pierre Zimmer) who spices things up by teaching them some new games which take on a life of their own. “You juggle with ideas, but you won’t get involved with living matter,” he chides them (which, ironically, is exactly what someone who wasn’t a fan might say about Robbe-Grillet).

alain-robbe-grillet 9From there things quickly dissolve – the molecular structure of storytelling breaking down before your eyes – into various planes of the imaginary or the possible to the point where anyone trying to follow what is happening has to simply throw up their hands and go with the flow. For instance, the whole second half seems to be a day-dream one of the characters is having while she watches a documentary about Tunisia, but you can’t say for sure. Yet however mystifying you find it, Eden and After is undoubtedly one of the most visually arresting of Robbe-Grillet’s films. This was the director’s first foray into colour, and it’s full of hot reds and oranges and even the whites are warm and yellowish. (“I had a sort of revelation that I could make a colour film just as long as there was no green in it,” Robbe-Grillet tells Taddei.) The early scenes, taking place in a café (the Eden of the title) decorated with Mondrian-like panels, feel like the record of a lively art happening. And it’s also memorable for a totally committed performance from the crop-haired, long-legged Catherine Jourdan – striding through a medina in knee boots and a tiny shirt dress one moment, naked in the embrace of a lustful sculptor (Pierre Zimmer again) the next. The whole thing is like a mirage, with the difference that the closer you look, the more you see.

As for N. Took the Dice, it’s a strange beast. Wanting to make a second film in keeping with his scheme but lacking the resources to do so, Robbe-Grillet vamped something up by recycling material from Eden and After, to which he added some travelogue footage and an on screen narrator (who has a faint whiff of the Open University about him) discussing the artifice of narratives. The end result doesn’t make for easy viewing, but look out for some very nice Tunisian pottery.

On Blu-ray there’s a Polariod-like quality to the Eastmancolor film stock in both movies, with big grain and smudgy hues, but as with Trans-Europ-Express you wouldn’t necessarily wish it otherwise – the grain, dissolving faces into points of pigment, actually seems to add to the dream-like uncertainty of what we’re seeing.

For a film that seems the very epitome of late ’60s Parisian chic, it’s surprising to learn alain-robbe-grillet 17that Eden and After was a Slovakian/Tunisian co-production, much of it shot in Bratislava. In a 7-minute introduction packed with juicy anecdotes, Catherine Robbe-Grillet talks about how her husband got beaten up by a drunken Soviet policeman and lost two teeth (which she shows to the camera, kept in a little bottle) and reveals that he had an affair with Catherine Jourdan after the shoot, during the editing. Robbe-Grillet and Taddie have a slightly prickly conversation (you get the impression Taddei wasn’t a fan of this one). Robbe-Grillet talks about the musical theory behind the films, and explains that he hired the actors on a basic contract without knowing which parts they were going to play, casting Jourdan, who ended up with the lead role, just three days before cameras rolled. He also tells a fun story about shooting in a vast, unused, Soviet sugar beet factory and repainting it in bright colours, just because he could.

And at last we come to Successive Slidings of Pleasure (1974, the title rolls off the tongue better in French: Glissements progressifs du plaisir). Filmed in just sixteen days, very cheaply, using static shots with no camera movements and often managing with just one take, this is Robbe-Grillet at his most provocative and assured. It’s also one of his most accessible movies in that there is a relatively clear demarcation between reality and dream or fiction. And for once it boasts a female presence who not only looms large but is also very vocal.

A precocious teenage girl (Anicée Alvina) seems to have brutally stabbed to death her alain-robbe-grillet 5flatmate, an older woman named Nora (Olga Georges-Picot), and is locked up with nuns while the authorities investigate. The pert young murderess denies the charge and throws the representatives of law and order off-guard with tall tales and whimsical, sexually charged non sequiturs. At the same time, she claims to have used magical powers to slay a teacher she fell in love with at school (she keeps one of her blue sandals in a bell jar on her mantelpiece), while also saying, rather chillingly, of Nora: “I thought she’d make a pretty corpse.” (“You’re a monster!” an awestruck nun gushes admiringly.)

Part of the film’s appeal lies in the way it gleefully pastiches police procedurals, nunsploitation flicks and witch trial lore (is the girl bewitching or actually witchy? It’s a fine line), but you’re also aware that a lot more is going on too. With the majority of the scenes taking place either in a plain white apartment or a plain white cell, it’s a film of bold, flat surfaces. Yet you’re constantly being drawn deeper into unsettling territory.

alain-robbe-grillet 7There are troubling themes to do with society’s attitudes to female sexuality, and what women are to make of them, and also a meditation on the role of the imagination – and art in particular – as transgressor, irritant and truth-teller. Because the girl and Nora are artist and model (at least by choice; they seem to be prostitutes by necessity). There’s a sequence where the girl has a bottle of liquor – red wine, presumably, but it looks more like Campari or Pimm’s – poured over her by a kinky punter, and she then recycles the experience into art using Nora as her canvas, turning trauma into inspiration. Later on, a horrified nun comes across the girl making Yves Klein-style action paintings on the walls of her cell with a pot of red paint and her own nude body – it’s the most famous scene in the film – and the girl’s response is a mock-innocent, “Maybe you don’t like modern art?”

The blue sandal under the bell jar represents the girl’s determination to hang onto a alain-robbe-grillet 6destructive past love (which she seems to have re-enacted with Nora), but it also stands as a kind of metaphor for the film itself, for the way Robbe-Grillet’s obsessive themes are clarified and enshrined by the lens of cinema. With its fascination with the female nude, Successive Slidings of Pleasure is a film that’s always likely to raise eyebrows in some quarters, but maybe it will now get the recognition it deserves, if not among the ordinary cinema-going public then at least in figurative art and performance art circles.

As with several of the other films on this box set, the HD transfer shows quite a bit of grain but the splashes of red, yellow and orange that are a key part of its colour palette come through strongly. The introduction by Catherine Robbe-Grillet talks about her husband’s working methods (making regular rewrites, modifying the script as the shoot went on, all with an eye to keeping under budget) and about how she discovered the film’s young star. Puzzlingly, she claims that Alvina was only 17 when she made Glissements, although, to go by her date of birth on IMDb, she would have been around 20.

alain-robbe-grillet 11To explore the higher meanings of the film, you have to turn to Tim Lucas’ excellent audio commentary. Robbe-Grillet and Taddei have a rather laddish chat. Topics of conversation – how it was a lot easier to get actresses to take their clothes off back then, and Olga Georges-Picot’s unreal-looking breast enlargements (something which added, fortuitously, to the actress’ mannequin-like quality). The director also reveals that the nunsploitation-style scenes in the convent were shot at the Chateau de Vincennes, in the very dungeon where the Marquis de Sade was kept prisoner.

Whatever their occasional shortcomings, all of these films are evidence of a unique sensibility that expresses itself in teasing, labyrinthine structures and crisp, compelling images. And even if the films aren’t to your taste, it would be hard not to warm to the man himself as he appears in interview here – funny, down-to-earth and wearing his intellectual credentials lightly. Far from being the lofty and cerebral figure one might have feared, Alain Robbe-Grillet emerges through this wonderful box set as among the most approachable of French auteurs, and a filmmaker of considerable resource and originality who was always prepared to take risks with the medium. Bonjour, Monsieur Robbe-Grillet, nice to finally make your acquaintance.

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DVD Review: Amber

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Starring: Eva Birtwistle, David Murray, Lauryn Canny
Director: Thaddeus O’Sullivan
Rating: 7/10

This intelligent and thoughtful four-parter from Ireland concerns the plight of a mildly dysfunctional separated couple – the embittered and querulous Sarah (Eva Birtwistle) and Ben (David Murray), a businessman who’s too smooth for his own good – who are struck with tragedy when Amber, their precocious and secretive 14-year-old daughter, gives them the slip to go on a secret assignation and then vanishes.

Days, weeks pass. With a boldness of structure that sets it apart from the common run of police procedurals, the opening episode of Amber rather brilliantly fast forwards through the first six months of the investigation, charting the ebbs and flows of hope and frustration felt by parents and police alike: the false starts, the dead ends, the buffeting of personal relationships. The ordeal brings Ben and Sarah closer together and pushes them apart again, while Ben veers between chest-beating machismo and the blackest despair.

Subsequent episodes backtrack and retrace the same steps from different vantage amber 2points – an unemployed reporter who is Sarah’s best friend but who stitches her up to get a headline, a guy who works in a shop where Amber’s phone turns up as part of a job lot, a man in prison for drunk driving offences who seems to know much more about Amber than he should. Different facets fall into place with each twist of the kaleidoscope, with key info held back for maximum effect. A few of the facets are less convincing than others (the prison scenes have a touch of “quid pro quo, Agent Starling,” about them), but the shifting perspectives build into a fascinating picture of dramatic ironies and missed opportunities, even if, just occasionally, the bad luck and misunderstandings that enmire the investigation feel piled on too thick.

Moral jeopardy awaits Ben in the final episode as he slips further and further into obsession, hunting for his daughter in the seedier reaches of the Internet, seeing criminal conspiracies all around him. A bravely dark conclusion, yet, with its prosperous, easy on the eye middle-class setting and a recurring Little Mermaid theme that gives director Thaddeus O’Sullivan an eerie undersea colour palette to play with, Amber is never less than slickly watchable. Excellent performances, too, from Birtwistle, Murray and the young Lauryn Canny as the enigmatic teen.

Blu-ray Review: Non-Stop

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Starring: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery
Director: Jaume Collet-Sera
Rating 7/10

Liam Neeson reunites with Unknown director Jaume Collet-Sera for another exercise in the angry-middle-aged-man-puts-world-to-rights subgenre he has made his own. This time he plays Bill Marks, a bleak-eyed, burnt out US Air Marshall. “They gave a paranoid alcoholic a gun and a badge and they put him on my plane,” complains a pilot reasonably enough. But one man’s paranoid alcoholic is another man’s hero, and Bill has to stir himself to action when, midway across the Atlantic on a packed flight to Heathrow, he gets a message from one of the passengers threatening to kill someone on the plane every twenty minutes if he doesn’t receive 150 million dollars.

With events largely restricted to the interior of the aircraft and unfolding in real time, Non-Stop takes a gambit as old as Hitchcock or older – a threat in a confined setting – but updates it by having Bill conduct his battle of wits with the villain mainly through texts, which flit across screen much as they do in the US remake of House of Cards.

non-stop 1The subtext to all this texting is the contrast between the helpless, jostled, one-of-a-crowd anonymity in which the majority of us spend our daily lives and the dark freedoms and empowered facelessness of life online. The former is emphasised in early scenes – deftly handled by Collet-Sera – of the passengers shuffling on board in a mood of world-weariness and stretched nerves. If there’s something comfortingly familiar about the way the film assembles its cast of suspects and/or helpers, you’re also aware of a testy brittleness to this ad hoc community than you don’t get in, say, Hitchock’s The Lady Vanishes and it’s all steeped in the wistful melancholy and gnawing paranoia of a society permanently in transit.

Later scenes boldly ratchet up the tension and take several imaginative and disconcerting twists, especially to do with one of the methods of killing, which is most unexpected. With Bill’s behaviour growing more extreme, the authorities on the ground become convinced that he himself is hijacking the plane – and Neeson’s performance is just crazy and tyrannical enough to make you wonder.

Somewhere along the line the film loses some of its emotional clout as events non-stop 3accelerate towards an efficiently streamlined conclusion. But Non-Stop is never less than a solid airborne thriller, and the final act throws up the movie’s most memorable minute and a bit in the form of some crowd-pleasing floaty-in-mid-air gunplay. Julianne Moore is pretty much just along for the ride, but Michelle Dockery from Downton Abbey puts in a good shift as a plucky member of the cabin crew. Be warned, there’s also one very scary moment when Liam Neeson smiles. Glad that doesn’t happen too often.

Extras include brief interviews with the leads and two featurettes, one on the elaborate set (with lifting sides like a DeLorean and a tramway running above the seats) and what it was like to film on it day after day over the two month shoot, and another on the stunts and action sequences, including a fight in a lavatory cubicle made of foam.

Blu-ray Review: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot

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Starring: Clint Eastwood, Jeff Bridges, George Kennedy
Director: Michael Cimino
Rating: 10/10

This free-flowing, character-driven crime drama cum buddy movie was Michael Cimino’s first film as director after penning scripts for Silent Running and Magnum Force. It’s a remarkably fresh and inventive piece of work from a filmmaker who would make bigger movies but not necessarily better ones. Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges), a slick young confidence trickster, has a chance meeting with a burnt out ex-safe-blower nicknamed the Thunderbolt (Clint Eastwood), who is laying low after falling out with his erstwhile partners. The two strike up a friendship, but it’s soon tested when a pair of Thunderbolt’s old buddies come looking for him, certain he knows the location of a missing half a million dollars.

A truce is agreed and they all embark on a leisurely heist caper, the quartet forming a thunderbird-and-lightfoot 4dysfunctional family, with tension regularly flaring up between the cocky and irreverent Lightfoot and the curmudgeonly Red Leary (George Kennedy). The comedic interplay and bursts of action are brilliantly controlled by Cimino, while the whole thing is opened up and given huge scope and gravitas by the location shooting in Montana – Big Sky country of a kind more usually seen in Westerns.

Eastwood teases audience expectations by playing a weary old lag held together by pins and braces, while Bridges succeeds, as perhaps no other actor could, in making his character seem genuinely sweet-natured and likeable as well as charmingly full of beans. But the most interesting part goes to Kennedy, best remembered today for humorous, avuncular roles in the likes of The Naked Gun and The Eiger Sanction. His Red Leary is the type of gruff, larger than life ogre who usually turns out to have a heart of gold in Hollywood movies, but not in this case. Cimino explodes the reassuring stereotype and reveals him to be a truly hateful bully. The familial dysfunction in their gang masks genuine, homicidal antipathy.

thunderbird-and-lightfoot 3As well as these dark undercurrents, the movie also has a strange subtext to do with the ideological gap between the baby-boomer generation and the one that served in the Korean war (Thunderbolt and Red Leary are both vets.) Befriending him and dressing him up in some trendy fashion samples that he has stolen, Lightfoot shows Thunderbolt how the youth of America live (he’s also Thunderbolt’s guide in a literal sense – he always seems to know where they are and the way to go, while Thunderbolt always seems lost). By contrast, Red Leary in his black suit and dusty, ’50s-model car represents an older, meaner, more repressive America that would love to strangle this new, more liberal one in its cradle.

All that, plus Clint Eastwood disguised as a preacher, giving a sermon from a pulpit, and Jeff Bridges in drag. What a movie. It’s Cimino at his most playful and accessible, having fun with genre conventions but without the whiff of strain and pretension that tainted his later projects. No extras, but the Blu-ray comes with a gorgeous HD transfer packed with detail and sparkling colours that captures the full swagger of Frank Stanley’s widescreen cinematography: the scene where they’re sitting on the riverbank waiting for a ferry boat (Diversion Lake, Montana standing in for Hells Canyon, Oregon) is particularly ravishing. A genuine ’70s classic, looking better than ever.

DVD Review: Camp Dread

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Starring: Eric Roberts, Danielle Harris, Kyle Patrick Brennan
Director: Harrison Smith
Rating: 5/10

Has any single actor done more than Eric Roberts to help keep the bargain bins full of direct-to-DVD product? He’s back at it again with this solid Cabin in the Woods wannabe, in which he plays a washed-up horror movie director who gathers together a bunch of messed-up rich kids, supposedly to recreate in reality TV format his hit movie, Summer Camp, but something else appears to be going on as the youngsters start dying for real.

Roberts is as reliably sleazy and slimy as ever, when he’s around. Alas, he disappears from view for whole chunks of time, leaving you in the company of the usual round-up of knuckleheads, Barbies and emo girls. The murders come steadily but, apart from one where a guy gets beaten to death with his own artificial leg, they’re handled in a rather bloodless, routine manner until the last twenty minutes, when things get more lively and people start running around with machetes, and the movie makes a late claim for memorability with a scare gag wherein someone is struck dead with a severed head fired from a catapult. Keen to seem knowledgeably cynical about the nature of the film industry, Camp Dread is more ambitious than the superficially similar outward bound blood-fest I Didn’t Come Here To Die and it passes the time amiably enough, but it could have done with being helmed with more conviction.

Blu-ray Review: If….

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Starring: Malcolm McDowell, David Wood, Robert Swann
Director: Lindsay Anderson
Rating: 8/10

Sanctus. Dum, dum. Sanctu-u-u-u-us. Lindsay Anderson’s dryly surreal exposé of the English public school system – and, by extension, the English class system in general – was one of the British films of the 1960s, arriving on the scene with perfect timing in a year when there was political unrest across Europe. It concerns a trio of sixth formers, led by Malcolm McDowell’s surly would-be guerilla Travis, who rebel against the forces of oppression, first in small ways (growing a moustache, hiding a bottle of vodka in their study), and then through bloody insurrection. Hasta la vista, Mr Chips… But then again maybe it’s all a fantasy, as the rather wistful title would seem to imply.

Looking at its now on Blu-ray, it’s interesting to see in what ways the film has aged. Theif 2 pervy vicar pinching the new boy’s nipple now seems expected rather than shocking, but probably only because we know more about vicars now then they did back then. As for Travis, if his revolutionary zeal now comes across as rather silly, his morbid obsession with death certainly doesn’t, not in these days when we’ve learnt to fear teenage boys harbouring violent fantasies. If anything, a modern viewer might feel a sneaking sympathy with the school authorities who agonize over Travis and wonder how to eradicate his unhealthy influence.

The sheer squalor and humiliation that results when you pen boys together in confined quarters continues to have an enduring ring of truth about it, however (the chilly gym and sludgy-walled dorms were shot at Aldenham, which, ironically, was where Arthur Lowe – who plays the ineffectual Housemaster Mr Kemp – was sending his own son at the time). The prefects who make everyone’s life a misery may be dandies with silk waistcoats and silver-topped canes (waited on by younger boys known as “scum”), but their air of aggressive entitlement still chills to the bone. And the film shows amazing foresight in its portrayal of certain individuals who give an affable, progressive face to age-old privilege, such as the trendy head who namechecks pop music and the miniskirt as among Britain’s achievements, and the smoothly patrician sixth former Rowntree (the name, presumably borrowed from the sweet manufacturers, seemed to wrap him in a sugar coating). Travis nails the phenomenon when he remarks, “The thing I hate about you, Rowntree, is the way you give Coca-Cola to your scum and your best teddy to Oxfam, and expect the rest of us to lick your frigid fingers for the rest of your frigid life.” Words that might make many on the current Tory front bench squirm uncomfortably.

Even bumped up to HD, the film stock seems a little dull and soft (probably to do with the fact that these were the early days of location shooting in colour in Britain), but it’s free of artefacts. Extras include an audio commentary with film historian David Robinson and Malcolm McDowell, and three short documentaries by Anderson which testify to his roots in this area. There’s also a whole raft of interviews with those involved in the making of the film. Among these is a very interesting 16-minute chat with screenwriter John Howlett. He describes the origins of the script in his and co-author David Sherwin’s own experiences at public school, how the first draft was written in 1960, while they were Oxford undergraduates, its long gestation and how it eventually got to Lindsay Anderson six years later. There’s also a brilliant 45-minute interview with the actor David Wood, who played Travis’ friend Johnny. This is packed full of choice info about the auditioning process and the shoot. For instance, he talks about (and shows the camera his own original copy of) the watered down “dummy script” which the cast would take into the schools where they were filming – a precautionary measure to ensure that none of the staff or pupils found out what they were actually up to. All told, there’s about an 1½ hour’s worth of trips down memory lane. Taken as a whole, they provide a wonderfully vivid and detailed insight into what it was like to make a film at that time.

Blu-ray Review: Nashville

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Starring: Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Ned Beatty
Director: Robert Altman
Rating: 10/10

Charting the activities of a vast array of characters as they scurry about the capital of country music over the course of several days, Nashville has been regarded as a classic of American cinema almost from the moment it was released. Ambitious, technically innovative, warmly humane, this was Altman’s state of the nation movie.

However, as a portrait of Nashville itself the movie has its drawbacks, largely because by his own admission Altman knew and cared little about country music, and didn’t trouble himself to include any real country and western talent. (The actors wrote or co-wrote their own songs, and you might want to block your ears during some of them.) Similarly, if you stop to analyse the individual characters who make up Altman’s panorama, you notice a reliance on broad stereotypes – Geraldine Chaplin’s wittering English journalist, the old school country and western star Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), who specializes in rabidly right-wing patriotism and mawkishly sentimental ballads.

But all that is beside the point. The reason why Nashville stunned critics like Pauline Kael at the time of its release was because here was a movie that seemed to have been propagated upon organic principles, a movie that felt like a living thing. It has a structure and all kinds of connecting tissues, but it never seems rigid and it seems to flow airily around its characters, letting them do what they will.

nashville 2So it begins with the hustle and bustle of people arriving at Nashville airport, then follows them onto a pile-up on the freeway, then picks them up again later at the Exit Inn, the blue grass joint that is the watering hole of choice for those in the music industry.And almost as a by-product, snapshots of various national stress-points emerge – a black working stiff drunkenly calling out a black country and western star for being “the whitest n***** in Nashville”, or the moment when a soldier on leave is standing at the airport, minding his own business, and Keith Carradine’s longhaired folkie snipes at him, “Kill anybody today?”

It also pays attention to the shifting gender relations of the ’70s. Unlike some films of the era, in Nashville women are both seen and heard, and you can practically feel the seething force of their ambitions – sexual, social and artistic. There’s Albuquerque (Barbara Harris), the runaway wife who’s desperate to get a break as a singer. There’s the reporter Opal, ever in search of a story. There’s the long-legged LA Joan (Shelley Duvall), hopping from guy to guy. They’re all trying to bust in from the margins to the centre of the action. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that in the dramatic final scenes of the film, it’s a woman who becomes the victim of a crazed assassination attempt.

Many of Nashville‘s innovations would become part of the standard repertoire of cinema and TV (especially TV), blunting the film’s impact for viewers today. But its sheer scope ensures that it remains unique. Watching it is like peering into a busy rock pool, and there’s a message implicit in its top-down perspective – that our individual lives are a kind of illusion, and to really understand what it means to be human you have to look at the larger picture.

The HD transfer has some grain in the interior scenes, but the exteriors are bright and nashville 3crisp, and the delightful ’70s costumes really snap into focus, especially Shelley Duvall’s knee-length socks and amazing red and yellow stack-heeled wedges. Extras include an audio commentary with Robert Altman as well as two interviews, recorded in 2000-2001. In the first, he explains how the screenplay drew on a diary by scriptwriter Joan Tewkesbury, who was packed off on a research trip to Nashville. He also talks about the casting, revealing, for instance, that the part of Haven Hamilton was originally offered to Robert Duvall. In the second interview, he covers his early days in industrial films, the financing of Nashville and his determination to avoid big budget projects so as to keep under the radar.

There’s also a charming 13-minute interview with actor Michael Murphy (who plays the sharp political operator in town to organize a rally). He discusses the ab libbing that went on on set, and Altman’s ability to bounce back from critical and commercial drubbings. The highlight, though, is a compelling 25-minute interview with scriptwriter Joan Tewkesbury, who talks about her early days as a script girl on McCabe and Mrs Miller and tells the story of her eventful trip to Nashville, many incidents from which found their way into the movie. Listening to her discuss the development of the script and characters, you might well come to the conclusion that if anyone’s the auteur of the film, it’s her. And yet Nashville looks slightly out of place on her CV, while fitting very snugly into Altman’s. Another example of cinema’s strange alchemy.