Friday, 21 July 2017

The Orchard End Murder (1981)

“Obscure British Short Nicely Preserved”

The BFI continues its valuable work of restoring and preserving obscure British films those of us obsessed with this sort of thing thought we would never get the chance to see.

Of course, therein lies part of the problem with releasing something like THE ORCHARD END MURDER, a 50 minute short film that originally played in the UK as the B feature to Gary Sherman’s DEAD & BURIED. It’s unlikely anyone other than said obsessives are going to be overly bowled over by this one getting a dual format DVD & Blu-ray release.

It’s not that THE ORCHARD END MURDER is bad - in fact there are a few shots in here that are positively inspired - but nevertheless there’s not an awful lot of meat here in terms or either plot or performances to attract the casual disc buyer. It might be of interest to those who want to know what Clive (CASUALTY / GAME OF THRONES) Mantle and Bill (Ploppy the Gaoler from BLACKADDER II) Wallis were up to before they found greater fame on TV, but otherwise it will be fans of Pete Walker’s DP Peter Jessop, or those interested in the terminal decline of an era of the British film industry who will want to give this a watch.

We’re in Kent in 1966. Pretty Pauline (sexy but slightly wooden Tracy Hyde - sorry, Tracy) agrees to meet up with a chap she met a few nights before to watch him play cricket and ‘get up to some fun after’. She gets bored during the match and wanders off to the local railway cottage where a hunchbacked gatekeeper (Wallis) shows her his garden full of gnomes before plying her with tea and cake.

Ewen the handyman (Mantle) shows up and promptly strangles and skins a rabbit (this all looks real by the way so watch out rabbit fans). Pauline runs off but gets stopped by Ewen in the orchard. Driven to lust he kills her and covers her body in apples. The rest of the story details how the body is hidden and eventually discovered.

THE ORCHARD END MURDER opens with a breathtaking crane shot that, if nothing else, makes you wonder what writer-director Christian Marnham might have managed had his career been allowed to progress to features. The murder is both gruesome and fascinatingly shot and it makes for uneasy (in a good way) viewing. There’s also a creepy moment later as Ewen keeps Pauline’s body in his shed and talks to her. 

The BFI’s disc comes with 43 minutes of interviews with Marnham and a 12 minute interview with Hyde, as well as Marnham’s 25 minute short THE SHOWMAN from 1970. It’s a documentary about UK fairground Wild West entertainer Wally Shufflebottom. You also get a booklet with new writing from Josephine Bitting and Vic Pratt. All very much recommended for those interested in late 1970s / early 1980s British cinema. 

The BFI are releasing Christian Marnham's THE ORCHARD END MURDER on dual format DVD & Blu-ray on Monday 24th July 2017

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Der Mude Tod (The Weary Death) aka Destiny (1921)

“Splendid Presentation of a Silent Classic”

       Fritz Lang’s ambitious, exotic grown-up fairytale about love and death gets a dual format DVD & Blu-ray release of its 2k restoration courtesy of Eureka.

       A young couple (Lil CABINET OF DR CALIGARI Dagover and Walter Janssen) travel to a village where Death (Bernhard Goetzke) has built a wall around the land adjacent to the local cemetery with no way in and no way out. At the inn, Lil is distracted by kittens and puppies while her fiancĂ© leaves in the company of Death because it's apparently his time to go.

       Lil finds her way into Death’s walled-off cathedral, where Death admits he is weary of witnessing the suffering of men. He gives her three opportunities to save her lover by placing the two of them in three different stories which we see played out - one set in the Middle East, one in Vienna, and one in China. All she has to do is save her fiance’s life in one of these situations and he will be returned to her.

       Unfortunately, all three stories have unhappy endings. Back in his candle-filled cathedral, Death gives Lil one last chance - if she can find someone willing to die in her fiance’s place Death will restore him to her. Cue lots of old people refusing to part with even a second of their remaining life despite all her pleading. I’ll leave you to find out how it all ends.

       A remarkable piece of work (and Fritz Lang’s breakthrough film), DER MUDE TOD has been given a beautiful restoration job here, with every sequence tinted and the picture looks as great as one imagines it ever will. Extras on Eureka’s disc include a helpful video essay by David Cairns which contextualises the film within Fritz Lang's life and body of work. We get the kind of detailed factual commentary anyone familiar with the work of Video Watchdog’s Tim Lucas has come to expect of him, and he makes an immediate second viewing of the film essential.

       The accompanying booklet features a detailed new essay by Philip Kemp as well as plenty of stills from the movie. My only complaint about an otherwise excellent package is that the music score (by Cornelius Schwehr and performed by the Berlin Symphony Orchestra) doesn’t really fit the action and often feels too upbeat and almost frivolous compared to what's happening onscreen. Next time I’m going to turn the sound down and put some James Bernard on. 

Fritz Lang’s DER MUDE TOD is out in dual format from Eureka on Monday 24th July 2017

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Life (2017)

Daniel Espinosa’s Sci-Fi thriller gets a digital download, 4k Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD release from Sony. 

A team of scientists aboard the International Space Station intercept a probe returning from Mars. The dust from the device contains a life-form. There is the usual excitement and optimism from the research team that you get in films like this as they poke and probe the tiny creature that the audience knows / hopes is soon going to be ripping heads off and painting the white space station walls with their intestines. Because why are the walls white if not for that?

The creature gets named ‘Calvin’ from a school competition in a nice bit that allows for the filling in of a little bit of background. Quite why the dust contains only the one organism is never explained, as perhaps if ‘Klein’ had been grown in another petri dish they might have combined to form the first extra-terrestrial fashion house.
This does not happen.

Instead, Calvin escapes, eats the only rat on board and then starts on the crew, who are faced with the dilemma of how to stop him / it and get back to earth without causing a  disastrous spread of Calvinism on a worldwide scale. 

A monster on the loose in space picture in the tradition of Edward L Cahn’s IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1957), Ridley Scott’s ALIEN (1979) or even Norman J Warren’s INSEMINOID (1981), LIFE comes up sadly lacking when compared to any of those three predecessors. It possesses none of the claustrophobia of IT!, none of the suspense of ALIEN and not even any of the gleeful splatter of INSEMINOID. Instead, everything feels horribly bland and by the numbers, with little evidence that anyone behind the camera is terribly enthusiastic about what’s going on.

This is neither the fault of the writing (which doesn’t need to be that clever) nor of the acting (both Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds are always watchable). No, where LIFE dies (sorry) is in the direction, which is so seriously mishandled that we neither care about the characters, nor their mission, nor their fates when they succumb to the monster on the prowl.

To be honest, it’s not actually a terribly scary monster either. A bit less obvious CGI and a few more real-looking tentacles and general all-round gloopiness would have been an immense help. Sadly it’s all too obvious that the cast are manfully trying to fight with nothing other than empty space to be filled by pixels at some later date. 

Admittedly the last couple of minutes have a good punch to them, almost to the extent that you wonder if someone else took over to give the film a decent ending. Sadly it is too little too late. If only the verve and nastiness of the last bit had been employed throughout, LIFE would have been a much better picture.
Sony’s Blu-ray and DVD release comes with three featurettes: ‘Creating a Thriller in Space’, ‘LIFE in Zero G’ and ‘The Art & Reality of Calvin’. You also get ‘Astronaut Diaries’ which are tiny talking head snippets to camera from three of the cast in character. 

LIFE is out from Sony on digital download from Monday 17th July and on 4k Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD from Monday 31st July 2017

Saturday, 15 July 2017

American Gods (2017)

Worthy of (Some) Praise

The eight part (so far) adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel gets a welcome UK Blu-ray, Digital Download and DVD release (after premiering on Amazon Prime) from Studio Canal.

When Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) is released from prison he learns that his wife Laura (Emily Browning) has been killed in a car accident. Travelling home to attend her funeral he ends up meeting the charismatic Mr Wednesday (the charismatic Ian McShane) who offers him a job. Shadow says no but Mr Wednesday is not so easily dissuaded. 

By the time Shadow has agreed a contract, sealed over drinks in a bar, it’s just the start of a bizarre odyssey that will reveal that Mr Wednesday isn’t actually a man at all as the two of them journey through a world of old gods and new, where leprechauns still live (and are very sweary and violent) and where Shadow’s dead wife refuses to stay either still or buried. 

The first two episodes of AMERICAN GODS are superb, from the Nicolas Winding-Refnesque NEON DEMON-style opening credits through some excellent psychedelic creative visuals to some great performances. Then it all slows down a lot, to the point where you wonder if heels are being dragged just so Neil Gaiman’s novel can be steamrollered out to two series rather than just the one (which is what seems to be the plan).

But there are some wonderful highlights in the later episodes. Top-billed Crispin Glover swans in for the first time in episode five and effortlessly owns the entire series in a tour de force sequence featuring him, McShane and Gillian Anderson (splendidly, quirkily sexy as Media).

But things don’t really get going in the final two episodes, either. In fact episode seven is even more meandering than the others. Episode eight brings many of the characters together but does little more with them than set things up for Season 2. 

Studio Canal’s Blu-ray and DVD set comes with extras on each of its four discs. These include just under an hour of a panel from San Diego ComicCon with Neil Gaiman, producers / writers Bryan Fuller and Michael Greene along with stars Ian McShane, Ricky Whittle and others. There are separate 12 minute interviews with McShane,Ricky Whittle & Emily Browning, McShane and Whittle and Technical Boy  Bruce Langley. American Gods Origins finds Neil Gaiman in Reykjavik talking about his Norse folkloric inspirations for the book. 

You also get short featurettes on Anderson, Glover and Langley's characters, another on the ‘Old Gods’ seen in the show, ’Book Vs Show’, and ‘What is American Gods’. All these are tiny snippets that only last about five minutes each. 

Visually sumptuous, well acted and with some terrific directorial flourishes, oddly enough the area AMERICAN GODS falls down in is the storytelling department. The publicity has likened it to GAME OF THRONES, but whereas in its first season that show was a display of how to adapt a complex novel to the screen in just the right number of episodes, AMERICAN GODS needs to tighten things up and get its act together for Season 2. 

AMERICAN GODS is out on Digital Download, DVD and Blu-ray from Studio Canal on Monday 31st July 2017

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Doberman Cop (1977)

Hot on the heels of WOLF COP, Arrow Films are bringing us another obscure Japanese crime thriller starring Sonny Chiba. And, just in case you’re wondering (I certainly was), this one doesn’t include any low rent doberman transformation antics.

        Chiba is Joji Kano, a cop from the provinces who’s new to the big city of Tokyo. This being the heyday of US cop shows like  KOJAK (lollipop), COLUMBO (raincoat) and MCLEOD (horse), Kano wears a battered straw hat and carries a baby pig. 

        The burned body of a girl has been discovered. It’s thought she might be from Kano’s home town of Okinawa. Soon he’s on the case, investigating the sleazy nightlife district of the city to the kind of music reminiscent of AIP blaxploitation epics of a few years earlier. 

        DOBERMAN COP is a pretty standard police thriller with 1970s exploitation elements (strip clubs, drug addicted wannabe pop stars, sleazy music impresarios, gang bosses and so on). Fans of director Kinji Fukasaku (THE GREEN SLIME, BATTLE ROYALE) and Chiba will want to see it, and for the casual viewer it offers a fascinating snapshot of typical late 1970s Japanese exploitation fare.

        Extras include a new video appreciation by Sadao Yamane, new interviews with Sonny Chiba and screenwriter Koji Takada, a reversible sleeve and illustrated collector’s booklet with new writing on the film by Patrick Macias. The Chiba interview is Part 2 of an interview that started on the WOLF GUY disc. 

DOBERMAN COP is out on dual format from Arrow Films from Monday 26th June 2017

Friday, 23 June 2017

Slaughterhouse Five (1972)

George Roy Hill’s impressive adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel gets a UK Blu-ray release from Fabulous Films.

        Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks) has become unstuck in time. What this means is that at one minute he can be at home with his wife, son and daughter, the next he can be living the moment his father threw the five year old him in the swimming pool, after that he might be in Dresden as a World War II POW and then he might be on the planet Tralfamadore with his Hollywood starlet girlfriend Montana Wildhack (Valerie Perrine). Billy’s existence consists of switching between these major episodes in his life seemingly at random, including what happens at the ‘end’, which the Tralfamadorians have explained isn’t actually the end at all.

        Kurt Vonnegut’s novel was partly inspired by his own experiences as a prisoner of war. He was present at the bombing of Dresden where he was a POW after being captured at the Battle of the Bulge. He was reportedly delighted with this movie which is a measured and thoughtful adaptation of a book that looks at how we view our lives and how the only way we can survive is to ‘concentrate on the good moments’. 

        A decent budget means that the World War II sequences are staged on an almost epic scale. There’s also a great sequence of car stunt work, but where George Roy Hill’s direction really excels is in his clever transitions as Billy bounces around in time. Often subtle but sometimes more overt, this is a film that deserves rewatching if only to delight in the technique on display here.

         Fabulous Films’ Blu-ray offers no extras. The transfer is very nice, though. 

Fabulous Films are releasing George Roy Hill's film of Kurt Vonnegut's SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE on Monday 26th June 2017

Thursday, 22 June 2017

The Amityville Horror (1979)

Everyone’s favourite Based On True Events That Were Most Likely Made Up To Earn A Bit of Cash movie gets a top of the line whistles and bells steelbook Blu-ray release courtesy of Second Sight.

        The cash-strapped Lutz family believe they’ve hit the jackpot when they purchase a lovely big house for very little money, not realising that these things tend to be cheap for a reason. Is it because the house looks a bit like an evil face? Is it because someone previously went mad there and killed the rest of his family? Or is it because there might be something living in / possessing the basement?

        They move in. Minor things happen like the babysitter getting locked in a room and a window frame bashing a little boy’s hand. George (James Brolin) starts to look ill and begins to develop a meaningful relationship with his axe. The house does its best to welcome Catholic priest Rod Steiger with some friendly flies but when he spurns this act of hospitality it tells him to get out.

        Some more minor things happen - money disappears and the toilets start belching vast quantities of black fluid. The family dog leads them to a walled up room in the cellar that contains...not much, really. Eventually, tired of all this low-key stuff that could easily be explained as ‘things any family might have to deal with’ the house decides to pour blood down the stairs and have it seep out of the walls to finally get rid of the people who want to hang crosses on its walls and have lots of arguments inside it.

        As a fan of movie monsters of all kinds I can never help but root for the house in the AMITYVILLE series, and what an impressive house it is - full marks to the film-makers for coming up with something that looks nothing like the place where the events allegedly took place (according to parapsychologist Hans Holzer) but which towers both literally and figuratively over all the events in the film. Mr Holzer both introduces the film and provides a commentary track on this disc. He would probably have benefitted from a moderator but he does like to keep talking, so that’s there if you fancy it.

        Second Sight’s Blu-ray does come with a wealth of decent extras, though, so if you're a fan of the film or those involved in its making this is going to be a worthwhile investment. There are new interviews with actors James Brolin and Meeno Peluce, screenwriter Sandor Stern, and a great interview with composer Lalo Schifrin where he show on the piano how he composed the music based on augmented 4ths. Plus he plays the music from ENTER THE DRAGON!

        There’s also a feature length documentary with Daniel Lutz, an archival featurette with Brolin and Margot Kidder, trailers, TV spots and repro lobby cards included in the set. An excellent package for all fans of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR. 

Second Sight are releasing their lovely limited edition Blu-ray steelbook of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR on Monday 26th June 2017

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

The Magic Christian (1969)

“Potty, Decadent, Sub-Bunuelian British Satire”

    Well what else might you expect from a late 1960s movie adaptation of a novel by Terry Southern, starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr and boasting extra screenplay material from John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Spike Milligan?    

    The slight plot is as follows: extremely rich Sir Guy Grand (Sellers) adopts a hobo he sees in the park who becomes his son, Youngman (Starr). Together they embark on a project that’s ‘not easily defined’ according to Grand but seems to consist of giving people large amounts of money to do embarrassing / ridiculous things. These include Laurence Harvey performing a striptease during his Hamlet soliloquy, Spike Milligan’s traffic warden eating the parking ticket he has given Grand, and someone bringing a panther with a wig on to Crufts claiming it’s a rare breed of dog.

    The movie culminates with a trip on the luxury seafaring vessel The Magic Christian, captained by an increasingly drunk Wilfred Hyde-White and boasting such guests as Christopher Lee’s Dracula, Yul Brynner as a chanteuse and Roman Polanski as ‘drinker at bar’.

    It all goes bonkers at the end, with the craft seemingly powered by topless slavegirls rowing and presided over by Raquel Welch with a whip. A gorilla appears because anything else just wouldn’t be acceptable, and the final scene shows Sellars and Ringo back in the park where our story began.

    Less a narrative and more a series of daft sketches, how much you’ll like THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN will depend on your taste for Monty Python, Spike Milligan’s Q series, and absurdist experimental British cinema of the period (Richard Lester’s THE BED SITTING ROOM comes to mind).

    If you do like that kind of thing you’ll have a ball. there’s also a lot of fun to be had spotting familiar film and TV faces of the period, many of whom are of the blink you’ll miss them variety, so the film also rewards repeat viewings.

    Fabulous Films’ Blu-ray is the print releases stateside by Olive Films (for MAGIC CHRISTIAN obsessives who might be wondering). There are no extras. Apparently a documentary was made to promote the movie called ‘Will the Real Mr Sellers Please Stand Up’ with Spike Milligan narration but sadly it’s not included. 

THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN is out on Blu-ray from Fabulous Films on Monday 26th June 2017