Blu-Ray Review: Hard to be a God

Director: Aleksei German
Screenplay: Aleksei German, Svetlana Karmalita
Based on a Novel by: Arkadiy Strugatskiy, Boris Strugatskiy
Starring: Gali Abaydulov, Yuriy Ashikhmin, Remigijus Bilinskas
Country: Russia
Running Time: 177 min
Year: 2013
BBFC Certificate: 15

I‘ve not made my life easy this week. Of the four films I’ve watched to review, three of them were lengthy, surreal, mind-benders and I saved probably the toughest one to last. Hard to be a God was a project its director Aleksei German had been interested in since the 60’s when he read the book of the same name, written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (who also wrote the novel Tarkovsky adapted as Stalker). German supposedly planned to make the film in the 80’s, but was beaten to it by Peter Fleischmann, who made his own adaptation in 1989. German finally started work on his version in 2000, spending 6 years shooting it. It took a further 7 years to edit the film, with German actually dying in 2013, before completion. His son Aleksei German Jr, also a respected filmmaker, helped put the finishing touches to it (largely special effects and sound tweaks) alongside his mother Svetlana Karmalita. This epic undertaking finally hit British shores this year and I got my hands on Arrow’s impressive Blu-Ray release.

Hard to be a God is set on a planet called Arkanar, nearly identical to Earth but some 800 years behind in terms of development. Its progress is further hindered by the fact that the planet’s ruling classes have suppressed the birth of the renaissance, meaning the world is stuck in a bleak, ugly version of our middle ages. A group of scientists from Earth have landed on the planet to observe proceedings. One of these, a man named Anton, is asked to help the planet’s society progress, but without forcibly interfering with the advancement of technology or culture. He is given the identity of a nobleman named Don Rumata, who to many is considered a God. His promise of not interfering becomes difficult however as rebels and religious groups vie for control and the devious Prime Minister Don Reba tests his patience.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Saragossa Manuscript & The Hourglass Sanatorium

Wojciech Has’ The Saragossa Manuscript is a film I’d heard of just through word of mouth from some of the writers and podcasters at Row Three. Championed by Matt Gamble, it was picked for discussion on the Movie Club Podcast back in 2010. After listening to that episode, the title had stuck in the back of my mind as something to try and watch, but at that time it wasn’t available in the UK. In passing years Mr Bongo have brought it out on DVD, but I never got around to checking it out. I’m glad I waited though, as they’re now releasing the film on Blu-Ray alongside Has’ The Hourglass Sanatorium, which holds similar esteem amongst those aware of the director, and I was lucky enough to be offered screeners of both of them to review.

The Saragossa Manuscript

Director: Wojciech Has
Screenplay: Tadeusz Kwiatkowski
Based on the Novel by: Jan Potocki
Starring: Zbigniew Cybulski, Iga Cembrzynska, Elzbieta Czyzewska
Country: Poland
Running Time: 182 min
Year: 1965
BBFC Certification: 15

After giving my standard introduction to a film, I usually launch into a summary of the plot, but you’ll have to bear with me for both these titles because it’s not so simple. 1965’s The Saragossa Manuscript opens with a military man getting abandoned by his troops. He hides out in a house where he discovers an unusual book. An enemy captain finds him there and is about to take him prisoner, but the book catches his eye too and, noting a reference to his grandfather, he sits down and the two read it together. The film then moves to the story within the book. In this, Alfonse Van Worden (the captain’s grandfather, played by Zbigniew Cybulski) is trying to find the quickest way to Madrid from a remote village in the mountains. When he ventures into an inn to find shelter, he comes across a palatial cave which houses two beautiful women. They claim to be his relative and want him to marry them both after first renouncing his faith to join theirs. He gets put under a sort of spell and finds himself caught in a loop, unable to leave the village.

When he finally does break free and begins his travels, he ends up meeting a cabalist who takes him to his home. It’s from here that the story begins to get really complicated and I’m not even going to try to summarise everything. Basically, in this second half of the film, characters keep telling new stories and the film adds a new story layer to the pile. At one point I think it became a story within a story within a story within a story within a story within a story (i.e. 6 layers deep)!

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Blu-Ray Review: Medium Cool

Director: Haskell Wexler
Screenplay: Haskell Wexler
Starring: Robert Forster, Verna Bloom, Peter Bonerz, Harold Blankenship
Country: USA
Running Time: 111 min
Year: 1969
BBFC Certificate: 18

Like my decision to take a look at The Decline of Western Civilization Collection, my agreeing to review Medium Cool was on a bit of a whim. I’d vaguely heard about it and the director sounded familiar, but I didn’t really realise its pedigree until just before watching it. I also didn’t know much about how it was made until after I’d watched it, so it’s a case of my opinion of the film becoming more positive a day after viewing.

You see, what makes Medium Cool special is that director Haskell Wexler, who is better known as a cinematographer and documentary filmmaker, combined fictional drama and actors with real life events. A few other directors had combined the ‘real’ with the ‘fake’ before this, but no one had quite done it in this extreme fashion.

The film follows news cameraman John Cassellis (Robert Forster) as he covers important cultural and political events during the turbulent late 1960’s. Cold and detached, he pays little attention to the consequences of what is going on around him. He’s only looking to get the most sensational footage he can. When he is fired after kicking up a fuss about his work being given to the FBI, he falls for Appalachian single mum Eileen (Verna Bloom), who lives in the rough side of Chicago with her son Harold (Harold Blankenship). His personal and professional life finally collide with the political turbulence around him when tragedy strikes at the riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

What makes the film’s approach particularly extreme is that, alongside taking his actors to a number of real locations and situations, Wexler actually predicted there would be civil unrest around the convention and prepared to shoot there around the time. He took his crew and actors right into the midst of the chaos and shot the pivotal final act amongst the police and protesters. Possibly the most famous scene in the film (from what I’ve heard) is where a tear gas canister is thrown towards the camera and you hear someone shout “look out Haskell it’s real!” After watching the supplementary material on the Blu-Ray it turns out the line was dubbed in afterwards, but the tear gas was real. Haskel and his crew were hit by the fumes and were in agony afterwards. It’s bold and daring filmmaking the likes of which are rarely seen.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Decline of Western Civilisation Collection

The Decline of Western Civilization Collection sees three cult music documentaries directed by Penelope Spheeris (known largely for Wayne’s World these days) finally get a UK DVD and Blu-Ray release. I must admit, when I was offered the set to review I went for it largely on a whim. I had a vague recollection of the title being mentioned somewhere and the writeup made it sound interesting. I’m very glad I did take up the offer though as I was treated to an exceptionally good trilogy of films. In this age of blockbuster sagas being churned out by the dozen, it’s refreshing to see a set of documentaries show us how a film series should really be done.

The Decline of Western Civilization

Director: Penelope Spheeris
Screenplay: Penelope Spheeris
Starring: Alice Bag Band, Black Flag, X, Fear, Circle Jerks
Country: USA
Running Time: 100 min
Year: 1981
BBFC Certification: 18

The first of Spheeris’ documentaries, The Decline of Western Civilization, saw her explore the burgeoning hardcore punk scene of her native L.A. around 1979-80. Speaking to a number of bands such as Black Flag, X, Circle Jerks, Fear and The Germs as well as some of their fans, she gets to the heart of the lifestyle as well as the music. Speaking of which, a number of live performances run throughout proceedings, acting as an anchor to the interviews.

Spheeris adopts a ‘warts and all’ approach, throwing the viewer in without a safety net. After a brief introduction we jump straight into the mosh pit (or whatever it was called in that era). The aggressive, sweaty atmosphere is captured perfectly and it’s easy to get caught up in the energy of the performances. I’m not a huge fan of punk rock, but the film sells it very well. Yes it looks violent and dirty and the music is loud and offensive, but through the kineticism of the action on screen and some occasional subtitles revealing otherwise hidden depth to the lyrics, you can really appreciate why these people are so dedicated to the genre.

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Blu-Ray Review: Videodrome

Director: David Cronenberg
Screenplay: David Cronenberg
Starring: James Woods, Deborah Harry, Sonja Smits
Country: Canada
Running Time: 89 min
Year: 1983
BBFC Certificate: 18

David Cronenberg is a director whose work I’m not as familiar with as I’d like. I’ve seen a fair few of his films, but largely when I was a teenager, so I can’t remember much about them other than the more famous scenes. I’ve not seen a couple of his classics at all in fact and only just got around to seeing his take on The Fly last year. In terms of his later work, I keep missing most of that too. The latest of his films I’ve seen is A History of Violence, which came out ten years ago.

So I’ve been keen to delve into Cronenberg’s career properly now that I’m a more experienced film lover and Arrow answered my call by releasing a ridiculously extensive 4 disc set of Videodrome. It’s one of the films I’d not seen for about 15 years, so was on my list of titles to watch.

It’s hard to sum up the plot of Videodrome as it’s quite a surreal film, particularly in the second half, and part of the pleasure of watching it is getting caught up in its nightmarish world. The first half seems more straight forward though, tricking the audience into thinking they know what they’re signing up for.

James Woods plays Max Renn, a TV executive working for Civic-TV, a cable channel that shows seedy low-rate programmes and films. Max is getting tired of the usual softcore crap that he peddles though. He thinks audiences want harder and more extreme entertainment and thinks he’s found it when a techie associate manages to access a mysterious broadcast called Videodrome. Basically just a series of violent torture scenes, the show grabs hold of Max and won’t let him go. After he gets more obsessed with it, he starts to experience hallucinations and gets drawn ever further into a twisted, bizarre world of sex, violence and television.

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Blu-Ray Review: Pickup on South Street

Director: Samuel Fuller
Screenplay: Samuel Fuller
Based on a Story by: Dwight Taylor
Starring: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Murvyn Vye, Richard Kiley
Country: USA
Running Time: 80 min
Year: 1953
BBFC Certificate: PG

I‘ve reviewed a few Samuel Fuller films here, one not too long ago in fact (Forty Guns) and I have a habit of feeling a little disappointed after getting excited before seeing them. That’s not the case with Pickup on South Street. This isn’t a first time watch and I think my love for the film is partly why the last couple of titles I watched let me down a little.

Pickup at South Street is a classic film noir that opens on the subway where pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) snatches the purse out of the handbag of Candy (Jean Peters). It turns out he stole more than just a few dollars though. Candy was unwittingly on her way to give a top-secret government microfilm to a Communist agent and Skip ends up with this in his stash. Helped by professional stool pigeon Moe (Thelma Ritter), Candy, the police and the Commies all end up on Skip’s doorstep, demanding the microfilm. Realising what it’s worth, he tries to shake them all down for as much cash as possible. This gets him deeper and deeper into trouble though.

I love a good film noir and this has all the key ingredients of the genre that I can’t get enough of. On top of the moody high contrast photography and seedy back street setting, you get sharp dialogue throughout. It’s real hard boiled gutter talk in this case, with a wonderful streetwise poetry to it.

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Blu-Ray Review: Eyes Without a Face

Director: Georges Franju
Screenwriter: Boileau-Narcejac, Jean Redon, Claude Sautet
Based on a Novel by: Jean Redon
Starring: Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli, Edith Scob, Juliette Mayniel
Country: France, Italy
Running Time: 90 min
Year: 1960
BBFC Certificate: 15

Due to my interest in classic film, I’ve often reviewed titles here that I’ve wanted to watch for a long time after hearing a lot of praise for them. Eyes Without a Face (a.k.a. Les yeux sans visage) is a curious twist on this though. Back in the early days of my blossoming love of film, I’d heard much about this and at some point I did get a chance to see it (if I remember correctly I’d taped it off TV). Now, this is where my memory gets hazy (it was a long time ago); I remember starting to watch it, but not getting very far and giving up. I’m not totally sure why. I have a vague notion that it wasn’t what I was expecting and looked a bit dull and pretentious. Watching the film in its entirety now, I’d be surprised if that was the case, but for whatever reason I never got further than the first 10 minutes or so.

15 or so years down the line, I’d forgotten why I didn’t get into Eyes Without a Face and my urge to watch the film had grown again. The BFI offered me a screener of their new re-release of the film on Blu-Ray and I snapped up the chance. Of course I watched the whole thing this time, but was I still disappointed?

Eyes Without a Face follows the brilliant surgeon Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) and his assistant Louise (Alida Valli) as they kidnap young women in the night. The ladies are brought to the doctor’s secluded house where he lives with his daughter Christiane (Edith Scob). Her face has been severely disfigured in a car accident when her father was driving. Feeling guilty for this, the doctor vows to give her back her beautiful face. The kidnapped women are to provide this for him, as he uses them to provide facial transplants. After the first is unsuccessful, the doctor becomes ever more determined and the death toll and psychosis increases.

In the meantime, Christiane becomes ever more desperate to leave the house she has become trapped in. Her father had faked her death using the body of one of his victims, so Christiane must remain in hiding. Her dilemma becomes one of deciding which she wants more, her face or her freedom.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

Director: W.D. Richter
Screenplay: Earl Mac Rauch
Starring: Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Ellen Barkin, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Lloyd
Country: USA
Running Time: 103 min
Year: 1984
BBFC Certificate: PG

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension is a cult classic from the 80’s that I’d never seen, but always wanted to. I didn’t really know much about it, but I found the title strangely appealing and was aware of its status as an oddball cult classic. Luckily for me, Arrow came to the rescue once again and offered me a chance to review their new feature-packed Blu-Ray re-release. So I strapped myself in for a trip across the 8th dimension.

Buckaroo Banzai (played by Peter Weller) is a half-Japanese, half-American brain surgeon, daredevil scientist and rock star. He and the Hong Kong Cavaliers, his band of hard rock scientists (as described in the opening crawl), are famous around the world, with their own branding and even a comic strip and arcade machines.

After successfully removing a tumour from a patient’s brain, Banzai heads to the salt flats to test a jet powered car which houses an Oscillation Overthruster. Banzai manages to use this device to open a door to the 8th dimension in the side of a mountain. He sees some crazy stuff in there before re-appearing out the other side with a strange creature/thing attached to the car.

This test is celebrated as a great success, but it draws the attention of the Red Lectroids, an alien race (led by Christopher Lloyd and Vincent Schiavelli) who have teamed up with the deranged Dr Lizardo (John Lithgow). In the past, Lizardo had worked with Banzai’s scientist partner Professor Hikita (Robert Ito) on the prototype Overthruster, which went wrong and let the Red Lectroids escape from their inter-dimensional prison. Lizardo and the Red Lectroids now want to get their hands on the Overthruster so they can regain power over the world they were originally banished from, which is currently in the hands of the Black Lectroids. The Black Lectroids meanwhile, although friendly to the humans, feel their only hope of survival is to blow up the Earth if the Reds aren’t stopped in time. Banzai, with his team of agents/band members, The Hong Kong Cavaliers, must stop both sides before it’s too late!

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Blu-Ray Review: X-Men: Days of Future Past – The Rogue Cut

Director: Bryan Singer
Screenplay: Simon Kinberg
Based on a Graphic Novel by: Chris Claremont, John Byrne
Starring: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Peter Dinklage
Country: USA/UK/Canda
Running Time: 142 min (Rogue Cut) 126 (Theatrical Cut)
Year: 2014
BBFC Certificate: 12 (although the commentary is rated 15)

I like to moan about super hero movies. There seems to be an endless stream of them nowadays with these extended universes and such, so I’ve grown very tired of hearing about them. 90% of online chatter seems to surround the latest super hero movie trailer or casting news. Personally I couldn’t give a s**t about most of it and become a snob hiding in the corner with my indie movies and classic re-releases. However, despite my grumbling, I’ve actually enjoyed most of the super hero films I’ve seen during this decade-and-a-half boom.

One of last year’s super hero movies that I liked quite a lot was X-Men: Days of Future Past. So when I was offered a chance to review the new Rogue Cut of the film, I decided to break away from my usual snooty high-brow/classic/cult posts to join the mainstream.

I won’t go into too much detail about the plot for X-Men: Days of Future Past as most of you will already have seen it. Basically, in the future, the world is a bleak and desolate place, particularly for mutants who are being hunted and killed by the all powerful Sentinels (big evil robots that can take on mutant powers). The X-Men have a plan though. They send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back into the subconscious of his 1970’s self to change events surrounding Mystique/Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), Charles Xavier (a.k.a. Professor X, played by James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (a.k.a. Magneto, played by Michael Fassbender) which led to the development of the Sentinel programme, spearheaded by Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage).

What The Rogue Cut adds in its 16 extra minutes, alongside a couple of minor changes here and there, is, as you might have guessed, a role for Rogue (Anna Paquin). She was a major character in the first couple of films, but was left on the cutting room floor when Days of Future Past hit cinemas. In these re-instated scenes she is saved from experimentation by Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Bobby/Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) so that she can help the wounded Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) keep Wolverine in his former subconscious.

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