DVD Review: A Certain Magical Index

certain-magical-index 1It’s the sort of thing that’s always happening in anime – a high school kid finds a strange girl draped over his apartment balcony and feels compelled to befriend her … although, to be fair, the girls usually aren’t dressed in voluminous white robes that make them look as though they’ve just escaped from some Masonic ritual. The boy’s name is Kamijo, and he’s a student in Academy City, a beacon of science which frowns upon magic but is full of people with technologically enhanced psi powers. The girl is called Index and she comes from a very different, magical-cum-religious background. In fact, it soon emerges that the church she belongs to has turned Index into a walking library of thousands of grimoires – books of spells.

Kamijo does have one very unusual ability of his own, and that’s the power to cancel out other people’s attacks with his right hand. No surprise, then, that he quickly becomes Index’s, er, right-hand man as he fends off various fire and sword-wielding types who turn up looking for her.

The first disc of this 24-episode set is devoted to Kamijo’s mysterious new roommate and the possible negative effects that having all this eldritch info crammed into her noggin might be having on her. At the same time, it sketches in a backdrop of various militant church factions squaring up against each other not unlike the set-up to Hellsing (but handled in a much lighter way.) After that, however, the show seems to lose faith in Index, and she’s relegated almost to bit part player status as the story shifts direction. In particular, a character named Mikoto is brought to the fore – a stroppy high-school girl with lightning-flashing psi powers, who happens to have a clone, Misaka 10032 (who’s actually much nicer than the original). These two are in great danger from Accelerator, a psi guy who can manipulate vectors (sounds nerdy, actually very nasty). And as Kamijo tries to keep them safe, the show takes on a darker, more gory edge.

Inevitably, all this changing horses in midstream is somewhat unsettling, especially as certain-magical-index 2Index’s name is still there, writ large in the title, even after she’s been all but forgotten by the scriptwriters. But the individual storylines are entertaining enough, and what bind the whole thing together is an amiable sense of humour and a series of superbly rendered action scenes. The animators at JC Staff really bring their A-game to all those flaming demons, glowing runes and crackling bolts of electricity. Plus there are some fetchingly conceived supporting characters, such as Kanzaki, a swordswoman with Zoro-like cut-through-anything blade powers and jeans with only one trouser leg (well, could catch on). Not a show with the sharpest of individual identities then, but it certainly has its moments. 7/10

EXTRAS Four giggly audio commentaries with the voice cast (including a particularly raucous all-girl one), who make quips about the studio décor, tell anecdotes about their experiences at various conventions and say a few things about the show too. 6/10

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Blu-ray review: Medium Cool

Starring: Robert Forster, Marianna Hill, Verna Bloom
Director: Haskell Wexler

medium-cool 1Breaking down barriers between documentary and drama, Medium Cool is a true cinematic one-off of a kind that seemed possible back in the free-wheeling, pot-smoking ’60s but is all too rare nowadays. Using interviews, improvised scenes and some remarkable journalistic footage, its places its central character, hardboiled Chicago TV cameraman John Cassellis (Robert Forster), smack bang in the middle of the era’s social tensions … but does he, should he, feel these tensions himself, or is he simply a passive recording instrument?

The film has distinctly Godardian aspirations – pillow talk becomes political talk in a standout scene in which John frolics with naked nurse Ruth (Marianna Hill) while she takes perceptive jabs at his veneer of aloofness. Medium Cool most impresses as a vivid snapshot of the times, but a story slowly coalesces when John comes into contact with a lonely Appalachian mother (Verna Bloom) and her young pigeon-fancying son who have just moved to the city and are struggling to come to terms with it (figures of dignified pathos who might be out of a D.W. Griffith movie, an eerily timeless touch in a movie that is otherwise so determinedly contemporary).

If other filmmakers haven’t rushed to imitate Medium Cool, it’s perhaps because blending fact and fiction isn’t the easiest or most efficient way of telling a story. In theory it should furnish rich new insights by allowing us to observe characters in their social context, but in practice John remains remote, almost inhuman, little more than a convenient perch for the camera which he points at the world around him. But the experiment pays off handsomely in the movie’s last act. There’s nothing quite like those final sequences, as police and protesters square off (for real) outside the National Democratic Convention under the glare of the lowering sun, and the fictional protagonists – looking small and vulnerable – weave and bob through the turbulent crowds. Flawed perhaps, but anyone who loves the ’60s will be fascinated. 7/10

TRANSFER
Apart a cocktail party scene shot on 16mm which comes straight after the title sequence, the transfer looks clean and sharp, without grain or damage. The more conventionally shot dramatic scenes inside TV HQ look extremely bright and crisp, but so too do many of the set-ups that were filmed in more challenging conditions. The complex composition where John is staring out of a cafe window and then Eileen (the rural mother) walks past and peers in at him has a lovely sunny shimmer and immediacy of impact. Similarly, in an early scene involving the National Guard, the colours and crisp textures of the uniforms are vivid and almost palpable. 9/10

EXTRAS
Look Out, Haskell, It’s Real! – celebrated 53-min documentary by Paul Cronin, with lotsmedium-cool 2 of good stuff about the origins of the film, including how Wexler wrote the up-coming Democratic National Convention into his script on the assumption that it would make for a dramatic conclusion, only to find the reality far exceeding his expectations. ~ 16-min interview with Harold Blankenship, who was plucked from the Chicago slums to play the boy in the movie and then sent back whence he came when he was no longer needed. ~ Excellent 10-min piece in which Wexler shows us the lightweight cameras used for the filming, complete with customized alterations, which will be a delight for anyone who likes exact info about this sort of thing. ~ Audio commentary with Wexler, film editor Paul Golding and actress Marianna Hill, with some interesting insights as to how the opening titles were shot and various scenes were moved around, and how they originally wanted John Cassavetes to play the lead character. 10/10

DVD Review: Partners in Crime

Starring: David Walliams, Jessica Raine

partners-in-crime 1It’s amazing Britain survived the ’50s, if it really was in the habit of recruiting “gifted” amateurs like the suicidally plucky Tuppence Beresford and her hopeless duffer of a husband Tommy to the ranks of the secret service. The Tommy and Tuppence series sits at the flimsier end of Agatha Christie’s output, so it’s perhaps no surprise that this latest BBC adaptation meets with mixed success in transferring these frothy period pieces to the screen.

The series consists of two three-parters, the first of which, The Secret Adversary, whisks this humdrum married couple into a world of Soviet spy rings, East End gangsters and assassination plots. It’s lavishly set-dressed (star attraction, a very nice burgundy Morris Traveller) and shot in the gauzy-edged, sepia-infused style that the Beeb seem to adopted for their recent costume dramas, but there’s an uncertainty of tone as the piece veers ponderously between menace and banter. Donning wigs and climbing out of third storey windows, Jessica Raine has a high old time as Tuppence, but poor David Walliams has little to do as gormless Tommy but sit there like a sack of potatoes as he’s intimidated by thugs and scolded by his wife. And three hours seems just too long for a story that, to work, needs to flit past you before you have the time to ask too many awkward questions about it.

Thankfully, things gel much more successfully in the second story, N or M?. An atomic scientist is missing, there’s a double agent in MI5, and a dying informant manages to gurgle out an important clue – all of which leads our protagonists to a guesthouse in that den of iniquity, Cromer. With its cast of English eccentrics and a pleasantly blowy seaside ambience, this story offers a much more satisfying blend of whimsy and intrigue, as well as a better of balance between the two leads, with Tuppence just a shade less annoyingly certain of herself and Tommy showing the occasional flicker of intelligence. It also gets a fillip from a glowing, perfectly judged performance by Christina Cole as guesthouse crumpet Mrs Sprot, and it’s nice to see Roy Marsden, in a supporting role, back trudging the shingle like he used to do when he played Commander Adam Dalgliesh.

Partners in Crime is a series that still has some wrinkles to iron out – the chemistry partners-in-crime 2between Walliams and Raine remains stubbornly non-existent – but the second story in particular shows a more assured grip on this rather fragile, of-its-time material and a promise of better things to come. And at the very least this box set makes for relaxing rainy afternoon viewing, just the sort of thing Tommy would love to watch if only his wife didn’t keep on dragging him off on adventures. 7/10

EXTRAS
Excellent 30-min piece on the clothes for the series which will be of great interest to fashionistas and anyone interested in telly costume design. The wardrobe mistress plugs garments off racks and opens up boxes to give us a close look at Raine’s various outfits, which mix new and vintage pieces. ~ 23-min interview with Clarke Peters, who talks nostalgically about the ’50s (which he just about remembers). 7/10

DVD Review: The Decline of Western Civilisation Box Set

Starring: Black Fag, X, Aerosmith, Alice Cooper
Director: Penelope Spheeris

decline 1Gathered together on one noisy, grungy box set, this trio of celebrated documentaries by Penelope Spheeris offer vivid, telling snapshots of the LA music scene over a span of three decades. Despite some similarities of approach – for example, a fondness for filming people making breakfast, whether that’s the lead singer of The Germs rustling up some tasty-looking bacon and eggs or Ozzy Osbourne trying (and failing) to poor orange juice into a glass – the films are as different in tone and style as the periods they portray.

The original Decline of Western Civilisation is a high energy, kinetic, intimate view of various LA punk rock garage bands in ’79-80. Even if you’re not into the music, the film’s picture of an underground sub-culture is fascinating. Black Flag are interviewed at home in a disused Baptist Church covered in graffiti and with bedding jammed into makeshift cubbyholes – they look like a coven of vampires, and you expect to see Buffy crashing in with a sharpened stake at any moment. Then comes riotous footage of a Germs concert, their lead singer pleading for beer and getting so drunk he forgets to sing into the mic. The camera gets right in there, the angles are brutal and in-yer-face, and the whole thing is infused with the bold, DIY aesthetic of the times.

With Part II: The Metal Years, we jump to ’87-88. Suddenly everything is glam and glitz. The whole texture of the film is more brightly coloured and glossy. The interviewees wear big hair and crystal bracelets. Concert footage is slick and garishly hued. There’s a feeling that director and musicians are all selling out in that breezily hard-hearted ’80s way. Except that Spheeris’ sympathies are always with the wannabes, so that while big names like Aerosmith and Alice Cooper line up to contribute, the majority of the movie is devoted to less starry metal acts like Faster Pussycat, London (who complain in a funny interview that members keep on leaving them and becoming famous) and Odin, whose lead singer goes bare-ass in chaps on stage. Revelling in the hairspray and guy-liner, Part II is great fun and easily the most accessible of these three documentaries, just the thing to show in a double bill with Spinal Tap.

By contrast, Part III, which revisits the punk rock scene in ’96-97, is by far the angriest of the trilogy. Here music takes a backseat to street style – lots of kids showing off their piercings, tattoos and fauxhawks – tales of gang warfare and racial tension and a general portrait of LA’s seamy underbelly. Not an easy watch, but serious, committed and a fitting end to a 30 year-long project. 7/10

EXTRAS
Part I: Some impressively raw performance footage (7 min of Fear, 5 min of The Germs) plus other bits and pieces.
Part II: A bumper crop. Extended interviews with Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Gene Simmons (in a lingerie shop), Lemmy, Chris Holmes (drunk in his pool), Ozzy Osbourne and Paul Stanley (on a bed surrounded by girls in their underwear), roughly 90 mins altogether. These interviews were used only very sparingly in the film, so there’s plenty that’s new here, with the guys from Aerosmith talking about drug addiction and Alice Cooper chatting about the roots of metal.
Part III: 30 mins’ worth of extended interviews with various veterans of the original LAdecline 2 punk scene, talking about changing times.

Further Bonus Material:
Vintage featurette on the LA punk scene and the LA strip. ~ 7-min Q&A from 2003 in which the director chats about making Part 1 with various old punk rockers. Slightly poor sound. ~ 11-min interview with Spheeris on an ’80s heavy metal TV show, the director looking very corporate with big hair and power suit. She talks about how the celebs chose the (sometimes odd) locations for their interviews. ~ 14-min Q&A from 2003 about Part II, with various characters from the film such as the lead singer of London and the manager of the Cathouse reminiscing about the ’80s. Nice audo and picture. ~ 10-min interview with Spheeris in which she talks, among other things, about how she got her start making music videos in the ’70s. ~ Another 80 min of interviews with London, Odin, Megadeth, etc – blurry picture, but with some interesting snippets, such as London talking about the business side of being in a band. 10/10

Blu-ray review: Lilyhammer Season 3

lilyhammer 3Starring: Steve Van Zandt, Steiner Sagen, Trond Fausa

One of the striking things about Lilyhammer, something it shares with the scandi-crime novels of Henning Mankell, is its sophisticated worldview, its sense of the interconnectedness of things – must be something about those long white winters that brings on a sense of perspective. It’s a quality that’s particularly apparent in this third season, which branches out in all kinds of bold new directions. So, rather than one overarching storyline, we get a string of eventful episodes bringing together a whole rich smorgasbord of international ingredients – Tony (Steve Van Zandt), has a run-in with some Lithuanian pimps, Norway gets a visit from an ex-mafioso who’s written a cookbook, Roar( Steiner Sagen) lands a job as the star of a Brazilian telenovela, and here’s a question: what does that have to do with the plight of a distressed Blue Whale? There’s even room for a touch of the supernatural as Torgeir (Trond Fausa) finds himself possessed by the ghost of dead East End thug Duncan Hammer (Paul Kaye). Oh, and just to stir the pot even more, The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, turns up in a provocative cameo.

But as much as the show seems to be morphing into something bigger and more colourful, it also stays true to its original theme, the contrast between the brand of bracing individualism that Tony imports into Lillehammer and the stifling grey straitjacket of the Norwegian nanny state. It’s a theme expressed in the parallel rise of the ex-gangster and the inexorable social slide of Jan Johansen (Fridtjov Saheim), his one-time immigration officer – something that explains why the showrunners are still prepared to give so much time to this fascinatingly appalling character when you’d think they’d be tempted to just throw in a few more nightclub scenes with topless dancers instead.

Some might quibble at the lack of a strong dramatic focus, but minute by minute Season 3 is great value, and by now the show’s ability to balance Tony’s loud, brash persona with naturalistic performances from his Norwegian co-stars has reached the level of a fine art. Unmissable, even if you’re not usually a fan of lots of snow. 8/10

DVD Review: Modern Times

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard
Director: Charlie Chaplin

modern-times 1In Modern Times Chaplin gives one of his funniest and most sympathetic performances as a factory worker being driven crazy by the inhuman pace of his job, which involves tightening the nuts on an endless stream of identical components rushing along a conveyor belt. All the while he’s spied on remotely by a big boss in a big office who’s the spitting image of John Frederson, the technocratic ruler of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. A dizzying flow of accidents and misunderstandings sees the Tramp going to prison and being released again, at which point he takes up with Paulette Goddard’s delightful riverside gamin, who’s tougher, more feisty and – showing a lot of bare leg in a ragged skirt – quite a bit sexier than Chaplin’s usual screen damsels.

The Metropolis-inspired futuristic visuals endow Modern Times with a clean, cool aesthetic, thanks to which it has remained among the freshest and instantly accessible of Chaplin’s films. The most celebrated highlights are the ones involving mad pieces of technology – the automated eating device that tries to choke the Tramp on a steel nut, and the tour de force moment where he gets sucked into a giant machine and goes spooling through its cog-laden interior. But there are plenty of others which don’t rank far behind in excellence, as when the Tramp and the gamin set up home in a death-trap of a shack full of lethal examples of her terrible carpentry, a sequence which only seems to gain extra savour from the fact that it was parodied in The Toxic Avenger. The transfer looks sharp, clean and bright on DVD. 9/10

EXTRAS
26 min documentary in which the Dardenne Brothers talk about Chaplin’s reactions to industrialism and the Great Depression in a manner which is, er, very French. ~ A lucid 6-min introduction by David Robinson, in which he mentions that Chaplin actually recorded some spoken dialogue for the movie but decided not to use it. ~ A segment in which you can join in karaoke style to the mock-Italian nonsense song that Chaplin sings late in the movie. ~ The Idle Class, a 28 min two-reeler by Chaplin mocking the rich folk holidaying in Miami. 8/10

DVD Review: The Great Dictator

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard
Director: Charlie Chaplin

great-dictator 1The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s first proper sound film and, at 2 hours, easily his longest thus far. It also saw him taking on a dual role, as Hitler-like dictator Hynkel and as the Jewish barber who, having been traumatised in WWI, finally emerges from military hospital to find his country under Hynkel’s jackboot.

The film is hampered by Chaplin’s almost painful tentativeness when it comes to delivering lines on screen, and his failure as a scriptwriter and director to get to grips with spoken dialogue (sound movies had been around for over a decade by then, but it’s as if Chaplin had studiously avoided watching any of them).On the other hand, it’s great fun seeing Chaplin playing a baddie, and the movie is studded with brilliant set-pieces.

Most famous of these is the scene where Hynkel dances around with a balloon in the shape of the Earth, contemplating world domination, to melting strains on violins. But there’s also a clever moment early on, continuing Chaplin’s fascination with fiendish machines from Modern Times, which sees the barber clinging helplessly to violently lurching anti-aircraft gun. Even better is a scene where the barber and some fellow insurgents try to decide who should go on a suicide mission to assassinate Hynkel by each eating a pudding. The one who discovers a coin inside their dessert will have done the equivalent of drawing the short straw – except that Chaplin suddenly finds coins being slipped onto his plate from all directions … With scenes like these to enjoy, The Great Dictator still offers plenty of evidence as to why Chaplin was a great director. 7/10

EXTRAS
26-min documentary with director Costa-Gravas giving his thoughts on The Great Dictator; it also includes some nice behind the scenes footage, and talks about interesting stuff such as Chaplin’s secret marriage to his co-star Paulette Goddard. ~ 25 min of behind the scenes footage shot in colour (but without sound). We get to see Chaplin busting out some comedy shapes during a ball scene and sitting behind a camera at a Hynkel rally. One of the surprises of this footage was how vividly coloured the costumes were, with the stormtroopers wearing scarlet trousers. 7/10