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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Blu-Ray Review: 3 Women

Director: Robert Altman
Screenplay: Robert Altman, Patricia Resnick (uncredited)
Starring: Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Janice Rule, Robert Fortier
Country: USA
Running Time: 124 min
Year: 1977
BBFC Certificate: PG


1977’s 3 Women came at the end of Robert Altman’s ‘golden age’ in the 70’s. Prior to that he’d found success with the surprise hit M*A*S*H* at the start of the decade and followed it up with classics like McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye and Nashville. There were a few curiosities in between, such as Buffalo Bill and the Indians, but largely he could do no wrong. 3 Women was divisive (usual Altman champion Pauline Kael wasn’t a fan), but it still won a fair few awards (mainly for the performances) and had its followers. After that, he began a decline into his ‘troubled’ 80’s period when he fell totally out of favour before coming back with a few masterpieces in the 90’s (alongside some more clunkers).

I wouldn’t necessarily say that the production or reception of 3 Women caused his decline, but it’s a very unusual film, even by Altman’s standards. Perhaps it shows him getting frustrated and trying to do something completely new. His previous films had notable differences, but most of them had an ‘Altmanesque’ style and feel, with anarchic overlapping dialogue, often quite large casts and a need to subvert film genres or American ideals. There are hints of some of these characteristics in 3 Women, but it feels more like an art film from a European director. Supposedly Altman was influenced by Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and there are certainly similarities in style as well as content.

3 Women opens with Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek) starting a new job in a rehabilitation spa in California. Millie (Shelley Duvall) is asked to show her the ropes and you see Pinky quickly develop an obsessive admiration or possibly desire for the woman. Millie is lonely and deluded. She acts like she’s living the perfect existence of a modern woman with her designed apartment and her regular dates and dinner parties that never actually happen.

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Blu-Ray Review: A Letter to Three Wives

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenplay: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Vera Caspary
Based on a Novel by: John Klempner
Starring: Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern, Kirk Douglas, Paul Douglas
Country: USA
Running Time: 103 min
Year: 1949
BBFC Certificate: U


The romantic drama A Letter to Three Wives isn’t the usual sort of film I’d volunteer to review. However, I’m a big fan of All About Eve, which is also written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, so I was intrigued and anything released as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series is worth a watch.

A Letter to Three Wives has quite a simple premise. Three friends, Deborah (Jeanne Crain), Lora Mae (Linda Darnell) and Rita (Ann Sothern) get a letter from a fourth ‘friend’ (the three are always bitching about her), Addie Ross, stating that she has run away with one of their husbands. She doesn’t say which one however and, as the three are away at a children’s picnic, they are left to grow increasingly more anxious about whether their husbands will be at home waiting for them. The rest of the film is largely made up of flashbacks, telling the wives’ stories. All of them have suspicions about their husbands, who all had their own interests in Addie, and all three relationships are growing strained in different ways.

It’s an interesting concept which is simple to describe, but paves the way for a rich and involving look at love and marriage. It’s refreshing to see an adult drama surrounding women. It’s well documented that films these days are far too male-centric. OK, so the stories here are about relationships with men so it might not pass the Bechdel test, but it makes a change from the typical damsel in distress or arm-candy roles too regularly dumped on women.

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Review: Orson Welles Centenary Releases

To celebrate what would have been Orson Welles’ 100th birthday, Mr Bongo Films are releasing a collection of much sought after and rare films from the acclaimed director, including a brand new restored 50th Anniversary Edition of Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight. I was lucky enough to get my hands on screeners for three of the films in their lineup. I must admit I’d only actually seen three of Welles’ films prior to this week; Citizen Kane (of course), The Lady From Shanghai and Touch of Evil. I love all three (Shanghai to a lesser extent), so I was keen to dig further into his filmography. Below are my thoughts on the films I was sent.

Too Much Johnson

Director: Orson Welles
Screenplay: Orson Welles
Based on a Play by: William Gillette
Starring: Joseph Cotten, Virginia Nicolson, Edgar Barrier
Country: USA
Running Time: 66 min
Year: 1938
BBFC Certification: U


I was always under the impression that Citizen Kane was Orson Welles’ debut feature, but three years earlier back in 1938 he’d directed Too Much Johnson. This was meant to be integrated with Welles’ stage production of the play of the same name, by William Gillette. The venue didn’t have any projection facilities though, so the film was never screened. It was believed to be lost for decades after a fire in Welles’ home in 1971, but a work print was rediscovered back in 2008 and has now reached British homes through this DVD release.

Too Much Johnson is a silent comedy in which Augustus Billings (Joseph Cotten) is caught in bed with another man’s wife. He escapes out the window before the husband Leon Dathis (Edgar Barrier) gets his hands on him, but this sets the scene for an epic chase across the city and eventually all the way to Cuba.

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