Thursday, 22 March 2018

Britannia (2018)

"Absurdly Entertaining"

Sky / Vertigo / Amazon / etc's attempt to jump on the Game of Thrones bandwagon gets a DVD and Blu-ray release from Sony. But does it ride that bandwagon with pride or slip, fall off and land squarely on its embarrassed bottom?

It's 43 AD in a fantasy version of Britain where the sun shines quite a lot, the water is clear, and it's warm enough to wander around wearing very little, especially if you're an attractive female character (score several points on the exploitation-cum-GoT-ometer for that at least.)

The Romans are coming! Or at least David Morrisey and his averagely good legion is. I'm guessing this because their standards have LEG-AVG written in gold on them. Is Britain not worthy of the best? It would seem not.

As usual, every British community within spitting distance of each other is fighting. The two main contingents are the Blues led by Zoe Wanamaker going full Vivenne Westwood, and the not-Blues led by Ian McDiarmuid who has instead opted for a ginger theme to his tribe, specifically his two children played by Kelly Reilly with her frequent Derek Zoolander Blue Steel expression, and Julian Rhind-Tutt. His wife is played by Liana Cornell who seems to be channelling late 1970s Joan Collins and for that I take my hat off to her.

The fate of the British tribes seems to be decided by Skeletor (MacKenzie Crook) who lives at Castle Grayskull with a bunch of similarly cadaverous weirdos. He's the one who dictates who lives, who dies, who gets flayed alive and who has to eat what look like mint imperials before being slaughtered at Stonehenge, etc etc.

As historical dramas go, BRITANNIA is about as accurate as HAWK THE SLAYER, and less accurate than CARRY ON CLEO or Hammer's THE VIKING QUEEN. That's hardly the point, though. What we have here is a riotous attempt at doing epic fantasy using the Roman settlement of Britain as an excuse for it all. There's a hefty dose of supernatural weirdness, the locations are beautiful, the photography is gorgeous, all the parts are played with admirable gusto and some of the shots and set-ups are breathtaking. 

So I find myself unable to be hard on BRITANNIA in any way at all. It's well-made, engrossing, has the courage of its daft convictions and as a result ends up being tremendous fun. It's like watching a bunch of 21st century actors with more enthusiasm than sense engaging in some sort of misguided drug-fuelled live action role play. I kept expecting someone to run onto a main road or for a helicopter to fly over. I do hope there's a second series. And if there is, I really hope they choose Spinal Tap's 'Stonehenge' for the theme tune this time.  
Sony's disc release contains all nine episodes of the first season of BRITANNIA, plus two featurettes - 'Rome's Pagan Nightmare' and 'Bloody Birth of Britain'. 

The delirious daftness that is BRITANNIA is getting a DVD & Blu-ray release from Sony on Monday 26th March 2018

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Images (1972)

"Altman's REPULSION?"

The extremely welcome UK Blu-ray release of some of director Robert Altman's earlier works continues. I've reviewed Eureka's disc of THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK (1969), and his 1973 version of THE LONG GOODBYE on here too. Arrow brought that out and now here they are again with IMAGES (1972), a film Altman has such difficulty raising the financing for that he eventually funded it himself.

Susannah York is Cathryn, a children's writer who spends her days scribbling tales of unicorns, mythical peoples and fantasy lands. Her non-writing life is a bit of a fantasy too, but of a far less pleasant kind, because even when we meet her Cathryn is fairly mad and by the end of the film she seems to be very mad indeed.

With life in town becoming too stressful, Cathryn convinces her husband Hugh (Rene Auberjonois) to take her to their house in the country, where she hopes to finish her latest book. Already bothered  by visions of lovers past, Cathryn begins to see herself from afar. But is Cathryn No.1 the real Cathryn, or Cathryn No.2? Are the men she talks to real or imagined? Alive or dead? And is she actually committing murders, or is it all in her head?

IMAGES is a film that's open to interpretation, which will delight as many as it will infuriate. (Actually I suspect it will infuriate more but they probably won't be getting this disc). Personally I like the idea that Cathryn has somehow 'slipped through time' and is actually experiencing different parts of her life all at once, and that is what ends up driving her insane. 
The act of seeing something 'second hand' is obviously important, as Altman fills his film with cameras, mirrors and other kinds of viewing equipment, presumably to emphasise that nothing we are seeing is necessarily reliable but might be inverted, filtered, or just generally altered from what is actually taking place. 

Arrow's Blu-ray comes with an appreciation by Stephen Thrower where he tells us a bit about the reception of the film when it was shown at Cannes (netting Susannah York the best actress award) and its subsequent fate. We get an archival Altman commentary track, plus a brand new one from Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan. There's also an Altman interview, a new interview with actress Cathryn Harrison, trailer, and that rather gorgeous cover art you can see up there.

The press release tells me the original negative of IMAGES was once rumoured to have been burned by Columbia Pictures. Certainly other 1970s films have suffered worse fates (THE WICKER MAN becoming part of the foundations of the M3 being one), but it's a relief to see that this isn't the case. Arrow's 4k scan is terrific, making this an essential addition to your Altman library. 

Arrow Academy are bringing out Robert Altman's IMAGES on 
Blu-ray on Monday 19th March 2018

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Legend of the Mountain (1979)

"A Beautiful Classic"

King Hu's epic fantasy horror piece that was apparently the inspiration for the A CHINESE GHOST STORY series of films gets an uncut (ie 191 minutes) 4k dual format Blu-ray and DVD release from Eureka.

We are "maybe sometime in the 11th century" according to the opening narration. Ho Yunqing (Shih Jun) is a scholar who is employed to copy out a Buddhist sutra rumoured to have immense power over the spirits of the afterlife. The temple that has the relevant texts arranges somewhere quiet for Ho to do his transcription work. For some reason this is absolutely miles away from the temple itself.

Ho finds himself in an isolated monastery where he is informed that he has entered a 'no-man's land'. At his residence he encounters a number of peculiar characters including Madame Wang (Rainbow Hsu, who I must admit I was convinced was a man in disguise but imdb suggests otherwise) and her beautiful daughter Melody (Feng Hsu) who sports a nice line in 1970s giallo-style eye makeup. 

Madame Wang and the gang get Ho drunk and he wakens two days later. From hereon in both he and we aren't quite sure what is going on, who is good and who is bad, and even who may be alive or dead. The monastery is a place of ghosts and demons and he may not make it out alive.

LEGEND OF THE MOUNTAIN is a beautiful film and it's no doubt that King Hu set out to make a work of art (which it is) rather than a movie that's heavy on plot (which it isn't). That, coupled with the three hour plus running time means this is the kind of film that could have been shown in the chill-out tent at raves back in the day. Often slow-moving but frequently eye-opening with its fascinating visuals and sense of general weirdness, I hesitate to make the comparison because it may put some people off, but I found much of the middle act of LEGEND OF THE MOUNTAIN comparable with the dreamy early 1970s movies of Jess Franco, especially A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD. In that film too the lead character ends up in an isolated location filled with weird characters, some or all of whom may be dead, so who knows? 

Eureka's Blu-ray transfer is a 4K restoration with uncompressed LPCM mono audio. There are newly translated English subtitles, a new video essay by David Cairns, a new interview with Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns, a trailer and the usual collector's booklet. 

King Hu's LEGEND OF THE MOUNTAIN is out on dual format from Eureka on Monday 19th March 2018

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Keep Watching (2017)

"Found Footage Home Invasion Horror"

Yes they're still making them. If nothing else KEEP WATCHING, which is out on DVD this month from Sony, does demonstrate nicely a few exploitation tropes that have been in use now for more than seventy years, namely:

1 Combining previously proven successful concepts. 

In 1943 it was FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. We're still waiting for ANNABELLE MEETS CHUCKY. In the meantime here's Found Footage Meets Home Invasion. 

2 Killing the most expensive cast members first.

I suppose this could be considered a spoiler, so I'll leave you to discover who cost the most (probably) out of Leigh Whannell and Ioan Gruffudd.

3 Not Strictly Adhering to Your Concept For the Sake of a Lower Certificate.

So a gang has broken into a family's house while they were on holiday and installed minute cameras everywhere, so the subsequent horrors can be broadcast as entertainment on the internet. Somehow they manage to position the cameras in the bathroom so judiciously that we cannot see when someone is on the toilet, or in the shower, because taps and curtains and other AUSTIN POWERS-like contrivances serve to obscure our view. Our view of this snuff film featuring real deaths that is apparently going out on the internet. The Internet. That haven of coyness and sensitivity that people will pay for more of. 

4 Ripping off a better film at the end that makes you think 'why didn't I watch that instead of this'?

I won't say which one because, you know, spoilers, but let's just say I saw it coming.

If, however, you find the above appealing then KEEP WATCHING is definitely for you. I will admit I liked the use of drones as part of the internet feed, but it also added to the general daftness of the concept. Sony's discs contains no extras of note.

KEEP WATCHING is out on DVD now from Sony. The UK cover is up there. The US cover seems to think balloons are a bigger seller than a terrified girl. And who am I to argue? Perhaps a naked American man will steal them. 

Friday, 9 March 2018

Re:Born (2016)

"Lots & Lots & Lots of Fighting"

Yuji Shimomura's stripped down action-packed close-combat picture gets a dual format release from Eureka.

Tak Sagaguchi is Toshiro. When he was a special forces operative, Toshiro was known as "Ghost" for his skill of creeping up on and massacring large numbers of the enemy undetected. Now Toshiro runs a shop and looks after his little niece. 

Unfortunately, one of Toshiro's old buddies (yes the subtitles do use that word), Phantom, has gone over to the dark side, acquired a facial scar, dark glasses, and a veritable army of assassins which he sends to bump off his former colleague. When individual attempts fail, the gang kidnaps Toshiro's niece, at which point he goes on a mass killing rampage (mainly in a forest in a bit that goes on for quite a bit) before the inevitable confrontation with his enemy.

There's a lot of violence in RE:BORN. The press release refers to the fight technique as 'Zero Range Combat' which basically looks like people beating each other up realistically as opposed to perhaps the more balletic, over the top fight choreography of other martial arts movies. If this is your thing you'll love it. If not, you'll be using the fast forward button through the lengthy forest massacre. 

Eureka's Blu-ray is 1080p with a progressive encode on the DVD. The disc comes with a cheerful introduction from the director and leads at the Fighting Spirit Festival, where we get a brief on-stage demonstration of the Zero Range Combat technique. You also get two trailers.

RE:BORN is out from Eureka on dual format Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 12 March 2018

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

"Three Act Satirical Trash Tragedy"

I could have come up with quite a few other adjectives as well, and I probably will a bit further down the page. Joseph L Mankiewicz's caustic, abrasive epic filled with delicious dialogue gets a dual format release (and its first on UK Blu-ray) from Eureka.

We open at the funeral of Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner), barefoot dancer and brief Hollywood star. Through three of the men attending the funeral who knew her, we learn of how she was discovered in a bar in Madrid, taken to Rome for a screen test, and from there starred in three Hollywood blockbusters before her life was tragically cut short.

The three men providing the (plentiful) voiceovers are film director Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart), PR man Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O'Brien who won the best supporting actor Oscar for this) and Maria's husband Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi). Each details different aspects of her life and while Brazzi's character is the one who marries her, it's Bogart who gives the most affecting and likeable performance. 

Writer-Director Joseph L Mankiewicz is one of the Hollywood greats, famous for everything from DRAGONWYCK (1946) through ALL ABOUT EVE (1950), SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER (1959) and SLEUTH (1972). Here he delivers a biting, dialogue-heavy satire about Hollywood fame. There are constant references to how life isn't like a screenplay (and I'm sure this wasn't at all a typical Hollywood picture of the time). It's interesting that even though this is a story about a woman, it's told by three men from the point of view of the relationships she had with both them and the other men in her life. 

As Maria, Ava Gardner radiates a curiously detached beauty. DP Jack Cardiff makes her glow but the detached method of storytelling means that, for all of Bogart and O'Brien and Brazzi's talk of how wonderful this woman was, we never feel as if we get to know her at all. Perhaps that's part of the point.

Eureka's 1080p presentation of the film does look a little blurry in places, with some colour streaking down the right hand side of the frame. It looks lovely on the whole, though, & I'm sure this was the best print available to work with. Extras include a trailer and an enthusiastic and engaging commentary track from David del Valle and Julie Kirgo that's well worth a listen. 

Eureka are releasing Joseph L Mankiewicz's THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA on dual format DVD & Blu-ray on Monday 12th March 2018

Monday, 5 March 2018

Flowers in the Attic (1987)

"Truly Terrible"

Before I get to grips with this review I should probably make it clear that I have not read the V C Andrews source novel even though, back in the early 1980s, you couldn't move in bookshops for the paperback with that die-cut cover and the creepy people staring out from it. No, I haven't read FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC, and nor had I seen the film until now. The opportunity was provided to me because Arrow Films are bringing it out on Blu-ray. It's directed by Jeffrey Bloom, who made BLOOD BEACH (1980) a film about a monster that sucks people down into the sand. It's a lot more believable than what we have on show here.

Buffy, Not-Buffy & Giallo Boy Rehearse Their Most Emotive Scene
Victoria Tennant is happily married and has four children - two boys and two girls. The entire family wears a nauseating amount of pastel colours, presumably as some kind of display of how joyful their life is (or perhaps of the fact that they're all on tranquilisers). Admittedly the little boy does look as if he's about to witness the pre-credits murder in Dario Argento's PROFONDO ROSSO but sadly we're in a very different film here. Victoria's husband dies offscreen and she's informed by two mumbling policemen who don't make it very clear to us if he's dead or not, but presumably they do to her.

Full marks for getting the costumes, the sets and the acting to all match
At this point what she should do, English rose of an actress that she is, is move to a lovely old cottage near a railway line where her children can have adventures saving Russian scientists and helping the local stationmaster find love. But that's THE RAILWAY CHILDREN and this very much isn't, so instead off they all tramp to Louise Fletcher's MASSIVE country house where space is at such a premium that all the kids have to sleep in the same bedroom while Victoria goes off to be flogged. Offscreen. Sorry, fladge fans.
It turns out Mum 'sinned' because Dad was also Uncle (whoops!) and therefore the children are Of Satan, or something. Anyway, because of this terrible thing they have to be kept locked in the attic, are deprived of their pastel shades, and instead acquire makeup that's supposed to make them look increasingly drawn and unhappy while Mum is forced to play the piano for her elderly bedridden father. 

Come Back! The film's still on!
I could go on but I won't, because FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC is truly awful. Dull, bland and insipid, when it starts you could be forgiven for thinking you've put on some awful Wednesday afternoon TV movie from the 1980s (complete with terrible voice over) rather than something I remember getting excited about back in the day because Wes Craven was rumoured to be making it. Everything is too brightly lit, the actors playing the kids are dull, some of the dialogue is truly awful, and there's no attempt at creating any gothic atmosphere at all. 
If you do end up watching it, certainly some fun can be derived from thinking what other directors might have done with the material. Wes Craven would have at least given the teenagers some character, Tim Burton of the era could have given us something gorgeously gothic, but my favourite was the idea of keeping the same awful script and getting John Waters to direct with Divine in the Louise Fletcher role and other Dreamlanders playing the kids. 

One dreads to think who John Waters would have had in the bath
By the end of the film, all I could feel was pity for the leads, all of whom deserved, and have done, much better. I felt sorry for Louise Fletcher, whose role mainly demanded her to repeatedly enter the same room, glare, and say "I'm evil, me" in a variety of differing dialogue, none of which helped provide a rounded character. I felt sorry for Victoria Tennant - even being stabbed in the toilet in INSEMINOID must have been more rewarding than being in this. And I felt especially sorry for Kristy Swanson, who must have angered the gods of Hollywood to such an extent that this was her reward for being in the equally awful DEADLY FRIEND the year before.

 Meddling kids!
If, unlike me, you're a fan of FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC, you'll be pleased to learn that the disc comes bundled with extras. Kat Ellinger is a fan and gives us a fact-packed commentary that includes contextualising it in terms of its place in 1980s horror. There are new interviews with DP Frank Byers, designer John Muto, actor Jeb Stuart Adams and composer Christopher Young. You also get the original ending that was cut by the studio (with commentary), two versions of the script and the usual trailers and reversible sleeve art. 

FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC is out on Blu-ray from Arrow Films on 
Monday 12th March 2018