DVD Review: Secrets of the Castle

Rating: 7/10

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“Tom’s visiting Ruth in the hovel…” This BBC five-parter concerns a trio of British archeologists who head over to France to lend a hand in a 25 year long project to build a castle from scratch using only 13th century techniques. During their six month stay they master various ancient crafts such as making a paint brush out of badger fur and a feather, while also dressing up in silly clothes and, one can only assume, donning some very scratchy ye olde underwear.

More glossy educational fare than fly on the wall TV, the series doesn’t go into the chafing day to day realities of their plight, which is a shame, but it manages to be charming and very nice to look out and it’s full of tips for anyone who fancies having a go at building a castle themselves. Rocking a snood, feisty female presenter Ruth Goodman tries her hand at making a nail, but it has to be said that this is very much a show about boys and their Medieval toys – just check out those lethal-looking Dark Ages power tools. All of this reaches its apogee in a lively episode about the castle’s defences, where the lads get to play with a siege engine and a crossbow.

Just occasionally it’s possible to feel overwhelmed by all the chopping and hewing and male camaraderie, but thankfully the series has its gentler, less muscular moments too, as when the presenters  deck out one of the castle’s rooms in some authentic, wincingly bright 13th century interior design (apparently those lords of old liked to tart up the outside of their castles too, making them about as dark and brooding as a Vegas chapel).

Overall, even when it is being quite bloke-ish, there’s something rather soothing about Secrets of the Castle, and after a hard day in the office you could do worse than switch off your mobile phone, settle down with this DVD box set and enjoy a pleasant respite from the 21st century.

Blu-ray review: Metropolis

Starring: Brigitte Helm, Gustav Frohlic
Director: Fritz Lang
Rating: 10/10

metropolis 1The allegorical storyline by Thea von Harbou, with its wishy-washy message that “the mediator between head and hands must be the heart” might verge on dim-witted, but Fritz Lang’s silent blockbuster remains a tour de force, a barrage of dazzling science fiction imagery that has shaped the imaginations of movie-goers for generations. Watching it is to experience the thrill of pure cinema, as you give yourself over to scenes of monstrous machines with human components and streets in the sky (shot with 300 toy cars that had to be moved forward individually for each frame, 8 days for 10 seconds of film) and, of course, the inventor Rotwang’s lab, complete with crackling electricity and totally awesome fembot.

A flop upon its release in 1927, Metropolis was quickly chopped down from its lengthy metropolis 2original running time to a spare 80 minutes or so, and ever since it has never really existed in a definitive version. This Blu-ray presents the celebrated 2010 reconstruction, which restores the film to two and a half hours, filling out backstories to do with the enmity between Rotwang and Frederson, the ruler of Metropolis (they’ve fallen out over a girl) and various subplots, such as Frederson’s attempts to spy on his son Freder after he takes up with the revolutionary firebrand Maria. Whether any of this new footage makes Metropolis a better or more powerful film is a moot point, but it’s nice to have – especially the extended scene in the bizarre Eternal Gardens, in which Freder is tempted with various scantily clad maidens.

metropolis 5Perhaps the most important aspect of this restoration, though, is not what is seen but what is heard. Because while you’re watching all this new material, you also get treated to a re-recording of Gottfried Huppertz’ wonderful original orchestral score. Surely the most sophisticated score to have been composed up till that time, it exerts a grip like Rotwang’s rubber gloved hand, making use of powerful motifs in a way that predates Max Steiner’s soundtrack for King Kong (1933), and histories of film music may have to be rewritten to take account of it.

A few minutes of the new running time comes from a very poor 16mm print, but most ofmetropolis 3 it looks excellent on HD – all of the famous set-pieces now have a glorious clarity, largely free of grain and print damage. It’s now possible to examine the (very womanly) Man Machine’s costume in great detail – an ingeniously convincing combination of body paint and stuck on bits that was inspired by modernist sculpture. Sequences such as the flashback to the building of the Tower of Babel and the scene where Rotwang pursues Maria through the shadowy catacombs beneath the city look particularly present and real.

metropolis 4The extras on the first of this two disc set include a 55 min documentary which tells the story of the 2010 reconstruction, made possible by the discovery of a near-complete version on 16mm in some rusty film cans in a museum in Buenos Aires. It goes into the various attempts to reconstruct the film and paints a vivid impression of the strange afterlife of old movies mouldering away hlf-forgotten in various archives. In addition, there’s a scholarly and closely argued audio commentary in which two film critics discuss, among other things, Metropolis’s debt to the German culture of the 1920s, particularly developments in art and architecture.

On the second disc, you get the Giorgio Moroder version of Metropolis. Originally released in 1984, this now seems like a rather vulgar example of ’80s kitsch, with its power ballads and superimposed rotoscoped touches, such as glowing eyes and a pulsing circulatory system for the awakening clone Maria. Presumably because all the dirt and scratches were duped directly into the print, it’s rather scratchy and grainy compared to the 2010 reconstruction, but the sound’s great and there is something strangely endearing about it.

Also on this disc is a 48-min documentary about the 16 mm Argentinian print and the museum that discovered it, and their long struggle to get the sceptical experts in Germany to sit up and take notice. It’s a piece that offers more insights into the intense, obsessive world of film archivists.

Blu-ray Review: Two for the Road

Starring: Albert Finney, Audrey Hepburn, Eleanor Bron
Director: Stanley Donen
Rating: 8/10

two-for-the-road 1Despite the gritty presence of Albert Finney, Two for the Road (1967) is a film that feels cocooned from everyday life, with its gem-like Technicolor, its lush Henry Mancini score and its clothes by Mary Quant and Paco Rabanne. Scriptwriter Frederic Raphael raided his store of amusing anecdotes about what happened to him on his hols for this story of a well-heeled, elegantly disenchanted couple driving across a picture book France to St Tropez while recalling similar excursions in the past – as hitchhikers, penniless but happy, then as newlyweds on a tour with some ghastly Americans.

The structure of overlapping flashbacks is tricksy to say the least, the dialogue cutesytwo-for-the-road 2 and brittle and full of the sorts of things people only ever say in movies, and the shifts from sunlight to showers feel contrived. And yet those with a taste for such bitter-sweet confections will absolutely love it. For all its artificiality, the dialogue is great fun, bitchy and aphoristic, and the nightmare excursion with the yanks (beautifully played by William Daniels and and Eleanor Bron) and their over-indulged daughter provides an extended comic highlight. And while Albert Finney might seem a strange interloper into this glossy milieu, his salty, energetic way with this kind of material is a revelation – it makes you realize what a genuinely powerful movie star he was – and he draws from his co-star Audrey Hepburn one of her best, most spontaneous and spiky performances.

two-for-the-road 3It’s worth acknowledging, too, that the film is something of a technical feat for director Stanley Donen – shot entirely on location with Panavision cameras that required huge amounts of light delivered by arc lamps powered by huge, noisy generators. And this brings us to the movie’s other great pay-off – it looks beautiful. This Masters of Cinema Blu-ray offers one of the best HD transfers of a film of this period that you’re likely to see – from first to last, it’s immaculate, vibrantly coloured, without the slightest dirt or trace of grain. The visit to the (fictional) Hotel Saint-Just is perhaps the best example of the deluxe splendour of which this transfer is capable, but it’s all wonderful. The Blu-ray format is now allowing us to appreciate just how glorious the widescreen colour cinematography of the ’50s and ’60s could be, and the couple’s tour of taverns and chateaux and seaside resorts has a lyrical, bejewelled beauty which is irresistibly exhilarating.

As for the extras, there’s a charming 24-minute chat with Frederic Raphael (speaking in French, oddly enough). He reminisces about Albert and Audrey, as he calls them; talks about what it was like working with Donen; and reveals that he drew on his own travels and marriage for material for the script. In addition, you get an audio commentary with Donen, who describes the difficulties of filming on location at that time (all of the dialogue had to be post-synched, and a young Jacqueline Bisset, who made her debut in a small role, had to be dubbed by another actress, so quickly was she whisked off to Hollywood).

DVD Review: Sunflower

Starring: Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni
Director: Vittorio De Sica
Rating: 5/10

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Vittorio De Sica won international acclaim with his neo-realist masterpiece Bicycle Thieves, shot with an amateur cast, but in later years he retreated into more safely commercial star vehicles such as this offering from 1970, with Sofia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni as a seamstress and electrician who fall in love and get married against a background of WWII. Despite doing his best to worm out of it by feigning mental illness, he’s packed off to fight on the Eastern Front, where he goes missing. Years later, after the death of Stalin, Loren goes to Russia to look for him. That means talking to a lot of Russian peasants, but thankfully she’s a lot of woman.

The film is best early on, with the two stars playing off each other in scenes of relaxed, domestic banter that seem semi-improvised and charmingly relaxed, backed up by some fine summery cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno (who also shot Visconti’s The Leopard) and a typically lilting score by Henry Mancini. Later on, though, the story (co-written by Tonino Guerra, one of Italian cinema’s go-to wordsmith’s during this era) takes some convoluted and melodramatic turns that don’t always convince. In the end, the main reason for watching it is Loren herself, who is on top form, seguing effortlessly from earthy sensuality to an air of Mother Courage-like tragic stoicism.

Given that the movie is supposed to have been restored from the original elements, the DVD transfer is a little disappointing, but the disc comes with a very enjoyable 54 min documentary about Loren, with contributions from, among others, Woody Allen, Giorgio Armani and the lady herself, looking extremely glamorous. Focusing on her work in her native country (especially her many collaborations with De Sica) rather than her sometimes ill-fated excursions to Hollywood, it’s a piece that should appeal not just to fans of Loren but to aficionados of post-war Italian cinema.

DVD Review: Greatful Dead

Starring: Kumi Tachiuchi, Takashi Sasano

Director: Eiji Uchida

Rating: 7/10

greatful-dead 2This bad taste comedy-thriller from Japan nails its colours to the mast with an early scene where the beautiful protagonist poses for a selfie with the wizened remains of an old man who has popped his socks. Lonely and ignored as a child, Nami (Kumi Takiuchi) has grown up to become an independently wealthy young woman who lives in splendid isolation and spends all her time indulging her hobby, which consists of stalking what she terms “solitarians” – people who have gone crazy due to loneliness. Becoming obsessed with one particularly grumpy and isolated old man (Takashi Sasano), she’s infuriated when a pair of Bible-bashers befriend him and start turning his life around. Her retaliation is highly sadistic and involves, among other things, force-feeding the old man Cialis.

The early parts of the film play out in an arch, stylised manner, like a warped version ofgreatful-dead 1 Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie. Later on, as the strapping girl and the frail old man take pieces out of each other, the whole thing turns into more of a standard runaround, albeit a gleefully gory one marked by a dark, serio-comic tone. Throughout it’s distinguished by strong lead performances by Tachiuchi as the deceptively wholesome looking (but in fact totally crazed) antiheroine and Sasano as her grouchy, grumbling but wirily tough victim. Director Eiji Uchida struggles to keep control of the theme of urban loneliness – it morphs instead into a litany of the miseries and indignities of old age – but otherwise his direction is slick, pacey and to the point. Odd enough to merit immediate cult status, Greatful Dead is certainly one to check out if you’re bored of the usual stalk and slash fare and fancy an offering that turns the genre on its head and injects it with some much-needed satirical attitude.

Blu-ray Review: The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands

Director: Walter Summers
Rating: 8/10

The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands

This little-known silent movie from 1927 recounts events from early on in WWI, a devastating defeat for the British Navy at the hands of Admiral von Spee’s powerful squadron off the coast of Chile, and then the rematch off the Falklands. It’s not quite the tub-thumping, gung-ho patriotic piece you might expect though. The film is what we would now call a drama documentary – the clue’s in the dryly polysyllabic title – and the tone is cool, unemotive and fair-minded, with Von Spee, the British Navy’s nemesis, portrayed as a ruthless yet worthy adversary.

That said, it serves up some moments that will be sure to stir British hearts. After the losses at Coronel, the Admiralty bring forward work on HMS Invincible and Inflexible, and the extended montage of these two mighty warships being fitted out for action by toiling dockhands has an Arthurian-cum-Nibelungian grandeur (especially when accompanied by Simon Dobson’s newly commissioned score, played by the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines). A metaphor for implacable resolve, even today it’s guaranteed to put the frighteners on anyone thinking of messing with the Brits.

Although more interested in facts than feelings, director Walter Summers shows some flair for the human aspect of the drama. There’s a delightfully humorous vignette where the action shifts to Port Stanley and its ragtag volunteer defence force (with scruffy dog), and a very authentic feeling – and also strangely impressive – moment later on when the British are about to engage the enemy but before they do, they calmly have their tea.

The battles scenes – filmed with the cooperation of the Admiralty, with existing warships of the time playing the parts of the combatants – feel like what they were, lavish, large-scale reconstructions rather than the real thing. But even if they skimp on the carnage, they’re undoubtedly spectacular, and they’re imbued with a compassion for anyone, of whatever nationality, who risks their lives on the high seas.

The restoration from various fine grain and nitrate positives could hardly be better. A few of the long shots are a little soft and grainy, but most of the medium shots are almost clinically sharp – there’s some gorgeously picturesque footage of the Falklands, and any number of Expressionistically shot scenes of sailors manning huge guns, stoking boilers and scurrying up ladders. Summers seems to have known his Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin was made just two years previously), and he’s no slouch when it comes to fast-paced narrative and lean, muscular cross-cutting.

The extras including a 12-minute featurette on the new score, a 5-minute look at the restoration process and a selection of Naval themed shorts, including a piece about one of the ships lost in the battle of Coronel. All in all, anyone with a keen interest in the British Navy is going to be thrilled by this new BFI release, and fans of silent movies will be delighted to see what is undoubtedly a major British film of the pre-talkies era reclaimed from oblivion and presented in a stunning new print.

Blu-ray Review: Ganja and Hess

Starring: Duane Jones, Marlene Clark
Director: Bill Gunn
Rating: 4/10

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When you hear the storyline – wealthy, cultured professor of anthropology is stabbed with a mysterious ancient dagger and goes from sipping fine wines at cocktail parties to gorging himself on blood in seedy dives – you’d be inclined to assume that Ganja and Hess is just another Blaxploitation movie a la Blacula. But while it was released in 1973, during the height of the Blaxploitation boom, it actually harks back to the acid-fuelled ’60s. It’s a rare example of a black hippie flick.

Stylistically, it seems to draw heavily on the Nicolas Roeg playbook, with fragmentary, elliptical storytelling, frowsty verite style camera work and rambling, semi-improved dialogue, all of which make rather heavy weather of the hokey plot. For horror fans, the key point of interest is the presence in a starring role of Duane Jones of Night of the Living Dead fame. Sadly, while Jones looks the part and brings a certain gravitas to the film, he’s given disappointingly little to do, and his character, Dr Hess Green, is too taciturn to be very engaging. Nor does the situation improve once his vampiric tendencies emerge – like much else in the film, the violence is half-baked and unconvincing, and it’s typical of the movie’s vagueness that it’s never made clear exactly how he extracts the blood from his victims’ bodies.

Ganja and Hess has some pretensions to being a case study of addition, but its arty ganja-and-hess 2and undisciplined approach to the theme leaves it feeling rather toothless. Aside from a couple of trippy dream sequences, it doesn’t have much to hold the viewer’s attention. One for Blaxploitation completists rather than the general viewer. The HD transfer is quite grainy and a little washed out at times, but generally free of print damage. The disc comes with a very nice 30-minute documentary pulling together motley interviews that provide lots of background to the making of the film and its brief appearance in movie theatres. There’s also an excellent audio commentary with the producer, cinematographer and lead actress, who cover plenty of ground between them. Fans of the film – or those eager to explore a little-seen curiosity – are sure to be pleased with this package of extras.