DVD Review: RWBY Season 1

rwby 1This American-made anime (from webseries maestros RoosterTeeth) centres around a character named Ruby Rose, who rocks a demure Little Red Hiding Hood outfit but who has an ungirlish passion for large, deadly weapons, her favourite being an oversized scythe-cum-sniper rifle that goes everywhere with her. Together with her older sister Yang, she’s packed off to a special academy where she can learn to hone her fighting prowess, and a good thing too, as all kinds of social discontent and criminal activities are brewing in the background.

The story is solid, if not very original. Once at the academy, the students are divided into teams and sent on training missions, a la Naruto, with a tournament or two for good measure. Battling gigantic monsters, the students have to cease bickering and get in some serious team bonding, while Ruby has to stop being such a weapon geek and become more of a people person. It’s a tale zestfully told, however, with voice acting and music both above average, and the series is given a real lift by the quality of the wise-cracking dialogue and the liveliness of the subsidiary characters, such as class bitch and know-it-all Weiss and Jaune, a hapless wimp who suffers from motion sickness and a lack of confidence but who gets taken in hand by Xena-type warrior girl Pyrrha.

Ultimately, though, how much you enjoy RWBY will depend upon whether you can take rwby 2the show’s 3D CG animation, which has a decidedly cheap and cheerful look – stiff shoulders and banana fingers are the order of the day. Still, if you can get past that, there’s a lot to enjoy in this bright, good-humoured series. 6/10

EXTRAS
2-mins of footage of some cosplayers dressed up as the characters. ~ 7-min behind-the-scenes with the director, writers and producers, with some insights into the thinking behind the show, its development through the script stage and the 3D modelling. ~ 2 audio commentaries, one with the director and writers, the other with some of the voice cast – both are chatty and lively, although with the amount of in-jokes and laughter, it’s a bit like eavesdropping in on a private conversation in a bar. 7/10

Blu-ray review: Metropolis

Starring: Brigitte Helm, Gustav Frohlic
Director: Fritz Lang
Rating: 10/10

metropolis 1The allegorical storyline by Thea von Harbou, with its wishy-washy message that “the mediator between head and hands must be the heart” might verge on dim-witted, but Fritz Lang’s silent blockbuster remains a tour de force, a barrage of dazzling science fiction imagery that has shaped the imaginations of movie-goers for generations. Watching it is to experience the thrill of pure cinema, as you give yourself over to scenes of monstrous machines with human components and streets in the sky (shot with 300 toy cars that had to be moved forward individually for each frame, 8 days for 10 seconds of film) and, of course, the inventor Rotwang’s lab, complete with crackling electricity and totally awesome fembot.

A flop upon its release in 1927, Metropolis was quickly chopped down from its lengthy metropolis 2original running time to a spare 80 minutes or so, and ever since it has never really existed in a definitive version. This Blu-ray presents the celebrated 2010 reconstruction, which restores the film to two and a half hours, filling out backstories to do with the enmity between Rotwang and Frederson, the ruler of Metropolis (they’ve fallen out over a girl) and various subplots, such as Frederson’s attempts to spy on his son Freder after he takes up with the revolutionary firebrand Maria. Whether any of this new footage makes Metropolis a better or more powerful film is a moot point, but it’s nice to have – especially the extended scene in the bizarre Eternal Gardens, in which Freder is tempted with various scantily clad maidens.

metropolis 5Perhaps the most important aspect of this restoration, though, is not what is seen but what is heard. Because while you’re watching all this new material, you also get treated to a re-recording of Gottfried Huppertz’ wonderful original orchestral score. Surely the most sophisticated score to have been composed up till that time, it exerts a grip like Rotwang’s rubber gloved hand, making use of powerful motifs in a way that predates Max Steiner’s soundtrack for King Kong (1933), and histories of film music may have to be rewritten to take account of it.

A few minutes of the new running time comes from a very poor 16mm print, but most ofmetropolis 3 it looks excellent on HD – all of the famous set-pieces now have a glorious clarity, largely free of grain and print damage. It’s now possible to examine the (very womanly) Man Machine’s costume in great detail – an ingeniously convincing combination of body paint and stuck on bits that was inspired by modernist sculpture. Sequences such as the flashback to the building of the Tower of Babel and the scene where Rotwang pursues Maria through the shadowy catacombs beneath the city look particularly present and real.

metropolis 4The extras on the first of this two disc set include a 55 min documentary which tells the story of the 2010 reconstruction, made possible by the discovery of a near-complete version on 16mm in some rusty film cans in a museum in Buenos Aires. It goes into the various attempts to reconstruct the film and paints a vivid impression of the strange afterlife of old movies mouldering away hlf-forgotten in various archives. In addition, there’s a scholarly and closely argued audio commentary in which two film critics discuss, among other things, Metropolis’s debt to the German culture of the 1920s, particularly developments in art and architecture.

On the second disc, you get the Giorgio Moroder version of Metropolis. Originally released in 1984, this now seems like a rather vulgar example of ’80s kitsch, with its power ballads and superimposed rotoscoped touches, such as glowing eyes and a pulsing circulatory system for the awakening clone Maria. Presumably because all the dirt and scratches were duped directly into the print, it’s rather scratchy and grainy compared to the 2010 reconstruction, but the sound’s great and there is something strangely endearing about it.

Also on this disc is a 48-min documentary about the 16 mm Argentinian print and the museum that discovered it, and their long struggle to get the sceptical experts in Germany to sit up and take notice. It’s a piece that offers more insights into the intense, obsessive world of film archivists.

Blu-ray Review: The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands

Director: Walter Summers
Rating: 8/10

The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands

This little-known silent movie from 1927 recounts events from early on in WWI, a devastating defeat for the British Navy at the hands of Admiral von Spee’s powerful squadron off the coast of Chile, and then the rematch off the Falklands. It’s not quite the tub-thumping, gung-ho patriotic piece you might expect though. The film is what we would now call a drama documentary – the clue’s in the dryly polysyllabic title – and the tone is cool, unemotive and fair-minded, with Von Spee, the British Navy’s nemesis, portrayed as a ruthless yet worthy adversary.

That said, it serves up some moments that will be sure to stir British hearts. After the losses at Coronel, the Admiralty bring forward work on HMS Invincible and Inflexible, and the extended montage of these two mighty warships being fitted out for action by toiling dockhands has an Arthurian-cum-Nibelungian grandeur (especially when accompanied by Simon Dobson’s newly commissioned score, played by the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines). A metaphor for implacable resolve, even today it’s guaranteed to put the frighteners on anyone thinking of messing with the Brits.

Although more interested in facts than feelings, director Walter Summers shows some flair for the human aspect of the drama. There’s a delightfully humorous vignette where the action shifts to Port Stanley and its ragtag volunteer defence force (with scruffy dog), and a very authentic feeling – and also strangely impressive – moment later on when the British are about to engage the enemy but before they do, they calmly have their tea.

The battles scenes – filmed with the cooperation of the Admiralty, with existing warships of the time playing the parts of the combatants – feel like what they were, lavish, large-scale reconstructions rather than the real thing. But even if they skimp on the carnage, they’re undoubtedly spectacular, and they’re imbued with a compassion for anyone, of whatever nationality, who risks their lives on the high seas.

The restoration from various fine grain and nitrate positives could hardly be better. A few of the long shots are a little soft and grainy, but most of the medium shots are almost clinically sharp – there’s some gorgeously picturesque footage of the Falklands, and any number of Expressionistically shot scenes of sailors manning huge guns, stoking boilers and scurrying up ladders. Summers seems to have known his Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin was made just two years previously), and he’s no slouch when it comes to fast-paced narrative and lean, muscular cross-cutting.

The extras including a 12-minute featurette on the new score, a 5-minute look at the restoration process and a selection of Naval themed shorts, including a piece about one of the ships lost in the battle of Coronel. All in all, anyone with a keen interest in the British Navy is going to be thrilled by this new BFI release, and fans of silent movies will be delighted to see what is undoubtedly a major British film of the pre-talkies era reclaimed from oblivion and presented in a stunning new print.

Blu-ray Review: Ganja and Hess

Starring: Duane Jones, Marlene Clark
Director: Bill Gunn
Rating: 4/10

ganja-and-hess 1

When you hear the storyline – wealthy, cultured professor of anthropology is stabbed with a mysterious ancient dagger and goes from sipping fine wines at cocktail parties to gorging himself on blood in seedy dives – you’d be inclined to assume that Ganja and Hess is just another Blaxploitation movie a la Blacula. But while it was released in 1973, during the height of the Blaxploitation boom, it actually harks back to the acid-fuelled ’60s. It’s a rare example of a black hippie flick.

Stylistically, it seems to draw heavily on the Nicolas Roeg playbook, with fragmentary, elliptical storytelling, frowsty verite style camera work and rambling, semi-improved dialogue, all of which make rather heavy weather of the hokey plot. For horror fans, the key point of interest is the presence in a starring role of Duane Jones of Night of the Living Dead fame. Sadly, while Jones looks the part and brings a certain gravitas to the film, he’s given disappointingly little to do, and his character, Dr Hess Green, is too taciturn to be very engaging. Nor does the situation improve once his vampiric tendencies emerge – like much else in the film, the violence is half-baked and unconvincing, and it’s typical of the movie’s vagueness that it’s never made clear exactly how he extracts the blood from his victims’ bodies.

Ganja and Hess has some pretensions to being a case study of addition, but its arty ganja-and-hess 2and undisciplined approach to the theme leaves it feeling rather toothless. Aside from a couple of trippy dream sequences, it doesn’t have much to hold the viewer’s attention. One for Blaxploitation completists rather than the general viewer. The HD transfer is quite grainy and a little washed out at times, but generally free of print damage. The disc comes with a very nice 30-minute documentary pulling together motley interviews that provide lots of background to the making of the film and its brief appearance in movie theatres. There’s also an excellent audio commentary with the producer, cinematographer and lead actress, who cover plenty of ground between them. Fans of the film – or those eager to explore a little-seen curiosity – are sure to be pleased with this package of extras.

DVD Review: Giovanni’s Island

Director: Mizuho Nishikubo
Rating: 7/10

This moving anime casts an interesting light on a little-known part of Japan’s post-WWII history. With the war over, a remote fishing island finds itself occupied by the Russian army. For children such as the protagonist, Genzou, feelings are mixed – the Russians are big and scary, but they bring electricity and their own rather intriguing blond-haired sons and daughters. Maybe things won’t be so bad after all. Then, however, the deeper realities of occupation bite…

The style of the film is dense and highly individual, by turns grotesque and lyrical – there’s a scene involving a toy train set that’s as beautiful a piece of animation as you’ll see anywhere. The mood darkens in the second half as the islanders go through the terrifying process of repatriation to mainland Japan via a Siberian labour camp. As if this weren’t traumatic enough, the story takes a few melodramatic turns which pile on yet more heartache.

Giovanni’s Island seems to beg comparison with Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies. It’s not quite so single-mindedly sure of itself as that film (nor quite as gruelling, thankfully), but it certainly merits being mentioned in the same breath as an animated film that dares to revisit some painful moments in Japan’s past.

DVD Review: Foyle’s War – Complete Series 8

Starring: Michael Kitchen, Honeysuckle Weeks Rating: 8/10 foyles-war 2 This eighth (and apparently last) season of Foyle’s season War finds the series continuing to move smoothly into the post-war era and a Le Carré-ish world of cloak and dagger. As ever, the show brews up a nice balance between intrigue and history lesson.

High Castle, the first of the three new episodes, concerns itself with a shady American oilman with connections to the Nazis, with a sub-thread to do with the situation of women suddenly being excluded from the workplace to make way for returning menfolk. It’s a satisfying, glossily produced mystery, and things get even better with the next episode, Trespass. This looks at the predicament of Jews after the war, with Zionists agitating for a Jewish state on the one hand and, on the other, a charismatic Mosley-like figure stirring hatred in the streets. It’s brave stuff, sensitively written by show creator Anthony Horowitz, an example of the series at the best.

So, too, is the final episode, Elise. After the redoubtable Miss Pierce gets shot, Foyle is drawn into the murky world of WWII’s SOE and the plight of its female agents. As well as exploring one of the spy world’s greatest conundrums, it paints a picture of a country still feeling the toll of war in various ways.

Eight seasons in, Honeysuckle Weeks continues to chew her dialogue and the plots foyles-war 1creak every now and then as they try to find her something to do, but other than that, Foyles War seems to be in fine fettle in this latest outing. As for Michael Kitchen, he’s not called upon to do much more than display his usual array of owlish tics and mannerisms, but he remains a compellingly watchable embodiment of decency and common sense. A shame, then, that the series has been axed, but at least it’s going out on a high. There are two hours’ worth of extras, including chats with the ebullient Horowitz which cast a light on the historical background of the stories, and some nicely made behind the scenes featurettes with lots of talk about the period’s four-wheeled stars. All of which adds a lot of value to the box set.

DVD Review: Stolen Kisses

Starring: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Michael Lonsdale, Delphine Seyrig
Director: Francois Truffaut
Rating: 10/10

vlcsnap-2014-09-05-16h09m01s34Some films define their times, others belie them and make a statement that way. Stolen Kisses was shot in February, 1968, a period of great political upheaval in France, and yet it’s Francois Truffaut at his most serene and amiable, displaying a good nature that was in all too short supply on the streets – and you can tell the gods agreed with him, because the film is bathed in unseasonably mild and sunny winter weather that adds the finishing touch to its delightfulness.

Drummed out of the army with a dishonourable discharge, Antoine Doinel (Truffaut’s vlcsnap-2014-09-05-16h07m27s123fictional alter ego, played as always by Jean-Pierre Leaud) has to adjust back to civvy street and tries his hand at a variety of jobs, while also attempting to reconnect with the girl of his dreams, Christine (Claude Jade), who remains friendly but unattainable. One thing leads to another, and he winds up working for a seedy detective agency, who place him undercover in a shoe shop whose twitchy, paranoid owner (Michael Lonsdale) wants to know why no one likes him. Here, he falls head over heels for the client’s impossibly glamorous wife, Fabienne (Delphine Seyrig).

vlcsnap-2014-09-05-15h59m37s36It’s a story spun out of the flimsiest of gossamer, and it wouldn’t take much for the whole thing to collapse. Yet Truffaut balances one unlikely event on top of another with such a sublimely delicate touch he makes it look easy. By now, almost all the Nouvelle Vague stylistic tics had worked their way out of his system, and the surface of the film is relaxed, naturalistic, seemingly transparent and without technique. Nothing seems contrived, everything just seems to happen, sometimes only just about caught in the margins of the frame by a camera that hangs back like a shy yet curious bystander.

Occasionally, the film accelerates into farce (as in an early scene where Antoine, vlcsnap-2014-09-05-15h56m54s186working as a hotel night-watchman, unwittingly helps to expose an adulterous affair), but more often the pace and tone are casual. Truffaut and his scriptwriters avoid the expected scenes and the usual clichés; nothing is underlined or over-dramatized. It’s all as light as a feather, but there’s an earthiness too, a sharp whiff of everyday life, like odour of the smelly cheese that Michael Lonsdale’s character greedily devours for lunch. Whimsy and flights of fancy are counterbalanced by the humdrum. Almost everything in the film has a lived-in look. This is a Paris that’s badly in need of a lick of paint, and the tide of humanity that washes through offices of the detective agency where Antoine works has left a thick layer of greenish grime on the outer door.

vlcsnap-2014-09-05-16h05m30s236If the film has one flaw, it’s Leaud himself, who gives very little to the camera and tries to make up for it with occasional mugging. But the other performances more than compensate, especially Michael Lonsdale and Delphine Seyrig – the latter at her iconic best, silky-toned, subsiding into refined postures, almost a walking metaphor for the Truffaut aesthetic. “People are wonderful,” says her character, Fabienne. The film doesn’t quite go that far perhaps, but it’s warm and affectionate, and it shows a graceful acceptance of life’s disappointments and the way that, even when you do end up with the right person, it’s often not at the right time.

The Eastmancolor stock doesn’t hold a great deal of detail on this DVD transfer, but thevlcsnap-2014-09-05-16h02m14s68 colours are fresh and breezy. Extras include a 3-minute intro and an audio commentary with Claude Jade (Christine in the film) and scriptwriter Claude de Givray. They talk revealingly about the background to the film and its origins in Truffaut’s biography (like Antoine, the director spent time in a military prison). De Givray is very interesting on Truffaut’s working methods – he explains that the script was “merely a reminder”, and that the director would often write scenes the night before and then work out the rest with the actors on location. We also learn that Seyrig didn’t want to play Fabienne and insisted on a hefty paycheque – just as well they met her demands, because it’s impossible to imagine the film without her.