DVD Review: The Missing

Starring: James Nesbitt, Frances O’Connor
Rating: 8/10

the-missing 1The topic – the sudden disappearance of a child – might be familiar, but this new six-parter from the BBC impresses for its ambition and complexity. The distraught parents are Tony (James Nesbitt) and Emily (Frances O’Connor), a British couple on holiday in France when their son is taken. The series juggles two time-frames: the original investigation, which shows how the case, and the couple’s marriage, goes sour; and eight years later, when Tony, now a drunken, obsessive wreck, unearths a lead which breathes new life into the search.

The first episodes seem a little overstocked with unsympathetic characters – a loathesomely unscrupulous journalist, Jason Flemyng’s useless and creepy British police liaison, who digs up dirt on Tony and winds up bedding Emily. But there is a strong middle section which develops in interesting ways and fleshes out some engaging sympathetic characters, such as Victor, a paedophile tormented by his guilty conscience and Rini, a Romanian immigrant, drug fiend and police informant who finds a measure of redemption through the case. Both time-frames remain gripping, dovetailing together as neatly and unexpectedly as one would hope.

With the likes of Anastasia Hille, Diana Quick and Said Taghmaoui (Three Kings) takingthe-missing 2 on supporting roles, The Missing has no shortage of acting talent, and it’s dominated by a trio of outstanding performances. Well-loved French star Tcheky Karyo puts in a warmly twinkling turn as a bee-keeping police inspector who comes out of retirement to help Tony. Ken Stott is powerfully unsettling as wealthy businessman who takes an interest in the case – but is his behaviour as altruistic as it seems? And best of all is James Nesbitt in what has to be one of the best roles of his career – a broken, forlorn-seeming figure harbouring a capacity for explosive violence. All of which makes The Missing pretty unmissable viewing.

Blu-ray Review: Nekromantik

nekromantik 1

Starring: Daktari Lorenz, Beatrice M
Director: Jorg Buttgereit
Rating: 6/10

How times have changed. Back in the days of the video nasty, imports of Jorg Buttgereit’s dour underground movie were seized by customs; now it’s receiving the deluxe steelbook treatment from Arrow. Whatever your ultimate opinion of the movie, one thing’s for sure – you’ll need a strong stomach to sit all the way through it. At a mere 71 minutes long it might sound doable enough, but over twenty years on, it remains one of horror’s grimmest tests of endurance.

Shot on Super 8 by an amateur cast and crew over a period of two years, Nekromantik (1988) is about Rob (Daktari Lorenz), a wimpy guy who works on a crew cleaning up after car crashes and crime scenes, and who brings choice gobbets of flesh, and then a whole juicy cadaver fished out of a river, back home to his appreciative girlfriend Debbie (Beatrice M). Exactly how and why the two of them have fallen into this unhealthy habit is never explained; this isn’t a film that troubles itself with much in the way of backstory or character development. There are some graphic scenes of a butcher skinning and gutting a rabbit which might be a traumatic memory of Rob’s, a trigger for his morbid syndrome, but then again, the footage might just be there for the hell of it.

That particular scene is the one that viewers have always found most challenging, although my own personal stumbling block was the bit where Rob disembowels a dead cat – the first time I’ve ever thrown up in my mouth while watching a movie, and hopefully the last. Even for the toughest of gorehounds, the charnel house atmosphere of Nekromantik is almost overwhelming, abetted by sticky-looking Super 8 visuals with a rotten green tinge. And for as long as it’s dealing matter of factly with Rob and Debbie’s strange hobby, this piece of dark, experimental German cinema undoubtedly excels at creating a morbid, disturbing atmosphere.

Where it falls short is when the two of them take their slimy new house guest to bed. Here, the dispassionate approach goes out the window, and the montages of Debbie getting amorous with her vitally challenged beau are tricked out with blurry, cascade-style video effects that look like they could have been nicked from an Emmanuelle movie. (Apparently this was done so you couldn’t see the nuts and bolts holding Mr Crumbly together.) It’s all a bit snigger-worthy and something of a letdown. After that, the film never quite recovers its air of conviction and it seems to struggle to sustain itself even to the 70 minute mark, nor does it help that Debbie, the most forceful character on screen, makes an inexplicably early exit (although this might have had something to do with the fact Beatrice M didn’t get on at all well with Daktari Lorenz).

Still, even if Nekromantik isn’t quite the gobsmackingly outrageous corpse-shagging shocker it’s reputed to be, you can’t quibble with the quality of this limited edition release. The transfer from the original Super 8 has a surprising lushness and delicacy, particularly in some of the outdoor scenes, most notably the early car crash sequence, with body parts strewn over plush green turf (shot in the producer’s back garden, we learn). We also get a transfer of the film from unrestored 35mm – a look at the movie as it was seen by audiences at the time.

The extras include two of Buttgereit’s earliers. The 23-minute Horror Heaven is a mildly enjoyable and very student anthology of spoof horror movie clips (the director’s version of the Mummy and Frankenstein, etc). The half hour long Hot Love starts out gently enough as a boy meets girl story, then turns dark and violent.

One of the highlights of the disc is a 39-minute documentary about Nekromantik and its legacy. This turns into a fond evocation of the British horror scene of the ’80s, with fans and critics recalling how the film was latched onto by fanzines and then shown at the famously seedy Scala cinema in King’s Cross amid fears of police raids. By the end of it, it’s hard to avoid the impression that to really love Nekromantik you had to have been there at the time.

There’s also a new 22-minute interview with Buttgereit, who talks in detail about what it was like making the film at the weekends, without a finished script or any money, but with some equipment lent by the producer, shooting many of the scenes in the cameraman’s flat. We also learn that the cadaver had two left feet. The director is back again, being funny and charming, in a recent 43-minute Q&A. Here he talks about the sequel and his desire to frustrate audience expectations, and he goes into some detail about the reconstruction of the film presented on this Blu-ray, which apparently entailed a number of technical challenges. Throughout, you sense a certain ambivalence in Buttgereit’s attitude  – grateful for the kickstart Nekromantik gave to his career, but doubtful of its merits.

In addition, there are several other short featurettes and bits and pieces, with some revealing behind the scenes footage and shots of excited Germans attending premiers. Plus there’s a very jolly audio commentary with Buttgereit and co-author Franz Rodenkirchen, who have chuckle at the film’s technical shortcomings and reveal that the woman in the opening scene is taking a pee on a dead pigeon.

Whether this limited edition will win Nekromantik any new admirers is an open question, but it will certainly delight long-term fans who have the T-shirt and who remember the days when this was a film you had to buy under the counter.

Blu-ray Review: Trancers

Starring: Tim Thomerson, Helen Hunt
Director: Charles Band
Rating: 8/10

trancers 3One of the most beloved of Charles Band’s movies, Trancers (1984) concerns a tough cop from the future, name of Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson), who has to go back “down the line” in time to ’80s LA to track down a cult leader and mass murderer who has the power to bend people to his will and turn them into zombies. The time travel process involves having your mind inserted into the body of an ancestor. As it so happens, the ancestor in question has just had a one night stand with a girl named Lena (Helen Hunt), who quickly finds herself deputized to help.

There’s no getting away from the fact that it’s an extremely low budget affair, but if you trancers 4can roll with that, then Trancers is a real charmer, with a smart, taut script and an engagingly long-suffering hero. The dialogue and look of the film have a knowingly hardboiled, neo noir quality and there’s an easy interplay between the craggy Thomerson and the fresh-faced Hunt. This transfer is just a little soft but very clean, with no dirt or grain, and the neon hues of the future scenes come up very nicely, as does the rather lovely early beach scene, with its matte of an LA three-quarters submerged underwater.

trancers 2Turning to the extras, there’s a 14-minute “making of” with some very lively contributions from the scriptwriters, who talk about the origins of the screenplay and the casting. There are also 2 minutes’ worth of contemporary interviews, worth looking at to see Thomerson acting all hyper (was his slightly manic personality on set one of the reasons why his career as a leading man never quite progressed as it should have?).

You also get a very nice bonus in the form of City of Lost Angels, a 24-minute two-trancers 5reeler intended to be one third of an anthology movie called Pulse Pounders. This was never completed and now only exists in a rough cut on VHS tape, the original negative having been lost. It’s a fun, semi-farcical story about an assassin who goes back in time to kill Jack, who is slacking off in LA. Packing a lot into its short running time, it features plenty of good lines and a welcome return for Baby McNulty, Jack’s pint-sized boss. Inevitably, the picture is only standard def, but most fans will be absolutely delighted to have it in any shape or form. In addition, there’s a 7-minute piece in which Charles Band explains the background to the Pulse Pounders project. All in all, a lovely release for fans of this low budget classic.

Blu-ray Review: The Toxic Avenger Part II

Starring: Phoebe Legere, Lisa Gaye

Director: Lloyd Kaufman, Michael Herz

Rating: 7/10

toxic-avenger-part-two 2In one of the special features on this disc, Fangoria editor Michael Gingold, who was on extra on the film, points out that Toxic Avenger Parts II and III were originally supposed to be one movie, which perhaps explains why Part II feels rather padded out. This time round, Toxie finds himself targeted by a chemical conglomerate with designs to take over Tromaville. Unable to put a scratch on him with their legions of goons, they trick him into heading for Japan where other trials await him…

Japan? That’s random. But actually it’s the saving of the movie. There’s more brains on the floor toxic-avenger-part-two 3than there is in the script in the daft first half hour which mixes extreme gore with heavy-handed Mad-style facetiousness, but once the action switches to Tokyo the energy picks up considerably. The Japanese cast seem to instinctively grasp the Troma idiom and give it their own spin, and there’s lot of fun to be had, with travelogue scenes of Toxie visiting the sites and an unforgettable moment where he clamps a baddie’s nose in a waffle iron. Strange fish jokes abound, some attractive locations are well-exploited, and there’s an ebullient cameo by real-life Japanese TV personality Tsutomu Sekine.

toxic-avenger-part-two 5All of this is so vibrantly colourful and strange that it goes a long way towards making up for the film’s many flaws, the most notable of which is a peculiar tentativeness in the characterisation of Toxie himself. As with 88 Films’ release of Toxic Avenger, the transfer is excellent. Tromavile Centre for the Blind’s flower garden looks extremely bright and dewy, and the later tea ceremony in the park is very lush.

Of the extras, the highlight is the audio commentary by Lloyd Kaufman. This starts off slightlytoxic-avenger-part-two 4 rambling but soon becomes extremely informative as he reminiscences fondly about shooting in Japan, talking about the excellence of the crew and the enthusiasm of the extras (apparently the nude ladies in the bath house scene worked for free). We also learn that Phoebe Legere (who plays Claire, Toxie’s girlfriend) designed her own barely there costumes – so there you go, she had only herself to blame.

 

Blu-ray Review: Intolerance

Starring: Mae Marsh, Alfred Paget, Seena Owen, Constance Talmage

Director: D.W. Griffith

Rating: 9/10

intolerance 1Critics haven’t always been very tolerant of Griffith’s monumental 2 hour, 47 minute epic, but its influence on later films is incalculable, and its Babylonian scenes started a craze for false eyelashes which is with us till this day. No less than a panorama of hatred and intolerance battling with love and charity over the ages, it comprises four stories – Jesus’ life and crucifixion, the St Bartholomew Day’s massacre, a modern day story and the tale of the fall of Babylon. Of these, it’s the last two that make up the bulk of the movie. Although a little sentimental and cloying at times, the modern day story – which sees an innocent working class couple brought low by reformists and meddlers – shows that Griffith was able to work in an idiom of powerful simplicity. Some of the performances are surprisingly raw, and the anti-capitalist message is uncompromisingly trenchant, with a forceful depiction of the Ludlow massacre where the National Guard were called out against striking mill-workers.

That said, the undoubted star attraction is ancient Babylon. The scale and detail of the historical intolerance 3recreation still amaze, and the siege really does look like newsreel footage from 539 BC. Even people weaned on Peter Jackson’s Rings trilogy will be impressed by the scenes of trundling siege towers and flaming battlements, and in the meantime there are some racy scenes in the Love Temple, with diaphanously draped virgins and nude bathing beauties. Griffith had an eye for the exotic which post-Code Hollywood costume dramas never came near to matching – just check out the wise and mighty King Belzhezzar, sitting in splendour, idling patting a leopard with a spray of flowers in its mouth.

Intolerance is chiefly famous for its cross-cutting between stories and time-frames, the audacity of which is said to have taken contemporary audiences aback. Even today it can make for slightly odd viewing. Towards the end, as the eye jumps from a steaming locomotive to charging Persian charioteers and back again, it’s hard not to be reminded of the riotous, genre-colliding end of Blazing Saddles. But more often, you’re driven forward by the powerful surging rhythm of Griffith’s cutting (especially in this edition, which benefits from a superb score by Sir Colin Davis).

intolerance 2There is perhaps no silent era director whose films benefit more from a thorough-going restoration than Griffith. Once you no longer have to peer through a scuzz of dirt and scratches, you can really appreciation the brilliance of his compositions and his command of atmosphere. On this Blu-ray, the scenes of the Babylonian army massing on their 300 feet high ramparts as the Persian machines of war gather below are wreathed in ominous veils of dust, and the famous swooping shot of the feast (it looks like a crane shot, but they actually placed the camera in a moving tower fitted with an elevator) now flutters with vibrant motion.

A few years later, Griffith split Intolerance into two films, The Fall of Babylon and The Mother andintolerance 4 the Law, which are included on the second disc of the Masters of Cinema release. The Fall of Babylon is particularly nice to have as it includes a lot of additional material to do with the comically uncouth, onion-chewing Mountain Girl and her attempts to catch the eye of her idol, Belshezzar. There’s also a very informative 19-minute piece with silent movie expert Kevin Brownlow, who talks about the film’s origins and influences and reveals that Griffith originally started with the idea of a modern day story and then broadened it out to include ancient Babylon.

Blu-ray Review: Les Miserables

les-miserables 1Starring: Harry Baur, Charles Vanel,
Director: Raymond Bernard
Rating: 9/10

Clocking in at around 4 ½ hours, Raymond Bernard’s epic 1934 adaptation of Victor Hugo’s mammoth novel was originally released as three separate films – apparently you could buy tickets to all three at once and see them all on the same day. The tripartite structure works very well, breaking the story of the ex-convict Jean Valjean (Harry Baur) and his pursuit by the remorseless Inspector Javert (Charles Vanel) into manageable and distinctive sections. The pace is leisurely, rippling out to include various important subsidiary characters – the wronged woman Fantine, her daughter Cosette, the evil Thenardiers, the revolutionary idealist Marius and the street urchin Gavroche in the third.

Watching the whole thing on Blu-ray, it feels less like a piece of cinema from the ’30s than a piece of television from the ’60s. Throughout, Bernard pioneers what would later become familiar TV techniques – shooting in long takes, eschewing panoramas and long shots in favour of medium shots and two shots (presumably with an eye to economy) and using wobbly hand-held close-ups for a riot scene. On the whole, it’s an approach that works very well, even though you feel the pinch of the tight budget in the street battle scenes of Part 3.

Although each of the sections has its dramatic highlights, the centrepiece of the trilogy les-miserables 2is Part 2, The Thenardiers. Set mainly in a seedy tenement, this Doré-esque picture of Parisian low life shows Bernard’s direction at its most stylish and assured, and it’s build around a wonderful performance by Charles Dullin as the sly, Fagin-like Thenardier, a dodgy innkeeper turned to a life of crime. Anyone who admires David Lean’s Dickens adaptations (made well over ten years later, and surely influenced by Bernard’s example) will respond warmly to the film’s eye for a grotesque underworld of paupers and thieves. Among a generally excellent cast, Harry Baur is a very weighty Valjean – he conveys a sense of the character’s physical strength in several very credible scenes, including a gritty and long drawn out fight. Occasionally there’s a certain lack of subtlety, but on the whole Bernard’s sincerity and feeling for authenticity win the day.

Drawn from several different sources, the 4K transfer is variable, but at its best – as in the expressionistically shot courtroom sequence in Part 1, and most of Parts 2 and 3 – it is stunningly crisp and immediate, with even higher resolution than on the recently les-miserables 3released 4K restoration of Le Jour se Leve. The scene early on in Part 2 for instance, where the young Cosette has to brave the scary woods at night to collect a pail of water, shimmers with barbed shadows and flickering moonlight, and later on the scene where the grown-up Cosette meets her beau Marius in the Luxembourg Gardens has a beautiful, airy, dappled quality to it. In moments such as these, it’s hard to imagine a movie of this vintage looking better.

Extras include an 11-minute chat with the director, in which he talks about eloquently about working on the script and casting the actors (the boy who plays Gavroche was a caretaker’s son who later become the doorkeeeper at a bistro) and the pain of editing the film down later from three parts to two. There are also two talking head pieces, one with a French film historian (18 minutes) and the other with a French academic (22 minutes). We learn more about previous silent movie versions of the book, the various members of the cast and Bernard’s meticulous historical research.

Blu-ray Review: The Killers

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmund O’Brien
Director: Richard Siodmak
Rating: 8/10

the-killers 1Based on an extremely short, gnomic tale by Hemingway about a man who waits passively to be murdered by hired hitmen, Richard Siodmak’s 1946 noir exhausts the source material in the first 12 minutes or so. But what a 12 minutes it is, as a pair of well-dressed, dead-eyed goons descend on a small town and terrorize a diner with their repartee while waiting for their target, the Swede (Lancaster). From there, the film (scripted by an uncredited John Huston) turns into a combination of caper movie and Citizen Cane-style post mortem as Reardon (O’Brien), an inquisitive insurance agent tries to get to the bottom of the hit and the dead man’s last cryptic statement – “Once I did something wrong.” This turns out to be an understatement as we learn how Lancaster’s broken down prize fighter was forced to leave the ring, only to fall in with a gang of thieves and be KO’d by bewitching but inconstant ganger’s moll, Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner).

The puzzle structure of the film, pieced together from various flashbacks, feels a bit the-killers 2fussy and overworked – it comes off much better in Don Siegel’s later colour version – and you have to swallow hard if you’re accept Edmund O’Brien’s gun-toting insurance agent as a benign agent of justice. But the movie’s noir visuals and mood of poetic fatalism both exert a strong allure, and it’s quite something to see two of Hollywood’s finest physical specimens pitted against each other. Lancaster and Gardner both excel in their roles – the one as the dumb sap blundering to his doom, strangely noble in his ruin, the other as the gold-digger with a face like an angel and a mind like a steel trap.

Free of grain and dirt, this sharp HD transfer captures the full force of Siodmak’s expressionist mise-en-scene. In the opening, the shift from the shadowy street to the bright lights of the diner makes you blink, and you’re aware of the wide-angled lens drawing the walls and ceiling in on you. The scenes of the-killers 3the Swede in the ring, taking a relentless pounding and unable to fight back, have a stark high key power. And in the later sequence in the Green Cat, you can see the fine grain of Ava Gardner’s irises in extraordinary detail in the close-ups, making it feel as though she’s sitting right across from you.

Turning to the extras, there’s a very detailed 54-minute intro by film noir expert Frank Krutnik – part talking head piece about the making of the film, part commentary on some of the key scenes. There’s also a very scholarly 32-minute video essay looking at three different versions of Hemingway’s story – this one, a short by Tarkovsky, and Siegel’s loose adaptation (with some nice clips of the latter). In addition, there are a trio of radio plays that demonstrate the influence of the film on subsequent hardboiled dramas.