Blu-ray review: What Have You Done to Solange?

Starring: Cristina Galbo, Fabio Testi, Joachim Fuchsberger
Director: Massimo Dallamano

Massimo Dallamano’s infamous giallo concerns a group of posh Catholic schoolgirls who are being butchered in a highly sexualized manner by a crazed assailant. One of the girls (Cristina Galbo) thinks she has glimpsed the killer, and meanwhile the randy gym teacher (Fabio Testi) with whom she’s having an affair finds himself liked for the murders by the local plod (Joachim Fuchsberger).

Lushly shot in ‘scope on location in England, the film transplants all the usual beloved giallo tropes to an upper crust, decidedly unswinging London. Aside from a plethora of mini skirts, there’s little evidence of the sexual revolution having taken place, but this actually works to the film’s advantage, making its fantasy vision of a leafy, genteel London seem less rooted in its time than that all those movies that tried to cash in on ’60s psychedelia.

There’s a peculiar echo of Hitchcock’s Psycho in the story structure, which falls rather awkwardly into two halves. That aside, though, What Have You Done to Solange? offers – by giallo standards – a satisfying and logical mystery puzzle, along with everything else you would hope for in a movie of this genre: opulent scene-setting, pretty young actresses, a pervasive air of kinkiness and a controlled brutality in the set-pieces – as in a pivotal bathtub murder which still has a visceral power to shock. Its sexual attitudes are contradictory and unreconstructed, but it’s far more beautiful to look at than most other films made in Britain at the time. 7/10

TRANSFER
A very nice HD transfer, with no grain or damage and a sharp level of detail, and the typically Italian palette of earthy browns, ruddy skin tones and faded blues (plus acid English greens) comes across beautifully. The early Thameside sequences look very fresh and dewy, the wide-angle shots inside the girl’s school have a 3D depth, and the amber-lit scenes of the pupils taking confession are also very crisp. There’s a choice of English or Italian audio. The latter is perfectly serviceable, but the English dub, with its more nuanced script and voice acting, is the place to start. (The actors actually spoke the dialogue in English to help with the lip synch.) 8/10

EXTRAS
14-min interview with Karin Baal (Fabio Testi’s wife in the movie) who has a right old moan about the film and her experiences making it. Among her many complaints, she describes how, instead of actually speaking his lines properly, her co-star Testi would simply move his lips with no sound coming out of them, leaving her to guess what he was saying. ~ 21-min interview with Fabio Testi, looking even more dashingly handsome than he does in the film. He talks interesting about his career (he started as a stuntman), and turns out to be a good source of info on all aspects of the production. ~ 11-min interview with producer Fulvio Lucisano, who provides some insights into Dallamano’s personality and working methods. ~ Scholarly 29-min video essay by Michael Mackenzie, with some nice high-def clips, looking at the film’s precursors and its unofficial sequels. ~ An unmissable audio commentary – how often can you say that? – with Alan Jones and Kim Newman which sees both critics in top form as they ponder the film’s sexual morality, puzzle over its English locations and contemplate its relationship not only to other gialli but also to the genre of German “krimi”. 10/10

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Blu-ray review: The Birth of a Nation

Starring: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh
Director: D.W. Griffith

birth-of-a-nation 1Infamous for its racist views, D.W. Griffith’s three-hour epic is also an undoubted landmark of cinema’s silent era. And in the first half at least there’s still a lot to enjoy. The early scenes establishing the Camerons and the Stonemans – two families linked by ties of friendship who find themselves on opposite sides of the Civil War – have a breezy, relaxed charm that’s still infectious, and it’s impossible not to be swept up in set-pieces such as the burning of Atlantic, with its pioneering use of optical FX and red tinting to sum up a hellish vision of warfare, or the assassination of Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth (meticulously recreated to the last detail, down to the exact dimensions of the theatre where the murder took place).

It’s hard to imagine anyone, though, not having a problem with the second half, which recounts the rise of the Ku Klux Klan (“the organisation that saved the South from the tyranny of black rule,” as the film’s intertitles would have it). But even here, Griffith’s flair for the picturesque and the lavishness of his art design are constantly in evidence. As you watch, you can practically feel Griffith shaping the medium of cinema in front of you, with sequences such as an impressive shootout in a shack which seems to foreshadow ones in The Outlaw Josey Wales and Heaven’s Gate to name but a few. And then there are strange, hyper-real moments which seem to leap out at you from the distant past, such as an off-the-cuff vignette of Elsie and the Little Colonel taking turns kissing a dove. Like it or loathe it, it’s a film whose DNA has seeped into movie history. 7/10

TRANSFER
Probably no other director of the silent era benefits from the upgrade to Blu-ray quite as much as Griffith, because of his control of atmosphere, his use of plumes of smoke and dust to give depth and a living bloom to his scenes. Aside from a few lower-grade inserts, this is a lovely transfer, with hardly any print damage and a sharp, crystalline quality different from the soft, grainy texture you so often get with silent movies. The early scenes in the cotton fields have a gauzy beauty, and the long shot of the army marching on Atlanta by night is packed with detail. The sequence in Ford’s Theatre looks particularly rich and flamboyant. 8/10

EXTRAS
This 100th anniversary release from the BFI comes with a whole slew of extras which birth-of-a-nation 2help to put the film in context. ~ Stilted yet revealing 5-min chat between Griffith and Walter Huston from 1930, in which the director reminisces about his mother sewing costumes for the clan. ~ 38-mins of outtakes and camera tests, with a lot more battle footage. ~ Concise, interesting 20-min piece in which expert Melvyn Stokes gives a potted bio of the director (whose parents were slave-owners) and discusses the origins of the film and its critical reception (it received the accolade of being shown in the White House. ~ 32-min panel discussion which gives further historical background to the movie. ~ 21-min behind the scenes at the recording sessions for John Lanchberry’s orchestral score, with the relevant scenes shown in split-screen.

Also included in the extras are a series of other Civil War-themed shorts by Griffith. ~ The Coward, 68 min. A yarn in which a callow youth discovers his courage at the propitious moment, rather slow to begin with but with a decent battle scene towards the end. A clean, fresh tinted print with chamber music score. ~ The Rose of Kentucky, 16 min. A romance of the cotton fields, in which, interestingly, the Clan are baddies. Grainy picture but some nice location shooting. ~ Stolen Glory, 13 min. Lightly comic piece about an old soldier telling war stories. ~ The Drummer of the 8th, 28 min. A charming piece about a boy determined to follow his elder brother to the front, well acted by the juvenile lead and once again showing Griffith’s feel for period detail. A lovely tinted print. 10/10

Blu-ray review: Day of the Outlaw

Starring: Robert Ryan, Burl Ives
Director: Andre De Toth

Hide the liquor and the women! The Masters of Cinema Blu-ray of this exceptional western comes hot on the heels of the same label’s release of Shane, and it’s interesting to note the similarities between the two films. They both kick off with a feud between ranchers and settlers, between those who want to roam free across the land and those who want to fence it in. (Robert Ryan’s grizzled, tyrannical frontiersman even goes so far as to make a speech about how he’s spent blood and gunpowder civilising the territory which is almost identical to the one the baddie in Shane gives.) However, before the tension can boil over into violence, both sides are taught a morality lesson about keeping their baser instincts in check when the whole town is taken hostage by a gang of leering, trigger-happy bank robbers, led by Burl Ives’ steely-willed commander, Bruhn.

Director Andre De Toth was well-versed in horror and SF (he’s best remembered for helming House of Wax, one of the highlights of Vincent Price’s filmography), and there’s a suggestion of H.G. Well’s Doctor Moreau about Bruhn, who seems more lion tamer than leader of men. He’s the only one who can keep his stooges on the leash (“they could swallow this town whole and no one would live to tell the tale”), but he’s seriously wounded – and if he dies, everyone is doomed.

At first glance, it’s a curt, gravelly performance much like his more familiar one as the hard-headed pater familias of the Hannassey clan in William Wyler’s The Big Country, but this role cuts much, much deeper – there are cracks in the granite facade, and we get to peek at the terrified figure within.

The film brings a similar analytical power to the rest of its characters, especially Ryan’s rancher, who’s been having an affair with a farmer’s wife and looking for an excuse to kill the husband so he can have her all to himself. It’s a career best turn from Ryan, and the process of self-realization he undergoes when he meets Bruhn and his bestial crew is not only convincing but profoundly moving. But then all the performances are excellent, fired by a sharp script and taut direction.

The upshot is a western of rare power – a chamber western for two thirds of its running time, with a small cast and claustrophobic interiors. Then, in its last leg, it opens out into something epic, with gorgeous location photography that looks stunning on this Blu-ray. If you add any western to your collection this year, Day of the Outlaw should be it. 10/10

TRANSFER
The picture is very clean and sharp in the interiors, which have a silvery, evenly lit look, but the glory of this transfer are snowy exteriors, with their spectrum of greys and silky blacks. There’s a beautiful high-contrast shot mid-film of the darkly clad townswomen trailing across sunlit slush and ice, but that’s only a preamble to the bleak, ethereal beauty of the mountainscapes in the last 20 minutes or so, with their freezing fogs that chill the bones. 10/10

EXTRAS
An intelligent and well-informed 26-min chat about the film with director Bertrand Tavernier. Among other things, he discusses the director’s working methods and the mystery of who penned the script (credited to Philip Yordan, a screenwriter-entrepreneur who employed a whole stable of hacks to write under him, but probably mostly written by De Toth and Ryan). 7/10

Blu-ray review: A New Leaf

Starring: Walter Matthau, Elaine May
Director: Elaine May

The one supposed to be turning over a new leaf is Walter Matthau’s Henry Graham, an ageing roue who has blown his trust fund on horses, planes and fast cars. However, instead of getting a job and earning a crust, he decides to marry for money, and then murder his bride. Luckily for him, he finds the perfect victim in the shape of Elaine May’s Henrietta, a clumsy, bespectacled botanist with non-existent social skills.

Initially, Matthau doesn’t seem that a good a fit for a part – his face looks far too lived-in and worldly wise – but he comes into his own later on, first when he’s in cynical fortune hunter mode, and later when Henrietta’s slovenliness and anarchic financial accounts bring out an unexpected self-discipline and love of order in him. It’s this discovery of new depths within himself which is the heart of the film, and it’s entertaining to watch the transformation, although it has to be said that Matthau doesn’t get much help from May, who’s turn as Henrietta is too much of a broad caricature to work in a rom-com setting.

May was married to Mike Nichols, and tonally the film strikes a similar attractive note of alienation and ennui to The Graduate. The script, though, is more of a mixed bag, throwing together slapstick and arch verbal humour in a way that sometimes misfires. On the other hand, with a milieu of wealthy oddballs not unlike Harold and Maud, the film is full of unusual, quirky touches and moments of intriguing strangeness, as well as some decent setpieces, such as the one where Henry’s butler urgently extols the virtues of marriage, having noticed that his employer seems to be packing a helluva lot of guns and knives for a camping trip with his new bride. 6/10

TRANSFER
The brightly hued Technicolor cinematography comes across very sharply in this HD transfer. An early scene of Matthau riding a horse has a lovely depth and freshness, as does a slightly later one of him sitting in his beloved club. Throughout, details of costumes and décor come up vividly, adding greatly to the film’s charm. 9/10

EXTRAS
A 16-min video essay by David Cairns, in which the film academic talks about May’s career (which reached a peak with The Heartbreak Kid and foundered on Ishtar) and the film’s themes and motifs. 6/10

DVD Review: Detectorists Series 2

Starring: Toby Jones, Mackenzie Crook

detectorists s2 1There’s a soothing familiarity to the second season of this Bafta-winning comedy. Yes, as we pick up where we left off with Lance, Andy and co, it’s the next best thing to slipping into a hot bath. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t a few storm clouds gathering. Never in very rude health, Lance’s love life is in the doldrums, while Andy is stuck with being a house husband since he’s unable to find a job as a newly qualified archaeologist.

The story arc Mackenzie Crook has written for his own character this time round is perhaps the least interesting strand of Series 2, and this reflects a slight change of emphasis, away from the two leads onto the other members of their local metal detecting club. It’s these colourful misfits who get the funniest scenes in this second outing, especially bluff ex-copper Terry (Gerard Horan) and the hilarious duo of Russell (Pearce Quigley) and Young Hugh (Divian Ladwa).

Compared to the first season, the scripts feel a little under-written, with some recycling of old jokes (the return of Simon and Garfunkel), and the main story strand, to do with a young German looking for a downed German bomber, seems somewhat undernourished. But Series 2 still delivers the goods when it comes to its feeling for the English countryside and eccentricity and the relaxed chemistry between its cast. 7/10

EXTRAS
Very nice 32-min featurette with the cast and crew on location during the filming of the club rally sequence. The show’s producer talks about the genesis of the show and its appeal to Britain’s hobbyists, and we also hear from the likes of Quigley and Ladwa, who seem eerily like the characters they’re playing. 8/10

Blu-ray review: Ghost Story

Starring: Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Alice Krige
Director: John Irvin

ghost-story 1This adaptation of Peter Straub’s best selling novel has tended not to be very highly regarded by horror buffs because of its choice of middle of the road director John Irvin and its diverges from the source material, while for movie critics it came at the tail-end of the ’70s vogue for all-star casts of old Hollywood names long past their prime. And yet Ghost Story is undeniably creepy and forbidding. The octogenarian stars bring a real whiff of mortality and world-weariness to their roles as the ageing town worthies nursing a terrible secret, there’s a delicious chill to the wintry New England ambience as photographed by DoP Jack Cardiff, and all this is contrasted with a sensual, erotic frisson courtesy of the beautiful Alice Krige as the wronged woman returned to settle scores. Throw in some Dick Smith FX for an extra goo factor, and you have what amounts to a tasty slice of supernatural fare for the Yuletide season. 8/20

TRANSFER
The transfer is a little soft, with a few tiny scratches and blemishes, but it has some very nice moments – the glowing close-up of Krige next to the electric fire, the dream sequence in the church with its directional amber lighting, the brightly lit flashback to the 1920s, all these have plenty of crispness and presence. 7/10

EXTRAS
A really outstanding set of extras kicks off with a lively and engaging 28-min interview ghost-story 2with Alice Krige, who talks about her early life and career (she originally planned to be a psychologist), working on location and her self-consciousness during the nude scenes. ~ A frank and amusingly eccentric 39-min interview with Peter Straub which will be of great interest to fans of the author. Topics covered include his writing methods and his love of jazz, and he also reads excerpts from the novel. ~ 29-min piece in which the producer and scriptwriter talk about the difficulties of adapting a complex novel. 28-min featurette on the FX, with some fascinating insights into the matte-painter’s art. ~ Audio commentary with John Irvin, who speaks articulately about his creative choices on the film. 10/10