Blu-ray review: Stalag 17

Starring: William Holden, Otto Preminger
Director: Billy Wilder

stalag-17 1At his best, in films like Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, Billy Wilder elevated cinema to such a rare pitch of perfection, it’s amazing other directors didn’t simply give up and go home. Stalag 17 isn’t quite in that class, but it shows Wilder bringing his customary flair to the POW movie genre. The setting is a German prisoner of war camp for American airmen. When some escaping POWs are ambushed by the guards, the men suspect that there’s a “dirty, stinking stoolie” in their midst. Prime suspect – Sergeant Sefton (William Holden), a cynical wheeler-dealer who trades with the Germans and never seems short of creature comforts.

Eschewing the stiff upper lip of British war movies, the early sections of Stalag 17 are noisy and energetic, with a lot of time given over to the antics of barracks clowns Animal (Robert Strauss) and Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) and Otto Preminger’s OTT camp commandant, all polished boots and Cheshire cat grin. While all this robust knockabout seems to anticipate Sergeant Bilko and MASH, it actually shows Wilder dipping into the past to channel the broad, screwball style of his old idol Ernst Lubitsch, as witness his casting of Lubitsch regular Sig Ruman as comical camp heavy Sergeant Schulz.

The stereotyping of this German character and others as beefy, stupid and obsessed by rules might seem rather lazy and obvious to modern eyes, but to fair the Germans aren’t the real target of the movie, which is more keen to lay into various aspects of the American way of life: Sefton discovers to his cost that capitalist individualism will only get you so far in a wartime situation, while his fellow prisoners display a nasty vigilante streak as their suspicions of him deepen. As the pressure on Sefton mounts and he begins to wonder who the real culprit might be, the earlier high spirits become tinged with irony and the story morphs into a claustrophobic, solidly constructed thriller with an ending that is deceptively cynical. 8/10

TRANSFER
The transfer has a slightly granular quality in some scenes, but there are no scratches stalag-17 2or print damage. The evenly lit scenes within the barracks have plenty of detail (the walls are plastered with posters and pin-ups which show up sharply), and crane shots of the prison camp exteriors are also very crisp in pale, wintry greys. The beautifully choreographed scene – probably the most complex set-up in the movie – when the men sing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” with a disaffected Sefton looking on has a particularly impressive depth of field. 8/10

EXTRAS
Oldish but interesting 22-min “making of”, in 4:3 aspect ratio, with contributions from some of the cast and one of the writers. We hear about the hit Broadway show on which the film was based (heavily reworked by Wilder, who was still doing rewrites while shooting was under way) and learn that the director originally wanted Charlton Heston for the role of Sefton. ~ Nicely made 25-min piece on the historical background to the stalags, with archive footage and interviews with veterans, who talk about how – as if the film – the Germans tried all sorts of methods to get information out of them. ~ A 23-min talking head piece with critic Neil Sinyard, who discusses the film in the context of Wilder’s career (it was something of a retrenchment for him after the commercial failure of Ace in the Hole) and examines its themes. ~ Audio com with some of the cast and one of the writers of the original play – a few interesting reminiscences emerge from the old timers between the long silences and the chat about who’s no longer alive and what they died of. 8/10

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DVD Review: Payback 2015

Starring: John Cena, Tyson Kidd, Seth Rollins

payback 1It’s all in the name – this high-testosterone grudgefest (originally shown as a pay-per-view extravaganza) offers heavyweight wrestling with an edge as various time-honoured adversaries get back into the ring to settle old scores. Among the highlights, “three hundred pound human wrecking ball” Ryback takes on satanic heavy Bray Wyatt – who makes Leatherface in the Texas Chain Saw Massacre look like a cosmopolitan sophisticate – and ginger Hercules Sheamus turns the other cheek to handsome blond Dolph Ziggler, but not in a nice way.

For anyone who hasn’t watched a WWE DVD before, it’s all a disorientating but headypayback 2 mix of tongue in cheek video interludes, hyperbolic trash talk, Mad Max styling, manic, high intensity performances, bone-shuddering smackdowns and insane acrobatics. For all the play-acting and mugging to the crowd, there’s some genuine athletic virtuosity on display as these guys put each other through some gruelling paces, including not-to-be-tried-at-home moves like the cloverleaf (sounds harmless enough, but it’s oh so not). For regular fans of wrestling familiar with the larger than life personalities involved, Payback 2015 is sure to be an engrossing spectacle, while anyone new to the world of WWE should find the combination of vein-bulging grapples and extravagant theatrics completely fascinating.

DVD Review: Clouds of Sils Maria

Starring: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart

Director: Olivier Assayas

clouds-of-sils-maria1The cult of youth is something we tend to think of as an American syndrome, but Clouds of Sils Maria shows that Europeans are also far from immune to it. Juliette Binoche plays Maria, a celebrated actress who leapt to fame at the age of 18 in a stage play about a destructive affair between an older woman, Helena, and a manipulative younger woman named Sigrid. Twenty years on, she’s asked to take part in a revival of the play, but this time in the role of the hapless Helena, with the more juicy, domineering role of Sigrid going to Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz), a Hollywood starlet notorious for her headline-grabbing personal life. Basing herself in the remote Alpine chalet that was the home of the play’s recently deceased author, Maria starts running her lines with the help of her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), but thinking about Helena brings out all her fears of ageing, and she’s not happy: “I’m Sigrid! I want to stay Sigrid!”

Around the edges, Clouds of Sills Maria offers a compelling, fly on the wall look at a certain kind of arty celebrity lifestyle, with a beady eye for the pretensions and mannerisms of figures such as the slick, cerebral, PR-savvy young director who’s staging the revival (played with frigid charm by Lars Eidinger, last seen having a ribbon tiedclouds-of-sils-maria 2 round his tackle in Peter Greenaway’s Goltzius and the Pelican Company). But the heart of the film is a series of two-handed scenes between Maria and Valentine as they get to work in their mountain retreat. As they bicker and laugh and discuss the characters, it would seem that there’s something of the Helena-Sigrid dynamic in their relationship, with Maria (who’s in the throes of divorce) perhaps over-dependent on her young assistant, and this familiarity breeding signs of contempts in the increasingly argumentative Valentine. Or are Valentine’s flashes of aggression simply a reaction to being swallowed up in the on-going saga of Maria’s life and career?

Juliette Binoche delivers a performance that’s as warm, earthy and complete as you’d expect, taking Maria from the much in demand, world-weary diva behind dark glasses of the early scenes to a much more raw, exposed, unbuttoned character. But the real revelation is Kristen Stewart, whose Valentine is a combination of ungroomed, bespectacled, nerdy meekness with a touch of needle that comes out in the jutting of her jaw, the angularity of her stance and her occasional verbal sparring with Maria.

Where the film is less convincing is in some of its more generalized musings, not to clouds-of-sils-maria 3mention its notion of an eternal struggle between cruel, thrusting, arrogant youth and faltering middle age (which seems no more true than to depict, say, youth as a time of insecurities and middle age as smug and complacent). Still, there’s no gainsaying the brilliance of the way Helena and Sigrid’s antagonism reverberates in the lives of Maria and Valentine and open up fractures between them. Throughout, director Olivier Assayas and his two lead actresses achieve a style of seamless naturalism where everything seems spontaneous and improvisatory, and the whole thing quivers with life and the mystery of what it means to be human. 8/10

EXTRAS 22-min interview with Olivier Assayas, with slightly hollow, echoey sound, but very interesting. He talks about writing the script specifically for Binoche, the enormous amount of prep she does (as in the film), and reveals that he prefers her acting in English. We also learn that he originally planned to use Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant as the play within the film. 6/10

Blu-ray Review: The Avengers – Complete Season 5

Starring: Patrick Macnee, Diana Rigg, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee

the-avengers-series-5 1The Avengers in colour! The fifth season of this seminal ’60s spy show saw the series moving away from old school black and white into the verges of psychedelic fantasy, with sophisticated, playful send-ups of science fiction and horror – UFOs, shrinking rays, time travel – all delivered in a cheeky Mod-meets-mock-Edwardian aesthetic. Highlights include “The Living Dead”, an exhilarating concoction with gorgeous Gothic production values in which Steed and Emma investigate a haunting and encounter eccentric ghost hunters and a sinister conspiracy; “Return of the Cybernauts,” with Peter Cushing on top form injecting a note of steel as the villain (just one of many excellent scripts penned by Philip Levene for this season); and “The Joker”, a stylish old dark house mystery with Emma as the damsel in distress and art design that wouldn’t look out of place in an Italian giallo.

As ever, the stories are packed with memorable characters and lovable eccentrics, andthe-avengers-series-5 6 Season 5 is particularly notable for the brilliance of its supporting cast. Christopher Lee, Charlotte Rampling, Donald Sutherland, Julian Glover, Freddie Jones, Roy Kinnear, Arthur Lowe, Jack MacGowran and Peter Barkworth are just some of the names involved, and there’s a wonderful turn by Warren Mitchell as a flustered Soviet ambassador in “The See-Through Man,” a tale about an invisibility potion that shifts into frothy comic operetta territory. Throughout, the one-liners sparkle (“Do you take me for a perfect idiot?” “No one’s perfect.”) and sprightly editing ensures that the souffle of suspense and humour is always on the rise.

At the heart of it all, though, is the easy chemistry between Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg. The traditional English gentleman and the capable modern woman working together in perfect harmony, even today, over four decades on, Steed and Emma represent a kind of ideal of a male-female partnership, blending affection and respect, independent, each working on their own initiative, yet able to count on each other.

the-avengers-series-5 2Beautifully crafted and shot on 35mm film, The Avengers was forward-looking in other respects as well. Whereas so many of shows of the era can only be enjoyed if you make allowances for poor picture quality and sluggish pace, this fifth season still retains all of its freshness and bounce, especially on this stunning Blu-ray box set. It’s a genuine, perennial TV classic, as well as being the forefather of all of today’s quirky, heightened reality shows such as Fringe, Bones and Sherlock. 10/10

TRANSFER
This is a stunning set of HD transfers from the original film elements, which makes the the-avengers-series-5 4most of the show’s cinematic sensibility. There’s no grain or blemishes, colours are vibrant and subtle, and the level of detail is simply astounding. The red carnation that goes into Steed’s buttonhole in the famous title sequence now has a marvellous pop of colour, and there’s a lifelike shimmer to Emma’s lipstick, as well as a vivid kick to her array of brightly-hued jumpsuits. Just a few more examples – there’s a lovely, fine-textured silkiness to the cobwebs in the creepy chapel in “The Living Dead”; in “The See-Through Man”, the ornate pink, crimson and gold décor of the Russian embassy looks remarkably rich, as does Moira Lister’s glittery frock; Barbara Shelley’s midnight-blue office in “From Venus With Love” is captured with a crystalline depth of field; and the moment in “The Joker” when Emma discovers a hallway filled with flowers has an hallucinatory, hyper-real, almost Powell and Pressburger-esque quality. This is simply one of the best sets of vintage colour transfers that you’re likely to see, and fans of the show are sure to be thrilled. 10/10

EXTRAS
the-avengers-series-5 5Mini Killers – a bizarre little series of four 10-minute episodes, made for German TV without dialogue, in which a bikini-clad Diana Rigg takes on a gang of villains on the Costa Brava who assassinate people with a doll that squirts poisonous tears. Rather soft, murky picture in 4:3 aspect ratio, but well worth watching for its weird, outre vibe and for its sizzling beach fashions. ~ An hour long compilation of plum moments from the TV show, introduced by Macnee. ~ 8-min interview with Diana Rigg – the actress explains how she and Macnee would sometimes improvise their dialogue, and talks about how her Mini filled up with fan mail as she struggled to cope from going from working for the RSC to experiencing instant fame. ~ Odd and unwieldy 9-min contemporary interview for German TV with Rigg and Macnee, that starts off with the interviewer slumped on the floor pretending to be a corpse. You can see Macnee’s eyes glazing over. ~ Seven 2-3 minutes intros by writer/producer Brian Clemens, in which he supplies some snippets of background info to various episodes. For instance, we learn that “The Joker” and “The Correct Way to Kill” were revampings of earlier episodes, and that “Epic” – in which a mad director casts Emma as the star of a snuff movie – was conceived in response to some budgetary problems as a way of utilizing Elstree Studios as a location. ~ Reconstructions of four lost episodes, with narration and stills. ~ A fewthe-avengers-series-5 3 minutes of extra footage, without sound, for a couple of episodes. ~ A set of four audio commentaries: “Epic” with Peter Wyngarde – slightly rambling, but it’s lovely to listen to his silky voice. “Return of the Cybernauts” with Cyd Childs, Diana Rigg’s stunt double – she explains how she got into the business, discusses Riggs’ costumes and says that apparently the audience were unhappy that there weren’t more leather catsuits in this series. “Murdersville” with Brian Clements – he talks about storyboarding the iconic title sequence, and reveals that they decided to cut back on Riggs’ catsuits because the creaking of the leather caused problems with the sound. “The Winged Avenger” with scriptwriter Richard Harris, who talks about his involvement with the show, going back to the very first series. 10/10

Blu-ray Review: Cemetery Without Crosses

Starring: Michele Mercier, Robert Hossein
Director: Robert Hossein

cemetery-without-crosses 1French bombshell Michele Mercier is best remembered these days for playing the distraught heroine in the Telephone section of Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath and for an unforgettably saucy nude scene in Francois Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste, but in this Gallic spaghetti western she toughens up and takes on a rare grittier, earthier role as Maria, a farmer’s wife who sees her husband strung up before her eyes as a dispute with a neighbouring rancher gets out of hand. Determined to wreak revenge, she seeks the aid of reluctant gunslinger Manuel (Robert Hossein), who infiltrates the baddies and triggers a series of increasingly fateful events.

Hossein scores both as actor and director. As the latter, he plays it admirably straight, showing a touch of Sergio Leone’s flair for striking visual compositions, and matching that with a very French poetic melancholy and a terse, spare form of visual storytelling with the merest scattering of dialogue. As a result, his world-weary gun for hire – who likes to hang out by himself in a ghost town engulfed by sand dunes and who fastidiously puts on a single black glove before each exchange of bullets – is so silent and inscrutable he makes The Man With No Name look like a chatterbox. This minimalist sensibility is reinforced by Hossein’s choice of landscapes, which are almost Kurosawa-like in their haunting grey bleakness. It all makes a great backdrop for Mercier, who is impressively intense and feral as she prowls around in her windswept widow’s weeds.

The first hour or so is as tight and steely as you could wish for, with at least one plot-point that’s surprisingly sadistic and cold-blooded. After that, a slight confusion creeps into the storyline and the last few minutes teeter into sentimentality, but even so Cemetery Without Crosses is a cut above most non-Leone spaghetti westerns, making you wish there were more horse operas with a Gallic flavour out there. 7/10

TRANSFER
This transfer is in the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, with thin vertical borders. It’s a trifle cloudy at times, with a little softness to the Eastmancolour camerawork and some blotches of green discolouration to a couple of scenes, but close-ups have a nice sweaty sheen, and the scene of Maria riding into the ghost town sparkles beautifully. 6/10

EXTRAS
5-min interview with Robert Hossein, who talks about how he was inspired to make a cemetery-without-crosses 2French spaghetti western after living in Italy for three years. Discussing his friendship with Leone, he reveals that he was supposed to be in Once Upon a Time in the West, and that Leone shot the dinner scene at the baddies’ ranch in Cemetery Without Crosses (one of the standout sequences in the movie). ~ 8-min old French TV piece on the making of the film, in 4:3 ratio and b/w, but with a very nice transfer and extremely worthwhile. There’s some behind-the-scenes footage of the shoot in Almeria in Spain, and a chat with Mercier, who proudly announces that she has blisters on her hands from all the grave-digging she’d been doing. ~ A 2-min interview with the director looking very cool and casual on the Cote d’Azure in the late ’60s. 7/10

DVD Review: The Delivery Man

Starring: Darren Boyd, Fay Ripley, Aisling Bea

delivery-man 1In this enjoyable fish out of water comedy, Darren Boyd plays Matthew, an ex-copper starting a new job as part of an all-female midwife team. Kindly and diffident and sticking out like a sore thumb because of his tall, gangly build, he soon finds himself wrestling with some tricky situations – a heavily pregnant convicted criminal, a WAG nervous of the paparazzi, a bloke dividing his time between his wife and his equally with-child mistress. On top of that, it’s not easy fitting in with his fellow midwives – hostile veteran Pat (Llewella Gideon), rude youngster Tash (Jennie Jacques) and his lovelorn boss Caitlin (Fay Ripley), who’s separated from her husband and is on the prowl for a replacement. To make matters worse, his embarrassingly maladroit flatmate Ian (Paddy McGuinness) gets a job as a security officer at the maternity unit. On the plus side, though, he quickly embarks upon a mild flirtation with feisty colleague Lisa (Aisling Bea), who’s refreshingly normal and level-headed … apart from the fact that she has an ultra-violent boyfriend.

There’s no shortage of things going on, then, but for Matthew the main problem is getting through an ordinary conversation, as he only has to open his mouth to find himself entangled in non sequiturs and comical misunderstandings. Just occasionally these exchanges become a little bit too traditionally sitcomy, but on the whole the verbal dexterity of the writing is a delight, and it’s endlessly fascinating to watch Matthew’s attempts at friendly banter sliding out of control and turning into conversational car wrecks.

Darren Boyd is in his element as Matthew, combining new man meekness with flashesDELIVERY_MAN_DVD_SL_s5.indd of impatience and sarcasm, and he’s well-matched by an excellent cast. Stars Fay Ripley and Paddy McGuinness are good sports in the way they throw themselves with gusto into their roles, the former quivering with menopausal hot flushes at the mere thought of Matthew, the latter lumbering around the maternity ward like a particularly dim-witted bull in a china shop. There’s also eye-catching work from Jennie Jacques as the scatterbrained Tash, who gives the impression of having been born yesterday herself. In the end, though, it’s through the easy chemistry between Boyd and Aisling Bea, and the girl next door charm of her performance, that the show really delivers. 7/10

Blu-ray Review: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai in the 8th Dimension

Starring: Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Jeff Goldblum
Director: W.D. Richter

buckaroo-banzai 4The title might lead you to expect a straightforward SF spoof, but there’s nothing straightforward about this extraordinary one-off cult classic. Released in 1984, it’s a kind of anti-blockbuster, a ’70s throwback which employs the same sorts of techniques that Robert Altman used for his sprawling ensemble pieces – overlapping dialogue, jittery editing, verité camerawork – to tell the Amazing Stories-style saga of Buckaroo Banzai (brain surgeon, man of action and bar room musician) who, having invented a means of interstellar travel, finds himself targeted by some soberly suited aliens.

It’s a film that feels exhilaratingly anarchic and free-wheeling, but not by accident. Director W.D. Richter shows a remarkable control of pace and tone, moving things along briskly, keeping the viewer off-kilter and burying plot points and exposition in amongst the absorbing chatter that goes on between the Hong Kong Cavaliers, Buckaroo’s backing group and support team. Just as remarkable is the film’s sense of humour – dry, deadpan, nonchalant, not at all obvious, relying on timing and mood rather than traditional gags and one-liners. Think Repo Man meets Napoleon Dynamite, and you’ll have some idea of what’s in store.

On top of that, you have the ideal cast for a cult movie – Jeff Goldblum lands one of his best early roles as a doctor who climbs about Buckaroo’s tour bus, and Christoperbuckaroo-banzai 1 Llloyd and Clancy Brown are in good form too. Just occasionally the film falters, particularly in the scenes with John Lithgow, whose comic booky performance as the crackpot leader of the aliens seems more suited to a Sam Raimi movie, but that only makes you realize how special the rest of it is (and even the end credits are delightfully memorable). If you haven’t seen Buckaroo Banzai before, you’re in for a treat – it’s a movie you’ll fall in love with and want to share with their friends, and anyone lucky enough to watch this excellent Blu-ray release with be Team Banzai for life. 10/10

TRANSFER
The widescreen cinematography is treated to a lovely HD transfer, with no grain or blemishes, with natural colours and a crispness to textures of skin and clothes. The opening sequence of Buckaroo’s jetcar being raced across the desert has a lovely freshness and sparkle, and later on, the moody, backlit scene where he’s serenading Penny Priddy in the nightclub has an attractive combination of subtle, dusky tones and popping neons. Later on, the coloured lighting in the Shock Tower scene has plenty of depth and intensity. 9/10

EXTRAS
buckaroo-banzai 3An eccentric 17-min interview with Peter Weller, who comes across as a long-term inhabitant of Banzai land – a little short on concrete detail, but he talks about Einstein, Zen and jamming with Jeff Goldblum, and he lists Elia Kazan, Jacques Cousteau and Adam Ant as his inspirations for the character of Buckaroo. ~ A charming 14-min interview with John Lithgow, who reveals that he based his character’s accent on a tailor at MGM. ~ Fun, quirky 22-min featurette made for the film’s DVD release, introduced by the preppy, bespectacled director and with plenty of info about the production and FX (apparently the spaceship designs were inspired by seashells and coral). ~ A 43-min Q&A with Weller and Lithgow, with good picture and sound and a heartfelt intro by Kevin Smith, who talks about his early love of the film. Weller reveals that he “couldn’t get through the script” when he was first contacted about making the movie. ~ An 18-min video essay by Matt Zoller Seitz makes a brave stab at explaining the film’s plot and comments astutely on its offbeat sensibility and low-fi aesthetic. ~ 7-min home movie-style prologue, deleted from the final cut, featuring Jamie Lee Curtis as Buckaroo’s mum – interesting to see as it packs in a lot of Buckaroo’s backstory. ~ 14-mins of deleted scenes, sourced from a video quality workprint. ~ Audio commentary with Richter – a little mannered, but some interesting snippets emerge. For instance, we learn that Weller’s singing in the nightclub scene was looped later on. ~ In the true Banzai spirit, let’s defy the laws of mathematics and give this bundle of extras 11/10