DVD Review: The Code – The Complete Series

Starring: Dan Spielman, Ashley Zukerman, Lucy Lawless
Rating: 7/10

the-code 3Starting out like The Killing and ending up like Spooks, Aussie-made The Code is a combination of murder investigation, manhunt and conspiracy thriller with a plot thicker than a kangaroo casserole. While receiving a government tip-off about a scandal regarding the minister for renewable energy, Ned (Dan Spielman), the political correspondent for a news website, comes across a lead to an apparently unrelated story concerning the demise of a teenage girl who has crashed her car into a ravine in the outback. The only evidence is a fuzzy, damaged video which suggests she was pushed to her death after colliding with a truck. As luck would have it, Ned’s autistic brother Jesse (Ashley Zukerman) is a gifted hacker, and he manages to clear up the video and get his hands on some potentially damaging encrypted files, but this puts them in the sights of a rogue secret agent and the bully boys of the Cyber Crimes Unit.

With clues pointing to a shady biotech firm and the question of what was on the truck the-code 2badly needing answering, the narrative quickly sprawls outwards to embrace all manner of political skullduggery and intrigue. What differentiates The Code from the conspiracy thrillers of earlier decades – Edge of Darkness, Between the Lines – is the idea that Big Brother is less into controlling minds than managing screw ups. “Mistakes happen – that sums it up, don’t you think?” remarks the rogue agent. Meanwhile, the stresses and strains of the investigation shine a spotlight on the brothers’ troubled relationship, as Ned displays certain unattractive passive aggressive traits, and Jesse is pulled away from Ned by Hani, a hot young hacktivist who may not be all she seems.

the-code 1Some of this occasionally feels a little far-fetched, but the direction throughout is slick and stylish, and the story is kept grounded by its regular forays into the flat, red landscape of the New South Wales bush, the eerie emptiness of which is captured in some spectacular cinematography. There are good performances too, especially from Ashley Zukerman as Jesse – a figure of tremulous bravado – and the ever-reliable Lucy Lawless as the tough but caring lady who runs a one-room community school near the scene of the crime. The Code is a show that occasionally overreaches itself, but it can’t be faulted for ambition and scope, and with cinematic production values and a final episode packed full of twists and turns, there’s plenty here to keep the viewer gripped.

Blu-ray Review: The Naked City

Starring: Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, Don Taylor
Director: Jules Dassin
Rating: 8/10

The granddaddy of the modern police procedural, Jules Dassin’s 1948 movie took its title from a book by Weegee, the great New York crime photographer, and it aspired to a similar kind of documentary truthfulness. It was shot entirely on location in the Big Apple – one of the first Hollywood productions to venture out of California – and the story (based on the murder of showgirl Dot King, which had already been adapted for the screen in The King Murder in 1932) punctures the myth of the lone detective and demonstrates that crimes are solved by the hard work of dedicated teams.

The very fact that the film spawned so many other shows and movies makes it automatically seem… not dated exactly, but like an archaeological artefact that you glimpse through a crust of layers. Yet that’s also what makes it so uncanny. All the ingredients of a beloved formula are here: the banter and camaraderie at the shabby precinct station; the pairing of an old wise detective with an inexperienced up and comer; the grieving parents going to the morgue to identify the body; the glimpses of the detectives’ home lives where they struggle with the normal problems that effect us all; you even get bits of whimsical add-on business which have become part and parcel of the genre, such as crackpots coming out of the woodwork to confess to the crime or to offer to solve it with their psychic powers. It’s old and new at the same time, and it only adds to the charm when a voiceover narrator jumps in to explain what’s happening every two seconds just in case you’re finding the whole thing far too novel.

Throughout, the tone is very un-noir, light and relaxed, downplaying the melodrama and relying on engaging characters and the fascination of the process to keep the audience hooked. Central to this is the performance by Barry Fitzgerald as the waggish but deadly sharp Lieutenant Dan Muldoon. Fitzgerald was a John Ford regular, playing comical Irishmen in movies such as The Quiet Man, but given a rare lead role he dominates with an easy charm ideally suited for tripping up lying witnesses or hypnotizing culprits into spilling their guts.

Aside from Fitzgerald, the other star of the show is William H. Daniels’ location cinematography. The interiors look a little grainy (and just occasionally scratchy) on this HD transfer, but the exteriors of the bustling metropolis positively simmer with summer heat. When the police first turn up at the scene of the crime, your eye goes to the crisp patterns on the frocks of the female rubberneckers loitering outside. And the conclusion high up on the Williamsburg Bridge is spectacular, with its interplay of shadowy iron girders and glimpses of Manhattan, a tantalizing fairyland in the distance.

As for the extras, there’s plenty to investigate. A 39-minute piece with Amy Taubin combines personal reminiscence and history lesson as the critic looks at New York on screen, going back to the silent era but also taking in the underground movie scene and Martin Scoscese (although, as she wryly points out, Mean Streets was shot mainly in LA). A 52-minute video of Jules Dassin being interviewed on stage in 2004 suffers from crackly lo-fi sound but is well worth persevering with as it’s a very jolly affair, with the elderly director in good form and telling some funny jokes. Also not to be overlooked is a 15-minute piece dating from 1950 about the “Hollywood Ten” blacklisted by HUAC, which contains some interesting background footage on the individuals involved (including Albert Malz, who co-scripted The Naked City).

Most interesting of all, though, is the informative and authoritative audio commentary by naked-city 1screenwriter Malvin Wald, who spent six months penning the original treatment for the film and doing research into police methods. He explains how he was taken off the picture when Jules Dassin came on board and brought in his own team to work on it (he speaks in generous terms of Maltz’s contribution). He mentions the influence of John Dos Passos’ epic novel USA on the movie’s portrait of New York at different times of the day and night, reveals that Fitzgerald was initially reluctant to take on the role of Muldoon, and we also learn that the producer Mark Hellinger, who does voiceover duties on the film (“There are eight million stories in the naked city!)”), had been a newspaperman at the time of the Dot King murder and actually attended the crime scene.

Blu-ray Review: Rabid Dogs

Starring: Lea Lander, Riccardo Cucciolla, George Eastman, Maurice Poli
Director: Mario Bava
Rating: 9/10

Best known for his lush Gothic horrors of the ’60s such as The Mask of Satan and Black Sabbath, Mario Bava ended his career trying to reinvent himself for ’70s audiences with this gritty, hardboiled thriller. Sadly, the film was shut down during editing when the producer went bankrupt and it languished unseen for almost thirty years. What we have here, under the title Rabid Dogs, amounts to a workprint that Bava would have continued to hone had the money not run out.

Rough edges and all, it’s an extremely powerful work, tense, nervy, forceful – the sort of compact, low-budget, high-impact film you would expect, not from an old master, but from a hungry young director on the make. A gang of robbers stage a violent stick-up, but when their getaway car lets them down, they grab a female hostage (Lea Lander) and then hijack a passing motorist (Riccardo Cucciolla), who has a sick child on the back seat. The majority of the film consists of the six of them cooped up in the car trying to evade the police. It’s a volatile situation. The leader of the gang, Doc (Maurice Poli), is a cold, ruthless pro, but the other two can barely control themselves – especially the loutish Thirty-two (George Eastman), who immediately begins drooling over the woman, Maria, reducing her to a state of abject terror. Thankfully, the driver, Riccardo, an anonymous-looking middle-aged man, seems just about able to keep his head.

The near-method approach to the making of the film (it was shot in two weeks in high summer on the roads around Rome), added to the fact that it unfolds in something like real time, pay off in intensely physical performances and a stifling atmosphere drenched in sweat and animal passions. You can practically see the actors melting in the sweltering August heat. Lea Lander, in particular, looks hardly to be acting at all. It’s not just the torn clothes and the lank, matted hair, it’s something deeper: in one startling close-up, her pupils are like pin-pricks.

Based on an Ellery Queen tale, the story cracks on towards a cynical and unsparing conclusion, with moments of jeopardy and black humour along the way, and it’s all helmed with great energy and assurance in hot, sandy spaghetti western hues. Given that this was Bava’s attempt at a more rugged approach, you might be pleasantly surprised to discover just how sharply stylish Rabid Dogs looks on this Blu-ray release. Leaving aside the occasional drop in resolution and shifting in colour caused by the insertion of a few lower grade elements, the HD transfer is on the whole astonishingly good – immaculately clean, with no grain, and searingly crisp. An early scene in an underground car park, where you’re looking from behind the police at the gunmen in the middle distance, has a wonderful depth of field and some vivid pops of colour, and a medium shot that follows soon after of an unfortunate female hostage lying dead on the concrete floor is particularly striking (and as meticulously composed as anything you’ll see in Blood and Black Lace).

As well as this warts-and-all “authentic” version of the film, you also get Kidnapped, a re-edit of Rabid Dogs prepared by Mario’s son Lamberto Bava, who added some unnecessary linking material (cutaways to a full-scale police search and a few other scenes) and a new Euro-disco soundtrack. Although technically not that different to the original, in spirit it feels a bit bland and Michael Winner-ish. Once again though, the picture is excellent.

Turning to the extras, there’s a 9-minute chat with Umberto Lenzi, who talks about the rabid-dogsviolent gangs from Marseilles who moved into Milan in the ’70s and who were the inspiration for the decade’s tough guy movies. There’s also a 16-minute “making of” from the time of the release of Kidnapped. We learn about the shooting process, with various versions of Riccardo’s car mounted on a flatbed that was turned into a mini film studio, about the problems that resulted in the film’s disappearance into legal limbo, and about the commendable role Lea Lander played in rescuing it and getting it seen. These entanglements are explored in greater depth on the audio commentary by Video Watchdog‘s Tim Lucas, who also supplies lots of background on the cast and divulges many other fascinating snippets of info, such as the fact that Al Lettieri (Sollozzo in The Godfather) shot on the movie for a week but was finally let go because his heavy drinking made him impossible to work with. All in all, Bava fans are going to absolutely delighted with this fine release of a film which deserves to rank among the director’s very best.

Blu-ray Review: The Killing Seasons 1-3 Box Set

Starring: Mirielle Enos, Joel Kinnaman, Billy Campbell, Brent Sexton
Rating: 8/10

The Killing (Season 1)Two things you can rely on – it’ll always be raining, and there will always be another twist. The first two seasons of this American adaptation of the hit Danish show deal with a whopper of a case. Supposed to be heading off to sunny California to give up policing and get married, Seattle PD’s Sarah Linden (Mirielle Enos) instead finds herself investigating the murder of a schoolgirl, alongside her dubious replacement, an ex-methhead called Holder (Joel Kinnaman). Is it a random slaying, or is there a deeper motive? No more able to stop working homicide than she can stop wearing woolly sweaters, Linden has to know, and she keeps on missing her plane as developments occur and the clues lead first this way, then that.

It does occasionally feel as if everyone in Seattle is a suspect at one time or another,The Killing (Season 1) but what keeps the show grounded is its sense of the strain the investigation places on those involved and the collateral damage it causes. The dead girl’s father (Brent Sexton) finds his haulage firm in trouble as customers stay away, embarrassed by the cloud of tragedy hanging over his family. Drifting in and out of the frame is mayoral candidate Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell), and his already accident-prone campaign starts to spiral out of control. And then there’s Linden herself, a paradoxical figure – a remorseless seeker after truth who’s in denial about her disintegrating relationship with her son. Mirielle Enos brilliantly captures the various sides of her character – the personality as rough as sandpaper, the soft underbelly of neuroses, the rigid game face which she occasionally wrenches into an unconvincing smile. Even if she sometimes seems more laden with baggage than an airport carousel, it’s quite a first for American TV, having a female lead who’s so raw, so dressed down and grainy.

The Killing (Season 2)The investigation reaches a new pitch in Season 2. As if the weather, the long hours and being a single mum weren’t enough, Linden now has to contend with a high-level conspiracy. As election day looms closer, the cover-up gets deeper, and she is in danger of losing everything she has because of this one case. Two seasons is a long time to wait for a resolution, but it all pays off in a harrowing and bleak conclusion that shows the series at its height.

The first two seasons are faithful to the Scandinavian original in some respects (the The Killing (Season 2)political chicanery, for example), but inevitably Americanized both in terms of plot points (a dodgy Native American-run casino becomes a player in the unfolding scandal, and you don’t get many of those in Denmark) and in dramatic tone. Different enough, you could say, to make it worth seeing both.

The third season eschews smoke and mirrors for a more simple yet resonant tale. Hookers and teen runaways are being brutally murdered, and the spate of killings seems to link back to one of Linden’s earlier cases. This time the ticking clock is the countdown to the execution of the man convicted of that crime. With Linden herself in a place of fragile calm throughout the season, the emphasis is less on personal trauma that on the simple nuts and bolts of working the case. Even more so than in the previous two seasons, the subsidiary characters are nicely sketched in. Some of the liveliest scenes are to do with the sharply individualized street kids – tough, cynical, forgotten by society but still touchingly full of hopes and dreams. And the death row sequences are more than just Green Mile stuff, with the prison guards given quite complex and surprising character traits. Visually, the same damp, gloomy ambience is maintained, building to some truly eerie set-pieces such as the one where Linden stumbles upon an isolated pond that has been used as a dump by the killer, the purple of the medical-grade body bags a sickly note of colour among the autumnal greys and browns.

the-killing 3Like most TV cop shows, The Killing has moments when it pushes things too far, but it’s always compelling viewing, and it boasts a commanding lead performance by Enios. Who would have thought that rain, woolly sweaters and the occasional corpse would make for such a winning combination?

The Emmy nominated The Killing seasons one to three comes to DVD and Blu-ray for the first time as one complete collection and also as single disc releases, with season two and three, all making their UK home entertainment debut.

Blu-ray Review: Youth of the Beast

Starring: Jo Shishido, Misako Watanabe
Director: Seijun Suzuki
Rating: 8/10

youth-of-the-beast 1There’s a fine example early on in Youth of the Beast (1963) of why movie buffs get so excited by Seijun Suzkuki. Our sharp-suited hero is pistol-whipping a goon in the swanky back office of a nightclub, while behind him, seen through a bank of two-way mirrors, the club’s floorshow, a sultry feather dance, goes on oblivious of the mayhem. It’s an image that crystalizes the glamour and danger of the yakuza lifestyle, while simultaneously flirting with a kind of parodic overstatement, and it’s typical Suzuki – no one makes a widescreen frame drip with style quite the way he does.

That said, the script of Youth of the Beast is a pretty workaday affair. Jo Shishido plays an youth-of-the-beast 2ex-cop seeking revenge for the death of a colleague at the hands of mobsters. Posing as a hired hoodlum, he pits two rival gangs against each other in a Yojimbo-like way and uncovers a seedy world of drug deals and call girls. It’s the sort of formulaic material that Suzuki was stuck with time and again in his career as a contract director at Nikkatsu, and he rattles through it in a near-contemptuous, devil take the hindmost manner, paring down exposition and linking material. Plot-wise, it all becomes a bit of blur – Shishido’s character is always beating people up and getting beaten up in turn, men in trench coats and natty threads are forever cramming themselves into little cars. But visually, it’s cool, hip, brimming with flair.

youth-of-the-beast 3Crazy, OTT characters (a villain who juggles a white cat and throwing knives, a drug fiend who literally chews the carpet) are matched by bold, intense colours, lavish, clean-lined Ken Adams-style sets and tilted camera angles. There are a couple of brilliant set-pieces – including one where Shishido finds himself engaged in a shootout while dangling upside down, his feet tied to a chandelier. And it all snaps along nicely to a sizzling big band jazz score.

Youth of the Beast isn’t quite in the league of the later Branded To Kill – not so anarchicyouth-of-the-beast 4 or dazzlingly hallucinatory – but it’s still a real treat to see it on Blu-ray. The Nikkatsuscope film stock looks just a little soft on this HD transfer, but there’s no grain or other blemishes and the colours are rich and bold. The disc comes with a 26-minute talking head piece with expert Tony Rayns, who discusses Suzuki’s insanely prolific career as a maker of low-budget quickies at Nikkatsu (Youth of the Beast was his twenty-eighth film), his eventual break with the studio and the ups and downs of his later years.

Blu-ray Review: I Clowns

Starring: Federico Fellini, Anita Ekberg
Director: Federico Fellini
Rating: 8/10

clowns 1Made in 1970, this engaging pseudo-documentary starts out like a preliminary sketch for Amarcord, that triumphant trip down memory lane that was Fellini’s most critically acclaimed film of the decade. A little sailor-suited boy – the young Fellini – is overcome with excitement and curiosity as the circus arrives in town, and then the film broadens out by a process of association, going from the clowns in the ring to the clowns the boy sees around him in everyday life – argumentative coachmen, an officious station master, sundry drunks and eccentrics – all evoked in earthy, affectionate, colourfully costumed vignettes.

We then cut to the adult Fellini, with his entourage of secretaries and gofers. The clowns 2famous director decides he wants to take a film crew and seek out the remnants of this once-vital folk art. This involves an evening at a glitzy modern circus (Anita Ekberg pops up, laughing at tiger) and a tour of Paris, the city where the circus first became an art form, and visits to the Cirque d’Hiver and the Medrano, once world-renowned, now fallen on hard times and open only three days a week (a place where – although Fellini doesn’t mention this – Buster Keaton performed in the 1950s). It also entails a fair bit of clowning on the part of Fellini and his crew, as the documentary turns into a wild goose chase, with failing memories, old home movies that stick in projectors and dragonish archivists all conspiring to frustrate them in their quest for the vestiges of a vanishing tradition.

clowns 3The resulting film is a strange amalgam of fact and fiction – mostly fiction. Although many of the ex-clowns and circus folk they meet are real, their encounters with them appear to be pre-scripted (with post-synched sound in many cases), and Fellini’s film crew are obviously actors, their antics recorded by another off-screen film crew. Like much of Fellini’s later work, I Clowns feels like an elaborate joke, but in this case it’s a joke most viewers will be happy to go along with, largely because you do end up learning a lot about the subject, partly through bits and pieces of lore that get fed into the dialogue, and partly through some colourful recreations of celebrated acts and stunts. Film buffs are conditioned to think of ’70s Fellini as a man well past his prime, but his on-screen presence here gives the lie to that myth – he’s suave, bright, ebullient, vital, and extremely funny. True, the movie conforms to some degree to the criticisms usually levelled at late Fellini – frivolous, self-indulgent, living in the past – but it feels like the work of a man who is full of ideas yet determined not to take himself too seriously.

I Clowns was made for Italian TV (and broadcast in black-and-white), but the only clowns 5evidence of this is its 4:3 aspect ratio. Otherwise, it’s as visually rich as you would expect from Fellini, and the florid colours, stylised costumes and touches of the grotesque all come across very crisply and cleanly on this attractive HD transfer. It’s accompanied by a equally bright and colourful 42-minute visual essay which looks at the origins of clowns and their place in Italian culture and also makes various points about the film with the aid of graphs and pie charts (for instance, we learn that the editing is exceptionally brisk, with the average shot lasting just six seconds). Altogether, one of the most rewarding yet of Eureka Entertainment’s forays into late Fellini.

Blu-ray Review: Le Jour se Leve

Starring: Jean Gabin, Arletty, Jules Berry
Director: Marcel Carné
Rating: 10/10

The Least Picture Show already aired its thoughts on Marcel Carné’s troubled 1939 masterpiece when it was recently given a cinema outing (see our review here). We’ll therefore confine our comments to a few observations concerning the picture quality and extras on this new Blu-ray release.

le-jour-se-leve 4What we have here is an HD transfer of a 4K restoration, and not only does it look stunning, it also enhances one’s appreciation of the film’s themes and techniques. The way Carné allows certain high key details – a cigarette, Jean Gabin’s eyes, a white dress – to glimmer through his webs of shadow comes across brilliantly. When Francoise (Jacqueline Laurent) appears for the first time, turning up at the noisy, filthy factory where Gabin’s character works, her printed frock stands out with unearthly brightness. It shines in the same way when he visits her at her humble lodgings – a symbol of virginal goodness which turns out, alas, to be largely deceptive. Wherever you look, there are small pleasures, details that suddenly flash into life – the sparkles on Arletty’s stage costume, the bravura deep focus shot down the staircase of Gabin’s boarding house.

Turning to the extras, there’s a 14-minute pieces about the restoration – a laborious le-jour-se-leve 6process that included having to repair by hand the brown-nitrate negative, which had become infected with mould. There’s also a thorough and well-crafted 95-minute making of documentary. This talks about the political background to the film – the sense of pre-war edginess, and the abortive national strike of 1938 – and the origins of the story in a 4-page treatment by Jacques Viot, a shady art dealer who seems to have become the unwitting model for Valentin, the film’s volatile and mendacious villain. Carné’s love of working in the studio and his unattractive behaviour on set are discussed, and a lot of time is devoted to the film’s screenwriter, the poet Jacques Prevert. We get to see the rustic table cluttered with bric-a-brac where he poured out scripts, poems and songs, and we learn about his love affair with Jacqueline Laurent, the very pretty actress who played Francoise. All in all, an unmissable purchase for fans of classic French cinema.