Monthly Archives: January 2010

DVD Round-up, 1 February 2010

Perhaps the most underrated horror film (if box office takings are to be believed) of 2009 was Pontypool, a small Canadian chiller set mostly in the confines of a radio station as a zombie massacre occurs outside and off-screen.

One-time screen bad guy Stephen McHattie is Grant Mazzy, a big city shock jock relocated to small-town Canada on the morning shift. On his way to work one day, Mazzy encounters a strange woman on the road, but thinks nothing of it as the snow starts to fall.

Once at work, things start to go awry when phone calls from locals alert Mazzy and his producer to the fact that Pontypool’s populace are turning nasty. Mazzy must now try to work out what is happening before he and his colleagues become the next target for the rampaging mob.

Working with a tiny budget, director Bruce McDonald ekes out every ounce of drama from Tony Burgess’ script, the inherent hokiness of the plot given gravitas by McHattie’s sterling performance as the smooth-voiced Mazzy.

There’s also fun to be had with the unique reason given for the virus spreading through Pontypool, one you’ll be thinking about long after the credits have rolled. It’s a nifty little film which deserves your time, even if horror films aren’t usually your thing.

Oh, and when those credits have rolled, stay tuned for something even odder…

The Second World War may have been one of the worst moments in history but its dramatic potential remains unsurpassable judging by the continuing trickle of films set during the period.

Out now on DVD is 2009’s Army of Crime (Optimum), a smart thriller focussing on the real-life story of those who took part in revenge attacks against the invading Germans in the Paris of 1941.

When poet Missak Manouchian (Simon Abkarian) is caught early on in the war by the Germans, his wife Mélinée (Virginie Ledoyen) is forced to step in and begin subversive actions against the occupiers.

Manouchian is soon approached by a Resistance group composed of Jews, Hungarians, Poles and other immigrant workers, his task to reform a ragtag assembly of youths into something that might take on the Nazi’s.

Although it clocks in at just over two hours, Army of Crime doesn’t waste valuable time with lengthy scene setting. Instead it starts as it means to go on, pulling the viewer into the plight of the protagonists, allowing the various strands to be come together smoothly.

With torture and violence the main weapons in the Army’s arsenal it’s not surprising that this isn’t a comfortable watch, but it is an important one. Ledoyen and Abkarian make for powerful and always watchable leads, helping make Army of Crime one the most satisfying war dramas of recent years.

From 1940s Paris we jump back a few decades to the silent era and the release of yet another gem from the archives courtesy of Masters of Cinema, Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin.

German born actor and director Ernst Lubitsch became on of the most sought after Hollywood directors in the 1930s and 40s, films such as Heaven Can Wait and The Shop Around the Corner bringing him great acclaim.

Rewind to the early 1920s and Lubitsch was still living in his home city of Berlin and trying to impress audiences with his comedic acting. While he had minor success, it wasn’t until he began directing that he found real success.

This new set collects six of Lubitsch’s Berlin-era films together for the first time: Ich Mochte Kein Mann Sein (1918), Die Puppe (1919), Die Austernprinzessin (1919), Sumurun (1920), Anna Boleyn (1920), and Die Bergkatze (1921).

Stand-out on this set are Mochte Kein Mann Sein, in which Lubitsch’s muse Ossi Oswalda has to pretend to be a man in order to have a night on the town, and Die Puppe, a bizarre story which opens with a house being put together with the pieces from a toy box and characters coming to life to enact a strange love story involving a woman that’s really a doll…

Also included on the set is a fascinating documentary on the man and his life which puts things into context.

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Those old silents are golden

In today’s paper I discussed my trip down to Bristol for Slapstick 2010, a celebration of the works of silent comedians who wowed audiences back in the 1920s and 30s with their daredevil on-screen antics, mostly without the aid of stuntmen or camera trickery.

Luckily, thanks to DVD and the internet we’re able to see many of these films easily, so here are a few examples of silent comedies which have inspired me to search out more of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and their contemporaries.

First up is my silent hero, Buster Keaton. Known as Old Stoneface, Keaton never smiled on-film, at least not in his self-made films, and his acrobatic skills were honed from years performing on stage with his family. You can get a glimpse of his style here but his feature length films are well worth checking out:

By far the best known silent comedian is Charlie Chaplin, born into poverty in London only to become one of the highest paid film actors in the world – here he is in a montage of clips:

Finally, here’s Harold Lloyd, the gentleman of silent films and a man who could perhaps be better described as a comic actor rather than a full-on slapstick star. One of his feature films, Girl Shy, was screened at Slapstick 2010 and brought the house down (not literally, but that would have been quite apt considering the things that went on in some these films)…

The above is just a taster of what to expect from the world of silent movies, which weren’t really silent at all if you consider that they were always shown with live musical accompaniment. As I mentioned before, these films are best watched with an audience in a cinema to get the full effect, but grab yourself a boxset in the next DVD sale and you’ll be doing yourself a favour.

What’s your favourite silent?

DVD Round-up, 27 January 2010

If I asked you to think of a 3D film then there’s a good chance Avatar would spring to mind. But step back to the end of 2009 and a little 3D film crept into cinemas and took everyone by surprise with it’s spot-on humour and gorgeous visuals…and it wasn’t UP.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
(Sony Pictures) takes place in a small town where scientist Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) i
s determined to invent something big that will ensure people remember him…and he succeeds in style.

Creating a machine which converts water into food, Flint becomes a celebrity, while big city weathergirl Sam Sparks (Anna Faris) tries to prove her own worth while slowly falling for Flint.

Throw in some cameo appearances from Bruce Campbell as the nasty town Mayor and Mr T (yes, that Mr T) as a cop tired of Flint’s disastrous inventions, and Cloudy starts to become something special.

Add the stunning visuals (stripped on DVD and Blu-ray of 3D but don’t let that put you off) and the smart script which had me laughing all the way through, and this becomes a minor modern classic for animation and comedy fans.

Available on DVD and Blu-ray, the latter set also comes bundled with the DVD and features the usual glut of extras, from a director commentary to making-of documentaries. There’s a real sense of fun throughout this set which is refreshing.

Though it never quite made its mark in UK cinemas, the two part Mesrine (Momentum Pictures) finds its natural home on DVD as Vincent Cassel’s turn as the legendary French gangster arrives in a two-disc set.

With its opening scene harking back visually to Steve McQueen’s 1968 classic Bullitt, Mesrine: Killer Instinct (the first of the two films) is instantly a revelation, a vibrant and classy entry into Mesrine’s (Cassel) 1970s world which will be recalled at the start of part two.

We’re then taken back a further 20 years to Mesrine’s time in the army, our journey with him starting as he takes his leave from the military and begins to dabble in the French underworld. Meeting mafia boss Guido (Gérard Depardieu), Mesrine soon rises through the ranks to become a feared and respected criminal.

Part two, Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 is more of the same, though much of the bravado of the first film is gone, Mesrine instead more the hunted than the hunter. Cassel still has the charm and the skill to ensure he can outwit the police and his friends, but there’s a feeling of the light going out on his career, albeit over a long, and entertaining, period of time.

To try to summarise the twists, turns and surprises of Mesrine is unfair to the layered story that screenwriter Abdel Raouf Dafri has produced. Prison breaks, bank robberies, disguises, violence and a healthy dash of humour are the name of the game here, director Jean-François Richet making Cassel look every inch the hero even when he’s clearly up to no good.

Whether or not you agree that making a criminal look effortlessly cool is morally justified, Mesrine is a fun ride. At over four-and-a-half hours it’s also a commitment, but try and set aside time one evening for them both and you’ll be rewarded with a compelling mix of drama and biography that hasn’t been seen in the cinema for a long time.

Finally we have Une Femme Mariee (Masters of Cinema), Jean-Luc Goddard’s 1964 “missing” film which hasn’t been available on video or DVD until now.

Macha Méril is Charlotte, a married woman who begins to have an affair with actor Robert (Bernard Noël) while gliding through a world composed of material possessions and confused morals.

When Charlotte discovers she’s pregnant by Robert she must lie in order to keep some semblance of peace, but decisions must be made that will affect all their futures.

Composed of a number of close-ups of Méril’s body alongside the various fads and fashions she encounters, Goddard’s film is akin to a magazine, the viewer flicking from scene to scene without getting the chance to digest much substance.

Viewed as a whole it’s a rewarding watch, a gorgeously shot insight into a woman who has embraced Sixties culture and is enjoying the benefits, as well as the all-too-obvious downsides.

It’s hard to fault the presentation of this new Blu-ray, an impressive booklet putting the film into context with regards to Goddard’s other films and video essays helping the viewer to delve even deeper into the film.

DVD Round-up, 18 January 2009

Recently re-released in UK cinemas and re-evaluated by audiences and critics alike, 1949’s, The Queen of Spades (Optimum) is a morally challenging tale from director Thorold Dickinson based on the novel by Russian author Alexander Pushkin.

Set in the St Petersburg of the 1830s, Pushkin’s story tells of a Russian army officer, Suvorin (Anton Walbrook), addicted to playing card games with colleagues. When he hears a story about an old Countess (Edith Evans) who received the secret of how to win at cards through nefarious, and supernatural, means, he commits himself to retrieving it from her.

Determined to get close to the Countess, Suvorin becomes friendly with her niece, Lizaveta Ivanova (Yvonne Mitchell), manipulating her and others to find out the facts behind the stories.

Although brought onto the project at the last minute, Dickinson imbues the film with a dark atmosphere which could only be achieved in glorious black and white. Walbrook may not be a likeable main characters but he’s magnetic in his charm and bloody mindedness, the viewer egging him on to uncover the mystery which can only have an unhappy ending.

This new DVD contains an introduction from one The Queen of Spades greatest admirers, director Martin Scorsese, along with excerpts from talks with Dickinson following the release of the film.

Also from Thorold Dickinson is 1952’s The Secret People, a tale of love, betrayal, subterfuge and revenge stretching across the decades and through Europe.

As the film starts, sisters Maria (Valentina Cortese) and Nora (a young Audrey Hepburn) have arrived in London to stay with family friends following the death of their politically active father at the hands of fascists in Spain. Integrating with their new family, the girls are taken to Paris on holiday seven years later, only for Maria to meet her former boyfriend Louis (Serge Reggiani), a member of the Spanish resistance.

From here the plot doesn’t merely thickens but congeals, as Maria is roped into helping Louis attempt an assassination on the General who killed her father, something she is willing to do thanks to her love for him but morally uncertain about due to her upbringing.

Using the same visual flair which worked so well in Queen of Spades, Dickinson brings an already taught script to life. Helped by a fine cast, especially Cortese as the permanently confused Maria, Dickinson weaves a tangled web of intrigue which is never a settling watch, while the chance to see a young Hepburn ballet dancing is one you won’t see repeated often.

A British revenge Western starring Raquel Welch as heroine Hannie Caulder (Odeon Entertainment) might not sound like one of the great lost examples of the genre, but slip this new DVD release on and you might just be converted to its charm.

When three cowboys – Western legends Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam and Strother Martin – pass by her ranch, killing her husband and raping her, Caulder determines to take revenge on the men. Bumping into Thomas Luther Price (Robert Culp), a man as good with a one-liner as he is with a gun, the pair set out to find their targets in the harsh landscape of the West.

Putting a new spin on the hoary old revenge clichés, Hannie Caulder has real charm and grit, Welch and Culp making a fascinating team as his world-weary style, honed to perfection over many years, clashes with her slightly less rounded ability.

While the tone does sometimes veer uneasily between comedy and drama, this is still a welcome addition to any Western fans library, an example of what can be done with a strong cast and a script that doesn’t talk down to its audience.

Looking like its script might have escaped from the confines of an old Hammer House of Horror or Tales of the Unexpected production meeting, Fright! (Optimum) is the sort of film one expects to see late night on ITV, though that’s no bad thing in this case.

Susan George is schoolgirl Amanda, called to the house of Jim (George Cole) and Helen (Honor Blackman) to babysit for their young son. Copious close-ups of the locks on the front door and Blackman’s wide-eyes tells us that Something Is Wrong but it’s not until Jim and Helen have left Amanda on her own that the problem becomes clear.

Years ago Helen happened to be married to homicidal maniac Brian (Ian Bannen), a man who has just been released from prison and who now wants nothing more than to get back to his house to see his wife and child. And perhaps kill them if the mood takes him.

Full of odd camera angles, creaking doors and strangers at the window – Cole’s future partner-in-crime Dennis Waterman turns up at one point as Amanda’s boyfriend – Fright! Certainly has its moments of suspense, but not enough to make it a classic. Any chance to see the late Bannen is usually a welcome one, and if you’re looking to watch a very British chiller, this could be for you.

Staying with psychopathic killers, 1970’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon (Odeon Entertainment) hails from Italian director Mario Bava, a man famed for his genre work in such “classics” as Danger: Diabolik and The Whip and the Body.

With the intention of raising the low budget horror’s sales potential in America, Canadian actor Stephen Forsyth was shipped to Europe to star as wedding boutique owner John Harrington. Running the business with his wife Mildred (Laura Bett), Harrington tries to live a life of normality, only marred by tendencies to murder pretty young brides on their wedding nights as he tries to recall a traumatic episode from his childhood.

Held back from having a playboy lifestyle by his nagging wife, Harrington proceeds to murder her just as a local police inspector decides to take a close interest in the boutique owners life.

Packed with visually arresting images and plot developments that will leave you shaking your head in disbelief, Hatchet for the Honeymoon is nonetheless a lot of fun. It won’t win any awards for the acting but the gaudy colours and ridiculously OTT plot and direction keeps it powering along till the bitter, and rather clever, end.

I’ll never forget what’s his name

We all have our favourite actors, stars who we’ll pay to see in just about anything. For me it’s The Great Escape’s James Garner. You’ll have your own and that’s what they’re there for, to get bums on seats.

Suggesting anyone would watch a film for the extras (or supporting artists) in the background would be ridiculous – wouldn’t it?

I was inspired to think about the subject this week by new book A Quiet Man Miscellany (Atrium) by Des MacHale. It takes a fond look back at the 1952 John Wayne film The Quiet Man, the story of an American (Wayne) who returns to Ireland to reclaim his family’s land.

MacHale has investigated everything related to the film, uncovering a mystery involving an actor not credited in the film’s end credits. You’ll need to read the book to discover whether he finds the answer, but I started wondering about these ignored extras.

Did you know that Bruce Willis, Michael Caine and Matt Damon all started out as extras? Even Fidel Castro appeared in 1946’s Holiday in Mexico before he became slightly better known.

My claim to movie fame came when for two days I “starred” as a doctor in the remake of South Pacific in Australia with Glenn Close. OK, you can’t see me on screen in the final product but I know I’m there, trying hard to look like I belonged in the 1940s.

What about the girl who was the first victim of Jaws? The passengers who fell to their deaths in Titanic or the New Yorkers killed in Cloverfield? Who were the cowboys in all those Westerns whose characters are guilty of no more than getting caught up with a bad crowd, ending up in a bar room brawl or shot by the movie’s hero?

They each turned up on set to give it their all. They told stories to their friends and family about the time Eastwood or McQueen killed them. Weren’t they as much a part of their film’s success as Clint and Steve?

We don’t know their names and we’ll never hear their stories, but without them they would be duller films. So, in the absence of an Oscar category for them, let’s hear it for the faceless men (and women) in the background, each one a star in their own way and each a little part of movie history.

DVD Round-up, 10 January 2009

Set in Johannesburg, featuring prawn-like aliens whose dialogue needs on-screen subtitles to be understood and a leading character who is racist (or is that speciest?) towards the aliens, District 9 (Sony Pictures) isn’t your typical feelgood film.

Throw in some clever parallels to South African politics, a brilliant central performance from Sharlto Copley as desk-bound paper pusher Wikus Van De Merwe and a smart script which slowly builds up the tension as things go from bad to worse for Wikus, and you’ve got something special.

Add an executive producer in the shape of Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson and some of the best CGI you’ll see this year – the aliens look like they’re interacting with the humans in many scenes and watching the various guns and gadgets in action is intense – and District 9 becomes a contender for best action/sci-fi film of 2009, if not the last few years.

The effects look gorgeous on the Blu-ray edition, a commentary from direct Neil Blomkamp and extras such as the three part filmmaker’s documentary and in-depth looks at how the visuals were created helping to make this as informative as it is entertaining.

Short films may be an acquired taste, but 1965’s Paris vu Par (Artificial Eye) puts an interesting spin on the genre by linking six stories by half a dozen of France’s finest directors via different neighbourhoods of Paris.

Each director – Jean Douchet, Jean Rouche, Jean-Daniel Pollet, Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Goddard and Claude Chabrol – is given a separate cast and script and allowed to delve into various relationships and situations.

From a two-timing hussy attempting to pacify her lovers to a comedically-confused shop owner who thinks he’s murdered a tramp with his umbrella and a bored housewife determined to see more of the world, the films are all timeless in the stories they tell.

Out of all them it’s Chabrol’s La Muette which is the stand out piece, a funny, yet shocking, vignette which will catch even the most hardened film fan by surprise.

In each mini-epic it’s Paris that remains stalwart in the background, a non-judgemental onlooker happy to remain the playground of the tourists while real life takes place in its suburbs. Paris vu Par is a gorgeous little film which will demand re-watching.

The last few weeks may have seen the birth of a new Time Lord on our TV screens in the latest Doctor Who adventure, but turn the clock back 47 years and there’s a chance to see the very first Doctor, aka actor William Hartnell, in his last film role before the Tardis beckoned.

The World Ten Times Over (Optimum) tells the story of nightclub hostess Billa (Sylvia Simms) who shares a flat with fun loving Ginnie (June Ritchie) in the London of the early 1960s. As the glamour of the back street clubs starts to fade and Billa is faced with her distant father (Hartnell) who has come to visit, the world of the two women begins to disintegrate around them.

Although a bleak film, The World Ten Times Over is worth watching for the strong performances of Hartnell and Simms as a father and daughter who have drifted so far apart they don’t know how to communicate anymore.

Simms in particular gives Billa a world weariness which makes her all too believable and it’s surprising this film has been so overlooked in the long list of Sixties classics we subscribe to.

Moving out of London and into the 1970s, Spring and Port Wine (Optimum) takes us up to the factories of the industrial north of England and into the lives of the Crompton family, led by patriarch Rafe (James Mason).

Fiercely proud and determined not to make the same mistakes his parents did, Rafe ensures that his large family never borrow or live on Hire Purchase, their lives revolving around their small house and meal times together.

When youngest daughter Hilda (Susan George) refuses to eat the meal provided, arguing she puts her wages in the pot and deserves the right to choose, it’s the catalyst for a sequence of events which threatens to tear the family apart for good.

Based on a play by screenwriter Bill Naughton, there’s a definite stage-bound feel to the film, TV director Roger Hammond keen to keep the family gathered around the kitchen table. Young actors such as George, Hannah Gordon and Rodney Bewes imbue the film with energy while James Mason impresses as the father who knows best but who always has a twinkle in his eye.

Of all the characters it’s perhaps Diana Coupland as Mother who has provides the heart the film and it’s her the camera lingers on as the madness around her grows to a crescendo.

A snapshot of a way of life now long gone, Spring and Port Wine is a memorable ensemble piece with a nice line in humour which lightens the darker edges.

From the sublime to the ridiculous now, with the arrival of The Lost Continent (Optimum) on DVD. Made by the House of Blood itself, Hammer, the opening sequence of a motley ships crew watching their Captain (Eric Porter) commit a body to the ocean soon flashes back to the events which led to current events.

Those events involve a mysterious cargo, odd passengers and mutiny, each new twist resulting in a group of strange bedfellows drifting into misty waters and ending up in a land that time has seemingly forgot (though that’s another film entirely).

With a budget that apparently ran out during filming and a script which veers between serious and ludicrous, this is a mixed bag.

There’s undoubtedly something fun in watching giant squid eating nefarious characters, but when a group of Spanish religious nuts turn up sacrificing humans to appease their god, it’s hard to know what the scriptwriter was thinking.

One for a rainy Sunday, The Lost Continent is good campy fun: just watch out for the squid.

Finally, And Then There Were None (Optimum) is a 1970s take on 1930s Agatha Christie novel Ten Little Indians, a claustrophobic and typically convoluted story centring on a group of disparate characters brought together in an old house in the desert by the mysterious Mr Owen (the voice of Orson Welles).

Oliver Reed, Elke Sommer and Richard Attenborough are among the rag-tag group – French crooner Charles Aznavour even popping up to provide a slightly jarring musical interlude – and it’s never less than entertaining to watch them each trying to out-act the other.

Your enjoyment of the film no doubt depends on your tolerance for Agatha Christie, especially Christie minus Marple and Poirot, but there’s enough sheer nastiness and a great enough sense of mystery here to make it one of the better adaptations of her work.