Thursday, 26 March 2015

Sherlock Holmes (1965)



I would never admit to being an expert on Sherlock Holmes. After all, there are far too many of those out there already, self-professed and otherwise. But I have always enjoyed the adventures of Conan-Doyle’s creation. I watched all the Basil Rathbone Universal series when I was a lad, loved Peter Cushing in the role, and have thoroughly enjoyed the latest modern version starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Oh, and I also happen to have read all the stories.


I have to confess, however, that I had never heard of the series under consideration here until the BFI flagged it up for review, so I’m guessing there will be a fair few Holmes fans who will also be unfamiliar with it. To put it into context, in 1964 the BBC filmed a one-off hour-long adaptation of the short story The Speckled Band, starring Douglas Wilmer as Holmes and Nigel Stock as Dr Watson. This was well-enough received that a full series followed a year later, and that’s what we have here - all eleven surviving episodes of that show, plus two reconstructions similar to the excellent work done on the BFI’s OUT OF THE UNKNOWN box set, spread over four DVDs.


The selection of stories to be adapted is interesting, and it's actually quite refreshing to come across a Holmes series that doesn’t do the usual old standbys. There’s no Hound of the Baskervilles in here, but we do get a version of The Six Napoleons (filmed in the Universal series as the marvellous pseudo-horror SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE PEARL OF DEATH) and some excellent Cornish horror featuring guest star Patrick Troughton in The Devil’s Foot. Otherwise it’s a collection of lesser-known Holmes stories which actually just makes this release all the more worthwhile. 


But are the episodes themselves any good? Well bearing in mind they are of the grainy, stagey, slightly camera-wobbly era of British television, they’re actually very good indeed. The Speckled Band feels like an early 1930s horror film with some good sets and a fine atmosphere, and this series is perhaps most going to suit you if you’re a fan of the Rathbone Universals rather than later colour adaptations. Some good location work helps add to the atmosphere as well.
And what of the leads? Wilmer actually makes an excellent Holmes in the classical mode, and Nigel Stock is far more Andre Morell than Nigel Bruce in his portrayal of Watson. As with many of the shows of this era, fans of British TV and cinema will enjoy playing spot the guest cast member, and overall I have nothing but good things to say about how enjoyable this particular series of SHERLOCK HOLMES is for the right kind of fan.


Extras include commentary tracks by director Peter Sasdy (The Illustrious Client) and Peter Cregeen (The Abbey Grange), as well as actors David Andrews and Trevor Martin (The Red-Headed League). Best of all, 95 year old Douglas Wilmer, still going strong, provides commentaries for the Devil’s Foot and Charles Augustus Milverton episodes. There’s also a Spanish audio version of The Speckled Band and an alternative title sequence for The Illustrious Client which incorporates images of the mighty Peter Wyngarde, as per his guest star contract. There’s also an excellent booklet with notes on the restoration, a career profile of Douglas Wilmer, and more. Another absolute classic television winner from the BFI.

The BFI are releasing the BBC's 1964-1965 series of SHERLOCK HOLMES in a 4 DVD set on the 30th March 2015

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Rollerball (1975)


"Ham-fisted, lumbering and interminable. But it does look nice on Blu-ray."

The decade of cinema pre STAR WARS (1977) offered us some of the most iconic and memorable science fiction ever filmed. Movies like Franklin Schaffner’s PLANET OF THE APES (1967), Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1967), Cornel Wilde’s NO BLADE OF GRASS (1970) and Kubrick again with A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) did just what the best science fiction literature managed to do: they used the medium in ways we never thought possible, and as a result changed the way we viewed and reacted to the world around us. 

Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

Norman Jewison’s ROLLERBALL came along a bit later in 1975, in the wake of briskly creative SF pictures like Michael Crichton’s WESTWORLD (1973), overly pompous but still interesting movies like John Boorman’s ZARDOZ (1973) and remarkable literary adaptations like L Q Jones’ A BOY & HIS DOG (1975). ROLLERBALL has aspirations to be like many of the above and, indeed, is obviously influenced by some of them. Sadly, its nowhere near in the same league, despite a memorable central performance and an interesting idea.

Things finally hot up at the climax 

In an unspecified future where the mysterious corporations control everything, the most popular entertainment provided to the masses is a violent game called rollerball. This involves two teams competing on roller skates and motor bikes on a banked track for a steel sphere they have to pop into a receptacle, for which they gain points. It also seems to involve bashing the hell out of your opponent team members, although exactly how much you can do that isn’t made clear, but that doesn’t matter because the rules get changed later on when it seems you can hurt them a lot more and eventually kill everyone in sight. 

Innocent victims of the porno androids

The best at this game is Jonathan E (James Caan) who has become so popular as part of the Houston team that the corporations want him to retire. Jonathan doesn’t want to. They change the rules of the game to make it more dangerous for him. He keeps playing. Eventually he plays a game of rollerball where everyone ends up dead but him. I think the take home message is intended to be that individualism is a good thing, but I’m still not sure from the final freeze frame if we’re not just meant to think sport creates lunatics.

Probably the best kind of chair in which to weather the slow bits

There’s a lot wrong with ROLLERBALL, but I’ll concentrate on what it does right first. The game itself is an interesting invention, and the sequences (which feel as if they were directed by someone else entirely) do look properly dangerous at times. Caan is pretty good as the sportsman who can’t understand why he can’t keep doing the thing he’s good at, but it’s when he goes on a Quest To Find The Truth that it all goes very wobbly indeed, not least because of Ralph Richardson’s comedy turn as a librarian in Geneva that feels as if it’s been ported in from another film. There is a prolonged party scene at one point that’s supposed to be decadent but just feels like the opening of some bizarre android porno. And why do they start shooting trees? There’s a pleasing 2001 vibe to some of the scenes but on the whole everything is just too slow and ponderous. 

"To be honest I'm not that worried as I shall be playing God in TIME BANDITS in a few years' time"

ROLLERBALL desperately wants to be an SF Film With A Message. Unfortunately for it there is plenty of SF out there from the same era that does the job so much better. If you want a Bread and Circuses-style social commentary, watch Nigel Kneale’s YEAR OF THE SEX OLYMPICS (1968). If it’s a science fiction satire using dangerous sports you want then Paul Bartel’s DEATH RACE 2000 (1975) does the job very nicely. Compared to these Norman Jewison’s ROLLERBALL feels ham-fisted, lumbering, and interminable. But it does look nice on Blu-ray. 

Here we go again. And again. And again.

If you’re a fan of ROLLERBALL Arrow’s Blu-ray comes with plenty of extras, many of them ported over from previous DVD releases. These include separate audio commentaries from director Jewison and writer William Harrison, a brand new interview with star James Caan, Craig R Baxley talking about the motorcycle work, a making of as well as a separate piece about shooting the film in Munich, on set footage and interviews, a trailer, TV spots and more.

Arrow Films released Norman Jewison's ROLLERBALL on Region B Blu-ray on 23rd March 2015

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Broadchurch Series One and Two (2013 & 2015)



Television crime dramas have always been hugely popular, and over the last few years, those with an insatiable appetite for the darker end of the genre have been treated to series not just from the UK, but from Scandinavia as well. 
The original series of BROADCHURCH was broadcast in 2013. Adhering to many of the established tropes of the genre, it succeeded where many had failed by having believable characters, excellent performances, interesting locations, and above all a clever, well-written script that was almost a masterclass in how to include red herrings and not make them seem like padding.


The body of an eleven year old boy is found on a beach in West Dorset. David Tennant is Alec Hardy, the Policeman With A Past From Elsewhere who is assigned to investigate. The script has also given Hardy a medical condition but again, this is all clever enough that we don’t feel his character has been too battered by a script hungry for melodrama. Olivia Colman is Ellie Miller, passed over for promotion in favour of Hardy, and assigned as his sidekick. Hardy has come from elsewhere, but Colman is local, and is an integral part of this small community that is about to be torn apart by the revelations which follow.


I’m not going to say any more about BROADCHURCH series one as you really should watch it if you haven’t already. The odd couple detective pairing works well and never feels forced. The eight episodes fly by, and the ending is utterly gut wrenching, even for this kind of drama. Again, full marks for all concerned for not allowing the denouement to turn into absurdist melodrama but instead something far more believable and therefore far more affecting. The ending also allows for a second series, announced before the credits have even run on the final episode.


BROADCHURCH SERIES 2 is something of a different beast, but at least it's an ambitious one. The easy way would have been to have Tennant and Colman investigating an entirely new case. Instead, the second series continues straight on from where the first one ended, set in the same community and with much of the same cast returning. Again, it’s difficult to talk too much about it if you haven’t seen the first series, but basically we continue with the two plot strands - that of the Broadchurch murder and Hardy’s previous case in Sandbrook that went horribly wrong. The problems arise because in order to keep these threads interesting, everything becomes rather more unbelievable than what we’ve been primed to expect from series one. It’s still a good ride, and the cast are always watchable, especially Tennant and Colman, with sterling support from Jodie Whittaker, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Andrew Buchan, and this time we get Charlotte Rampling as well!


There are far more extras on Acorn Media’s release of BROADCHURCH SERIES TWO discs than series one. These include over forty minutes of deleted scenes, making of featurettes, pieces on the stars and writer Chris Chibnall, and interviews with Jode Whittaker, Andrew Buchan, Eve Myles, Charlotte Rampling, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Chris Chibnall and producer Richard Stokes. It’s an excellent package - just don’t expect quite the high quality of Series One and you can still have a good time with it.
Oh, and BROADCHURCH SERIES THREE has been announced, so let’s hope series two is just a bridging gap in the best crime series television has seen in ages. 

BROADCHURCH SERIES TWO has just been released on Region 2 DVD and Region B Blu-ray by Acorn Media. SERIES ONE is still available. 

Monday, 23 March 2015

Network (1976)


Paddy Chayevsky’s searing satire on television news (directed by Sidney Lumet) gets a new region B Blu-ray release courtesy of Arrow Films. 
When newscaster Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is told he’s to be laid off as a result of poor ratings, he takes to the airwaves and announces on the next edition of his news programme that he’s going to kill himself live on air in a week’s time. Reaction is predictable - the network is outraged and the ratings go up. Realising that Harold might be the company’s ticket out of impending bankruptcy, newly installed company hatchet man Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) allows rising star of TV programming Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) to put together an ‘entertainment news programme’ with Harold as the main attraction, surrounded by a psychic, a vox pops section and others. Old-fashioned head of news Max Schumacher (William Holden) isn’t happy and so he’s sacked, then reinstated when they realise the company can’t work without him. Soon he has other problems to deal with as he leaves his wife of twenty five years to start an affair with Diana.


Beale, meanwhile, has become the voice of the nation, his catchphrase ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore’ being shouted from rooftops and brownstone windows by an ever-increasing audience. But Beale is far from a media puppet, and his actions threaten to lead to the network’s downfall.


Probably the best thing Nigel Kneale never wrote, Chayevsky’s NETWORK is a blisteringly angry invective about what television could become. The fact that we now know it’s ended up even worse just makes the movie all the more relevant for our media-driven times. There’s virtually nothing wrong with NETWORK. The voice over that pops up at intervals when there’s a time shift or a scene needs setting feels a little awkward, but compared to all the genius that’s on display here it’s the tiniest of complaints. Lumet’s direction is nicely understated on the whole, allowing the actors to carry the film. One memorable exception is a scene which cuts between a close-up on Finch and evil corporation boss Ned Beatty, seemingly unreachable and godlike at the far end of a row of desk lamps in the company boardroom.


And where to start with the acting? How often do we ever get to see such exemplary ensemble pieces on the big screen? William Holden, older, wiser, sympathetic and about to be beaten down by a system he no longer understands? Robert Duvall, all manic screaming, equally terrifying and funny but also horribly believable, Faye Dunaway as the TV executive who admits she’s good at nothing except working in television, the quintessential Chayevsky Nothing Person. And then there’s Finch, memorably insane in a performance fuelled with such energy he almost jumps off the screen.



Arrow presents NETWORK in an excellent transfer with an uncompressed mono PCM audio track. Extras include Sidney Lumet’s entry in the series The Directors, a trailer, and Tune in Next Tuesday, a visual essay by Dave Itzkoff, who wrote the book ‘Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies. It runs for 47 minutes and is excellent, more than making up for the lack of a commentary track. You also get the usual Arrow reversible sleeve and a booklet with new writing on the movie. 

Paddy Chayevsky's NETWORK is released on region B Blu-ray from Arrow Films today, Monday 23rd March 2015

Friday, 13 March 2015

The Black Torment (1964)




"British Gothic does Italian Gothic trying to be Hammer Gothic and ends up Potty Gothic. From the director of CORRUPTION" 

Robert Hartford-Davis. Now there’s a name to conjure with from the annals of British exploitation cinema. A director who created an unrivalled body of work, working in many genres but always managing to be different and somehow...peculiar. When he tried comedy we got the strange THE SANDWICH MAN (1966), and his musical GONKS GO BEAT (1965) is bizarre in the extreme. Perhaps it’s not surprising that such a quirky director made more horror films than anything else, but even there the results were nothing like straightforward. A ‘sexy thriller’ based on LES YEUX SANS VISAGE became Peter Cushing sawing off a prostitute’s head in CORRUPTION, and his satire on the more extreme aspects of certain religions turned into Tony Beckley hanging women on meathooks, while Patrick Magee did even more eye rolling than usual, in THE FIEND. In a supreme act of oddness, he even took his name off what is arguably his best picture, a psychedelic sexed up version of Simon Raven’s novel Doctors Wear Scarlet that went out under the superb title INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED (1970).

Edina Ronay reconsiders a possible career in the world of fashion

And so we come to THE BLACK TORMENT, recently released by Odeon Entertainment on Blu-ray (the DVD came out a while ago). It’s an early Hartford-Davis, but the personal stamp is definitely there. Many of his frequent collaborators are also along for the ride, including screenwriters Donald and Derek Ford (CORRUPTION, LEGEND OF SPIDER FOREST), director of photography Peter THE ASPHYX Newbrook, and composer Robert - later Bobby - Richards. 

He's at it again! Somebody stop him!

In rural HammerLand, Sir Richard Fordyke (John Turner) returns to Fordyke Manor with his new bride Elizabeth (Heather Sears from Hammer’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA). But all is not well. In a pre-credits sequence, someone with no respect for female pulchritude has chased busty Edina Ronay through a forest and strangled her. It turns out she is not the only young lady to have suffered at the hands of a rapist and murderer at loose in the area. It is claimed that Richard himself has been seen lurking in the bushes, even though he claims to have been in London. Is he going mad? Is someone else trying to drive him mad? Will there be a climax featuring every cliched gothic trope going, including a ghostly woman in white, a headless corpse in a wheelchair, and an action-packed sword fight climaxing in a fall from a window and a spectacular impaling? Oh yes indeedy!

Gothic potty

Tony Tenser and Michael GET CARTER Klinger were the producers of THE BLACK TORMENT, and they obviously desperately wanted to be a Hammer film, but because of Robert Hartford-Davis it just isn’t. Instead, it comes across as a more sedate, colourful Gainsborough-type picture punctuated with sleazy murders and culminating in plenty of delirious daftness. Imagine THE WICKED LADY crossed with FRIDAY THE 13TH and you’re getting there. In fact, rather than a Hammer film, THE BLACK TORMENT feels like a British version of an Italian version of a Hammer film, but that just makes it all the more entertaining and really rather unique.

Too much Gothic is never enough in this film

Odeon’s transfer of THE BLACK TORMENT onto Blu-ray is jaw-dropping. I have never seen this film looking so good, and what was intended to be a rudimentary skim through a film I’m familiar with turned into a full viewing simply because I was so impressed with the quality of the image, full of richness of colour in what has always looked a very washed out film indeed. 
Extras are minimal. The Hartford-Davis interview on the Region 1 Redemption disc hasn’t been carried over, but we do get over 30 minutes of new interview material with cast members Annette Whiteley and Roger Graham which is actually better as they have behind the scenes stories to tell us.
THE BLACK TORMENT is a very minor British horror film, and a fairly minor entry on the CV of an often barking mad British horror director. I never thought I would end up recommending it so strongly, but this print is gorgeous, and the climax of the film so completely ‘Gothic Potty’ that everyone should go and watch it now. 

Odeon Entertainment released the Gothic Pottiness that is Robert Hartford-Davis' THE BLACK TORMENT on Region B Blu-ray on 2nd February 2015. It's also available on DVD.



Thursday, 12 March 2015

Like Water For Chocolate (1992)


Mexican novelist Laura Esquivel’s 1989 book was filmed by her then-husband Alfonso Arau (probably better known to readers of this site as the actor who played El Guapo in John Landis’ 1986 comedy THREE AMIGOS) in 1992, and it’s just received a new dual DVD and Blu-ray release courtesy of Arrow Films.


We are in Mexico at the turn of the twentieth century. On a ranch near the US border lives Tita, youngest of the three daughters of Elena, and destined by tradition to spend her days looking after her mother until the old lady dies. Into her life comes Pedro, who wishes to marry her. Unable to do so because of the looking-after-mother-rule, he marries firstborn daughter Rosaura instead, so that at least he can be near the woman he loves. 


Years pass, and Tita’s love of cooking, combined with a supernatural ability to infuse her food with her emotions, causes her to have an effect on the community around her. This also includes her mother and her two sisters, one of whom runs off to become a revolutionary, while Rosaula ends up overweight and excessively burpy, eventually dying of flatulence (an art house first?). As numerous elements seem to contrive to stop them will Tita and Pedro, doomed lovers if ever there were, finally end up together? And if so, at what cost?


In case you’re wondering (I certainly was by the end), the title LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE refers to the boiling water used to make hot chocolate, and in its native Spanish refers to someone hot-headed, either with anger or passion. It’s the latter emotion with which Arau’s film (and Esquivel’s novel) concerns itself. The film looks beautiful, and is a fine example of the literary genre known as ‘magic realism’ brought to the screen. In fact the movie feels like an adult fairy tale, taking place in a land where magic is possible but never overly intrusive, and with a distinct tone of the quirky fable about it (the movie is told in flashback by a girl balancing an onion on her head). 
        Arrow’s Blu-ray of LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE is a lovely transfer that does full justice to the film’s colour palette of golds and browns, beautiful sunsets and warm vistas. The only extra is a commentary track, recorded in 2013 and featuring director Arau and stars Lumi Cavazos (Tita) and Narco Leonardi (Pedro). It’s in Spanish but there are subtitles.

Arrow Films released LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE on dual format Region 2 DVD and Region B Blu-ray on 2nd March 2015

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The Sorcerers (1967)




"Classic 1960s British science fiction horror from writer
 John Burke and director Michael Reeves"

In between the low budget Italian Barbara Steele-starrer THE SHE BEAST and the magnificent classic of British cinema that is WITCHFINDER GENERAL, director Michael Reeves made THE SORCERERS. It's one of the very few movies that successfully managed to bridge the gap between a kind of cinema that already felt long gone (Universal, Boris Karloff, mad scientist movies) and the new, lively British cinema movement of blood-soaked Hammer horrors and kitchen sink dramas. THE SORCERERS has just had a deserved re-release on Blu-ray and DVD by Odeon in a gorgeously restored print that’s worth a look by long-time aficionados as well as those new to it.

One of my favourite stills from Denis Gifford's Pictorial History of Horror Movies

Professor Marcus Monserrat (Boris Karloff), medical hypnotist fallen on hard times, offers treatments for phobias and anxiety from the tiny threadbare flat he shares with his wife Estelle (Catherine Lacey) . But Monserrat has also been working on an as-yet untested project, one which he intends to use to allow the elderly and the infirm to experience a different kind of life by sharing the sensations of young subjects. Encountering bored Mike (Ian Ogilvy) in a Wimpy bar, Monserrat takes him home and tries out the device, which is a success. Unfortunately, Estelle quickly realises she can control Mike’s actions better than her husband, and uses Mike to experience the thrill of robbery and murder. As she, and therefore Mike, both become more uncontrollable, it is up to the frail and good-natured professor to try and stop her before the situation becomes even worse.

A scene created by the miracle of setting a car on fire and then running away before the police turn up

THE SORCERERS has enough originality in its script, along with sufficient social commentary (the young and inexperienced being exploited by the old and impotent) to make it an unassuming little gem of a British horror picture. Key performances are all excellent, with Karloff giving us a subtle, nuanced and sympathetic character, and award-winning (for this) Lacey going well over the top as the villain of the piece. Composer Paul Ferris went on to do WITCHFINDER GENERAL as well as THE CREEPING FLESH and his music is nicely broken down and seedy to emphasise the surroundings. The car chase at the end is still impressive, and the knowledge that the final shots were performed under far from legal circumstances just adds an extra frisson to the feel of the movie.

Before Sheila Keith there was Catherine Lacey - another good reason to be scared of old ladies

Odeon Entertainment have done THE SORCERERS proud, giving us a transfer that’s a considerable improvement on the old Metrodome DVD. Most of the extras from the disc have been ported over, including the entry on Michael Reeves in the Eurotika TV series entitled ‘Blood Beast’, as well as a trailer and image gallery. There's also an early Michael Reeves short film 'Intrusions' which is black and white, silent, and runs for about ten minutes. There's no feature commentary but the short has one by Benjamin Halligan and Michael Armstrong. Of by far the greatest value in the extras, though, is a talking head piece by Johnny Mains, friend and associate of the late John Burke, whose original idea, and script, THE SORCERERS was. Johnny gives us background on the writing and production of the film that I’ve not come across anywhere else, and his account of the scuppering of Burke’s head screenwriter credit (he only gets ‘original idea’ on the film) is a detailed and heartfelt tribute to a writer he obviously admires greatly. 
        THE SORCERERS is a great British film, now finally given the presentation and the extras it deserves. Another cracker from Odeon. 

Odeon Entertainment have released Michael Reeves' THE SORCERERS on Region B Blu-ray and Region 2 DVD and it's out now