Sunday, 1 April 2018

Jarman Volume One: 1972 - 1986

"Wonderful Unique Work From a Wonderful Unique Mind"

It's been 24 years since Derek Jarman died at the age of just 52, depriving the world of a unique, passionate, and creative visual talent. The BFI are releasing two box sets of his work. Volume One is due out very soon, and here's what you get:

Disc One: Sebastiane (1976) & In the Shadow of the Sun (1972)

        The first BFI disc is mainly given over to Jarman's 1976 hyper homo-erotic telling of the story of Saint Sebastian, from his offending of the Emperor Diocletian at the opening orgy through his banishment to a remote Roman garrison (actually Sardinia) where sexual tensions are many and the soldiers' clothes are few. 
The final execution scene is genuinely eerie, while overall Jarman's loving depictions of the nude male have definitely stood the test of time. Fans of 1973's THE WICKER MAN will be tickled to learn that it's landlord Lindsay Kemp who is the centrepiece of the giant penis dance sequence at the start (he choreographed it as well), while fans of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW may well spot Patricia Quinn, Nell Campbell and Peter Hinwood amongst the 'party-goers'. 

IN THE SHADOW OF THE SUN is a very strange, experimental piece with a Throbbing Gristle soundtrack. More an extended 'art installation' than anything resembling a narrative, you may want to give this one a watch in installments. 
Extras include: Jazz Calendar - a black and white contemporary jazz ballet rendition of the days of the week, sadly missing its original Richard Rodney Bennet score and with replacement music instead. SEBASTIANE - a work in progress is a newly restored black and white edit of the film without subtitles but with a substantially different plot construction. There's an 8mm making of filmed at the time, the short film SLOANE SQUARE - A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN, John Scarlett-Davis' memories of working on the opening scene of the picture, plus a still gallery.

Disc Two: Jubilee (1978)

In which Queen Elizabeth I (Jenny Runacre from THE CREEPING FLESH & THE FINAL PROGRAMME) tasks astrologer Dr John Dee (a post ROCKY Richard O’Brien) to conjure Ariel (David STAGEFRIGHT Brandon, here acting under the name David Haughton) who takes them to an apocalyptic extrapolation of the punk 1970s had not New Romantics & their synthesisers presumably come in to save the day. 
Pram burning and barbed-wire tightrope walking feature in a loosely-plotted narrative in which we follow Bod (Runacre again) and her gang of miscreants including arsonist Mad (Toyah Willcox) and rewriter of history Amyl Nitrate (Jordan. No, not that one). 

Littered with the kind of interesting character actors we only seemed to see in 1970s movies (Nell Campbell, Jack Birkett aka Orlando, even more Lindsay Kemp & his dancing troupe), JUBILEE was very shocking back in its day. The murders are still horrible, but what still shines oh so brightly is Jarman’s energy and style as a director. The soundtrack includes music by Adam and the Ants (Version 1.0) and Siouxsie and the Banshees, as well as Brian Eno. 
Extras on the BFI’s new Blu-ray include a short but interesting interview with Toyah Willcox from 2014, a much lengthier interview with Jordan (not that one) and an interview with Jarman’s helper / dogsbody on the film Lee Drysdale that’s full of juicy stories. You also get some Jarman short pieces including MESSAGE FROM THE TEMPLE (1981), TG: PSYCHIC RALLY IN HEAVEN (1981) and the William S Burroughs ‘film’ PIRATE TAPE (1983). 

Disc Three: The Tempest (1979)

If the inmates of the asylum in S F Brownrigg's DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT (1973) put on a Shakespeare play with only Roger Corman Poe movies as their reference then the result might look something like Derek Jarman's version of THE TEMPEST. Regular readers of this site will appreciate that, far from this being considered a negative, I can actually offer no higher praise for this wondrous, Old Dark House-style adaptation that comes complete with Toyah Willcox as Miranda, Jack Birkett as a fantastic Caliban, and Heathcote Williams looking just like Charlie Chuck as Prospero. 

Oh, and of course there are troupes of dancing gay sailors, a musical number at the end from Elisabeth Welch dressed as the sun, plus Mr Jarman's distinctive and frequently beautiful visual style. As far as Shakespeare on celluloid goes, THE TEMPEST is second only to Polanski's MACBETH as a unique, creative and above all accessible interpretation of the play.
Extras include Toyah Willcox interviewed at the BFI in 2014; Stormy Weather is a lovely piece on Derek Jarman's notebooks for his productions; John Scarlett-Davis gives us a fascinating talking head piece on the making of the film; Executive Producer Don Boyd talks about the picture; production designer Christopher Hobbs looks back on his association with Derek Jarman, and finally you also get the UK trailer and an image gallery. 

Disc Four: The Angelic Conversation (1985)

        In which Judi Dench reads fourteen of Shakespeare's sonnets over Jarman's 8mm imagery accompanied by the music of Coil. Possibly the answer to the question "What's an art film?" or at least a very good example, there is no conventional narrative to the 77 minute running time, rather it is a series of images from which you have to take your own interpretation. 
Extras include James MacKay talking about working with Jarman, a fascinating look at the Jarman projects that never came to fruition including NEUTRON and AKHENATEN, for which we also get storyboards and an image gallery.

Disc Five: Caravaggio (1986)

Arguably Derek Jarman's masterpiece, CARAVAGGIO is less a biopic (it isn't one at all, really) and more a series of meticulously constructed and lit tableaux reproducing some of the artist's paintings. Fine art enthusiasts will get the most out of this, as sometimes we don't see the paintings at all, but just get in-jokes referencing them - for example, at one point Caravaggio (Nigel Terry) sustains an injury similar to that probed by Doubting Thomas in the painting of the same name. As usual, there is more anachronism than accuracy on display, and so amidst the 17th century frolics we get Sean Bean polishing his motorbike, Jonathan Hyde on a typewriter and Nigel Davenport using a pocket calculator. Best of all (and likely period-accurate) Michael Gough plays the harpsichord!

Extras include an audio commentary by DP Gabriel Beristain, archive interviews with Nigel Terry and Tilda Swinton, two pieces with production designer Christopher Hobbs, an interview with Dexter Fletcher, recording sessions, Jarman's notebook for the film, and five galleries of storyboards, production designs and notes. 
       As well as all the above you get an 80 page book with new writing on the film, reviews from the time and full credits for each film. Well done BFI.

JARMAN VOLUME ONE: 1972 - 1986 is a five-disc limited edition box set available from the BFI from Monday 2nd April 2018

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Score: A Film Music Documentary (2016)

"Fascinating, Compelling & Essential for Film Music Fans"

Dogwoof are bringing out Matt Schrader's fascinating and valuable documentary on the art of writing film music, featuring a remarkable number of composers active in the film industry today. 

Composers interviewed include Hans Zimmer, Quincy Jones, Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, Randy Newman, Tom Holkenborg, Howard Shore, Mark Mothersbaugh, Rachel Portman, Steve Jablonsky, Brian Tyler, Bear McCreary, John Debney, Eliot Goldenthal, John Powell, and Mychael Danna. There are also contributions from directors James Cameron (who delivers a moving account of working with James Horner for TITANIC) and Garry Marshall (in a scoring session with John Debney), and Leonard Maltin. 

There are loads of fascinating nuggets of information. Brian Tyler likes to hide in cinema toilet cubicles to see if people come in humming the music from his movies; Mark Mothersbaugh crams his house with bizarre musical instruments, then when it gets too full he throws them all away and starts again; Hans Zimmer confides that (like so many artists) he has no idea where his ideas come from & he lives in fear that one day they will just stop; Eliot Goldenthal confesses that seeing an advance movie poster with his name on when the score still isn't finished is still something he finds terrifying.

We get to see Bear McCreary demonstrating the hurdy-gurdy, Heitor Pereira using a home-made 'instrument' made out of springy bits of metal to give him the idea for a melody, and the documentary opens with Marco Beltrami using a piano strapped to the top of a building to create new sounds.

Nearly 50 composers provide contributions over the 92 minute running time, but you also get 50 minutes of extras featuring Hans Zimmer, Bear McCreary, Harry Gregson-Williams, Tyler Bates and more. There's also a commentary track from director Matt Schrader, who is to be congratulated for going about putting together this documentary in just the right way. There's no host, no voice-over, just the composers themselves talking about their work and the work of others they admire, allowing little tributes to composing greats such as Bernard Herrman, John Williams (also featured in archive footage with Stephen Spielberg), Jerry Goldsmith and Ennio Morricone. Are there any glaring omissions? Well, it would have been nice to have seen John Carpenter at least mentioned as part of the synthesiser revolution, but very little time is actually spent on pure electronica anyway.
Don't let that put you off, however. SCORE: A FILM MUSIC DOCUMENTARY is essential viewing for anyone with an interest in film music. Let's hope this does well enough for Dogwoof that they bring out SCORE VOLUME TWO (with three hours of extra interview footage) which is already available in the US

SCORE: A FILM MUSIC DOCUMENTARY is out from Dogwoof on DVD and VOD from Monday 2nd April 2018

Sunday, 25 March 2018

An Actor's Revenge (1963)

"Showgirl Assassin"

Kon Ichikawa's visually creative, melodramatically theatrical revenge piece gets a dual format Blu-ray and DVD release from the BFI.

Japan 1836. Yukitaro (Kazuo Hasegawa, whose 300th film this was) is an onnagata - a male actor in kabuki theatre who specialises in female roles. Like many of the actors of the time (apparently) he maintains his female persona offstage as well. When his acting troupe comes to the town where the three men live who were responsible for the death of Yuki's parents, the scene is set (literally) for him to enact his revenge by inveigling himself into their various households and causing their downfall.

A film that's far stronger on its visual imagery than the plot, which frequently takes a back seat to some inventive widescreen compositions, and boasting a colour palette that may have influence DP Nicolas Roeg when he shot the following year's THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH for Roger Corman, AN ACTOR'S REVENGE plays out very much in an atmosphere of highly stylised theatricality. Even when we aren't watching characters on a stage, it still feels as if we are watching a play onscreen. 

Acting-wise, Mr Hasegawa does make for rather a butch lady, and the way in which pretty girls throw themselves at the feet of his character in full female garb will undoubtedly be met with a raised eyebrow or two by some viewers. But hey, what do I know? Perhaps female impersonator kabuki actors were the height of sexiness back in the early eighteen hundreds.

The BFI's disc comes with a newly recorded commentary track by Japanese film expert Tony Rayns which is highly listenable to and provides a wealth of useful information. You also get Nagisa Oshima's 1995 documentary on the first 100 years of Japanese cinema (if Godzilla was mentioned I missed it, likewise the SHOGUN ASSASSIN series). Finally film-wise there are four rare archive films that last about four minutes each dating from the late 1920s and documenting Japanese life.

The discs come with the usual excellent BFI booklet, this time featuring essays on the careers of Kon Ichikawa and Kazuo Hasegawa, as well as contemporary reviews and more. All good stuff. Now, BFI, all we need from you is the same treatment for Mr Ichikawa's 1976 horror THE INUGAMIS. 

Kon Ichikawa's AN ACTOR'S REVENGE is out on dual format from the BFI on Monday 26th March 2018

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.