Blu-ray review: A Touch of Zen

Starring: Feng Hsu, Chun Shih
Director: King Hu

Modern example of the period martial arts dramas known as wuxia – The Assassin, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers – all pay homage to the films of King Hu, especially this mammoth 3-hour offering from 1971. And the debt extends not just to its set-pieces and imagery either – the bamboo forests, the tree-top battles, the balletic trampoline work – but also to the elevated tone, panoramic cinematography and otherworldly feeling which have become part of the DNA of the genre.

The story concerns a remote town which suddenly fills up with people who aren’t what they seem – among them, a blind beggar, a secretive herbalist and a mysterious girl living in the ruins of a fort – and who turn out to be either secret agents or the fugitives they’re chasing, family and supporters of a high official brought low by a crooked rival. All of which we learn through the eye of Ku, an unambitious calligrapher who is slowly drawn into the intrigue.

Very slowly – but because A Touch of Zen is a film that likes to take its time. The early sections deliver slow-burning chills as Ku becomes aware that something is going on in the fort (the primary location for the first half of the movie, it’s a palpably eerie place, a triumph of large scale set-building which Hu left standing for a year before primary shooting until it was suitably overgrown with magnificent feathery reeds), and it’s not until the 50-minute mark that we get the first proper fight and some clear idea of what is going on. After that the film is studded with visually stunning ruckuses, but it’s the long-stretched-out quiet moments in-between that linger most in the memory.

Another of Hu’s valuable contributions to the wuxia genre was the invention of the kind of kickass, sword-wielding heroines who make your average James Bond femme fatale look like a total drip. Here there’s another fine example of the type in the form of Yang, daughter of the wrongfully disgraced high official, who recounts her backstory while calmly forging a brace of throwing darts for the decimation of her enemies. As the film progresses, she and her doughty sidekicks are endowed with a poised, graceful quality that makes them seem more like supernatural spirits that earthly folk, a sign of things to come as the story grows ever more strange and mystical.

If you’re dipping your toe into vintage wuxia for the first time, Hu’s previous film Dragon Inn (also available from Eureka on their Masters of Cinema label) is probably a slightly more accessible starting point, but, leisurely and dreamlike as it is, A Touch of Zen shows the genre at full stretch. 8/10

TRANSFER
Another strong transfer, up to the standard of Dragon Inn. In the close-ups you can literally count the hairs on Ku’s head, the dusky colours of the vintage film stock come across very attractively, and the atmospheric scenes in the fort have a lovely bloom. Even the darker interior scenes, such as those inside Ku’s house, are surprisingly crisp. 9/10

EXTRAS
Go-to expert on Eastern cinema Tony Rayns provides an excellent audio commentary for five (long) scenes from the movie. He talks about the film’s source material and its Daoist and Buddhist themes, and serves up a detailed bio of the director. ~ A well-made 48 min featurette on King Hu, which as well as providing lots of welcome info about the director offers fascinating insights into the Hong Kong movie scene. ~ Sharply observed 17-min video essay by David Cairns. 10/10

Blu-ray review: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Starring: Dolly Read, Edy Williams
Director: Russ Meyer

Russ Meyer fans insist that this bright, splashy tale of an all-girl rock band coming to LA and experiencing overnight excess (reprising the themes of Jacqueline Suzanne’s Valley of the Dolls) was always intended to be a parody, but as the script – by the famous film critic Roger Ebert – turns into an assault course of cliches (broken relationships, abortions, attempted suicides on live TV), you can’t help suspecting that some of the biggest laughs are unintentional.

Does it matter? No, because either way it’s an extremely likeable film. For starters, who can resist glutting themselves on the flamboyant, high-gloss ‘Scope cinematography and all those outrageous psychedelic costumes? It also gets points for an inclusive, non-tokenistic attitude to minorities – Petronella, the band’s black drummer, is given a decent story thread, and there’s a great moment when they’re all piling into the van on an urgent life or death mission and everyone gallantly waits so the wheelchair-bound guy can get in too.

Best of all, the bad eggs who lead the girls astray are as engaging a trio as you could hope to spend a lost weekend with – Z-Man, the camp Svengali who ushers them onto stardom; Lance Rocke, the cash-strapped bit part actor who gets a showmance going with the lead singer; and Ashley St Ives, the man-eating porn star who turns the band’s manager into her boy toy.

And the fact that the plotting is shambolic, the dialogue is overcooked and its portrayal of Tinseltown is so ersatz only adds to the film’s kitsch, postmodern appeal. Whether it’s the result of cold calculation or glorious incompetence, the truth is you can’t tear your eyes off it and it’s a film you wouldn’t want to be without. 7/10

TRANSFER Gorgeous transfer. In the opening dance hall sequence, the deep focus crane shot through the bunting is in crisp focus from front to back. Even dimly lit scenes such as the one in the band’s dressing room are exceptionally clear and free of grain. Throughout, colours are lustrous and candy store vibrant, magnificently so in the gel-swamped, peyote-fuelled finale. The audio is also full and rounded. 9/10

EXTRAS Lively 30-min “making of” with contributions from cast and scriptwriter (one of a number of strong featurettes on the Blu-ray dating from the film’s 2006 DVD release). There’s some interesting background info on Meyer’s career and working methods, and we learn that Z-Man was based on Phil Spector (prophetically, as it happens). ~ 10- minute piece on the music – the actresses were dubbed, shock horror. ~ 25-mins of featurettes in BEYOND_THE_VALLEY_OF_THE_DOLLS_2D_BDwhich the cast pick out their favourite lines from the movie,, indulge in starry-eyed reminiscences of the ’60s, and discuss the film’s lesbian sex scene. ~ 28-min interview with Meyer recorded in 1987. The director’s charm and charisma are on full display as he chats about working as a cameraman during WWII and his early years on Playboy. ~ Really nice gallery of behind the scenes stills. ~ Crisp, lucid, info-packed audio commentary from Roger Ebert. ~ Audio com with the film’s stars, who do a good job of speaking around each other. Dolly Read reveals that the reason she looks so crazed in the film is because Meyer kept on shouting at her to stop blinking. 10/10

This release comes with a bonus DVD including:

The Seven Minutes. Meyer’s follow-up to Dolls was this rather more serious-minded outing, based on a novel by Irving Wallace, in which a corrupt establishment attempts to make capital out of an obscenity trial by linking a salacious novel to a sensational rape case. The sort of liberal-leaning subject matter that was bread and butter to a director like Stanley Kramer, It’s actually quite an interesting story, but with its dialogue-heavy court scenes, it doesn’t play to Meyer’s strengths (he presumably took it on as an opportunity to settle old scores). Still, there’s enough flashy editing and visuals to please Meyer’s fans. The transfer is grainy standard def, but perfectly watchable.

DVD review: Love

Starring: Aomi Muyock, Karl Glusman
Director: Gaspar Noe

Like the same director’s Irreversible, Gaspar Noe’s Love gropes back from a miserable present to a golden past. Struggling with fatherhood and stuck in a loveless marriage, American in Paris Murphy (Karl Glusman) wonders how he ended up with the wrong girl – with safe, domesticated Omi (Klara Kristin) rather than with wild, exciting Electra (Aomi Muyock).

Utilizing a few tricks from the Lars Von Trier playbook, the film adopts a stream of consciousness approach as he muses on his current state of ennui and on his lost grand passion. There’s a certain elegance to the unfolding of the facts of their relationship. Beyond that, though, all is messiness and chaos.

With its long takes and improvisatory performance style, Love is a film which is wide open to accusations of self-indulgence. And there’s undoubtedly a gaucheness to some of the dialogue and a sameyness to a few of the scenes between the central couple – although one brilliant scene where Murphy and Electra tear strips off each other in the back of a cab as they’re driven through the streets of Paris is as searingly explosive as anything in recent cinema.

And did Noe really mean to make Murphy so boorishly unsympathetic? If he did, you can call it a brave, honest stab at demolishing the male psyche with its machismo and preening vanity. But nicer characters would have been more fun to watch.

It’s around these sorts of issues that critical opinion of Love is likely to divide. Get past this, though, and running through it like an incurable itch iis an interesting question: is sex too volatile a basis for a lasting relationship? And while Noe’s attempt to answer this isn’t especially coherent or conclusive, it certainly can’t be faulted for a sense of urgency or seriousness.

As for the film’s controversial sex scenes, Noe does something with them which no one else seems able to manage, namely to give the impression that his characters put the best of themselves into these slithering, horizontal encounters. It’s a heartening, surprisingly touching achievement, and for that reason alone Love is a unique piece of work. 7/10

DVD review: 45 Years

Starring: Tom Courtenay, Charlotte Rampling
Director: Andrew Haigh

forty five yearsIf the presence of Tom Courtenay in the cast list has lead you to expect another jolly geriatric comedy along the lines of Quartet, you might be a little disappointed by Andrew Haigh’s sensitively written and directed marital drama. But if jokes are in short supply, there’s no shortage of good acting on screen, with Charlotte Rampling giving an impressive performance as an ex-music teacher living in rural retirement with her ailing husband. Their 45th wedding anniversary is fast approaching, but increasingly she finds herself struggling with the fear that a long-dead girlfriend might have been her partner’s true love and that she has only ever played second fiddle to her in his heart.

Aside from these momentous thoughts, not a whole lot happens – chances are most viewers will have had a more eventful week than the couple in the film. But that’s hardly the point in what is a gentle, nuanced slice of life which offers an unflinching, unsentimental view of ageing, illness and isolation. Haigh handles every aspect of the story – including one brief but memorable crumbly-sex scene – with infinite gentleness and tact, and long term fans of the two stars will relish this opportunity to spend a bit of time in their company in the autumn of their careers. 7/10

DVD review: And Then There Were None

Starring: Aidan Turner, Charles Dance, Toby Stephens

and then there were none 1There were slim pickings for mystery fans over the Yuletide period, so all the more reason to be grateful to the secret Santas at the BBC for bringing us this classy three-parter, which now gets a very welcome DVD release. Based on one of Agatha Christie’s most celebrated whodunnits, it sees a selection of the great and the good – a judge, a doctor, a general, a policeman, a woman involved in charitable causes – invited to stay on a house on a remote island, only to find themselves stranded and being picked off one by one.

This version is perhaps slightly more tilted towards horror than some Christie fans might like – with all those long, intense tracking shots of shadowy corridors, you occasionally get the impression that its three directors have spent rather too much time watching Kubrick’s The Shining. But then again, it’s a valid approach, given that the source novel is one of the most savage of the Queen of Crime’s books. Besides, the whole thing is sumptuously – if rather gloomily – mounted, and it’s a joy to spend time with such a gilt-edged cast.

After steeling hearts as Poldark earlier in the year, Aidan Turner shows further evidence of his leading man chops in another sultry role, and both Sam Neil and Charles Dance bring their A game to meaty supporting parts. Most surprising, though, is Toby Stephens, who gives his best screen performance in years as a psychologist who is a twitching, sweating meat sack of raw nerves.

If the recent, rather vapid David Walliam-starring Tommy and Tuppence series made you fear that the BBC had lost the knack of doing Christie, then this sterling adaptation is reassuring evidence that her novels can still transition without mishap onto the Beeb’s prime time schedules. 8/10

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

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