Blu-Ray DVD Roundup – ‘Chinatown,’ ‘Iron Sky,’ ‘A Room with a View’

Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski)

The product of four brilliant individuals, screenwriter Robert Towne, producer Robert Evans, star Jack Nicholson, and director Roman Polanski, Chinatown bounces the auteur theory on its head. Jake Gittes (Nicholson) is a Private Investigator specialising in divorce cases who is duped into exposing an apparent affair between Hollis Mulwray, chief engineer of the local water company and a young woman. When the real Mrs Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) turns up armed with a lawyer Gittes realises he has been used and starts to do some real detective work. Much of the film is spent observing Gittes as he puts his case together, visits locations, and slowly pieces together the truth. It may borrow the form of the classic detective movie but Chinatown is so much more than a genre pastiche. Instead of a lost object being sought after as in The Maltese Falcon the city itself is up for grabs. Gittes is a tarnished knight in the Marlowe mould but more fallible.
Chinatown is not just one of the great American movies but one of the great movies about America. Towne based his screenplay on real-life double dealings in the city of Los Angeles and a conversation with a cop who worked Chinatown and described minimalist approach to law enforcement in a place where nobody was quite sure what was going on. Polanski brought in by Evans to direct and lured back to Los Angeles for the first time since Sharon Tate was murdered brings an embittered eye to the city. No director has ever been less interested in sentimentality or more aware that terrible things can happen to people than Polanski and he was right to insist the film should end as it does. Sad that while the USrelease has a wealth of extras including a commentary track by Towne and David Fincher the UKdisk is vanilla flavoured. Paramount seems to be saying forget it Jake, its Chinatown. Or possibly just fuck you.

Iron Sky (2011, Timo Vuorensola)
Much more fun than expected Iron Sky mixes a killer premise with a campy satirical tone. In fact it reminded me a lot of the final season of the cult science fiction show LEXX (1997-2001) which hid its intelligence behind its outrageous storylines and weird humour. In 1945 Nazi’s went to the moon and have been there ever since just waiting for the opportunity to return and finish what they started. They have a new Fuhrer (Udo Kier) but their technology is hopefully outdated. Only when they capture a USastronaut/male model (Christopher Kirby) and realise his mobile phone is more powerful than their computer do they realise they have the power to return to Earth. Towering soldier Klaus Adler, played by Gottz Otto (Tomorrow Never Dies), is sent down to prepare for invasion. Tagging along for the ride are Renate (Julia Dietze) who has been indoctrinated to believe Nazism is peace-loving and The Great Dictator (1940, Charles Chaplin) is a short film about how nice Hitler was. It’s funny, takes a welcome aim at US self-interest, and for a low budget movie Iron Sky looks great. There are a few perfunctory extras and a digital download.

A Room with a View (1985, James Ivory)
It is unfashionable these days to admit you like a Merchant/Ivory film but A Room with a View is the team’s best work. Based on E.M. Forster’s novel, Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham-Carter) is the young Englishwoman whose passions are aroused by a holiday in Italy and an encounter with the handsome but odd George Emerson (Julian Sands). There’s a great performance from Daniel Day-Lewis as her pompous but ultimately sympathetic fiancé Cecil, who personally I always had more time for than the impulsive George. He might be a snob but at least he has a sense of humour. There’s a decent set of special features here. BBC Breakfast Time interviews with Simon Callow and a giggly Day-Lewis, an archive report on the film’s success in America also from Breakfast Time, and a report from ‘Film 96’ on the Merchant/Ivory pairing. There is also a rather dry tribute to E.M. Forster aired by the BBC after his death in 1970. It is interesting to watch Forster being talked about before his revelatory posthumous novel ‘Maurice’ was published a year later. 

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974, Sam Peckinpah) – Classic

“There ain’t nothing sacred about a hole in the ground or the man that’s in it.”

Sam Peckinpah’s bleakest film is one of his most personal. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is nasty, brutish and embittered, but also romantic in its own drunken way; part wish fulfilment and part death wish. The late, great Warren Oates is in his element as Bennie, a cynical barroom pianist in a Mexican drinking hole who foolishly accepts a gig to bring the head of a philandering young stud to an angry Mexican crime boss.

Two hitmen walk into Bennie’s bar looking for Alfredo Garcia. They offer Bennie the chance to earn some cash by finding Garcia. Bennie meets their associates, the money me, who sit in a lifeless office sipping brandy and smoking cigars. It is easy to imagine these suits as being Hollywood executives and Peckinpah as Bennie forced to deal with these snakes to get the money he needs.

Bennie is given four days to deliver Alfredo Garcia’s head and it had better match the picture he has been given. Otherwise Bennie will be the man they come after. Robert Webber and Gig Young are genuinely nasty as Sappensly and Quill, the two hitmen with a relationship that seems to be modelled on Mr Wynt and Mr Kidd from the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever (Guy Hamilton 1971).

Bennie knows Alfredo Garcia is already dead having met his end in a car crash. He searches out Elita (Isela Vegas) who knows where Garcia’s body is buried. Bennie and Elita become an item though he loses her when he crosses the threshold between life and death by digging up the corpse of Alfredo Garcia and sets himself on a confrontation with his paymasters.

Although famed for the violence present in his films, Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a slow-moving affair. It moves at a drunkards pace, with Warren Oates shambolic protagonist realising too late his dreams of a life on the open road with his girlfriend and his £10,000 are impossible.

In its own perverse way it is a love letter to Mexico, even though the place is presented as being extremely dangerous. In its quieter moments though, Peckinpah makes the country look like heaven. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is fatalistic offering little hope for Bennie, nor for its director who by then had tired of Hollywood interfering in his work. Critics hated the film on its release describing it as nihilistic, but really it’s a sentimental work by a man who was big enough to admit he’d had enough.

Leaving Your Other Self Behind – ‘The Double Life of Veronique’ (1991, Krystof Kieslowski)

“I have a strange feeling….”

 The Double Life of Veronique saw Krysztof Kieslowski (1941-1996) moving away from the social concerns of films like A Short Film about Killing (1988), and focusing on the supernatural elements that often touched his work. There was always an otherness to Kieslowski’s films; the suggestion of something beyond our understanding. No End (1984) is the most obvious example, with a ghost watching over his ex-wife during a period of political unrest. Tellingly the living and the dead both seem as sad and lost as each other. The Double Life of Veronique is an enigmatic tale of two identical women, Weronika and Veronique, living uncannily similar lives.

Kieslowski claimed not to be interested in politics, but making films under an authoritarian and censorious regime meant there were always restrictions placed upon him. The Double Life of Veronique is Kieslowski’s first film made without fear of outside interference. At one point Weronika walks in a different direction from a political march in Krakow, oblivious to the protesters. Kieslowski seemed to be taking a similar journey, towards something broader and more universal.

Two physically identical women in two different cities; both are singers, both have weak hearts. There is a moment when they almost meet. Weronika (Irene Jacob) is astonished to see a woman who looks exactly like her amongst a group of French tourists. As her doppelganger boards a bus Weronika runs after her and Veronique (Jacob) inadvertently takes her photograph. Kieslowski and cinematographer Slawomir Idziak make the world seem far more beautiful than it normally is bathing it in a permanent golden haze. Photographs, reflections, twin dolls; doubles haunt the film. Often images are distorted by glass, to add to the feeling of otherness.

Weronika is full of life. First seen singing in a choir, she keeps singing long after her colleagues have stopped and sought shelter from the rain. She experiences a rapture bordering on the religious. Music also links the two women. Weronika dies during a concert when her heart gives out. Veronique is immediately struck by a feeling of grief. The next day she visits her singing teacher and tells him she is giving up. Veronique seems more tentative than Weronika, more hesitant and troubled, yet we only get to know her after she is affected by this inexplicable feeling of suddenly being alone.

Veronique is drawn towards Alexandre (Philippe Volter), a puppeteer who visits the school she teaches at to perform a marionette show. Alexandre begins to reappear in Veronique’s life as if by coincidence. Veronique retreats from Alexandre when he claims he wants to use her as inspiration for a novel, but they spend a night together in a hotel. Though The Double Life of Veronique presents the doppelganger as being like a lost sibling, there is a brief reminder that the idea of an exact double is often used as a source of terror. Alexandre looks through the photo-reels from Krakow and shows Veronique the picture of a woman he assumes to be her. Yet Veronique knows she took the photo, and she never owned clothes like the one the girl (Weronika) is wearing.

Alexandre creates a story for his marionette show about identical girls; one of whom burns her hand badly by touching a stove, but the other pulls away at the last moment as if influenced by the pain visited upon her double. Veronique backs away from Alexandre and leaves him to his puppets. Kieslowski too shies away from revealing any more as if like Veronique he feels the implications are too much to bear. Kieslowski announced his retirement shortly after the release of Three Colours: Red (1994), despite the film’s commercial and critical success. Like Veronique he returned home. Like Weronika his heart failed him.

Kieslowski commented on the difficulties of conveying “the realm of superstitions, fortune-telling, presentiments, intuition, dreams.” (1) For Kieslowski these make up the inner-life of a human being and no filmmaker since his death has been able to deal with these themes as effectively. German director Tom Twyker tried with the stylish but empty Blind Chance (1981) knock-off Lola Rennt (1998), and the ghastly euro-pudding Heaven (2002), based on an unfinished screenplay by Kieslowski and his regular collaborator Krysztof Piesiewicz. There is no other self out there, another Kieslowski, a doppelganger blessed with the same ability to ask metaphysical questions with a sublime grace.

1.       p 194 Kieslowski on Kieslowski. Faber & Faber 1995

Tales of the Night (2011, Michel Ocelot)

Michel Ocelot presents these six inventive fairytales using silhouette animation and the latest 3-D technology.  Tales of the Night is a bewitching mixture of classical storytelling with a modern sensibility.  Ocelot is inspired by traditional folk tales from around the world, as well as real events; the human sacrifice rituals performed by the Aztecs for instance, but the resulting stories are witty and fresh.
The Werewolf’
Ocelot riffs on a familiar theme in fairytales, transformation.  A handsome horseman marries a woman because he mistakenly believes she was the one who sent him gifts while he was in prison.  So he reveals his terrible secret to her on their wedding day. 
‘Ti-Jean and Beauty Not-Known’
Young Ti Jean breezes into the Land of the Dead and finds himself faced with an impossible set of tasks by the King of the Underworld.  Can Ti Jean win the hand of the King’s daughter Beauty Not-Known?  Does the laid back young adventurer even care?
‘The Chosen One of the City of Gold’
A stranger is appalled to find the beautiful women of the City of Gold are all sad.  The reason for this soon becomes clear.  They are to be sacrificed to a mysterious creature which keeps the city intact.  The stranger resolves to end this barbaric practice once and for all but must face down both the monster and the people who follow it. 
‘Tom-Tom Boy’
Tom-Tom annoys the hell out of the villagers in his small African town by using makeshift objects as drums.  When an old man teaches him to use a magic drum he finds he has the power to make people dance. 
‘The Boy Who Never Lied’
A boy with a talking horse has a reputation for always being honest.  The King of Tibet place a bet with his cousin on that the boy will never tell a lie no matter what.  The cousin gets his daughter to play a cruel trick on the boy and tries to manipulate him into lying.
‘The Girl-Doe and the Architect’s Son’
A sorcerer turns a woman into a doe in front of her lover.  So he embarks on a quest to find The Caress Fairy who can turn his love back into a human again.
Though children will enjoy this animated film, there is a dark heart behind many of the stories.  Ocelot’s tales acknowledge death.  They show love can be cruel, people even more so, particularly in ‘The Boy Who Never Lied’ which ends with a grievous loss.  Tales of the Night should appeal to those who admire revisionist versions of fairytales such as Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984).

The Grey (2011, Joe Carnahan) – DVD Review

“Once more into the fray…”

I’m in the minority but I quite liked Joe Carnahan’s The A Team remake. Nothing he has done before however prepared me for this stripped down tale of a motley group of oil workers battling against the elements. Wrongly advertised as a film about Liam Neeson punching wolves in the face The Grey divided audiences with its downbeat approach and ambiguous ending. The Grey is an entry into the nature’s going to fucking eat you genre of films, the daddy of which is Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and so far has included predators as varied as crocodiles, piranhas, alligators, lions, and anacondas, yet it stands apart from all of these with its melancholy, and its doomed machismo is closer in spirit to the bleakness of Walter Hill or Sam Fuller. 
Working amongst the roughnecks at an oil drilling refinery Ottway makes his living shooting wildlife for the company. At the beginning we see him writing a letter to his dead wife and almost joining her by putting his rifle in his mouth. Oddly enough the howling of the wolves in the distance seems to be the thing that pulls him back from the brink as if they are telling him not now, come to us. Animal rights activists have claimed the depiction of timber wolves is not entirely accurate and these animals rarely attack humans. Fair enough then but while Carnahan aims for realism in every other aspect of the film the wolves are fantastical. They are merciless antagonists, their eyes glowing in the darkness as they circle their prey. These wolves are more akin to the monsters lurking in the forest in a fairytale than real animals.
Usually humans are treated as sport in these kinds of movies as we watch them picked off one by one until the hero saves the day. Carnahan and his co-writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers screenplay is an odd mixture of the perfunctory and the poetic as they balance the thrills with sequences where the men reveal details about their lives. “Who do you love? Let them take you there,’ Ottway (Neeson) says in comfort to a dying man which is essentially what the film is about. What do these men have to live for if anything at all? Carnahan’s existentialist approach justifies his handling of the ending; the emphasis on what has been lost rather than the confrontation between the human alpha male and his wolf counterpart.
It is a film of haunting power aided by Masanobu Takayanagi’s beautiful photography and Marc Streitenfeld’s score. Neeson’s tough soulful performance is outstanding, a natural leader of men the film makes great use of his physicality and his understated delivery of dialogue. Whether threatening to kick the shit out of somebody or reciting poetry there is no doubt he is contemporary cinema’s finest Alpha Male.
Deleted scenes which to be honest I never watch, I’d rather not see what didn’t make the cut, and a director’s commentary with Joe Carnahan. 

Shame (2011, Steve McQueen) – DVD Review

“If I left I’d never see you again. Don’t you think that’s sad?” 

A second viewing of Shame and what fascinates more than the subject of sex addiction is the fractious relationship between two troubled siblings. Brandon’s (Michael Fassbender) life is free of any emotional connection of any kind. That’s how he likes it. When Brandon’s sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) turns up to stay for a while his perfectly ordered existence begins to unravel. There is a hint of some shared trauma in their past that simultaneously ties them together and tears them apart yet director Steve McQueen and his co-writer Abi Morgan never offer any easy explanations for their behaviour.
Sissy is first heard as a message on his answerphone calling to him, “Brandon, where are you?” Like a little child playing hide and seek who knows the person she is looking for is somewhere nearby. Brandondoes not want to hear this voice from his childhood and ignores her. Sissy is over-emotional, incapable of looking after herself and unpredictable. She stands too close to the platform at the Subway station, and clambers into his bed like a frightened child. She can’t hide what she is or how broken, unlike her brother who can go through the pretence of everyday life and never let on there is damage there.
Brandon seems to have the perfect life. He has a good job as an executive, a fancy New York apartment, and a way with the ladies. In fact he has his way with as many ladies as he can. Be they pick ups, prostitutes, or casual flings. If he’s not having sex, he’s thinking about having sex, or watching porn on his laptop, unless he’s at the office where he will use his work computer then finish himself off in the gents. He’s on a downward spiral though, his obsession beginning to interfere with the façade he puts on in public. This all leads to a somewhat melodramatic dark night of the soul on the streets of New York.
As you would expect from somebody with McQueen’s artistic background Shame is visually stunning though at times a little heavy on symbolism and occasionally overblown. In its quieter moments though and accompanied by Harry Escott’s yearning score it is a powerful study in urban loneliness with affecting performances from Fassbender and Mulligan.
Special Features

Sadly not much. There are a trio of Q & A’s; one with Fassbender after a screening at the Hackney Empire in London, and another two done during production, and a trailer. 

The Graduate – Screening Notes

Just back from the latest screening at the Station. Mike Nichols film has held up well and remains one of the most interesting films from that particular period in American cinema. Here are my accompanying notes for the screening programme. 

The Graduate (1967, Mike Nichols)

When you’ve got to choose
Every way you look at this, you lose
‘Mrs Robinson’ Simon & Garfunkel

   Anticipating the aimless troubled protagonists of the late 60’s and early 70’s in American films like Midnight Cowboy (1969, John Schlesinger), Five Easy Pieces (1970, Bob Rafelson), and Taxi Driver (1976, Martin Scorsese), The Graduate is a darkly comic movie about a young man’s affair with an older woman. Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) has just graduated from college as an award-winning scholar and track star. Everybody wants to know what he plans to do next but Benjamin has no idea. His parents are pressurising him to go to Grad school but Benjamin would rather just take it easy for a while. Drinking her way through a bad marriage, whatever dreams Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft) may have had are long gone. Cynical and embittered she may be but Mrs Robinson is still a very attractive woman and she seduces Benjamin despite his weak attempt at preserving his innocence. But their secret relationship becomes awkward when her pretty daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross) returns from university.

The clash between the younger generation and the establishment was playing out across America with anti-Vietnam protests, civil rights demonstrations, and an emerging counter culture which rejected many of the ideals their parents believed in. Director Mike Nichols and his screenwriters Buck Henry and Calder Willingham present this generational conflict in The Graduate. Though the story is told from Benjamin’s perspective he is as flawed as his elders. The older generation are presented as being decadent and burnt out, yet they do at least know what they believe in. Benjamin is drifting, terrified by the lightness freedom can bring.   

Nichols won a Best Director Oscar for his work on The Graduate. Having tasted success with his adaptation of the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Nichols work here is more formally daring often foregoing narrative for observing Benjamin as he wanders around looking lost or hangs out by the pool. Simon and Garfunkel’s music is an integral part of the film. Though only the track ‘Mrs Robinson’ was written specifically for The Graduate the songs taken from their album ‘The Sound of Silence’ lend a haunting atmosphere to the film. 

The House by the Cemetery (1981, Lucio Fulci) – DVD Review

I’ve never paid much attention to Lucio Fulci having seen Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) as a teenager and dismissed it as crap. Other Italian legends like Mario Bava, Argento on his day, and Michele Soavi caught my attention but I’ve avoided Fulci films ever since. So I wasn’t expecting much from The House by the Cemetery. I may well have been wrong about Fulci. This is an often very subtle tale with a touch of Henry James about it. The final part of Fulci’s unofficial ‘gates of hell’ trilogy after City of the Living Dead (1980) and The Beyond (1981), it also features a plot where the dead cross over into the world of the living. 
Dr Norman Boyle (Paula Malco) and his wife Lucy (Catriona McColl) plan to move the Massachusettscountryside. Yet the house they are moving into looks very much like the one in the photographs hanging on the wall in their city apartment in which their young son Bob (Giovanna Frezza) claims he can see a young girl (Silvia Collatina) at the window warning him never to go there. Norman hasn’t told them but he intends to investigate the murder/suicide of an old friend who had been researching the mysterious Dr Freudstein whose experiments many years ago were aimed at prolonging the lifespan of human beings.
The House by the Cemetery will satisfy anybody looking for gore but it is the atmospheric otherwordly feel of the film which makes it a success. It is admittedly not entirely coherent. It has the logic of a dream. Time and time again the locals tell Normanthey have seen him before though he insists he has never visited this place at all. This ambiguity works in the film’s favour though and adds to the dreamlike atmosphere.
Sergio Salvati’s cinematography brings an Autumnal feel to this sombre downbeat film. Italian exploitation films shared with their American counterparts a bleak worldview. Though this despair would give way in the United States to the cheap if not un-enjoyable thrills of the horror-comedy it never really left the Italian genre film at least until the industry began to fall apart in the 90’s.
Fulci regular Catriona McCall is an effective scream queen but poor Giovanna Frezza is lumbered with horrendous dubbing on the English language version. It sounds like a fifty-four year old woman is imitating a nine-year old boy. Best stick with the original Italian language track. There is an interview with both stars on the disk in which both discuss the movie and their other work in Italian horror, as well as a wealth of extras, documentaries, commentaries, and written work to accompany the movie.

Also out today from Arrow is Forbidden Zone, a cult curio from Richard Elfman and his brother Danny who draw their inspirations from the same kind of pop culture Americana as early Sam Raimi and Tim Burton but with less interesting results.

 Made as a showpiece for their band The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo its demented college boy humour wears thin, but there are some catchy songs, and Hervé Villechaize turns up playing a trumpet.  

American Reunion

It’s been thirteen years since they graduated from high school and nine since erstwhile pie fucker Jim (Jason Biggs) married expert flautist Michelle (Alyson Hannigan). Now they have a young son whose uncanny ability to appear unannounced in their bedroom has put a dampener on their sex lives. They’re happy enough though and about to head back to their hometown for their school reunion. The rest of the gang have gone their separate ways. Oz (Chris Klein) is now a TV sports anchor famous for a stint on a reality dance show. Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) apparently leads a mysterious life moving from country to country. Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is still fucking boring. Stifler (Seann William Scott) has avoided growing up completely and still lives at home with his hot mom (Jennifer Coolidge). In fact nobody has told Stifler about the reunion figuring he’ll find a way to fuck everything up.

Writer-directors Jon Horowitz and Hayden Schlossberg dealt with the themes of old friends getting back together much better in their last movie A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas (2011). The most entertaining aspect of American Reunion is seeing these former bright young things back together. Especially the ones whose careers crashed and burned like the hapless Chris Klein who has been in the Hollywood wilderness since John McTiernan’s half-assed remake of Rollerball (2002). Klein remains beguilingly sweet as the dumb jock with a good heart despite his woodenness. Even more welcome is the talented Natasha Lyonne who makes a brief appearance here after spending the latter half of the Noughties battling drug addiction. It adds an element of pathos to the proceedings which is handy because the film isn’t particularly funny.