Blu-ray review: Fellini Satyricon

Starring: Martin Potter, Hiram Keller
Director: Federico Fellini

fellini-satyricon 1This loose adaptation of Petronius’ notoriously naughty Latin classic finds Fellini learning a thing or two from his fellow Italian director, Pier Paolo Pasolini, in particular his sun-baked, Afro-centric approach to ancient myths and stories. He’s even happy to carry over Pasolini’s tormented homoeroticism, as hapless foil of fate Encolpius (Martin Potter) seeks his lost love Giton (Max Born), who has been snatched by his musclebound frenemy Ascyltus (Hiram Keller) and sold into a theatre troupe. Later, Encolpius learns how Giton feels when he himself becomes the toy of a sadistic slaver; whirled from one bizarre encounter to another, he becomes embroiled in an imperial coup, hatches a plan to steal an hermaphrodite faith healer and undergoes various other undignified scrapes.

Where Fellini goes one better than Pasolini is in the impact of his visual language andfellini-satyricon 3 the amount of cash he has to splash on evoking the splendour and barbarity of the classical world. It’s difficult to imagine any director today commanding such lavish production values for what was such a wilfully uncommercial project – uncommercial because Encolpius’ trials are too random to form a proper narrative and drama is inevitably swamped in spectacle. Who’s complaining, though, when the spectacle is so richly embroidered and arresting?

The story twists through grey catacombs, monumental baths, maze-like brothels with strange things happening in the corners. The screen flickers with ash, smoke, painted skin, dazzling robes in all the colours of a spice market. Then there are Fellini’s meta-cinematic games, his use of non-realistic sets and process shots that make ancient Rome look like something out of science fiction – squint and you’re seeing Zardos, fellini-satyricon 2Barbarella, Mad Max, Edgar Rice Burrough’s Mars. And then on top of that, there’s a clangorous, dissonant oriental score which disorientates the viewer still further. With another director, the end product might have seemed still-born, trivial; with Fellini, it’s alien, primal, crazed, and haunted by a sense of melancholy and desolation, the hangover that follows any great party. 8/10

TRANSFER
This is a very real-looking transfer. No damage, very little in the way of grain, and the shadowy, twilit quality of the early subterranean scenes is captured with plenty of nuance and crispness. Set-pieces such as Trimalchio’s feast have a near-psychedelic vibrancy – copper-green robes, hot reds, dusky flesh tones – and the water rite with candles, against a process shot sunset, has a radiant eerie beauty. 8/10

DVD Review: The Finder

Starring: Geoff Stultz, Michael Clarke Duncan, Maddie Hasson

the-finder 3Time to jump into the crazy pool! This light-hearted, whimsical series from the creators of Bones concerns a scattily unconventional investigator named Walter Sherman, played with relaxed, easy-going charm by Geoff Shultz. Once a highly decorated soldier( two purple hearts and a silver star), Walter has been turned into a human bloodhound as a result of an explosion which has left him with brain damage and a compulsion to find things or die in the attempt. With the aid of his grounded and kindly minder-cum-business partner Leo (Michael Clarke Duncan), Isabel (Mercedes Mason), a hot, gun-toting Federal agent and Willa (Maddie Hasson), a juvenile delinquent who is serving out her probation as a waitress in Leo’s ramshackle bar, Walter sets about tracking down all manner of elusive stuff including a supposedly long-dead rapper, a chef, John Fogerty’s guitar, a Winslow Homer, a magician’s assistant who vanishes halfway through an illusion and even a UFO.

Helped enormously by the sunny, laid-back Miami setting, the stories are a succession of witty, well-crafted, serio-comic mysteries, with a couple of outstanding episodes among them – one where Walter hunts for a fired bullet in the Everglades, while being dogged every step of the way by a note-scribbling psychiatrist, and another where he tries to figure out the whereabouts of a lost girl from the confines of Leo’s bar during a violent hurricane. Throughout, the series is marked by flippant, wise-cracking dialogue, a nicely underplayed sense of the absurd and wackily colourful set-pieces, as Walter mounts lo-fi crime reconstructions with the aid of perishable foodstuffs, cuddly toys and his own Heath Robinson contraptions.

All of the performances are very nice too – although in theory Willa (a con artist from athe-finder 1 family of gypsies with an array of left-handed skills) is the least plausible of the main characters, she’s thoroughly redeemed by young Maddie Hasson’s engagingly wry and sympathetic performance. The show is also a lovely swan song for the late Michael Clarke Duncan, who infuses the sturdy Leo with enormous warmth and gravitas.

Too frothy for some perhaps, but those with a taste for some gentle sleuthing will want to have their noses to the ground for this one. 8/10

EXTRAS
An entertaining 22-min ‘making of’, with interviews with the cast. We learn that Leo was originally supposed to be an old white guy, and that Maddie Hasson was a mere 16 years old during shooting. 6/10

DVD Review: The Duke of Burgundy

Starring: Sidse Babette Knudson, Chiara D’Anna
Director: Peter Strickland

Peter Strickland’s follow-up to the highly praised Berberian Sound Studio is a lingering duke-of-burgundy 1nod towards the sexy arthouse films of the early ’70s, particularly those of Jess Franco and Jean Rollin. Two women in an ivy-clad country house play elaborately choreographed sex games. Cynthia has the dominant role, acting out the part of the chic, hard-to-please mistress, but it’s the seemingly meek Evelyn, dressed in her maid’s costume, who is the driving force behind their charades, leaving Cynthia cue-cards which detail her every word and action. Eventually, you start to feel sorry for Cynthia, realizing what a strain it must be for her to stay in character for her beady eyed audience of one.

The Duke of Burgundy makes sly points about the corrosive effect of fantasy upon relationships and about the narcissism of people like Evelyn, who love the fetish, not their partners. At the same time, though, the viewer might well feel that they’re trapped in a game as exhausting as the one that is slowly fraying Cynthia’s nerves – and there’s no relief, because the ‘real’ scenes, where Cynthia and Evelyn break out of their roles and become their true selves, are directed with just as much frigid remoteness as the sado-masochistic scenarios.

Despite the provocative ‘dress and lingerie’ credit in the title sequence, the erotic content of the film is minimal and handled with an unflattering gloom which seems stiff with puritanical disapproval – not that there’s anything really to disapprove of, as there’s no nudity or explicit content, with Evelyn’s ‘punishment’s’ happening behind closed doors. The whole film seems stifled in good taste and calculated effects, so much so that you long for a whiff of vulgarity. It’s all a bit draining and depressing, but it’s graced by a drily witty performance by Helen Mirren look- and sound-alike Sidse Babette Knudson as Cynthia and at least you can steep yourself in the plush production values and the shimmering, melodious faux-baroque score by Cat’s Eyes. 6/10

EXTRAS
As with Artificial Eye’s release of Berberian Sound Studio, there’s a decent set of extras, including a bunch of deleted scenes and the following: 11-min interview with the director, in which he explains that he was originally asked to do a remake of a Jess Franco film; we also learn that the film was shot in Hungary on a budget of £1 million. ~ 4-min film featuring the Cat’s Eyes score. ~ A 7-min film from 1996, shot on Super 8, which basically consists of footage of dogs, with a noisy soundtrack. ~ Audio commentary with the director – very detailed and articulate, as you would expect with this director. He talks about, among other things, the 4-week shooting schedule, working an Arri Alexa digital camera and the influence of Spirit of the Beehive on Cat’s Eyes’ music. 7/10

Blu-ray review: Blood and Black Lace

Starring: Cameron Mitchell, Eva Bartok
Director: Mario Bava

blood-and-black-lace 3For many film buffs, Mario Bava has to rank as one of cinema’s greatest visual stylists, and there’s perhaps no better exhibition of his talents than Blood and Black Lace, his genre-defining giallo from 1964. At its centre is a nicely turned little mystery about a swanky fashion house whose models are being murdered by a masked killer fetishistically garbed in leather gloves, black hat and black trench coat. The fashion house, as it turns out, is a hotbed of intrigue, and suspects include a twitchy dresser, a slimy, moutachioed aristo and an antiques dealer who’s a secret drugs fiend.

With its balance of glamour and ghoulishness and some of the best dressed corpses blood-and-black-lace 1you’ll ever see, it’s the ideal subject matter for Bava, who infuses the story with a mix of baroque opulence and ’60s chic and turns the models’ workplace into an extraordinary gilded birdcage dotted with ruby red mannequins and basketwork dress forms. The script divides its time equally between the various potential victims and culprits, but you don’t feel the lack of a central character, because the director is the star, marshalling one ravishing set-piece after another, from the gorgeous neon-hued title sequence (accompanied by a sultry samba theme from composer Carlo Rustichelli) to the various brutal murders, each of which is mounted with fashion plate exquisiteness.

blood-and-black-lace 5The result is like the lurid cover of a pulp shocker come to life, but it’s a film of swoony depths as well as glittering surfaces. While the script emphasises a neat, conventional plotline, the imagery divulges sexual hang-ups and motivations which the characters aren’t even aware of, and it’s all bound together by its mood of voyeuristic intensity and the genuine chill of its murder scenes. Even in Bava’s extravagant oeuvre, there’s nothing quite like it for its power to seduce and unsettle. Arrow have treated this underrated masterpiece to a lovely new release, including a cherishable limited edition steelbook emblazoned with original poster art, and if you add only one film to your collection this year, this should be it. 10/10

TRANSFER
Bava’s ability to combine chiaroscuro with saturated colour is simply peerless, and this blood-and-black-lace 4new 2K scan from the original 35mm camera negative fairly blazes with jewelled hues and rich shadows. The establishing shot of the fashion house, with the broken sign swinging in the storm and the camera zooming in on the fountain in the forecourt – it all looks breathtakingly lush and atmospheric. So, too, does the sequence where one of the girls is pursued through a dark antique shop, and the scene with Cameron Mitchell in the basement looks especially good, with his figure standing out crisply from the dark background. Elsewhere, in some of the two shots, there’s a scattering of grain and a slight softness to some of the flesh tones, but overall this is a corking transfer of a film that demands to be seen in high def. 8/10

EXTRAS
55-min documentary in which various writers and critics discuss the giallo genre and Bava’s place in it. The role of censorship and sex in the Italian cinema is discussed, and contributors include Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava, who talks about his father’s blood-and-black-lace 2deep knowledge of cinematic techniques.~ Argento and Lamberto B return for a discursive 11-min chat about Bava (audio only with still images), which segues into a long story about Alfred Hitchcock. ~ 10-min appreciation of gialli by the directors of The Strange Colour of Your Body’s tears, who enthuse about the genre’s tendency towards excess, madness and violence (the interview is in French and the word ‘fou’ crops up a lot). ~ Densely argued and attractively presented 38-min video essay by Michael Mackenzie looking at the giallo genre in the wider context of the ’60s. ~ ‘Yellow’, a slickly made and rather bloody 26-min short directed by Ryan Haysom which homages giallo tropes with sinister efficiency. ~ Detailed, scholarly audio commentary by Tim Lucas, who explores themes and motifs, gives in-depth bios of the cast and crew and reveals, among other things, that this sumptuous film was made on a 6-week shooting schedule and that the Villa Sciarra in Rome was used as the primary location for the fashion house and its surrounding park. ~ The highlight, though, is a double bill (56 min altogether) of an old late night TV show called Sinister Image, with David Del Valle interviewing Cameron Mitchell, who went from appearing on stage in the Broadway premiere of Death of a Salesman to starring in films such as Gorilla At Large. “I could perhaps have been more selective,” he laments. In fact, he seems bewildered by Del Valle’s interest in his horror output and keen to steer the conversation onto the more mainstream titles in his filmography. He does, though, have some interesting and very nice things to say about Bava in the second episode, revealing that the Italian director loved marmalade and used a child’s toy wagon to achieve his clockwork perfect tracking shots. 10/10

Blu-ray review: Coffy

Starring: Pam Grier, Sid Haig, Allan Arbus
Director: Jack Hill

coffy 1They don’t come any more iconic than this. That funky Roy Ayers soundtrack, and long-legged Pam Grier strutting her stuff as a mild-mannered nurse who pays back the local dope pushers for getting her little sister hooked on drugs by shooting one of them in the afro with a sawn-off shotgun. And that’s only for starters, as her thirst for vengeance sees her going undercover as a exotic Jamaican hooker and getting up close and personal with various garish characters, including Sid Haig’s leering goon Omar, Allan Arbus’ jovial, sexually twisted mafia boss and Robert DuQui’s King George, a drug dealer who affects a regal demeanour by dressing up in jumpsuits and a cape.

It’s these character actors who add the grace notes to writer/director Jack Hill’s rough-hewn revenge story. For the most part, Coffy (1973) focuses on ticking off a checklist of exploitation must-haves – noisy girl fights, torture, nudity, plus more ripped bodices than you get in a hundred Mills and Boons. Concentrating on the sex and violence, it’s less didactic and more down and dirty than Hill and Grier’s follow-up, Foxy Brown – the only rhetoric about black empowerment you hear in the entire movie is put into the mouth of a councilman who disgraces himself by getting into bed with the mob. For all that, or perhaps because of it, you can feel a raw edge of racial tension underneath the film’s lurid scenarios, and – much as for Coffy herself when she takes on Omar and the rest – it’s the anger that keeps it alive.7/10

EXTRAS
Some sporadic grain in a few isolated scenes, noticeably in the hospital where Coffy works and the go-go bar where she meets the councilman, but otherwise this is a very clean, attractive transfer. The opening nightclub sequence has vivid colours and a strong sense of depth, there’s a lovely crispness and nuanced grey-blue tones to the first shadowy glimpse of Coffy in the back seat of the Crysler, and later on King George’s mustard cape and jumpsuit look just fine. 8/10

EXTRAS
19-min interview with Jack Hill, in which the director reveals that they used a sheet ofcoffy 2 Plexiglass to protect the stuntman from the shotgun blast in the opening action scene, and that he originally wanted Foxy Brown to be a sequel to Coffy called ‘Burn, Coffy, Burn’. ~ 17-min interview with Pam Grier, who talks, among other things, about how she was raised with guns during her rural upbringing, and how her grandma used to go around with a pistol in her apron. ~ An excellent 19-min video essay on blaxploitation by Mikel J. Koven – this thoughtful and incisive piece puts the genre in context, bemoans the persistence of black stereotypes and pays particular tribute to the films of Melvin Van Peebles (father of Mario), whose commercial success paved the way for other black filmmakers. ~ Jack Hill also provides an audio commentary, explaining Pam Grier’s role in developing the script and coming up with business such as the razor blade hidden in the afro, and making trenchant comments about the bigotry of the mid-’70s: “Even some of the reviewers were racist.” 8/10

DVD Review: Indian Summers

Starring: Jemima West, Nikesh Patel, Julie Walters
Rating: 8/10

Indian Summers Ep 2It’s now over thirty years since ITV’s The Jewel in the Crown stunned audiences with its lush visuals and epic sweep and made stars of Charles Dance, Geraldine James and Art Malik. You would have thought that success would have bred imitation, but unless you discount Amy Irving (the first Mrs Spielberg) playing an Indian princess in The Far Pavilions, there’s never been anything like it since – until now, with Indian Summers, Channel 4’s hugely expensive ten-part series.

Or is that speaking too soon? Certainly the lush visuals are present and correct in the feature-length first episode, the epic sweep ditto, as a sprawling cast of characters converge on the hill station of Simla to see out the hottest months of the year in the coolIndian Summers Ep 1 of the mountain air. Sensuously directed and refulgent with colour, it’s a glorious overture, and it seems to hint at endless possibilities. But in a way it’s perhaps too good. A victim of its own success, it gets you into such a fine lather of anticipation that you end up being slightly disappointed when the characters fail to live up to your hopes. For instance, seen together for the first time on the train to Simla, Craig Parkinson as the craggy orphanage administrator Dougie Raworth and Amber Rose Revah as Leena, his devoted, coolly poised assistant, make a wonderful first impression as a duo tied together by such powerful bonds of philanthropic high-mindedness that they’re practically in a world of their own. It’s something of a let-down, then, when their relationship turns into a more conventionally romantic one of wistful glances, snatched kisses and reproachful glances from the jealous wife.

And this pattern repeats itself, with interracial love affairs being the name of the game and the plot thread of choice – newcomer Alice (Jemima West) quickly decides she likes the look of humble clerk Aafrin Dalal (Nikesh Patel), while her brother, ultra smooth Private Secretary Ralph Whelan (Henry Lloyd Hughes) clearly has a skeleton of that nature rattling around loudly in his closet. At the same time, there’s a slight fuzziness, an artful blurring, to the Indian background (what exactly do all these people do?), and the nation’s seething politics are largely confined to a few scenes with Dalal’s sister and Patrick Malahide’s delightfully headmasterly Viceroy.indian-summers 4

Indian Summers ends up being just a little bit narrower in scope than one expected then, and its main pleasures are small scale ones – pretty printed frocks and vibrantly hued saris, the occasional stunning vista, and a host of expert supporting performances. Julie Walters teeters around laden down with secrets and plots as Cynthia Coffin, owner of the exclusive all-British club where the white rulers pickle themselves in gin and the personification of the snobbery and racism of the Raj at its worst. And there’s some deft, light-fingered scene-stealing by Lillette Dubey and Roshan Seth as Dalal’s mother and father, making you wish that the scenes in the Dalal household had been expanded much further.

Still, if it’s not quite The Jewel in the Crown, Indian Summers is a damn sight more ambitious and lovingly crafted than your average Sunday night drama, and it’s sure to merit repeated viewings on DVD box set.

Blu-ray reviews: Night Train Murders

Starring: Irene Miracle, Masha Meril
Director: Aldo Lado

Like Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left, Night Train Murders (1975) owes a debt to the revenge plot of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. Two precocious teenage girls take the train from Germany to Italy, only to find themselves toyed with and molested by a pair of thuds and a rather twisted and sadistic older woman. Meanwhile, the parents of one of the girls anxiously await their arrival…

What’s so striking about Night Train Murders in the way in which it carefully builds up to one brutally shocking moment. Early on, there’s some well-observed Hitchcockian scene-setting as the girls are crammed on board the train with various eccentric characters, and some bustling handheld location cinematography which creates a deceptive sense of airiness. And when things do take a turn for the worse, in general director Aldo Lado’s approach is more suggestive than graphic – most of the assault takes place in a wash of deep blue gels, like something glimpsed at the bottom of the ocean. But at the same time, as the train trundles from day to night, a strange, dreamlike atmosphere sets in, one that’s heavy with perversity and a sense of doom, detaching the girls and their attackers from the protections and safeguards of the daylight world.

The three female leads are all very impressive, especially Masha Meril as the chicly dressed lady with dirty pictures in her purse who choreographs the girls’ degradation. Lado helms the whole thing with an intensity and flair that never flags. Fans of Mario Bava and Sergio Martino will feel completely in their element. And I even like one of the baddie’s sweaters. 8/10

TRANSFER
A lovely transfer, just a tiny scattering of grain here or there but otherwise sharp and night-train-murders 1clean. Details of costume and hair come up with crystalline clarity, colours are rich and lustrous, there’s a dynamism to the flickering effects of light and shade and a crispness even to the darkest set-pieces. 10/10

EXTRAS
The film comes in a choice of a serviceable English dub and an Italian version (with unusual blue subtitles). Extras include a lively and outspoken 21 min interview with Irene Miracle, who, talking about her early days as an actress, tells of how she flew to Italy and found herself in a room with Pasolini and Bertolucci. While expressing disquiet over the film’s subject matter, she talks about how friendly and considerate the cast and crew were, and mentions that they had a generous shooting schedule. She talks about her later career in another 4-min piece. 6/10