Blu-ray review: Deep Red

Starring: David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi
Director: Dario Argento

In Deep Red, Dario Argento sticks close to the classic giallo formula – the black-gloved serial killer, the damsels in peril, the eyewitness who becomes an amateur sleuth – with undeniably stunning results. David Hemmings plays Marcus, a mild-mannered teacher of classical piano who witnesses his neighbour, a well-known psychic, being brutally murdered and embarks upon some sleuthing (and property renovating) in an attempt to unmask the culprit. Why does he investigate? Awkward questions of motivation evaporate into an atmosphere that from the first feels doomy and dreamlike, the characters compelled like sleepwalkers. The script is light and bantering, with the meek Marcus comically thrown by his encounters with tough-talking feminists, flirty transvestites, aggressively spurting cappuccino machines and other aspects of modern Italy. But beneath the chatty, twittering surface the atmosphere of clenched fear never lets up, and there’s a real nightmare flavour to the setpieces, with a bathtub murder which is an coldly savage as the shower scene in Psycho. Lush, decadent Art Deco design, velvety smooth ‘Scope cinematography and an intense, fetishistic attention to detail all combine to demonstrate that Argento truly is one of the master stylists of Italian horror. 8/10

Argento fans will be delighted with this 4K transfer. All of the setpieces and elaborate setpieces look spectacular. You can practicality stroke the plush crimson interior of the opera house in the opening scene. Shortly afterwards, the moody scene by the fountain has rich, inky shadows and a sharp glitter of mica from the granite wall behind. Throughout, the three-dimensional feel of the transfer gives an extra weight to the director’s brooding tracking shots. 10/10

This release comes with two versions of the film and a host of extras.


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.

Blu-ray review: Closely Observed Trains

Starring: Vaclav Neckar, Josef Somr
Director: Jiri Menzel

Following swiftly on the tails of The Firemen’s Ball, another classic of the Czech New Wave comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Arrow Video. Based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal, Jiri Menzel’s delightful Oscar-winning feature debut is like an inspired mash-up of Kafka’s The Castle and Oh, Mr Porter! The central protagonist, Milos (Vaclav Neckar), is a callow youth from a family of layabouts and misfits who seems all set to follow in their footsteps when he becomes an apprentice railway dispatcher at a sleepy, ramshackle rural train station. Further down the track, WWII is in full swing, but Milos has more pressing problems on his mind, such as trying to lose his virginity – something Masha, a sexy train conductor, would be only too happy to lend him a hand with, but he’s unable to keep up his end of the bargain.

Gradually, the war impinges. There are bombs, SS paratroopers, and visits from the railway supervisor, a card-carrying Nazi who tries to make them all into better servants of the Reich. But despite these rude interruptions the mood that prevails at the rambling stationhouse is one of cosy idleness, enlivened by moments of romance and lechery.

All of this is brilliantly evoked by Menzel in scenes that are a triumph of whimsical, melancholic atmosphere. Throughout, the director’s touch is feather light, and he’s helped enormously by black-and-white location cinematography that is still achingly fresh and present. Intricate editing gives the movie a spry, almost musical quality, with carefully choreographed comedic business playing out against still lifes of clunky, decaying station equipment, remnants of the Austro-Hungarian empire. At the time of release, the film’s unheroic view of the Czech people had subversive political undertones which got it into trouble, but more lastingly it serves as a potent metaphor for that all too common feeling that life is passing you by. And it brims with magical vignettes that would make it into any showreel of the best moments in 1960s world cinema, such as the little scene where Masha leans down to kiss Milos, only to be whisked away in a puff of steam. Sometimes coarse, occasionally heart-stoppingly romantic, Closely Observed Trains is one of those rare films that seems as vivid and mercurial as life itself. 10/10

Presumably because of the location shooting, some of the scenes retain a little grain in this transfer, but on the whole the picture is very good, with pin-sharp detail to many of the medium and long shots and a finely etched quality to the exteriors of the station. There’s a satisfying inky texture to the more shadowy sequences, such as the famous one where the station’s young female telegraph operator gets marked on the rear with a rubber stamp. Overall a transfer that reflects and enhances the film’s mixture of lyricism and earthiness. 8/10

Enjoyable 23-minute piece with critic Peter Hames who talks about Menzel’s career and his close collaboration Hrabal and also reveals that Vaclav Neckar, who plays Milos, was a Czech pop star. ~ Wide-reaching 47-min introduction to Bohumil Hrabal by Michael Brooke which provides an extensive bio of the celebrated Czech author and looks at the various film adaptations of his works (with some interesting clips). Given how often the author is overlooked when doling out credit for a much-loved movie, this piece is particularly commendable and worthwhile. ~ 9-min “making of” in which the director has some interesting things to say about writing the script and casting the film. 9/10

Blu-ray review: Eaten Alive

Starring: Neville Brand, Marilyn Burns, Robert Englund
Director: Tobe Hooper

Tobe Hooper’s second feature – about the owner of a backwoods motel who has the bad habit of murdering his guests before they even get up the stairs, then throwing their bodies to his pet alligator – has often been written off as the first of a long line of missteps in a career that never fulfilled its promise. But you could argue that its darkly comic Grand Guignol simply picks up where the second half of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (especially those scenes at the dinner table with Grandpa) left off. And as with Leatherface, Old Judd’s crimes seem less like acts of evil that a bewildered last line of defence against the onslaught of the outside world.

Another thing Eaten Alive (aka Death Trap) shares with Texas Chainsaw is the way that it unfolds in a dreamlike manner, with the minimum of conventional plot apparatus. The key difference, of course, is that where the earlier movie was shot on location, Eaten Alive was filmed entirely on a sound stage, with lurid, blood-red colour washes and swathes of studio smoke which revel in an alienating artificiality (an artistic decision that seems entirely vindicated when you see how good the results look on this Blu-ray).

Eventually, the fact that Judd (who spends much of the time muttering unintelligibly to himself) is such an impenetrable character takes its toll on the film, and this coincides with a couple of rather dull, earnest scenes involving the local sheriff (Stuart Whitman) which put a brake on the movie’s momentum. But even with these problems (some of which may have been caused by the director being taken off the movie before completion), Eaten Alive is memorable for its unique visuals and its delirious, anything-can-happen vibe, and in many ways it’s a more sheerly enjoyable film than Texas Chain Saw, moving restlessly from one gory, unhinged moment to the next. 7/10

Just a very occasional touch of grain, but on the whole a very crisp transfer, and some of the set-ups using directional lighting and colour washes look outstanding. For example, the early scene in the foyer of Miss Hattie’s whorehouse looks extremely real and present, and all of the sequences which take place in the red-tinged motel forecourt come up with crystalline detail. 9/10

The extras offer a mix of new and archive interviews, and highlights include: 14-min interview with Tobe Hooper – the director makes a few veiled references to interference from the producers, and also mentions that the tank at Raleigh Studios used for the alligator swamp was also used to shoot William Holden’s pool scene in Sunset Boulevard. ~ A really nice 11-min interview with fast-talking Janus Blythe (who plays the girl Buck brings back to the motel), who explains that Hooper was already off the film by the time she came on set and that her scenes were shot by one of the producers, before going on to paint a colourful picture of life as a jobbing actress. ~ 20-min archive interview with Hooper, in which he speaks very articulately about topics such as Neville Brand’s erratic behaviour on set and problems with the alligator (apparently it would soak up water if left in the tank overnight, which perhaps explains it’s rather bloated appearance in the scene where it attacks Buck). ~ A lovely, witty 15-min interview with Robert Englund, who talks about his early years and the way he instantly fell in love with horror when he first walked onto the Eaten Alive set. ~ Audio commentary with producer Mardi Rustam, very welcome as its offers a different perspective on the making of the film. 9/10

Blu-ray review: Hard to Be a God

Starring: Vasili Domrachyov, Ramis Ibragimov
Director: Aleksei German

hard-to-be-a-god 1Aleksei German’s final film, 13 years in the completion, is adapted from a novel by Arkady and Boris Strugasky, who also penned the source material for Tarkovsky’s Stalker. But it’s another Tarkovsky film, Andrei Rublev, which looms over Hard to Be a God. An eccentric biopic of a celebrated icon painter, Andrei Rublev presented a memorably cold, miserable portrait of Russia in the Middle Ages, and it’s as if German was determined to beat Tarkovsky at his own game.

The film begins with a rash of exposition. The setting is a planet much like Earth but 800 years behind it in development. A group of Earth scientists have been sent to the planet to observe its progress, posing as noblemen and dukes. And that’s about it for plot, really. If there is anything more complex going on in terms of storyline or character arcs, it’s buried under a welter of Gothic set dressing as German brings this wet, muddy hell-hole of a planet to disorientating life.

The approach is impressionistic, fragmented. We follow around one of the scientists, who goes by the name of Rubata, but aside from introducing the alto sax to the Dark Ages, he seems content to slum it, stumbling from one inconclusive, absurdist encounter to another like an indifferent Dante travelling through some particularly rowdy circles of Hades.

This is the Middle Ages with touches of Mad Max and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, by way of Hieronymus Bosch, a place dowsed in freezing fogs and a perpetual cold drizzle, where ceilings are low and festooned with nasty instruments of torture, and where you can’t go far without seeing a dead dog, pustulent backside or pile of human ordure. Because of this dark, repelling vision, Hard to Be a God has won a formidable reputation as being a very unwholesome piece of work indeed, the ultimate feelbad movie.

Yet apart from an obsession with snot and faeces, one graphic disembowelment and a scene of children playing among dismembered bodies, nothing that terrible really happens. What makes the film so provocative is German’s unconventional directorial style and the confrontational way in which he sets up scenes, with pointy things and flapping pigeons lunging suddenly into the foreground and extras lurching up to leer or scowl at the camera. This breaking of – or at the very least repeated assaults upon– the fourth wall make Hard to Be a God particularly uncomfortable to watch – it’s as if the viewer is constantly having their own personal space invaded by this stinky, menacing rabble.

However, it’s also German’s Achilles heel. Because once you get used to them, you realize that his bag of tricks is actually quite limited. After a while, you start to anticipate the next squirt of snot or flurry of  flying feathers, and at that point the whole enterprise starts to feel like a rather desperate exercise in self-parody.

Yet even if the film seems like a flawed achievement and a sadly nihilistic last hard-to-be-a-god 2testament, it’s still striking for the brilliance of its finely etched black-and-white camerawork, its nightmarishly imaginative and painstaking set design, its extraordinary imagery (hanged bodies covered in fish-scales to attract the birds that will peck them to tatters), and for German’s ability to create a bizarre world of his own on set which his large, unwieldy cast seem totally invested in down to the smallest walk-on part. A must-see for lovers of the outré, and at the very least no one who watches this film will ever take a dump again without thinking of Aleksei German. 6/10

A bunch of extras that are very helpful in providing some background to a film that can seem extremely impenetrable. ~ 15 min Intro by Svetlana Karmalita – the director’s widow talks about, among other things, his editing techniques and fondness for shooting in black-and-white. 10-min interview with the director’s son, Aleksei German Jr – he comments on his father’s use of long takes for a sense of realism and speaks of the film, rather worryingly, as a “vision of the future”. ~ A sprightly 34-min video essay by Michael Brooke which furnishes a useful potted biography of the director and some clips of his other work and also discusses the reasons for his obscurity outside Russia. ~ 28-min talking head piece with critic Daniel Bird, who reveals that the film has a plot and explains what it is, and also gives some context to the movie in terms of other works of Russian cinema and science fiction. 8/10

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

Blu-ray review: La Grande Bouffe

Starring: Ugo Tognazzi, Michel Piccoli, Philippe Noiret, Marcello Mastroianni
Director: Marco Ferreri

Think Masterchef meets Last Tango in Paris, and you’ll have some idea what’s in store in this dark, scatological comedy from controversial Italian director Marco Ferreri. Four wealthy and apparently respectable middle-aged men – restaurateur Ugo (Tognazzi), TV exec Michel (Piccoli), judge Philippe (Noiret) and airline pilot Marcello (Mastroianni) – gather in a gloomy villa for an intensive session of wining and dining, in which they’re eventually joined by a gaggle of street prostitutes and (much more willingly) by an outwardly prim schoolteacher named Andrea (Andrea Ferreol) who soon turns out to be totally on their wavelength. However, this isn’t your usual case of men behaving badly, as it slowly becomes apparent that the four have decided to eat themselves to death.

It’s an example of Ferreri’s cleverness that it’s hard to say precisely when this becomes clear, since none of the men ever actually admits that this is what they’re doing, let alone providing an explanation for it. Certainly, two of the men have their problems. Thanks to an overweaning nanny, Philippe is a querulous man-child arrested in a state of permanent pre-adolescence, while beneath his impish charm Marcello is a crazed sex addict (a brave part for Mastroianni to take on, you’d think). Ugo and Michel, however, both seem relatively smooth, capable and high functioning, although poor Michel is a closet gay whose repressed lifestyle has left him a martyr to wind.

The closest we get is to a rationale is a negative assertion,“If you don’t eat, you won’t die!”, which turns on its head the received wisdom that people to live. The film has been taken as a satire on bourgeois excess, but it seems to be less about appetite than the yawning void that comes with loss of desire. Perhaps what the men are engaged in is simply the ultimate form of comfort eating, the search for oblivion in food?

Ferreri wraps his story around in the trappings of that most genteel of French cinematic forms, the weekend house party movie, and the whole thing is infused with gastronomic and cultural erudition and lit up by sparkling, teasingly self-revealing turns by its quartet of stars – we get to know these men so well even as we brace ourselves to say goodbye to them. Throw in a mood of isolation and melancholy, a once-sniffed-never-forgotten death scene for Piccoli, heaps of great-looking food and even bigger heaps of voluptuous nudity from the hearty, plus-sized Ferreol, and you have a transgressive yet warm-hearted comedy that easily ranks with the best of Bunuel and Borowczyk. 10/10

There’s just a touch of softness to a couple of the interiors, but on the whole the transfer is sharp, with no grain or blemishes. The wintry exteriors of the gloomy villa all look deliciously cold and crisp, especially the sequence where a delivery of deer, boar, etc, arrives. In the scene of the schoolchildren in the garden, there’s a nice mixture of colour and sheen to their clothes. The endless still lifes of food look resplendent in a variety of succulent pastel shades, and the deep compositions that Ferrer favours for many of the sequences, with business taking place in foreground and background simultaneously, all come up in plenty of detail. 8/10

27-min French TV piece from 1975 about the director. Ferreri isn’t perhaps the best explicator of his own work and the gruff sea captain persona that he adopted now seems rather offputting, but the piece contains some interesting clips of his early work. ~ Brief but extremely interesting b/w 11-min featurette for French TV from 1973 which takes us behind the scenes at the making of La Grande Bouffe. The actors talk about improvising their dialogue, Piccolo complains about having so eat so many dishes, all in the wrong order, and Ugo Tognazzi kicks a turkey that has wandered upstairs. ~ 4-min piece to do with the film’s appearance at Cannes in a storm of controversy, with the actors in bullish mood, especially Noiret, who talks about their special feeling of ownership towards the film having put so much of themselves into it. ~ 18-min video essay on Marco Ferreri by Pasquale Iannone – a brisk and thorough survey of the director’s chequered career up to his work on La Grande Bouffe. ~ Audio commentary by Iannone on selected scenes, with extensive bios of the actors and a few surprising snippets of info (apparently Tognazzi released a cookbook to tie in with the movie). 7/10