Friday 23 February 2018

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

"50 Years Old & Looking Better Than Ever"

       Oh yes, George A Romero's seminal nihilistic social commentary (that just happens to use flesh-hungry zombies as a major component in its conveyance of allegory) gets the posh Blu-ray treatment with an amazing whistles-and-bells package courtesy of Criterion.

       With seemingly every 'cult' movie over thirty years old getting either the 2K or 4K scan treatment these days, it's perhaps not surprising that arguably the cultiest of cult horror movies would end up getting a splendid double disc edition eventually. Still, to those of us old enough to still be marvelling at the existence of DVD let alone Blu-ray, the presence of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in such a beautiful transfer and with so many extras really is a cause for celebration.

Is there anyone out there who doesn't know the plot? The recently deceased come back to life and start attacking and eating the living. There's mention of radiation from a returning Venus probe being the cause, but we all know that what sets the dead off doesn't actually matter. What does matter is that George A Romero was (and remains) one of that elite and treasured group of film-makers whose movies were strong on social conscience while still delivering the necessary thrills such that his horror projects, while filled with important and relevant subtext, were never overly preachy. 

Trapped in a farmhouse, a socially disparate group of people fight for survival, but, as is so often the case with Romero's projects, it's the humans who are each other's worst enemies, far more than the shambling threat lurking outside.

Reams and books (and reams of books, if there is such a thing) have been written about NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, so instead I'll just tell you all about Criterion's package, which consists of two Blu-rays. The first presents the film in a sparkling 4K transfer with uncompressed monoaural soundtrack. There are two audio commentaries as extras, both recorded in 1994 and featuring Romero, co-writer John Russo and actor Karl Hardman. Also on disc one is a never-before-presented work print edit of the film with the title NIGHT OF ANUBIS accompanied by a six minute introduction from Russell Streiner.

Disc two has lots of new stuff recorded for this Criterion release, which includes: Light in the Darkness features Guillermo del Toro, Frank Darabont and Robert Rodriguez discussing the movie's cinematic importance. There's a never-before-seen 16mm reel of dailies featuring alternate takes not used in the film. Learning from Scratch is a new talking head piece with John Russo remembers the Latent Image, the company that made the movie. Walking Like the Dead features cast and crew talking about what it was like to be zombies in the film. Tones of Terror is a fascinating piece on the library music that was used in the film. Limitations into Virtues is a new video essay on the style of the film.

There are also a number of archive interviews with Romero and actors Duane Jones and Judith Ridley, trailers, TV and radio spots. Also included in the package is a poster of an iconic image from the film, and on the reverse an essay entitled Mere Anarchy is Loosed by critic Stuart Klawans. Like so many of Criterion's releases, this is an essential package for any movie enthusiast's collection. 

George A Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is out in a two-disc Blu-ray set from Criterion on 
Monday 26th February

Thursday 22 February 2018

Der Todesking (1990)

"Not as Funny as NEKROMANTIK"

       I wonder if its director would agree? The movie Jorg Buttgereit made in between the repulsively gory NEKROMANTIK (1987 & reviewed on here) and the similarly-styled NEKROMANTIK 2 (1991 and also reviewed on here) gets a remarkably lavish and exhaustive presentation on a three-disc set from Arrow.

The title translates as The Death King and indeed, what we have here is a film about death or rather deaths - one for each day of the week. Thus we are plunged into seven vignettes in which someone is either killed, or kills themselves. None of the segments are uplifting. All of them are shot on grainy 16mm. Quite a few of them appear to have been shot in the same room (or at least the same house). 

       A short way in, there's a spoof on Don Edmonds' tatty old ILSA SHE WOLF OF THE SS (1975) which will probably elicit a variety of reactions from different viewers ranging from a bit of a chuckle to being utterly morally outraged. And to be honest, that's a bit like the film as a whole. Towards the end there's an allusion towards the possible cause of the deaths - a chain letter from the 'Brotherhood of the Seventh Day' that echoes Robert Chambers' classic 'The King in Yellow' in its stylistic intent of driving insane all who come into contact with it. 

For all that I've said above, I don't think the film is entirely about death and madness. It's bookended by a child doing a drawing of the title character (the body of whom, presumably, we see rotting throughout the film), which makes one wonder if this is perhaps the director's comment on the nature of storytelling itself. DER TODESKING is not an easy watch, but if you can get through it you'll probably find yourself thinking about if for quite a while afterwards.

And while you are, you can be getting stuck into Arrow's feast of extras which include a commentary track from the director and co-writer Franz Rodenkirchen, a conversation between the director and Graham Rae at Manchester's Festival of Fantastic Films in 2016, a vintage making of, footage from the 1990 Berlin premiere, Mr Buttgereit's 1992 documentary Corpse Fucking Art, and two short films by producer Manfred O Jelinski.

       All that stuff, plus trailers, stills and more are on Disc 1 (Blu-ray) and Disc 2 (DVD). Disc 3 is a CD of the complete DER TODESKING score. You also get a 60 page book with new writing on the film from Kat Ellinger and Graham Rae and finally, a replica of the Brotherhood of the Seventh Day chain letter if you feel you have the strength to read it. An amazing package for Buttgereit fans. 

Jorg Buttgereit's DER TODESKING is out in a limited 
edition three disc set from Arrow Films on 
Monday 26th February 2018

Sunday 18 February 2018

The Death of Stalin (2017)

"Brilliant Comedy of Terrors"

One of the best films of last year, and quite possibly one of the best satires of all time, Armando Ianucci's THE DEATH OF STALIN gets its UK DVD and Blu-ray release courtesy of Entertainment One.

Moscow 1953. When soviet leader Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) dies following complications from a stroke, the regime is plunged into chaos as the remaining members of his council plot and backstab in their attempts to attain the prime position of power. 

A UK / French / Belgian co-production it's perhaps unsurprising that THE DEATH OF STALIN received an outright ban in Russia two days before it was due to be released. It's certainly the kind of biting satire we might expect from the man behind so much British comedy gold from THE DAY TODAY to THE THICK OF IT and beyond. 

Performances are all excellent from a talented cast of well-known faces including Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin, Simon Russell Beale, Andrea Riseborough, Jeffrey Tambor and Paul Whitehouse. Ianucci wisely avoids getting everyone to speak with Russian accents, and once you get used to Kruschev talking like Mr Pink from RESERVOIR DOGS and Field Marshall Zukov sounding as if he's about to tell everyone that there's 'Trouble at Mill' this approach doesn't feel intrusive at all. 

Those unfamiliar with this particular episode of Russian history should be warned, however. While satire can be humorous, and while THE DEATH OF STALIN has been praised as a comedy, it does have its fair share of torture and murder, especially at the end, so do be prepared - this isn't a film that will leave you chuckling when you turn it off.

It should, however, leave you feeling educated and enlightened. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s I was familiar with quite a few of the names here but I couldn't have told you the series of events that had led to them becoming so familiar. And that's part of Ianucci's genius. THE DEATH OF STALIN is funny, it is clever, and it's also a very good history lesson. As such, it joins the ranks of brilliant satires like MONTY PYTHON'S LIFE OF BRIAN in its effortless presentation of an important episode of world history as easily digestible entertainment. 

Entertainment One's Blu-ray and DVD has a commentary track by the films' writers and director (David Schneider, Ian Martin, Peter Fellowes and Armando Ianucci). You also get cast and crew interviews and deleted scenes.

Armando Ianucci's THE DEATH OF STALIN is out on Blu-ray and DVD from eOne on Monday 26th February 2018 and on Digital Download from Monday 19th February 2018. 

Saturday 17 February 2018

Thelma (2017)

"Norwegian Art-House CARRIE"

...or even PATRICK (1978 0r 2013). Yes, director Joachim Trier may be following in the footsteps of Stephen King, Brian de Palma and even Richard Franklin, but here's a distinctly different take on the theme of the 'troubled teen with psychic powers' and it's about to get a UK DVD & Blu-ray release from Thunderbird.

Thelma (Eili Harboe) has just started university. Coming from a closeted, stifling upbringing by overprotective and very religious parents, her new world is enough of a culture shock without the other problems she soon begins to experience.

While studying at the library, Thelma undergoes a violent seizure. After that, very strange things start to happen - people disappear and objects move of their own accord. EEG and brain MRI scanning reveal no physical abnormalities. Could it have anything to do with her having fallen in love with a fellow female student? And is she responsible for what is happening to her or are outside forces at work? Are her parents to blame? Or is she herself  the reason for the way they have brought her up? 

I shall say no more, except that through a number of flashbacks all is revealed in Trier's thoughtful, careful profile of a teenaged girl coming to terms with who and what she is. Despite my comparisons above, don't expect any exploding cars, roasting alive before our very eyes or any overly spectacular melodramatics. THELMA is very much a low-key character study that's no less effective for the way in which the subject matter is handled. The ending will give you something to think about, too. 

Thunderbird's Blu-ray also includes short interviews with director Trier and star Harboe, and several very short featurettes on behind the scenes filming. You also get a trailer reel for the other Joachim Trier movies that Soda / Thunderbird have released. 

Joachim Trier's THELMA is out on UK DVD & Blu-ray from Thunderbird Releasing on Monday 26th February 2018

Sunday 4 February 2018

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Tarkovsky Meets Philip K Dick in Villeneuve's Modern Classic

Denis Villeneuve's stunning, thoughtful, creative sequel to Ridley Scott's original gets a disc release from Sony (4K, Blu-ray, Ltd edition Blu-ray, and DVD) just after coming out on Digital Download and Sky's Buy & Keep Program. 

It's thirty years after the events of BLADE RUNNER. Ryan Gosling is LAPD Officer K (shades of Kafka), a blade runner whose job it is to 'retire' Nexus replicants past their sell-by date. When he disposes of Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), K discovers a strongbox containing female bones. Scratches on the pelvis suggest the deceased underwent a Caesarian section, but the most interesting thing is that the bones bear a serial number, meaning these are the remains of a replicant. But replicants can't reproduce. Or can they? 

Pursued by agents of megalomaniac replicant manufacturer Nimander Wallace (Jared Leto) and accompanied by his virtual girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), K finds himself on a journey to find the child, the truth, and of course, Harrison Ford.

While BLADE RUNNER was very much a film of the 1980s, BLADE RUNNER 2049 confounds expectations somewhat by feeling like an SF film from the  early 1970s, bursting as it is with both creativity and an unrelenting bleakness both in its production design and its philosophy. In fact perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is that it exists at all in the current movie climate. Not that this is 163 minutes (!) of drabness. Roger Deakins has quite deservedly been nominated for an Academy Award for his deliciously varied colour palette that ranges from washed out grey to glowing ochre. 

And yes, BLADE RUNNER 2049 runs for nearly three hours. It doesn't feel like it, though, in fact in ways you may end up wishing it were longer. The film has a most welcome Tarkovskian feel to its gloomy setting and measured, deliberate pacing, and, in the end, it may just be the first Science Fiction Biblical Epic. The promise of a child who will save a race, a villain ordering his minions to 'Bring me the child!' while nonchalantly destroying the 'angels' he has created, sacrifice and salvation all add to a potent mix that needs that kind of running time to play out properly.

       DVD extras include Blade Runner 101, which is six behind the scenes featurettes and three original short films that bridge the two features - 2036, 2048 and 2022. The Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD discs have those and Designing the World of Blade Runner which features interviews with Villeneuve, Ridley Scott, Gosling and Ford. Finally, there's a two-disc limited edition Blu-ray which has all the above, plus 30 more minutes of exclusive featurettes and five art cards. 

Denis Villeneuve's BLADE RUNNER 2049 is out on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Limited edition Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 5th February. It's already available on Digital Download and Sky's Buy & Keep Program

Friday 2 February 2018

Strangled (2016)

Good, grim, unsensational Hungarian psycho-thriller

After the entertaining KILLS ON WHEELS, Eureka strike again with another well-made, throughly engrossing piece of Hungarian cinema, this one with a decidedly grimmer theme.

Hungary - the mid 1960s. In the small provincial town of Martfu a serial killer is at large, raping, strangling and mutilating young women. The modus operandi seems to be the same as a similar case a few years previously, where the killer was apprehended amidst a media frenzy and sentenced to life imprisonment. Is this a copycat? Or was the wrong man convicted in the first place?

Based on true events, director Arpad Sopsits' film is frequently stylish without ever being sensationalist. The crimes are portrayed brutally, and the police procedural aspects documented dispassionately. Stripped right down, the plot could easily have been the basis for one of the typical flamboyant Italian examples of giallo cinema in the 1970s. If it had been made in England at that time, it would probably have been so sleazy and grim as to have been pretty much unwatchable.

Thankfully, STRANGLED is 21st century and Hungarian, and takes its subject matter seriously while never overdoing the grimness when it isn't necessary. The press release mentions Fritz Lang's M (1931) (couldn't really see that myself) and David Fincher's ZODIAC (now actually that's more like it) and certainly if you're a fan of Fincher's 'docudrama' then STRANGLED may be just the thing for you. 

Extras are pretty much non-existent but don't let that put you off. Eureka are doing valuable work here making some fine examples of modern overseas cinema available to UK audiences and STRANGLED makes another impressive addition to their library of titles. 

Arpad Sopsits' STRANGLED is out on dual format Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 5th February 2018