Blu-ray review: The Manchurian Candidate

 

Starring: Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury, Laurence Harvey
Director: John Frankenheimer

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Over half a century on, it’s hard now to grasp just how uncannily prophetic and tuned into the American zeitgeist The Manchurian Candidate was. Released in 1962, when the McCarthy era was still a recent memory, this tale of returning Korean vets caught up in a communist brainwashing conspiracy fearlessly mocked ’50s reds-under-the-bed paranoia, while at the same time ushering in a decade rocked by the high-profile assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

But even if a full appreciation of its historical impact now calls for a leap of the imagination, the film is still a dazzling piece of work and much more than just a superior techno-thriller. Director John Frankenheimer shows a flawless mastery of tone, binding together the disparate elements of the story – the Twilight Zone science fiction of the amphitheatre where the captured US soldiers are conditioned, the broad political satire of the scenes involving the oafish but nasty Senator Iselin, the Oedipal psychology of the hapless Sergeant Shaw’s relationship with his domineering mother – so that by the end it has a tragic power. The message, of course, is that so long as there are people like the Iselins in Washington, there’s no need for a communist conspiracy to screw up the country, Angela Lansbury is brilliant as the mother, but there’s also a career high performance from Frank Sinatra as Shaw’s commanding officer, who starts coming apart as the seams as he is plagued by surreal nightmares – his long scene on the train with Janet Leigh is probably the best thing he ever did in front of the camera. (And if that doesn’t impress, he also shows his more energetic side in a karate fight with Henry Silva.)
9/10

TRANSFER
The transfer is a little coarse-grained at times, but the b/w cinematography has an inky depth, and most of the key set-pieces – Shaw’s brass band reception in Washington, the unruly press conference, Senator Iselin’s grotesque costume party – have an almost stifling detail and immediacy.
7/10

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EXTRAS
There’s a 58-min documentary about the director, including a welcome focus on his early days in live television. A good raconteur, Frankenheimer talks interestingly about films such as Birdman of Alcatraz, in which they had to tape bird food to Burt Lancaster’s fingers (“there’s no such thing as a trained bird, only a hungry bird”), although a slight mood of bathos sets in as the story moves onto his less distinguished later work. In a 13-min piece, William Friedkin enthuses about The Manchurian Candidate and talks about how Sinatra hated to do more than one take. Meanwhile, in a 7-min featurette, Frankenheimer, Sinatra and screenwriter George Axelrod reunite around a giant potted plant 26 years after the event; not much emerges, but we learn that the dream sequence took seven days to shoot. There’s also a very clear and informative audio commentary by Frankenheimer, in which he mentions his use of 18mm wide angle lenses and live locations, and goes into detail about the technical complexities of various set-ups, such as the 360 degree pan in the dream sequence. Along the way, it’s revealed that the Iselins’ private aeroplane in fact belonged to Sinatra, and that the long speech about hydrangeas was taken from a seed catalogue.
8/10

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Blu-ray review: Back to 1942

Starring: Guoli Zhang, Adrien Brody
Director: Xiaogang Feng

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Anyone looking for signs that China might be developing a conscience to match its economic might is liable to be heartened by this soul-searching epic, which flings back the veil on an episode which has to count as a national disgrace. It’s World War II, and while the central government is concerned with repelling a Japanese invasion, in the remote Henan Province the enemy is hunger. A devastating famine strikes, and 30 million people take to the road, in the depths of winter, in search of their next meal.

Among them is Master Fan and his family. Once wealthy and respected, they’re now forced to lump in their lot with their social inferiors and nibble tree bark to stave off starvation. A beloved cat goes in the cooking pot, while their fellow refugees start selling their womenfolk to earn a few pints of millet. There’s no help from the high-ups – the government responds by dragging its feet and trying to cover up the disaster, and the army abandons the refugees to the Japanese on purpose in hopes it will slow their advance. When relief does come, it’s siphoned off by greedy businessmen and corrupt officials.

Presumably in an effort to appeal to western audiences, Hollywood stars Tim Robbins and Adrien Brody are roped in for small supporting roles, but the film really doesn’t need them. Shot on location in sub-zero temperatures over a 5 month period, with a crew of 600 and a cast of over a 1000, Back to 1942 is a hugely impressive piece of work, with some brilliant set-pieces – scenes of the refugees desperately clambering onto a passing train, and being strafed by Zeros – and staggering crane shots. Watching it on Blu-ray, you can practically feel the cold through Lu Yue’s panoramic cinematography. At the same time, it’s leaner, quieter, more introspective and less histrionic than one might expect, with a persistent vein of dark humour. “It’s a retrograde manoeuvre,” an officer snaps tetchily when Fan asks him why he’s haring off with his tail between his legs, and there’s a blackly serio-comic interlude about an attempt to steal a donkey which goes badly wrong.

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It’s also buttressed by some excellent performances, especially by Guoli Zhang as Fan, a man who loses everything on the road except his dignity and who grows, by the end, into an almost Lear-like figure – his final scenes are as touching as anything you’ll see in modern cinema. Yet for all its suppressed fury, Back to 1942 is uplifting rather than depressing, because it imbues its characters with such warmth and humanity, even when they’re being treated like animals. What it feels like, at times, is a Chinese Dr Zhivago, and you can imagine director Xiaogang Feng making a fine adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s masterpiece.

9/10

EXTRAS
Well over an hour of featurettes. Individually, they’re quite fragmentary, but taken as a whole you learn a lot about the gruelling circumstances of the making of the film and the sheer scale of the behind-the-scenes operation.
6/10

Blu-ray review: Rabid

Starring: Marilyn Chambers, Frank Moore, Joe Silver
Director: David Cronenberg

In David Cronenberg’s 1977 follow up to Shivers, notorious porno star Marilyn Chambers plays Rose, a girl who is in a motorcycle crash and is saved by a plastic surgeon who uses pioneering grafting procedures to repair her internal injuries. Unfortunately, her grafts take on a life of their own, and Rose goes around stabbing people with a penile spike that comes shooting out of an orifice in her armpit, turning them into flesh-eating zombies in the process.

Much like the evil dwarves in the director’s next film, The Brood, it’s not as easy idea to make work on screen, and as a result Rabid lacks the shock power and sheer visceral thrills of Shivers. But while it may not be exactly packed with standout scenes, it still counts as a very interesting entry in Cronenberg’s filmography. For starters, there’s a suitably demented, animalistic and yet melancholy performance from Chambers, who on this evidence clearly had the chops to be a very good scream queen – she’s particularly convincing in the scene where she seduces a punter in a flea-pit cinema. Why she went back to straight porn after this is a mystery.

It’s also one of the best-looking of Cronenberg’s early films, thanks to the work of Rene Verzier, a cinematographer who had come up through the fledgling Canadian exploitation industry and with whom the director worked apparently only this once. His shadowy, earthy-hued, sensuously textured visuals lend the story an intensity and visual coherence it might not otherwise have.
7/10

TRANSFER
There are intermittent touches of grain, but on the whole this is very nice transfer which makes the most of the movie’s sultry Eastermancolor film stock – the moment when the girl is discovered in the freezer, the scenes of Rose prowling around Montreal in a fur coat bristling in the cold and the barn scene where she bothers some farm animals – all these come up beautifully.
8/10

EXTRAS
There’s an oldish but typically articulate 20 min chat with Cronenberg, in which he reveals that he originally wanted to cast Sissy Spacek as Rose. In a 12 min interview, producer Ivan Reitman reminisces about producing the film and reveals that it was his idea to cast Chambers after seeing her on the telly. A 15 min piece on Cinepix gives us a potted intro to the small Quebec film company which began by pedalling soft core flicks before backing Shivers and Rabid. The centrepiece of the extras is a 59 min documentary about Cronenberg made circa 2001, in 4:3 aspect ratio but presented in hi-def. A slick, thoughtful survey of his career, it’s most revealing moments come when the director talks about his troubles financing and casting Dead Ringers, and when he broods on the virulent press reaction to Crash: “I started to feel like Princess Diana.” There are also two audio commentaries – in one, critic William Beard provides plenty of background and explores the film’s themes, while in the other, Cronenberg – precise and professorial as ever – talks about how they decided to cast the infamous Chambers because they thought it would bring them some extra publicity and they couldn’t afford a real star, and he also tells us that the motorbike at the beginning was a Norton 750 (apparently it was very unreliable), and that most of the clinic scenes where shot at the headquarters of Lipton Tea.
9/10

Blu-ray review: The Comedy of Terrors

Starring: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff
Director: Jacques Tourneur

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Arrow Video add to their already extensive Vincent Price catalogue with this offering from 1963, in which Price and Peter Lorre play a murderous undertaker and his bungling henchman. Struggling to make ends meet, they take a proactive approach to finding customers by suffocating people in their beds, and then decide to mix business with pleasure by targeting their own landlord.

Although the resulting farcical doings are watchable enough, this isn’t anyone’s finest hour. The script by Richard Matheson is light on plot and heavy on polysyllabic verbiage, and while legendary director Jacques Tourneur still shows plenty of flair for a shadowy, atmospheric mise-en-scene, he’s let down by some lame sight gags and unfunny comical sound effects. Still, The Comedy of Terrors is a good-looking film in a plush, cosily studio-bound way – apparently it recycled some of the sets from The Haunted Palace – with an energetic turn from Basil Rathbone as the landlord who just won’t die. Fans of Vincent Price will enjoy the star’s exuberant performance, which is made all the more impressive for the fact that he doesn’t get much help from Lorre, who was on his last legs during principle photography (the morphine-addled character actor died three month after the film was released).
6/10

TRANSFER
There’s a small amount of scratching to the print early on and some of the two-shots look a little soft and granular, but on the whole this is an attractive transfer in full widescreen ratio. The long shots in the mortuary basement have plenty of depth and crispness, and all that velvet furniture comes up very nicely, as does Rathbone’s scarlet smoking jacket.
7/10

EXTRAS
The key thing here is a 51 min interview with Price, recorded in 1987 and presented in standard def and 4:3 ratio. Showing a remarkable memory for his many films, which you’d think would blend into one another, Price shares polished anecdotes about such cults classics as The Tower of London, The Fly and House of Wax (he mentions the irony that the director of this famously 3D movie, Andre de Toth, only had one eye). It’s a bit padded out with trailers, but otherwise very enjoyable. There’s also a slick, stylish 17 min video essay about Tourneur, although the inclusion of some stunning high def clips from Cat People only serves to emphasize just how far the director had fallen by the time of Comedy of Terrors. We get to meet Richard Matheson in a 9 min interview – he reveals that Boris Karloff was originally slated to play the Basil Rathbone role, but because of his arthritic legs he was relegated to the less mobile part of Price’s aged father-in-law. Lastly, there’s an audio commentary with director David DeCoteau and critic David Del Valle, with the latter serving up dollops of juicy gossip about the cast.
8/10

Blu-ray review: The Killing

Starring: Sterling Hayden, Elisha Cook Jr
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Rating: 7/10

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Critics sometimes use the lean, mean, efficient films of Stanley Kubrick’s early career as a stick to beat the later, ultra perfectionist Kubrick with. But truth be told, this 1956 caper movie – very much in the mould of John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and with the same star, the tree trunk-like Sterling Hayden – isn’t quite as satisfyingly weighty as his mature works. This is largely because Jim Thompson’s hardboiled dialogue is none too subtle, and the characterisation relies too heavily on noir clichés – the henpecked husband, the guy trying to take care of his sick wife, the old pro gambling everything on one last throw of the dice.

Nonetheless, Kubrick’s cold, beady eye for the failings of humanity is already firmly in place, as is his almost surgical skill with cross-cutting – note the ease with which he shuffles his story back and forth in time as he follows the build-up to the racetrack robbery which is the centrepiece of the movie. It’s all shot in angular, high-key b/w by Lucien Ballard, and it comes with a delectably doomy voiceover (“Nikki was dead at 4:24”). And on top of that, there’s Hayden, who brings a wounded gravitas to his role as the gang’s ringleader, like a giant redwood rotting from the inside.

The transfer is slightly soft and quite grainy throughout, but apart from one moment of print damage is very clean, without dirt or scratches.

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This release from Arrow also comes with Killer’s Kiss. Clearly inspired by his earlier documentary short Day of the Fight, it’s a piece about the travails of a boxer and a dance hall girl set against a seedy New York milieu. Shot just a year before The Killing, it’s far rougher around the edges, but it boasts some striking nighttime location camerawork, and Kubrick’s dim view of human nature is already much in evidence.

Again, the transfer has a fair bit of grain, but there’s plenty of contrast and some lovely detail in Kubrick’s sometimes very ambitious deep focus compositions.

Extras include an intro by Ben Wheatley and a nice 25 min talking head piece by critic Michel Ciment about Kubrick’s progress in the ’50s from photographer to documentary maker to tyro feature film director. Best of all, though, is an extremely eccentric 15 min interview with Sterling Hayden, recorded for French TV in 1970. This finds the actor on a barge on the Seine, bare chested and shaggy-bearded like an old sea dog out of a Joseph Conrad novel. Polishing his sea brasses, he growls out answers about his time in Hollywood in a mix of English and French. “If you do not try, you cannot fail. So I didn’t try.” It’s 15 minutes of heaven for Hayden fans.

Blu-ray review: Citizen Toxie – The Toxic Avenger IV

Starring: David Mattey, Joe Fleishaker
Director: Lloyd Kaufman
Rating: 8/10

toxic-avenger-part-four 2Coming 11 years after the hideously deformed Parts II and III, Citizen Toxie was a late and unexpected return to form for the mop-wielding vigilante. The first half hour, in which a diaper-clad terrorist group massacre a “school for the very special”, is loud, rude, aggressive and literally takes no prisoners – in short, it’s pretty much everything you want from a Toxie movie. Sharp editing and some energetic camerawork by Brendan Flynt give it a lean, mean punk edge, and the casting of 6’10” David Mattey makes for a genuinely scary Toxie whose very appearance causes baddies to spontaneously defecate.

Eventually, a typically daft plot involving Toxie swapping places with his opposite number from an alternate reality, the Noxious Offender, gums up the works a bit, but even then it continues to muster up some memorable set-pieces, such as Toxie’s fight with Evil Kabukiman. This is a Troma film, so there’s always going to be an element of hit or miss, but at it’s best this is a movie that deserves to stand shoulder to shoulder with the original Toxic Avenger.

The HD transfer is just a little soft and some of the flesh tones seem a little washed out, but it’s extremely clean, and on the whole the bright, comic book palette pops very nicely.

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This release also comes with around four hours of top-notch extras. Apocalypse Soon is a 2 hr, 17 min documentary about the making of Citizen Toxie. It’s in standard def and 4:3 ratio, but it’s well worth seeing as a warts ‘n’ all look at the inimitable Troma method. With its crew of unpaid interns, the production quickly descends into chaos, with extras fighting and urinating on set and ten people walking off the film in one day. “The man we work for is crazy,” scriptwriter and assistant director Trent Haaga bitches, while David Mattey is appalled to discover that Troma is paying actors less on Citizen Toxie than it did on the first Toxic Avenger movie.

In addition, there’s an excellent 29 min piece on the preproduction and casting, and a 39 min location behind-the-scenes, as well as a brace of audio commentaries. Even if you’re not a Troma fan, this release makes fascinating and often extremely funny viewing, and it’s a great way of learning about the do’s and don’ts – mainly the don’ts – of low budget filmmaking.

Blu-ray Review: The Toxic Avenger Part III – The Last Temptation of Toxie

Starring: Ron Fazio, Phoebe Legere
Director: Michael Herz, Lloyd Kaufman
Rating: 4/10

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Part III picks up straight after Part II. Having rid Tromaville of evil, Toxie hangs up his mop and has an identity crisis (“I don’t have a life! I have a half-life!”). He then sells out to the evil Apocalypse Incorporated, allowing his home town to be enslaved once more.

A crude satire of capitalism? Or a satire upon crude satires of capitalism? Lloyd Kaufman treats the script (by various hands) with such contempt that you could argue the latter, but that’s probably reading too much into what feels like a bloated and inept afterthought. Where Part II gains hugely from the colourfulness of its Japanese backdrop (not to mention the enthusiasm and professionalism of its Japanese cast and crew), here we’re back to heavy-handed, facetious gags (Toxie using a baddie’s intestines as a skipping rope, etc) and some achingly bad mugging from the actors (worst offender, Phoebe Legere as Toxie’s girlfriend, who practically has an epileptic fit on screen). Toxie fans will probably find things to like about it, but it’s definitely the low point of the series.

The transfer is a little dull and grainy compared to previous instalments. As always, there’s a bunch of extras, including an audio commentary with Kaufman and a whole bunch of brief featurettes. Highlight is a nice, gossipy 7-minute interview with Ron Fazio, who was working as a bouncer when he landed the part of Toxie.