Friday 29 July 2016

Shark Lake (2015)

“Features sharks and a lake.”

But mostly a lake. Admittedly the box art for this is honest in that this film features star Dolph Lundgren and (not very good CGI) shark action in roughly equal amounts, but the screen time afforded both is far outweighed by some dull soap opera antics, those “crowd-pleasing” time wasting standbys of a little girl, a dog, and an old lady who seems to have trapped the spirit of the family cat on her mobile.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We open on a shack belonging to Clint Grey (Dolph). Clint has been illegally keeping rare and exotic reptiles, amphibians and fish. The entire might of the local police force perform a raid, and the two of them end up chasing Clint as he makes his getaway.
In his van.
That has a shark in the back of it.
At least I think so. The van crashes into the lake. Clint gets arrested, and Clint’s three year old daughter gets adopted by soon-to-be “fiercely protective single mom” (thanks imdb) and police officer Meredith Hernandez (Sara Lane).
Five years pass.

Clint gets out of jail and returns to his remarkably clean and tidy-looking shack where the town’s local gang boss wants to have a word with him. “My money or my shark,” says the boss, which would have made a much better title for this film, or possibly for a TV show that will sadly never be. 
Meanwhile, something is eating people who stray into about three feet of water in the 200 square miles of the local lake, presumably by something that’s not just jolly good at hearing old people arguing, but can flatten itself to sneak up on you.
A bear gets blamed. We see the bear for a split second. It looks appropriately miffed to be in this film. Meredith meets a young chap called Peter (Michael Aaron Milligan) in a bar. Peter has glasses and a PhD that obviously isn’t in drama and he mumbles something about sharks. He’s bloody good, though, because he can tell not just the sex of a shark from a small polaroid photo but also whether or not it’s pregnant AND WITH HOW MANY BABY SHARKS.

Meredith and Peter engage in flirtation so mild and lacking in charisma that it’s like watching two blocks of wood trying to mate. 
Meanwhile a slimy shark hunter with a fake British accent turns up claiming to be from that well-known BBC TV series Fish Hunt. He interviews a few local lovelies before tackling the shark and getting everything wrong.
There are more deaths. Every now and then we catch a glimpse of CGI sharkiness. Every now and then we catch a glimpse of Dolph Lundgren. Shark and Dolph and Meredith and Peter meet for a climax of optically enhanced proportions (which isn’t saying much). 

SHARK LAKE really isn’t very good. Nobody seems terribly interested or good at what they’ve been assigned to do, especially the director, who does everything by the numbers, and the actors, who you think would welcome the opportunity to overact in something as ludicrous as this. Instead it’s as if Dolph has dosed everyone with quaaludes in order to make his own reasonable performance the standout (which it is, by the way).
Soda Pictures’ DVD offers you a trailer as extra. There’s an ‘options’ button on the menu but sadly these don’t include ‘eject the disc and go and watch something else’. But then, you can probably work that one out for yourself. 

SHARK LAKE is coming out on DVD from Soda Pictures on Monday 1st August

Sunday 24 July 2016

Buster Keaton: The Complete Short Films (1917 - 1923)

"Timeless comedy"

Previously available only on DVD, Eureka are now releasing the complete short films of Buster Keaton on Blu-ray in an impressive four disc set.

Ikea house?
And it IS impressive. What you get here is all of Keaton’s two reelers that he made between 1917 and 1923. That means thirty two films, each running around twenty minutes, with a total collective running time of nearly nine and half hours.
It will fly by, though. What’s immediately obvious on watching these is that the comedy is timeless, and that, even though some of the restorations are still rather scratchy, the skill and timing at work here shines through despite the limitations of the medium.

The threat of imprisonment features quite a bit in these
An inspiration for pretty much all comedy that followed, Buster Keaton’s influence can be felt on everything from the movies of Jackie Chan to the BBC show The Goodies, from Warner Bros. Looney Tunes cartoons to the films of Jacques Tati. Each short takes a basic - sometimes off-kilter - premise (Buster is a blacksmith, Buster gets married in Polish by mistake) and then runs with it. As soon as the comic potential of a scene is exhausted it’s onto the next one, sometimes linked by the most spurious of threads. 
And, of course, lots of them end in chases - through LA, around and up and down houses, through the wastelands of the frozen north, and so on, with remarkably resourceful comic use of various props found along the way. 

A night at the opera
Eureka’s Blu-ray set offers new 1080p restorations. As well as the films themselves we get alternate endings for CONEY ISLAND and MY WIFE’S RELATIONS, a pre-release version of THE BLACKSMITH that contains four minutes of extra footage, and there’s often the option of multiple music scores. Joseph McBride provides commentary tracks on six films. 
There’s a new exclusive video essay by David Cairns entitled That’s Some Buster, as well as an introduction by preservationist Serge Bromberg, actor Pierre Étaix discussing The Art of Buster Keaton, and audio of Buster at a party in 1962.

Fantastic acrobatic work in COPS
Finally, you get a massive 184 page book that includes a roundtable discussion on Keaton, detailed notes on each (!) film, a new essay on both versions of THE BLACKSMITH, as well as archival imagery, a chapter on the music, advice on further reading, and more. Truly impressive.

I’ll conclude this review by saying my plan was to watch these discs and then suggest which of Keaton’s shorts were most worth watching. But that wouldn’t be fair to him or to you, because actually they’re all great. There isn’t a single film here that doesn’t have its moments of startling creativity or laugh-out-loud comedy. My advice? Grab this set, free up a weekend, start on disc one and prepare to be amazed, impressed and astounded. And to laugh. Lots and lots and lots. 

Eureka are releasing BUSTER KEATON: THE COMPLETE SHORT FILMS 1917 - 1923 on Region B Blu-ray on 
Monday 25th July

Thursday 21 July 2016

Absolute Beginners (1986)

Julien Temple’s colourful mid-1980s British movie musical gets a sparkling Blu-ray and DVD release courtesy of Second Sight.

London, 1958. Struggling photographer Colin (Eddie O’Connell) is going out with Crepe Suzette (Patsy Kensit). Crepe (actually, nobody ever calls her that) is an aspiring fashion designer working for Henley (James Fox). 

When she revolutionises hemlines by taking them up rather than down (and engaging in one of the movie’s many dance numbers while going about it) she leaves Colin for the promise of Paris and as much James Fox as she would like (ie none at all, really).

In order to win her back, Colin decides to compromise his idealism by getting a job with pop promoter Lionel Blair. Along the way he has entrepreneur David Bowie sing to him from a giant typewriter, gets to meet fascist lunatic Steven Berkoff in full fascist lunatic Steven Berkoff mode, and gets involved in the Notting Hill race riots before he manages to save the girl from Henley (who turns out not to be that interested in girls anyway) and have her to himself. 

A brave move by a small British film company whenever it might have been made, but especially in the cinematic doldrums that was the UK industry in the mid-1980s, time has been very kind indeed to the ambitious, colourful spectacle that is ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS. I reviewed the BFI's new Blu-ray of Val Guest's energetic, slightly bizarre late 1950s Soho odyssey EXPRESSO BONGO on here a while back, and if you liked that movie, you'll like this. 

ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS certainly has things wrong with it (you really need actors like Gillian Hills and Oliver Reed to carry the lead roles) but there’s so much right that the movie’s 108 minute running time just flies by. 

The 'right' things include some great songs (including the cracking main title theme by David Bowie as well as Ray Davies’ mordantly witty Quiet Life), amazing sets, daring photography, buckets of cameos for those who want them, and above all a radiantly glowing depiction of city life that British cinema sadly seems rarely capable of achieving. 

Second Sight’s disc comes with a new 53-minute documentary courtesy of David Gregory and Severin Films. It’s absolutely worth a watch, featuring interviews with writer-director Temple, Palace Pictures boys Nik Powell and Stephen Woolley, DP Oliver Stapleton, production designer John Beard, and actors Eddie O’Connell and Ed Tudor-Pole (but no Patsy Kensit). 

The story of the film’s financing, production and the aftermath will probably hold few surprises for anybody familiar with the crazy world of film production but it’s nice to see that at least all those interviewed here seem to have come through the experience relatively unscathed.

ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS left a lot of viewers non-plussed back in 1986, and I have to admit I was one of them. Too young and too used to cinema fare like ALIENS, TOP GUN and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, I hadn’t grown up enough, seen enough or read enough to appreciate just how very good, and how very special, Julien Temple’s debut feature is. ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS is a remarkable, flamboyant, daring, and quite marvellous film, and Second Sight’s presentation shows it at its best. 

Julien Temple's ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS is out on Blu-ray and DVD from Second Sight on Monday 25th July 2016

Friday 15 July 2016

The Time Travelers (1964)

It’s time for another slice of ropey 1960s ‘classic’ SF courtesy of Fabulous Films, as they release Ib ANGRY RED PLANET Melchior’s THE TIME TRAVELERS on UK DVD.
A group of scientists led by Preston Foster (1932’s DR X) open a time portal that takes them just over a hundred years into the future. The landscape has become scorched and barren (some very effective location filming - California has rarely looked as alien as this). 

Pursued by mutants the team take refuge in a cave, which turns out to lead into the underground base of all that is left of human civilisation following a nuclear war (which we see via stock footage). Leader John Hoyt explains that, as well as building rather peculiar-looking androids with numbers written in shaky marker pen on their chests, the underground community is busy building a rocket ship. Earth is no longer able to support life and the only option is to escape the planet.

Everything goes wrong. The rocket gets destroyed. Our heroes rebuild their time portal and return to 1964 only to discover they’ve got that wrong as well - because of a mistake their earlier selves are still in the laboratory but moving very slowly. The ending suggests that they are trapped in a time loop.
THE TIME TRAVELERS has a pretty downbeat ending for a 1964 science fiction film. Despite having a tiny budget, it boasts ideas used a few years later in Irwin Allen’s TIME TUNNEL TV series, as well as the third season 1968 STAR TREK episode ‘Wink of an Eye’.

It’s all rough and ready fun. Sadly, unlike ANGRY RED PLANET or REPTILICUS there are no giant monsters, but THE TIME TRAVELERS is actually better made and a bit more interesting than either of those. Fabulous Films’ DVD boasts a pretty good print with vivid colours (director of photography on this was a young Vilmos Zsigmond). There are no extras. 

Ib Melchior's THE TIME TRAVELERS is out on UK DVD from Fabulous Films on Monday 11th July 2016

Thursday 14 July 2016

Cocoon (1985)

Ron Howard’s mid-1980s feel-good science fiction fantasy gets a 30th anniversary Blu-ray release courtesy of Eureka.
Friendly aliens are trying to retrieve members of their kind who came to earth “one hundred centuries ago”. To do this they employ down-on-his-luck Jack Bonner (Steve Guttenberg) to take them in his boat to the sea trench where the alien cocoons have been safely stored. Once removed, they store them in a local swimming pool, not knowing that the pool is used illegally by some naughty pensioners from the nearby retirement home.

The cocoons have the effect of revitalising the oldsters, providing them with a ‘fountain of youth’. Of course, the aliens plan to take the cocoons away with them, but will they offer the old people the chance to go with them?

COCOON could have been awful - sickly, sentimental and dull. The fact that it isn’t is down to Ron Howard’s careful direction of a group of seasoned actors, allowing them off the leash in the early stages of the film but ensuring their performances become more measured and considerate as the film goes on and the issues raised by the plot become more serious. 

There aren’t many horror or science fiction movies that are completely owned by the old people (I can think of COCKNEYS VS ZOMBIES and that’s about it) but COCOON is one, and it’s actually a better treatment of its subject matter than Steven Speilberg’s similarly-themed ‘Kick the Can’ segment of TWILIGHT ZONE - THE MOVIE. There are some youngsters in it, but Steve Guttenberg and Tahnee Welch’s relationship is a bit boring and Howard quite rightly concentrates on all the fun his elderly cast is having. 

Extras on Eureka’s disc include a commentary track from Ron Howard, five featurettes including behind the scenes, a profile of the director, as well as pieces on the actors and on creating the aliens. You also get TV spots, trailers for the original, and a trailer for COCOON 2: THE RETURN, as well as a booklet with new writing on the film. 

Ron Howard's COCOON is coming out on Blu-ray from Eureka on Monday 18th July 2016

Sunday 10 July 2016

Satan's Blade (1984)

"Don't watch it alone"

Seriously, don't. If ever a film deserved that tag line, it's SATAN'S BLADE, a film so staggeringly inept that if you do watch it on your own you might just lose the will to live. It's out on Blu-ray (!) now from Arrow and I would strongly caution anyone against sitting down to watch it by themselves expecting any kind of vaguely competent horror film. On the other hand

The madness that starts it all...
Get some friends round. Get some cocktails made. Select the 'fullscreen' option out of the two aspect ratios (!) here, and let the unwanted boom mikes, extra feet and knees that shouldn't be in shot be the garnish to a very special Bad Film viewing experience indeed.
SATAN'S BLADE kicks off with a bank robbery. The two young female perpetrators escape with the cash to a 'ski lodge' (= old shed made with slightly more budget than the EVIL DEAD shack). They get undressed while deciding what to do with the money, then there's a bit of double-crossing and murder as a shadowy figure lurks outside. It's all hackneyed and badly filmed, and everyone who gets shot (including those in the bank raid) die in exactly the same way (= Drinking Game Number One).

Be prepared for a lot of this sort of thing
So far so absolutely crap. But things are about to get worse as new guests arrive at the 'Ski Lodge' - a place where we never see a ski let alone a slope, and the snow is thin enough on the ground in parts to suggest we MIGHT NOT BE ANYWHERE NEAR A SKI RESORT AT ALL. Despite last night's murders, the desk clerk is happy to let out the room again. The police don't seem too fussed either, but seeing as the Sheriff has his gun on the wrong way round and has tried to pin his badge to the right side of his shirt, then changed his mind judging from the holes where the badge was first tried, we should probably be suspicious that THEY AREN'T REAL POLICEMEN AT ALL.

But marvel at how this rug / blanket….
The guests at the 'Ski Lodge' are all terribly, terribly dull. They don't seem bothered that two people were killed last night in the hut they're going to stay in. Quite why the mad grandma thinks she can scare them with a tale of a mythical mountain man if actual, real, blood-stained death doesn't bother them (and the bloodstains are still there on the wall) is anyone's guess, but then she's so insane she's lost all ability to talk like a rational human being. A bit like everyone else in this.

...becomes this entirely different rug / blanket IN THE SAME SCENE!
There is lots of talking. Quite why I don't know because nobody is actually very good at even this simple human activity. There's a dream sequence with some murders. Then back to the talking and the wandering around and the not much happening. A music score is pounded out on a piano by what sounds like a petulant five year old who has been locked in the music room and denied ice-cream unless he practices. Every now and then he is joined by his friend who has a burpy synthesiser or is just practiced at making the fart noises early 1980s synthesisers made.

Some murders. But not enough.
There are some murders. The film ends on what is not so much a twist as an inexpertly bent bit of plotting. But SATAN'S BLADE is not over until something even more bizarre happens. Cue 'terrifying' final caption and the return of our duetting five year olds who have obviously found mum's hidden stash of cocaine in the piano stool if the over-enthusiastic twiddlings that play us out are anything to go by.

What you might end up looking like if you watch SATAN'S BLADE too often
SATAN'S BLADE is dreadful, but it is frequently hilariously dreadful, and if you are inclined towards this sort of awfulness you may feel you've got value for money from it.  Extras are limited to what might just be the poorest-made featurettes ever to grace an Arrow disc, which of course means they are also essential viewing for connoisseurs of utter grot. Everyone else should take tranquilisers before watching them.

The quite remarkable rubbish that is SATAN'S BLADE is out from Arrow in a dual format DVD & Blu-ray edition on Monday July 11th. 

Thursday 7 July 2016

The Booth at the End (2010 - 2012)

“Riveting television”

Oh yes it is, and for such a simple concept, elegantly achieved on what must be a tiny budget, THE BOOTH AT THE END represents a triumph for clever writing and engaging acting.
So what’s it about? It’s actually difficult to say too much without spoiling things, but what you get in this two disc set are the first two series (hopefully there will be more) of this television programme. BOOTH is set in a diner, specifically the seating area of the title. Throughout five twenty-three minute episodes we never leave that location. 

Xander Berkeley (CANDYMAN and many, many others) plays a man (or is he?) that people come to with their problems. He in turn provides them with a task. If they succeed, their problem will be solved. The tasks match the problems. So if a boy wants his girlfriend to magically receive some flowers he has to help some old ladies across the road. But if someone wants their son who is dying of cancer to survive the chemotherapy they have to kill a random child to take the boy's place. And so on.

The cleverness of the show is that over the five episodes we meet the same characters who keep coming back to tell the man how their various ‘projects’ are doing, and we come to realise that their lives. their problems, and most importantly their tasks, are all interlinked. 
It’s bit like an anthology show, or rather an anthology movie. For those inclined towards classic BritHorror, it’s like an Amicus film where you never leave the junk shop, or the railway carriage, or the crypt, but in this case the setting is a diner where we never leave the booth. But we get drip fed each person’s story over the length of the series.

THE BOOTH AT THE END does take a tiny bit of getting used to. The minimalism of the single setting and the recurring characters had me wondering ‘is this all it’s going to be?’ for the first ten minutes or so. After that I was hooked, and you will be too.

Performances are all very good, with Berkeley absolutely inspired casting. Is he God? The devil? Or something in between? I’m certainly not going to tell you, and he definitely keeps you guessing. Simply Media’s double DVD set contains both series of BOOTH AT THE END. It’s unexpectedly excellent and one of the best bits of TV I’ve seen this year. I hope they do more. 

THE BOOTH AT THE END (Series 1 & 2) is out on DVD from Simply Media on Monday 11th July 2016

Wednesday 6 July 2016

Blood Orange (2016)

It’s film noir in sunny Spain (if that makes any sense) as Iggy Pop stars in Toby Tobias’ minimalist crime drama, out on DVD from Metrodome.
Bill is an aging rock star (guess who). He lives in a seemingly isolated Spanish villa with his much younger wife Isabelle (Kacey Barnfield) who has a tendency to seduce any man who is young enough, good-looking enough, and within shagging distance. She gives them three goes to impress her in bed and if they fail, she dumps them and moves on to the next potential candidate.

Bill is actually quite happy with this arrangement, as all those years of performing on stage and appearing on car insurance ads have caused him to end up really rather knackered. Which isn’t surprising, really. 

         While Bill tries to compose his magnum opus and Isabelle  keeps herself busy with the poolboy, into their sunny world comes one of Isabelle's ex-lovers. Lucas (Ben Lamb) is bent on getting his inheritance back, as he was having an affair with Isabelle while she was married to his elderly father, who died (and looking at Isabelle we presume with a smile on his face) and left her all his money. Tensions build and culminate in...well, at least one murder.

BLOOD ORANGE is okay, but it could have been much better. An immersion in the works of James M Cain and Cornell Woolrich before starting the script would have helped immensely in tightening it up, and the direction could have been a lot more suspenseful. BLOOD ORANGE is trying to emulate the clautrophobic passions of something like Laurence Kasdan’s BODY HEAT, but sadly the only thing hot here is the beautiful locations. 

          Performances are restrained to the point of being wooden (and I don’t mean Iggy - he’s actually fine, although I’d rather be watching him in a cameo as a wizard in the fantasy epic he looks ideally suited for) which means there’s very little tension to a piece that should be brimming with it.
               BLOOD ORANGE will certainly do if you’re a fan of hard-boiled stuff and fancy something new to watch, just don’t have too high an expectation of it.  Metrodome’s disc offers no extras. 

BLOOD ORANGE is out from Metrodome on Monday July 11th 2016

Saturday 2 July 2016

Suture (1993)

“A movie worth thinking about”

Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s 1993 black and white crime drama with an art-house twist gets a dual format release courtesy of Arrow Films.
Construction worker Clay Arlington (Dennis Haysbert) is invited to the city to stay with his wealthy half-brother Vincent Towers (Michael Harris) after the two meet for the first time at their mutual father’s funeral. Clay has been led to believe it’s a weekend visit but actually Vincent plans to blow his brother up with a car bomb while he takes a one-way ticket out of there. 

But it goes a bit wrong when Clay survives. The twist is that he was wearing Vincent’s suit and carrying Vincent’s cards so now everybody believes him to be his brother. As Clay tries to regain his memory after plastic surgery Lt Weismann (David Graf) is busy trying to prove that Vincent killed his own father. Events culminate when the real Vincent returns.

The above plot would make a reasonable story. Indeed, the plastic-surgery-post-trauma-leading-to-confused-identity plot has been used by all kinds of movies from Douglas Hickox’s BLACKOUT (1985) to Wolfgang Petersen’s SHATTERED (1991). But SUTURE has something no other film has. You see, much is made during the opening scenes of how Clay and his brother look similar, and this is also played upon heavily after Clay’s ‘accident’. But the thing is, while the world in which Clay and Vincent live believes them to be almost identical, the actors playing the two brothers could not look less alike. 

And herein lies the genius of SUTURE, allowing it to work on levels other than a simple crime drama. In fact, if you’re expecting a straightforward treatment of the above plot you will be at best confused and at worst frustrated to the point of switching this off. Because the plot isn’t really the point. SUTURE is at least about two important things: the nature of identity and the nature of storytelling through film.
There is a significant scene towards the end where Clay says he believes himself to be Vincent because everybody keeps telling him that he is, which poses the question: what makes us who we are? Is it the internal part, the memories we have of our past, or is it the external - what everyone around keeps telling us we are?

But SUTURE also looks at how we watch film. We are told by everyone (including the two leads) that Vincent and Clay are nearly identical. Because two different-looking actors have been cast in the two roles, should that matter? If Harris has been cast because he better depicts the villainous Vincent and Haysbert because he has the warmer, more vulnerable persona, isn’t this just as artificial as having the two roles played by the same man but with one having a scar to make a distinction? Or wearing a black hat or a red shirt? As if to emphasise this, to drive that point home, SUTURE is filmed in stark black and white even though this is a film that is anything but - the ultimate in ironic screen storytelling.

Arrow’s disc also contains a commentary track from the film-makers and executive producer Steven Soderbergh, new interviews with the cast and crew, deleted scenes, a short film that’s a meditation on Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS, trailers and a reversible sleeve. Another great Arrow release that will keep you thinking long after the credits have rolled. 

Arrow are bringing out SUTURE in a dual format DVD and Blu-ray edition on Monday 4th July 2016