The Girl With All the Gifts: Blu-ray
The more one learns about the business of distributing DVDs, Blu-ray and VOD products, the less sense key business decisions make. Take, for example, Colm McCarthy and writer Mike Carey’s very representative horror flick The Girl With All the Gifts. Apart from being extremely well made and unusually thought-provoking, it features a performance by Glenn Close that almost has to be seen to be believed. Looking a bit like her cross-dressing butler Albert Nobbs – for which she won an Obie and received an Oscar nominated – but with an authoritative bearing not unlike her Nova Prime, in Guardians of the Galaxy, Close plays Dr. Caroline Caldwell, a no-nonsense biologist determined to find a vaccine for a zombie plague. The novelty of such casting, alone, would appear to be sufficient cause for an arthouse release. After debuting at last year’s Locarno, Stuttgart Fantasy Film and Toronto festivals – where it received excellent reviews — The Girl With All the Gifts was accorded little more than an Internet premiere, in January. Then, apparently, no one could figure out what to do with the darn thing. Here, 12-year-old Melanie (newcomer Sennia Nanua) is among a small group of children – “hungries” – who have been infected with a fungal infection that corrupts the brain, but remain able, more or less, to control their urges to stalk and devour uninfected humans. The rest act like zombies in “The Walking Dead” and a million other such undead entertainments.
Strictly monitored and restrained to wheelchairs, the children represent the control group Caldwell and other scientists are studying at a fenced-in British military base. When a sympathetic teacher (Gemma Arterton) gets too attached to Melanie, it threatens to throw an unpredictable variant into the research. Worse comes to worst when the full-blown zombies break through the fence and the child “hungries” are able to mix with the mob and escape the only home they’ve ever known. To achieve a realistically post-apocalyptic look, McCarthy flew a drone over the still-uninhabited ghost town of Prypjat, near Chernobyl, capturing images that would have been impossible to replicate on a spartan budget. Apparently, Close has wanted to appear in a zombie movie for a long time and her decision was influenced by her sister-in-law’s love of the sub-genre. Also effective are Dominique Tipper, Anamaria Marinca and Paddy Considine. The Blu-ray contains the making-of featurette, “Unwrap the Secrets of The Girl WIth All the Gifts,” with interviews with the director, writer, actors and composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer, all of whom discuss what it took to make an effective horror film on a barely-there budget.
The Girl From the Brothel
A few weeks ago, in my review of Lion, I digressed a bit on the subject of human trafficking and what happens to children who “disappear” from their homes and family. In the movie, as it was in real life, the protagonist, Saroo, was extremely fortunate to be delivered by police to a responsible Calcutta orphanage and placed with a loving family in Australia. Years later, of course, he tracked down his birth mother and sister in a tiny Indian village. Tens of thousands of other children in the same predicament as Saroo weren’t nearly as lucky. If I had known about co-writer/director/star Ilaria Borrelli and co-writer Guido Freddi’s The Girl From the Brothel (a.k.a., “Talking to the Trees”), I could have saved all of us some time. It not only serves as an indictment of the illegal trafficking of underage children in Southeast Asia, but, also, the corruption that allows it to enrich criminals, law-enforcement officials and desperately poor relatives of the victims. The indictment also extends to the tourists from around the world who support all forms of prostitution – legal and otherwise — in the region with their patronage. Here, Mia (Borrelli) is a Paris-based photographer with a drug problem, who flies to Cambodia to surprise her businessman husband, Xavier (Philippe Caroit), with her desire to adopt a child and embark on a more stable family life. In a plot device that is too convenient by half, Mia catches Xavier in a lowly brothel, being serviced by 11-year-old, Srey. (Blessedly, the depiction is camouflaged and prurient only by implication.)
She decides, then and there, to rescue the girl and return her to the remote village from which she and her brother were kidnapped. To accomplish this feat, however, Mia is required to sacrifice herself to a highly placed government official. On their way out of town, Mia is shocked to learn that her precocious accomplice, Srey, has brought along a couple of friends and the theft of money from the pimp will ensure a countrywide police dragnet. Each of the girls comes from a different village and has a story of their own to tell. They are sharp enough to provide Mia with tips on how to avoid roadblocks and ingratiate themselves with locals. The journey is as scenic as it is harrowing, moving quickly from the teeming capital to fishing villages on the coast and jungles being stripped of their natural vegetation. Along the way, Mia learns everything she’ll ever need to know about survival skills and the worthlessness of Xavier. Borrelli also points out that not all of the girls’ parents and police are cut from the same cloth and some of them, at least, were ignorant of their whereabouts. I can’t decide if Freddi’s curiously New Age soundtracks adds or detracts from what’s happening on the screen.
Underworld: Blood Wars
In the generous supplement package included in the Underworld: Blood Wars package, the accents of German-born director Anna Foerster and Serbian costume Bojana Nikitovic suggest that they may possess some inside knowledge on the centuries-old blood feud between aristocratic vampires, known as Death Dealers, and their onetime slaves, the Lycans. How popular would Universal’s original Dracula have been if Bela Lugosi had affected a British accent, instead of relying on his native Romanian? Almost everyone else in the horror franchise’s fifth installment speaks in variations of the Queen’s English – as is also apparent in the bonus interviews – and it sometimes makes them sound as if they’re analyzing the intricacies of “War and Peace” or “Finnegan’s Wake,” instead of a supernatural gore fest. Lugosi probably wouldn’t recognize anything here, though, with the possible exceptions of the castles and fangs. At the ripe old age of 46, series MVP Kate Beckinsale looks even more stunning out of her body-hugging leather costume than in it. Younger stars Theo James, Lara Pulver, Clementine Nicholson, Daisy Head and Bradley James – all ridiculously buff and beautiful – seem happy to be along for the ride. Even if “Blood Wars” is an extension of all of the episodes that preceded it, an inordinately long preface allows newcomers to figure out what’s happening without much confusion. As the remaining vampires are on the verge of being wiped out by the Lycans, Selene (Beckinsale) is being hunted by the devious Eastern Coven leader Semira (Lara Pulver) and Lycan top dog Marius (Tobias Menzies). The former seeks justice for the deaths of Viktor and Marcus, while the Lycans intend to use her to locate Eve, the 12-year-old hybrid daughter of Selene and Michael Corvin, whose blood holds the key to building an army of vampire-werewolf hybrids. Semira lures Selena out of hiding by promising to grant her clemency, so she can train the Eastern Coven’s neophyte Death Dealers, but she’s betrayed by her rival’s ally and lover, Varga (Bradley James). Long story short: Selena escapes imminent death when Thomas and David (Dance, James) ride to her rescue. She ends up taking refuge with the peaceful Northern Coven – somewhere near Lapland – where all scores will be settled. The action is pretty good, if ultimately repetitive, with death meted out in numerous different ways. If “Blood Wars” failed to impress critics and paying customers – it was the lowest-opening chapter in franchise history – it does allow for a “new generation” extension, possibly as a straight-to-VOD/DVD entity or television series. Also included in the bonus package is a graphic-novel version of “Blood Wars,” which neatly sums everything up, without the clamor of the clanging swords, automatic-weapons’ fire and atmospheric music.
In the movies, the best place to hire a hitman is the local strip club. In fact, the lower down the food chain one goes, the more time the characters spend in the company of gyrating dancers and topless waitresses serving watered-down drinks. It beats having to come up with intriguing dialogue and clever plots. In Detour, law student Harper (Tye Sheridan) enters into a pact with a heavily tattooed young man, Johnny Ray (Emory Cohen), who offers to kill his stepfather, Vincent (Stephen Moyer), whom he believes is responsible for the accident that sent his mother into a coma. The rest of the story plays out in manner not dissimilar to the split-level Sliding Doors (1998), this using a television broadcast of Edgar G. Ulmer’s infamous noir, Detour (1945), as connective tissue. Both involve the fate of Johnny Ray, who’s heavily in debt to an even more tattooed drug kingpin (John Lynch), who’s commandeered a motel on the old road between Las Vegas and L.A. The dealer is willing to trade the debt for Johnny Ray’s deliciously scuzzy girlfriend, Cherry (Bel Powley), who’s getting sick of being beat up by the guy who insists he can’t live without her. The other narrative allows for an alternate solution to Harper’s problem, this time without having to leave home. Writer/director Christopher Smith Black Death isn’t shy about using visual gimmicks to push viewers’ buttons. His best allies here, though, are Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl), who, even at 25, convincingly plays manipulative jailbait, and the deliciously sleazy Lynch. Detour has its moments, but they come and go without leaving much of an impression.
In the final episode of Season Eight of “Seinfeld” – “The Summer of George” – one of the parallel storylines describes how the males in Elaine’s life react when they sense that a fight between two women seems imminent. Typically, their behavior reflects a collective lack of intellectual growth among men, who, while in high school would behave like baboons in anticipation of a “catfight,” during which the girls were likely to lose a blouse or skirt. It was considered bad form for anyone, except a teacher or sibling, to break up these skirmishes. Catfight is also the title of Onur Tukel’s latest provocation, during which polar opposites played by Sandra Oh and Anne Heche relive an unresolved college grievance by kicking the crap out of each other and leaving one of them in a coma. They would wake up a couple of years later, in a hospital, unable to remember anything about how they lost everything and everyone they once deemed essential in their lives. Oh plays Veronica, a superficial upper-middle-class housewife, while Ashley is misanthropic and not particularly successful artist, obsessed more with her career than her life partner, Lisa (Alicia Silverstone), who wants to bear a child. Veronica and Ashely run into each other at a party, hosted by Veronica’s husband, during which their long-buried rivalry comes to the surface. After exchanging some cruel sentiments, they come to blows in a stairwell, leaving Veronica in the hospital in a two-year-long coma. She awakens to learn that her husband and son are both dead and her nest egg has been exhausted by medical bills. A year later, or so, the same thing happens again, this time in reverse. A third such engagement will occur, only, this time, neither woman has anything left to lose. The catfights in Catfight aren’t remotely sexy – although fetishists might disagree – and the ladies’ clothing remains mostly intact. What’s amazing is just how punishing the fights between these two big stars are made to look and for how long they last. If the first two punches are kind of funny, the next dozen or so are far from amusing. Some might wonder what kind of a madman could conceive of such fare and convince indie faves Oh and Heche to appear in it. A bonus featurette explains how the pugilistic realism was achieved.
The Marine 5: Battleground: Blu-ray
WWE superstar Mike “The Miz” Mizanin is back for a record third time as Jake Carter, a former Marine sergeant turned body guard and, in The Marine 5: Battleground, a stateside EMT. As such, he’s outlasted John Cena (12 Rounds), who launched the series, and the sequel’s star, Ted DiBiase (“Vengeance”). WWE Studios, which now also enlists its stars in the service of animated films – “Scooby-Doo,” “The Jetsons,” “The Flintstones,” “Surf’s Up 2” — tends to rotate the actors playing lead roles in its feature films. The same is true of its directors. The critics haven’t cared much for the studio’s live-action titles, but they must have done some business or why bother? This time around, Carter is assigned the responsibility of protecting a man who killed a leader of a local motorcycle gang. Trapped in the cavernous parking garage of an amusement park, Carter and his partner have the disadvantage of being outnumbered, out of communication with their supervisors and short on weapons. The man he’s protecting happens to be wounded, as well. In WWE movies, at least, a Marine should be capable of outlasting his villains, no matter the odds. And, of course, that’s exactly what happens. The supporting cast is stacked with such wrestlers as Heath Slater, Curtis Axel, Bo Dallas, Trinity “Naomi” Fatu, Joe Hennig, Taylor Rotunda, Naomi and Maryse “The Sultry Diva” Mizanin. Whoever invented the term, “It is what it is,” must have foreseen such movies as “The Marine 5.”
Set on a dairy farm in Somerset, England, after the devastating floods of 2014, The Levelling marks the long overdue return of Hope Dickson Leach to the filmmaking game, this time as a freshman writer/director. After graduating from Columbia, Leach learned the craft working as an assistant for Todd Solondz on Palindromes, as well as directing several promising shorts. She took several years off to start a family and reassess her role in an industry that values low-budget films, but not necessarily the people who make them. The Levelling is a far more direct and somber story than the occasionally satiric shorts she once delivered. It features excellent performances by Ellie Kendrick (“Game of Thrones”) and David Troughton (“Grantchester”), as a father and daughter forced to deal with unsettled issues in the wake of the death of her brother. In training to become a veterinarian, Clover Catto returns the family farm, only to find it in terrible disarray after the floods. Her father, Aubrey, refuses to believe that the shooting was anything but a terrible accident, even though all of the evidence argues for it being a suicide. Either way, a dairy farmer’s work doesn’t stop for mourning, funeral preparations, floods and familial discord. Among other things, the cows have to be fed, milked and birthed, and other obligatory chores don’t perform themselves. Neither do pastures and barns heal themselves when they’re damaged by the ravages of nature’s wrath. The frustrations caused by such unforeseen acts of God must have weighed heavily on Charlie (Joe Blakemore), before he picked up the gun. Repairing the father-daughter relationship is no less difficult for Clover, who, even as someone who works with animals, can envision a life removed from the mud, shit and dawn-to-dusk obligations of rural life.
We Are X: Blu-ray
Up until a few months ago, the only rock band I knew of named X was, and still is, as much a product of Los Angeles as Dodger Dogs and the Hollywood sign, and an excellent rockumentary, X: The Unheard Music (1986), has already been made about the pioneers of West Coast punk. That changed with the arrival of Stephen Kijak’s We Are X on the festival circuit, which I initially confused with Michael Haertlein and Jonathan Yi’s extremely wild documentary, Mad Tiger, about the New York-based Japanese art-punk ensemble Peelander-z. Unbeknownst to me, anyway, X Japan has been a major attraction in there for more than 30 years and has since taken its act to countries around the world, including the United States. It started as a power/speed/metal group, with heavy symphonic elements, but later would be highly influenced, as well, by the Western hair bands and prog rockers of the 1970s. X Japan is widely credited as being one of the pioneers of visual kei, a popular movement among independent and underground musicians working in the glam, goth, electronica and cyberpunk subgenres. It also has become famous for the power ballads it performs in sold-out auditoriums to the accompaniment of laser beams, flashing lights, smoke machines and hysterical fans. Under the enigmatic direction of drummer, pianist, composer, and producer Yoshiki, X Japan has sold over 30 million singles and albums. Sartorially, they make T-Rex look like the Four Freshmen. For all of the band’s success, however, it would be impacted by personal problems and the angst that goes with being hounded by fans and the media. We Are X is further informed by interviews with such admirers as Sir George Martin, KISS’ Gene Simmons, Stan Lee and Marilyn Manson. There’s footage from the concert to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Emperor Akihito’s ascension, as well as that from the Tokyo Dome and Madison Square Garden affairs. The Blu-ray adds extended interviews, Kijak’s commentary, backstage footage from rehearsals and concerts, as well as archival footage of such key moments such as the split of the band and their last concert and the death of one of the guitarists.
Like too many other low-budget indies fortunate enough to find distribution, but only on straight-to-video platforms, a late title change caused Robot Wars to be released without much in the way of robots or wars on display. If I had known that going into the movie, I wouldn’t have wasted any time looking for them among the other cyber-stuff. This isn’t to imply that fans of first-person point-of-view flicks won’t find something to enjoy here, because that’s essentially what drives the narrative. In the near future, industrial espionage will be conducted by surgically altered spies able to infiltrate companies thought to be secure and photograph documents using an undetectable camera and data links implanted in their eye sockets. Here, a convict is offered a second chance at freedom, but only if he agrees to the procedure and help a team of thieves steal top-secret technology from a rival company. When the mission is compromised and their link to their sponsors is lost, the team is forced to transport their secreted prize through a lawless industrial sprawl populated with barbaric gangs and corporate death squads. Meanwhile, they discover the true nature of their mission and the true power of the device they now possess. The POV perspective makes the movie look and feel like a video-game. The DVD comes with a featurette.
In the Doghouse
When the children of divorced parents decide that it’s in everyone’s best interests to reunite mom and dad, they’ll use every trick in the book to accomplish the task at hand. Throw in a poodle with cognitive powers and mom might as well abandon all hope of hooking up with a guy who won’t break her heart after a few years of marriage. In Paul Rocha and writer Stephen Langford’s Dove-approved In the Doghouse, the kids have forgotten what caused the divorce in the first place – we’re never told — and play tricks on all of mom’s suitors to scare them off. Most of them are so hideously rendered that her ex even begins to look good to us. In a contrivance almost too absurd to mention, Wendy (Kim Hamilton) wins the lottery, alerting an ex-boyfriend to her good fortune. She’s already mentioned his name to a match-making friend, so it doesn’t come as much of a surprise when the bunko artist (Matthew Easton) shows up at her doorstep and she takes the bait. Now, the girls and Irving the Poodle are on the side of the angels and we still haven’t been given a good reason to cheer for the inevitable mother/father reunion. As these things go, In the Doghouse offers more than its fair share of funny moments, almost all of them at the expense of the poor saps a picture-perfect woman like Wendy normally wouldn’t date on a dare. Curiously, considering the prominence of his picture on the DVD jacket, Irving really isn’t given all that much to do in In the Doghouse.
Psycho Cop Returns: Blu-ray
She Kills: Limited Edition Blu-ray
Here are a pair of movies that easily qualify as being so bad, they’re not good, exactly, but funny … in a sick, thoroughly gratuitous sort of way. Released to video in 1993, Psycho Cop Returns is a sequel to the similarly nutso Psycho Cop, which also took the cassette route before being accorded cult status. Of more recent vintage, She Kills only looks like it was made at the height of the straight-to-cassette era. The more blotto the viewer is on generic-label beer, skunk weed or Drano, the more likely it is that he or she will make it to the end of the movies with no regrets. They’re that over the top.
For those who missed the original Psycho Cop, Officer Joe Vickers (Robert R. Shafer) isn’t nicknamed “Psycho” because everyone in the department’s bowling league is required to have one. No, he’s the real deal: a cop who believes that no law is too trivial to enforce and the use of lethal force is warranted, even when issuing tickets for jaywalking or citing noise violations at office parties, as is the case in Psycho Cop Returns. Neither is he keen on advising a perp of his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. “You have the right to remain dead,” he belatedly explains to one corpse. “Anything you say would be considered strange, because you’re dead. You have a right to an attorney, which you don’t need, because you’re dead.” The movie opens in a diner, where two office workers are discussing just how much fun they’re likely to have at that night’s bash. Overhearing their boasts, Officer Joe makes plans to pay the revelers a visit when the debauchery is likely to be at its height. Oh, yeah, have I mentioned that Officer Joe also appears to be an undead Satanist? For all the atrocities committed over Psycho Cop Returns’ 80-minute length, the gore is surprisingly inoffensive and the sex stops just short of actual penetration. Everything else is fair game. The folks at Vinegar Syndrome have gone way beyond the call of duty for this newly scanned and restored edition, adding a commentary track with director Adam Rifkin (Detroit Rock City); the 43-minute featurette, “Habeas Corpus,” offering interviews with Rifkin, editor Peter Schink, screenwriter Dan Povenmire and actors Robert R. Shafer, Miles Dougal, Rod Sweitzer, Nick Vallelonga, Barbara Niven and Melanie Good; “The Victims of Vickers,” with SFX artist Mike Tristano; and reversible cover artwork by Chris Garofalo. That represents an inordinate amount of effort invested in a movie whose punchline is a parody of the Rodney King beating.
She Kills opens with the camera following a beautiful blond a she strolls through a lush pasture, on the lookout for a spot where she’ll feel safe unbuttoning her blouse and letting the girls out for some good old country sunshine. She’s expecting to rendezvous with her fiancé, for whom she’s been saving her maidenhead, until that night’s wedding ceremony. It kind of reminded me of such risqué European erotica as Therese and Isabelle and I, a Woman, which took America by storm in the 1960s. Unbeknownst to our top-down heroine, Sadie (Jennie Russo), however, a sleazy biker is peering at her from the tree line. He’s a member of a gang appropriately known as the Touchers, but, before he can get his greasy hands on the virginal blond, her wimpy fiancé arrives. On their wedding night, the rest of the Touchers show up in the bridal suite to pre-empt the bedtime festivities. During the rape attempt, however, Sadie surprises everyone by defending her virginity with a wicked condition called “fire crotch.” (It looks as if she’s also been cursed to wear a merkin from hell.) A fortune-telling friend, Casparella, advises her to seek an exorcism, before all the men in town are burned to a crisp. The sadism on display could be considered cruelly gratuitous, if the gang members weren’t so cartoonish and the special effects so ridiculously cheesy.
Jess Franco’s Marquise De Sade
Along with Joe D’Amato, Tinto Brass, Henri Pachard, Gerard Damiano, Radley Metzger and Russ Meyer, Spanish multi-hyphenate Jesús “Jess” Franco was one of the grand ol’ men of porn – soft, hard, whatever – for most of second half of the 20th Century. For the most part, they learned how to make mainstream movies or docs before they got into the porn game and adapted to the changes that occurred in the 1960s, when most forms of erotica were legalized; during the commercialization of porn in the 1970s; the home-video explosion of the 1980s; and the gonzo boom of the 1990s. As long as they were making movies, they attempted to tell stories about women and men who might have escaped from an X-rated Harlequin romance novel and whose horizons stretched beyond the warehouse studios of San Fernando Valley. If the actors had blemishes, they didn’t show. Brass and Metzger’s films could double as travelogues for swingers. They’d shoot for hard-core audiences, while also leaving plenty of footage to cut for soft-core outlets. Moreover, they hoped viewers would stick with their movies beyond the first couple of staged couplings.
Franco’s pictures ran the gamut from cheapo/sleazo to literary. Movies based on characters and themes already familiar to potential viewers saved wear and tear on the imagination, while also suggesting the settings and costumes to be considered. Made in 1976, Jess Franco’s Marquise De Sade has carried several different titles over the last 40 years: “Die Marquise von Sade,” “The Portrait of Doriana Gray,” “The 1000 Shades of Doriana Grey” and “Female Vampire.” It more closely resembles Oscar Wilde’s literary classic “The Picture of Dorian Gray” than anything by the Marquis de Sade or Bram Stoker. Franco’s longtime partner and muse, Lina Romay, plays the lonely aristocrat Doriana Gray and her twin sister, who’s been locked away in an asylum. Though separated, they share a strange bond: while Doriana is repressed to the point of frigidity, she’s able to get off by channeling the sexual pleasure experienced by her insatiable twin. Not completely dissimilar to Wilde’s creation, Doriana’s youth is replenished with each new orgasm. The less often she climaxes, the older she looks. Frankly, though, I found it difficult to keep track of which sister was which … not that it matters, because Franco probably did, too. The DVD adds a making-of piece, with interviews, and a veritable cavalcade of Franco trailers.
World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers: Blu-ray
Theatre of Mr. & Mrs. Kabal: Blu-ray
Goto Isle of Love: Blu-ray
Walerian Borowczyk: Short Films: Blu-ray
A few weeks ago, while reviewing Arrow Academy’s upgraded edition of Walerian Borowczyk’s Story of Sin, I mentioned that Chicago-based Olive Films would be sending a fresh batch of the Polish writer/director/animator’s long-forgotten pictures. They have arrived, alongside two other underseen gems: Claude Chabrol’s 1963 contemporization of “Hamlet,” Ophelia, and an abridged version of the star-studded 1964 anthology, The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers. Chabrol contributed a chapter to the latter film, as well, along with Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless), Ugo Gregoretti (Omicron), Hiromichi Horikawa (The Alaska Story) and Roman Polanski, who had just emigrated to France and asked that his segment be edited out of future releases. In Ophelia, André Jocelyn (Les Cousins) plays wealthy young provincial, Yvan, who becomes fixated on the idea that his mother, Alida Valli (The Third Man), and uncle, Claude Cerval (Belle de Jour), conspired to have his businessman father killed, so they could marry and sap his fortune. When Yvan’s paranoia becomes too much for his family and neighbors to bear, he begins wooing Lucy (Juliette Mayniel), the beautiful daughter of his parents’ groundskeeper. He convinces her to become the de facto Ophelia of his scheme. Chabrol adds enough visual and thematic references to the play to support Yvan’s suspicions, while Jean Rabier’s wintery black-and-white cinematography is sufficiently bleak to make us think that something is rotten in, if not Denmark, then Villepreux. Ophelia may have been a minor addition to Chabrol’s resume – and not at all Hitchcockian — but there’s enough there to keep his admirers happy for a couple hours.
Like so many other anthologies, The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers, is best savored in small bites, almost as palate cleansers separating the main courses of the artist’s oeuvre. Indeed, in the 50 years since the stories were compiled, the schemes depicted have been borrowed dozens of times and re-set in as many different locations around the world. What’s most interesting here is watching the hand-picked casts of top-shelf actors add touches of their own to the directors’ visions. Among them are Jean Seberg (Breathless), Catherine Deneuve (Indochine), Jean-Pierre Cassel (Murder on the Orient Express), Mie Hama (You Only Live Twice), Francis Blanche (Monsieur Gangster) and Ken Mitsuda (Sansho the Bailiff). Lending their considerable talents behind the camera are cinematographers Raoul Coutard (Breathless), Tonino Delli Colli (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), Asakazu Nakai (Ran) and Jean Rabier (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg).
The newly upgraded titles from Borowczyk’s still rather obscure body of work are Blanche, Goto: Isle of Love, Theatre of Mr. & Mrs. Kabal and “Walerian Borowczyk: Short Films,” the latter two demonstrating his mastery of animation. At mid-century, the differences between European and American animation were the equivalent of night and day, with the Euros favoring more angular characters and surrealistic situations, to the anthropomorphism that distinguished American cartoons. The almost bizarre creations of eastern European artists would find a ready audience of kids a couple of decades later, when Nickelodeon broke the mold on commercial animation. In the feature-length Theatre of Mr. & Mrs. Kabal, the henpecked Mr. Kabal, who’s prone to ogling young females through his binoculars, is never quite beyond the reach of the statuesque and domineering Mrs. Kabal. We all fell in love with “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” but it would have been impossible for non-Europeans to appreciate the debt – fully acknowledged in his introduction – owed the misanthropic Pole by the great Terry Gilliam. Watch these shorts alongside any episode of “Monty Python” and you’ll thank all that is holy that these two minds met somewhere along the line and melded into something that could be enjoyed as much by aesthetes as kids looking for something completely different. It’s there to be found in the shorts compiled by Olive/Arrow.
Borowzcyk also was celebrated for his ability to make historical dramas and period pictures that didn’t look as if they were shot in studio backlots and sets created overnight to resemble the interiors of castles, churches and cottages. His selection of classical and traditional music also fits the periods like an expensive leather glove. Blanche, based on the poem “Mazepa,” by Juliusz Slowacki, takes place largely in an actual medieval castle, somewhere in France, where an elderly baron, Michel Simon (L’Atalante), and his much younger bride (the director’s muse, Ligia Branice) welcome a visiting king, George Wilson (Les destinées), and his handsome page, Jacques Perrin (Cinema Paradiso), to their castle, setting in motion accusations of disloyalty and marital infidelity and turning what should be a fairytale into a nightmare.
Borowzcyk’s first live-action feature, Goto: Isle of Love (1968), must have come as a shock to the many admirers of his animation. Shot in consciously drab black-and-white, it depicts life on an island no other nation is interested in claiming. A meteorological disaster had destroyed everything worth exploiting and the coastline probably couldn’t support a tourist trade. At the time of its release, Borowzcyk could have modeled Goto after a half-dozen Eastern European countries, where the sun never seemed to be able to cut its way through the industrial smog, and creativity was treated as an affront to the state. My guess would be Albania, which, throughout most of the post-war period, was as isolated and colorless as North Korea is, today. In this tale of infidelity, revenge and repressed love, Pierre Brasseur (Port of Shadows) plays Goto III, an unstable and jealous dictator married to the beautiful Glossia (Branice). Unbeknownst to Goto III, Glossia is carrying on an affair with one of his guards (Jean-Pierre Andreani). Also lusting after the dictator’s wife is Grozo (Guy Saint-Jean), a petty thief who, by winning the confidence of Goto III, plans to win Glossia for himself. Several humorously telling scenes were shot inside a classroom, where the students’ primary duty is to memorize the island’s short history and be able to tell the difference between the three Gotos, from a painting whose perspective changes depending on where one sits. All four discs contain informative featurettes and interviews with cronies of the director and artists influenced by his work.
Three Brothers: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Assassin: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Red Queen Kills Seven Times: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Django, Prepare a Coffin: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Caltiki: The Immortal Monster: Special Edition: Blu-ray
On top of everything else, Arrow has delivered an abbondanza of riches from Italy this week, representing several different genres, time periods and degrees of obscurity. Let’s move from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Of all the post-neorealist masters of the 1960s and 1970s, Francesco Rosi has remained among the most detached and ignored, at least by the folks who prioritize the films that get archived and restored for view by American cineastes with home-theater systems. Everything else made in Italy from the end of World War II to the wind-down of the giallo fantastique era, which coincided with the more politicized and humanistic work of Gillo Pontecorvo, Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Taviani brothers, Ettore Scola and Valerio Zurlini, has made the transition from screen to disc, it seems. A native Napolitano, Rosi was especially interested in chronicling the interaction between organized crime, politicians, the judiciary, police and everyday citizens too often caught in the crossfire. He also was known for adapting into film the writings of Carlo Levi, Primo Levi, Leonardo Sciascia, Gabriel García Márquez and Andrei Platonov, who provided the source material for Three Brothers. Americans would be more familiar with his gangland drama, Lucky Luciano (1973), with Rod Steiger, Vincent Gardenia and Edmond O’Brien in key supporting roles, than, say, the BAFTA-winning Christ Stopped at Eboli (1979) or the Silver Bear-winning Salvatore Giuliano (1962), a personal favorite of Martin Scorsese. Three Brothers reflects the changes that rocked post-war Italy on its way to the “economic miracle” of 1950-73. After the death of their mother, far-flung siblings played by Philippe Noiret, Michele Placido and Vittorio Mezzogiorno – a judge, union organizer and children’s advocate, respectively – return to their home village in southeastern Italy. They are of the generation of males, especially, who have blurred memories of the war, but left home as the country adopted a more urban, industrialized economic philosophy. If they returned home at all, it was for weddings, baptisms and funerals. Their elderly father is still alive, but it’s only a matter of time before he’ll happily join his wife in heaven. In the meantime, the brothers have decided that he should spend some quality time with his granddaughter, who’s perfectly suited for the job of grandpa-sitting. Unlike other such scenarios, in which the siblings would be expected to reopen old wounds, before exposing new ones, the brothers are more preoccupied with things happening hundreds of miles away from the heel of the Italian boot, in Rome, Turin and Naples. The judge is one of many law-enforcement officials targeted for assassination by La Cosa Nostra; tempers at the union activist’s factory are threatening to explode into violence; and the recent influx of refugees from Africa has sparked a social dilemma the government is ill-prepared to remedy. Television, newspaper and magazine reports won’t allow the men to bury their mother and comfort their father in peace. Three Brothers takes place, as well, after Italy’s “la dolce vita” respite and there’s no going back to it. The story, however, couldn’t have a more universal appeal. The Arrow Academy release is enhanced by a 2K restoration from original film materials; high-definition Blu-ray and standard-definition DVD presentations; a feature-length interview with Rosi; and a booklet featuring an essay by Professor Millicent Marcus, a 1981 interview with Rosi and a selection of contemporary reviews.
Even more obscure, perhaps, than Three Brothers is Elio Petri’s 1961 The Assassin (“L’Assassino”), a psychological mystery that starred Marcello Mastroianni, just as his career was beginning to explode. It also marked the emergence of Petri, who would go on to make Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, A Quiet Place in the Country, Lulu the Tool and Property Is No Longer a Theft. After gaining some attention at home in Mario Monicelli’s Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958) and Luchino Visconti’s Le Notti Bianche, Mastroianni would achieve international recognition in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), Antonio Pietrangeli’s Hungry for Love (1960), Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte (1961) and Pietro Germi Divorce Italian Style (1961). The Assassin has been described as Kafkaesque and Camusian, in that the protagonist, Alfredo Martelli, is arrested on suspicion of murdering his older, far wealthier lover, Adalgisa (Micheline Presle), but denies any culpability or knowledge of the crime. It’s not even clear if the police buy into their initial theory, allowing the art dealer to tag along in their investigation and even interview other potential suspects. We begin to sense that the police are so confident that Martelli’s guilty of something – and, worse, enjoying the spoils of his misdeeds – that he at least deserves to be harassed and cut down to size. The Assassin is interesting, as well, for presenting yet another side of life among the country’s privileged class. The pristine 2K restoration, in B&W, is complemented by an introduction, with historian Pasquale Iannone; a terrifically entertaining and informative interview with screenwriter, Tonino Guerra, who reminisces about collaborations with Fellini, Antonioni, Rosi, Monicelli, Vittorio De Sica, Andre Tarkovsky and Theodoros Angelopoulos.
Arrow has also kept busy packaging giallo titles from writer/directors not particularly known for their contributions to the subgenre. Last year’s “Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli” combined Death Walks at Midnight (1972) and Death Walks on High Heels (1971) into a single tidy package, before sending them out on their own last month. Likewise, “Killer Dames: Two Gothic Chillers by Emilio P. Miraglia” has been subdivided, with separate editions of The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971) and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972) newly released. I won’t go into much detail on them, again, except to say that, as well as being representative of various giallo tropes and turns, they are a lot of fun to watch. Even the interviews with cast and crew – especially the still sultry and sassy Erika Blanc — are entertaining. As the title of the package suggests, Miraglia wasn’t at all reluctant to mix gothic-horror conventions within a more garish Modernist framework. And, yes, the nudity is plentiful. Both movies look better than ever, too, no worse for the wear of being butchered by distributors anxious to make them fit the dictates of drive-in owners and TV censors. The many fresh and vintage bonus features have been ported over, as well.
The venerable, if occasionally ridiculous series of Westerns that fall under the Django banner began in 1968, with Sergio Corbucci at the helm and the title character played by Franco Nero. Ten entries and nine Djangos later, Nero was expected to return to the series in Django, Prepare a Coffin, a prequel to original that was produced by the same company, B.R.C. Produzione S.r.l. According to IMDB.com, Nero is attached to an undated sequel, “Django Lives!,” being written by John Sayles, during which the aging protagonist is hired by a movie-production company to consult on a Western. Here, though, Django is still a youthful gunslinger who’s drifted into a frontier town in need of an executioner willing to do the bidding of a corrupt local politician. The doomed men have been framed, so that the politician and his cronies can repossess their land. After figuring out the scheme, Django arranges for the dead men to rise again and form a gang that’s loyal to him. Ultimately, though, the gunman is after the man, who, years before, had a hand in the death of Django s wife. The Blu-ray adds “Django Explained,” an overview of the character in general and this film in particular, by Spaghetti Western expert Kevin Grant, and a booklet with an essay by Howard Hughes.
More a curiosity that anything else, Caltiki: The Immortal Monster (1959) is a cross-genre thriller – and I use the term advisedly – that is noteworthy almost exclusively as a collaboration between two maestros of Italian cult cinema, Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava. They’d collaborated three years earlier on I Vampiri, with Freda giving up control of the production to the younger man about half-way through it to the slightly younger filmmaker. The same thing happened on “Caltiki,” which was listed as being directed by Robert Hamton. (It was felt, at the time, that Italian audiences wouldn’t buy a sci-fi/horror film made by an Italian.) I Vampiri, it should be noted, was the first Italian-made horror film of the sound era. Even so, the only thing that separates “Caltiki” from most of the pictures resurrected for the sake of ridicule by the “MST3K” crew is Bava’s contribution to it. Until I Vampiri and Caltiki: The Immortal Monster, he’d only directed documentary shorts and created special effects for and camera work for handful of other movies, including Hercules and Hercules Unchained. I’d encourage buffs to watch the making-of featurettes before committing to the feature, because the experts provide a pretty decent roadmap for viewers to follow to the significant, if primitive effects. For the record, though, “Calktiki” involves a team of intrepid archaeologists, led by Dr. John Fielding (John Merivale), who descend on the ruins of an ancient Mayan city to investigate the mysterious disappearance of its inhabitants several centuries earlier. Their search of a sacrificial pool awakens the monster that dwells beneath its waters … that’s right, the fearsome and malevolent god Caltiki, who takes the form of a blob. The explore manage to destroy it with fire – nearly, anyway — but foolishly hold on to a sample of regenerative blob. Meanwhile, the same comet that passed near our planet the last two times the Mayan civilization was threatened is on its way back for another swing around the sun. The package adds commentary by Bava historian Tim Lucas and Troy Howarth; “From Quatermass to Caltiki,” in which Kim Newman reviews the “evolution” of monster movies; the 86-minute full-aperture version; and the archived featurettes, “Riccardo Freda, Forgotten Master,” “The Genesis of Caltiki,” an introduction by Stefano Della Casa; and booklet insert.
PBS: Frontline: Battle for Iraq
PBS: Craft in America: Nature
One of the many things wrong with the American media is how little they seem to care about the wars in which we’ve become engaged, when compared to how much time is invested in the Oscars, baby giraffes, winter storms in places it usually snows in winter and, of course, the Kardashians. News executives insist that they’re only feeding us what we want to eat and covering wars isn’t cost effective, after the first few setbacks, anyway. And, that’s the problem, really. It’s easier and cheaper to buy news from war zones piecemeal, from freelancers, who aren’t entitled to such fringe benefits as life insurance. At the moment, some of the best reporting from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria is supplied by such foreign operations as the Guardian, CNN and the independent Vice News. The “Frontline” presentation, “Battle for Iraq,” was produced by Iraqi-born Guardian reporter Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who’s taken us closer to the action in Mosul than would seem advisable, even for someone who speaks the language. Before he reached the city limits, for example, he nearly was killed in an ISIS truck bombing. Things got even more dangerous from there, as he joined members of Iraq’s elite special-operations forces, known as the Golden Division. He also was able to sit down with a captured ISIS fighter, accused of helping carry out seven suicide attacks; film inside a hospital that’s struggling to cope with thousands of injured civilians; and interview residents of a refugee camp where there is a growing fear that life under the Iraqi army could be even worse than under ISIS.
PBS’ “Craft in America” helps viewers see the world through the eyes of artists, sculptors and craft workers, whose creations are reflections of the colors, textures, shapes, scents and tastes of the physical world. In “Nature,” the artists profiled express themselves through wood, glass, fiber and other materials that can be shaped or molded to approximate their interpretations of things we may see every day but rarely take the time to savor. And, there’s almost nothing abstract about it.