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