Ralph Fiennes, director/Lionsgate Blu-ray
A personal note: Ralph Fiennes premiered the stage version of his radical modern dress version of Shakespeare’s classic five minutes away from where I live in Islington at the Gainsborough Studios (where Alfred Hitchcock made several of his classic English films) before its conversion to flats. Those who were at this performance will remember this as a particularly memorable (and edgy) theatrical occasion, and it’s good to be able to report that the actor/director’s impressive filmed version replicates the powerful emotional impact of this kinetic take on the text (ruthlessly pruned) while making the Bosnia-style battle settings even more pungent. All of the acting is impeccable, but perhaps the real honours go to Vanessa Redgrave as the imperious Roman general’s equally fearsome mother.
Ingmar Bergman, director/Artificial Eye Blu-ray
It was something of an irony that two of the titans of European art cinema, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, both died on the same day. Bergman predeceased his Italian colleague by several hours, and for those few hours, Antonioni was the greatest director in the world. The latter’s reputation has been in flux of late, with his later films enduring a not-always-generous re-evaluation (although early classics such as La Notte remain untouchable). Ingmar Bergman’s oeuvre, however, remains utterly unassailable, with an unbroken flow of achievement throughout a very long career — as is evidenced by this very welcome reissue of some of his early films, beautifully remastered in sparkling Blu-Ray transfers. Perhaps such films as It Rains on Our Love are of more interest to the Bergman aficionado, but there are some of the director’s most considerable achievements here, notably than searing mid-period classic Sawdust and Tinsel as well as the affecting drama set in a maternity ward, So Close To Life. Apart from Bergman’s nonpareil direction, anyone interested in the art of great film acting will find a slew of astonishing performances here (from such Bergman muses as Ingrid Thulin) and it is to be hoped that Artificial Eye continues its program of Bergman reissues on Blu-ray with such later classics as Persona, The Silence and Fanny and Alexander.
PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES/THE REPTILE
John Gilling, director/Studiocanal Blu-ray
It’s hard to remember the days when these classics of British horror cinema were either not taken seriously or dismissed as gruesome exploitation fare. Time has been extremely kind to them, pointing up their considerable virtues both in terms of direction and acting — which now look infinitely more accomplished than most current fare. Of course, there were those of us (this writer modestly notes) who recognized the virtues of these exemplary horror films all along. After the welcome release by Studiocanal of the vintage Hammer classic Dracula, Prince of Darkness on double play Blu-ray, this duo of companion films, shot back-to-back on the same sets under the direction of the able John Gilling, are a welcome follow-up, though Plague of the Zombies (with its intriguing subtext) is notably the more accomplished film. Both have benefited from extensive restorations in conjunction with Hammer and Pinewood studios and have had had new extras especially created working alongside Hammer expert Marcus Hearn.
THE DOOM GENERATION
Gregg Araki, director/Second Sight
Excess time. Rose McGowan and James Duval star in Gregg Araki’s eye-opening, over-the-top cult movie, a road-trip film to end all road trip films. The DVD arrives with a host of special features that complement a striking package. It’s a film with the kind of blistering energy (and zero subtlety!) that makes an instant impression.
Roman Polanski, director/Studiocanal
Who better to bring to the screen this film version of French playwright Yasmina Reza’s lacerating (and often very funny) drama of a clash between four parents than Polanski, unflinching master anatomist of human behaviour? The film also frames four beautifully judged performances as the warring adults: Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz. Perhaps, in the final analysis, the piece is slight, but it is given the greatest possible advocacy here.
DEMONS and DEMONS 2
Lamberto Bava, director/Arrow Blu-ray
Lamberto Bava has a lineage of the horror film which must have been daunting for any filmmaker. His father, the legendary Mario Bava, virtually created the modern Italian horror film and was one of the most stylish and imaginative exponents of the genre. Demons 1 & 2 represent a calling card for the director’s son, though the first film perhaps shows more influence of the film’s producer, Dario Argento — the man who worked with Mario Bava at the end of the latter’s career, and took the pulse-pounding accoutrements of the older man’s films into new and exhilarating territory. Looking better than ever in exemplary Blu-ray transfers, there is a particular plus factor with the two Demons films: the availability of the original Italian language soundtracks (with subtitles), much preferable to the dubbed versions (although the latter are also present for the less ambitious). While the first film is undoubtedly Bava Jr’s best movie (uncompromised by the maladroit, rubbery special effects that saddle the second film), together both make a useful package. The films have been lovingly restored from the original camera negatives by Cineteca di Bologna.
Henry Hathaway, director/Odeon Hollywood Studio Collection
Henry Hathaway, one of the great Hollywood professionals, keep things moving in this lively espionage piece with Tyrone Power in virtually constant danger (ably supported by the likes of Patricia Neal, giving one of the very finest of her early performances). Interesting to see, also (in early appearances) both Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin. Not least among Hathaway’s achievements is maintaining the illusion that his male star is actually present in the variety of foreign cities visited (large screens reveal that it is invariably a double for Tyrone Power). But Diplomatic Courier affords the sheerest entertainment.
OUTCAST OF THE ISLANDS
Carol Reed, director/Studiocanal
Who better than Carol Reed to bring a vision of one of Joseph Conrad’s most uncompromising stories to the film medium? And who better than Trevor Howard (in his heyday) to incarnate the writer’s conflicted protagonist? Never before issued on DVD, this Conrad adaptation is a real find. Directed by the Oscar-winning British director of The Third Man. The hapless, self-regarding Peter Willems is escaping embarrassment in Makassar and finds himself stranded on a remote Indian Ocean trading outpost, where his conflict begins with an unsympathetic fellow English ex-pat Almayer (Robert Morley) and the Machiavellian native Babalatchi (George Coulouris) who tempts the Englishman with a beautiful sexually available native girl.
THE BLACK PANTHER
Ian Merrick, director/BFI Flipside Blu-ray
A film that belies its sensational, censor-baiting reputation, The Black Panther (1977) features impressive, understated performances by Donald Sumpter, Marjorie Yates and Debbie Farrington. Directed by the talented Ian Merrick, the once-banned film is a careful, unsensational true-crime drama that details the infamous killing spree which Donald Neilson, aka the Black Panther, carried out across England in the mid-70s, ending with the kidnapping and murder of a 17-year old girl. Newly mastered from original film elements preserved in the BFI National Archive.
YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE
Fritz Lang, director/Studiocanal
After his enforced move to America when the Nazis assumed power, the great German director Fritz Lang quickly demonstrated his mastery of the crime film with this bitter and powerful tale of a young criminal’s foredoomed attempts to go straight. The saccharine ending show some signs of studio interference (though Lang claimed otherwise in interviews) but the film remains diamond-hard, with a powerful performance by a young Henry Fonda as the ex-con who find that all occasions inform against him.
WAR OF THE DEAD
Marko Makilaasko, director/Momentum Pictures
Bloody action as a small group of Allied soldiers comes up against a horde of Nazi zombies. War of The Dead is a fast-paced, unrelenting horror outing; workaday direction, true, but the goods are delivered.
THE LAST JOURNEY/ RETURN OF A STRANGER
Bernard Vorhaus, Victor Hanbury, directors/Renown
The enterprising DVD company Renown continues to put collectors of neglected British crime cinema in its debt with two more obscure items. Frankly, there are no great rediscoveries here (though Renown have certainly come up with such things in the past), but intriguing curios.
Kenji Mizoguchi, director/Eureka Blu-ray
To their credit, Eureka have made available several of Kenji Mizoguchi’s classic films, looking even more impressive in the Blu-ray medium, but this masterwork of Japanese cinema is perhaps the director’s chef d’ouevre. Viewer patience is certainly required, but is rewarded.
STEPHEN KING’S SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK
Tom McLoughlin, director/Second Sight
Unenthusiastically received on its first appearance, here is a chance for Stephen King fans to re-evaluate one of the lesser-known items in the King filmography. For this viewer, that first unenthusiastic evaluation was correct.
SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES
Igor Maslennikov, director/Mr Bongo Films
The quirky Russian adaptations of Sherlock Holmes by legendary director Igor Maslennikov are a collector’s Holy Grail, and courtesy of Mr. Bongo Films, Sherlock Holmes: The Hound of the Baskervilles comes to DVD for the first time. Frankly, the number of allowances that need to be made here are legion: a particularly odd Watson, and the very Russian London and Dartmoor are often hilarious. But it’s a fascinating take on the much-filmed story.
THE BELLY OF AN ARCHITECT
Peter Greenaway, director/BFI Blu-ray
Visually rich, and with more dramatic force than the director commonly attempted, Peter Greenaway’s fourth feature is a striking and disturbing piece with a charismatic central performance by Brian Dennehy as a tormented American architect. Released by the BFI in a Dual Format Edition (containing both DVD and Blu-ray versions), The Belly of an Architect is newly mastered to HD and presented for the first time on Blu-ray. Extras include Greenaway’s 1981 documentary, Insight: Terence Conran, along with downloadable documents.
John Gilling, director/Odeon
The title Panic might suggest a horror film, but this is one of John Gilling’s essays in the British crime film genre, and frequently demonstrates the level of imagination he often showed, along with constant, sometimes effortful attempts to infuse shop-worn material with visual inventiveness. More interesting, perhaps, than the workaday principal players (Dyson Lovell and Janine Gray), is the lively supporting cast which, like the title, evokes Hammer’s horror material, with the appearance of two of that studio’s most reliably malign presences, the hulking ex-wrestler Milton Reid (best known as mute monsters in such films as the lurid The Terror of the Tongs and Captain Clegg/Night Creatures) and the oleaginous, all-purpose-foreigner Marne Maitland, here playing a slimy landlord who is thrown bodily across the room by Reid (playing – perhaps for the only time in his career — a relatively sympathetic character). John Gilling takes a deep breath and keeps everything on the move, well aware that that it is up to him to rise above the threadbare material — which he frequently does.
RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD
Dan O’Bannon, director/Second Sight Blu-ray
Many of us first saw Dan O’Bannon’s lively and enjoyable zombie-fest Return of the Living Dead on video, and — let’s be honest — we thought that those fuzzy pan-and-scan images were at the cutting edge of technology. And so it was, of course, for the day — but watching the film later on DVD was a whole new experience. But how technological developments move on! As the film makes its debut on Blu-ray, we can see how even that later incarnation appears to have had an astonishing wash-and-rinse which grants the image (and the punchy sound quality) an impact that was previously unseen and unheard. Everyone, of course, remembers Linnea Quigley’s nude cemetery dance in the film, but what comes across on this latest version is that judicious mix of humour and horror which marked the film out as one of the best entries in the genre (not something that was immediately apparent when Return of the Living Dead was first released). The steel box presentation makes this high collectable, although it’s shame that the tiny font on the spine makes the title illegible.
THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE
Luis Buñuel, director/Studiocanal Blu-ray
One of the most sheerly enjoyable of the Spanish Master’s late dark comedies, looking better than ever in this impressive transfer. Written, as was customary at this period, by the director’s valued colleague Jean-Claude Carrière, what is most striking about the film when viewed in the 21st century is just how modern its scorching analysis of the characters’ values remain.
Michael Winterbottom, director/Artificial Eye
This relocated adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic Tess of the d’Urbervilles is a demonstration of the director’s customary audacity with its translation of the Hardy’s Wessex to a sultry Mumbai. The film will not be to every taste, but it’s an interesting take on a classic of English literature.
Olivier Marchal, director/Arrow
Season Two of Braquo is even more uncompromising than its predecessor. This desperate, dark-hued series — the French The Wire – makes most police shows (from whatever country) looks as soft-centred as Dixon of Dock Green or Rosemary and Thyme. There is the adroit ensemble playing (with Jean Hugues-Anglade as the troubled, compromised French cop up to his elbows in corruption). Once again, director Olivier Marchal has us in thrall to his protagonists, and the dividing line between police and criminal is nigh-invisible, though our sympathies remain — just – with the former.
ISLAND OF LOST SOULS
Earle C Kenton, director/Eureka Blu-ray
Unseen for many years, this once-banned adaptation of HG Wells classic Island of Dr Moreau showcases a wonderfully sly performance by Charles Laughton, but this asset apart, the film now looks like one of the great horror/science fiction films from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Wells hated the film and welcomed its banning, but leaving the creator’s displeasure aside, it now appears a truly remarkable, delirious piece of work.