Friday, 29 November 2013

Video Watchdog Kickstarter Campaign

Tim and Donna Lucas recently started a Kickstarter drive which aims to raise enough money to bring all 176 issues of Video Watchdog online. Let Tim and Donna explain.

I have long held Video Watchdog to be the finest film magazine in the world, and was lucky enough to get the first issue from London's Forbidden Planet shop. At last, I'd found a film magazine that was for me, and devoured that debut issue, particularly enjoying a brilliant article on Jess Franco and how to read his films.

Check out the video and then visit the link and pledge what you can afford. We are entering a very exciting period for this great publication.

You can find more details HERE

Thursday, 28 November 2013

December 2013: Joe Strummer Month at Wonderland

December 22nd will mark another anniversary since Joe Strummer's death in 2002. This year, I thought it would be nice to run a month-long tribute to Joe, celebrating his life and the huge contribution he made to music.

For those who aren't into The Clash or even music, December on Wonderland will still see some film related goodies. I'll be reviewing the Arrow Academy release of 'The Long Goodbye' on Blu-ray, and also Arrow's second stab at Dario Argento's 'Tenebrae', which was a victim of a sub-standard master first-time round that Arrow could do little with. I'll also be taking a look at the BFI Player, which is an essential tool for film buffs resident in the UK. The end of 2013 will see my list of the top ten discs of this year, so plenty in store for film fans.

Going back to music for a moment, and in 2014, Wonderland will be undertaking month-long specials on The Slits, The Jam, Manchester Music and Punk Rock in the '70s which will include British and American bands.

Until then, here's Joe.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Blu-ray Review: Heaven's Gate

'What one loves in life are the things that fade'.

Based on 'The Johnson County War', "Heaven's Gate" is set in late 1890's Wyoming, where cattle barons wage war on immigrant settlers from eastern Europe. When the odious Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) draws up a death list (with government backing) containing 125 names, James Averill (Kristofferson) must decide whether to help the oppressed settlers or stand aside and allow Canton's hired hands to engage in an orgy of bloodshed.

History records that "Heaven's Gate" cost $44 million to make, took $1.5 million during a brief theatrical run and brought United Artists to financial ruin.

Critical response to the most unjustly maligned film in cinema history was largely unfavourable, with the majority of critics indulging in their own kind of vicious bloodletting: "boring", "at least 90 minutes too long", "sketchy characterisation"...... just a few of the comments aimed at a director who "didn't know when to stop shooting!" Maybe those same 'learned scribes' should sit and watch the two hour abortion occasionally screened on Sky, and then return to Cimino's 219 minute cut. It's here they'll find a film of exquisite beauty, where Vilmos Szigmond's painterly photography ensures damn-near every shot is a work of art, set to David Mansfield's celestial score.

Performance-wise, "Heaven's Gate" almost manages to surpass its sumptuous visuals:Kristofferson and Jeff Bridges (saloon keeper, James H. Bridges) deliver career-bests, Isabelle Huppert (Ella Watson) has rarely been better as the feisty Madame who juggles her emotions between Averill and part-time lover/mercenary Nate Champion (Walken) while John Hurt is unforgettable as the almost permanently blotto William Irvine.

Despite an excellent ensemble cast, the eye/ear candy provided by such splendid sound and vision could result in the screenplay being overlooked: subsequent viewings, however, will reveal an intensely moving script, conveying its characters collective feelings of loss, jealousy and regret. Even the finale is a masterpiece as we realise Averill has spent over 3 hours reliving his past from a ships deck, before ending the film with wordless acknowledgement of a request for a cigarette from his old college sweetheart; possibly the most moving scene in the entire film as Averill's eyes confirm a life that once was so full of promise has now lost all meaning.

So, why did the critics deliver such a savage reaction to this film? Quite simply, they reviewed the consequences of what turned out to be an enormous financial loss, and turned Cimino into a whipping boy, mindful of the possibility that they had possibly gone overboard for their praise for The Deer Hunter, whose success gave Cimino enormous leverage with his employers. This was payback in spades. Was Cimino blinded by his arrogance, with no thoughts for the money he was spending and the vast amount of footage he shot? Yes. Most definitely. But, just look at the film he turned out. Full of frankly terrific performances, from a cast he had carefully selected. Now, Heaven's Gate has emerged from the fire, and is at long last receiving the praise it deserves and we welcome its release on Blu-ray from Second Sight.

I've seen this film on Video, DVD and on the big screen at London's National Film Theatre, and this high definition presentation replicates the theatrical print, resulting in some truly stunning scenery. Indeed, Zsigmund's photography looks wonderful, with so many 'magic hour' shots taking one's breath away, and his aim of the film frequently looking like an old photograph just adds to the overall beauty. Fans of this film are likely to be delighted with how it looks here, and are also in for a treat with the supplementary material.

First up is True Gate. An Interview With Jeff Bridges. This piece has Bridges speaking with warmth about a film he watches every couple of years, recalling the film's premiere and a scathing New York Times review, both of which greatly disheartened cast and crew. He talks of great 'jam sessions' with the wonderful musicicans very night, and draws a comparison between the Johnson County situation with the oil barons of today. 19 engrossing minutes, and a pleasure to hear Jeff talk.

The next featurette is Painting Jackson County: An Interview With Vilmos Zsigmund (18 min) Here, Vilmos criticises United Artists for not standing by the film, and shares some great memories (champagne to celebrate one million foot of film shot), including Cimino's impatience ("But not with me") with some of his cast during the pursuit of excellence. A joy to witness and it nicely leads us into a 55 minute excerpt from the documentary 'Final Cut: The Making And Unmaking Of Heaven's Gate'. Narrated by Willem Dafoe, this absorbing feature tells the story of Cimino's film, from the story of European imigrants suspected of stealing cattle, and the death list drawn up; the original budget of $7.5 million; the reaction and efforts of studio executives who tried to get Cimino onside and the critical pounding it took from critics who decided its sins obscured its virtues. It's all here, with contributions from the likes of Steven Bach, David Field (both UA execs, with the former being the author of the best book on film I've read - Final Cut), Kristofferson, Bridges, and Cimino's assistant editor Penelope Shaw who remains fiercely loyal and makes some telling contributions. All in all, this documentary is worth the purchase price alone.

This Blu-ray release is out now on the Second Sight label, and adds to this film's standing as one of the great American movies. Yes, it's brutal in parts,but also achingly beautiful and, for me, never fails to recall aline from Edith Wharton's novel The Age Of Innocence.

"Next to death, life is the saddest thing there is".

Monday, 25 November 2013

Blu-ray Review: Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers

Philip Kaufman's 1978 take on Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers is more a re-imagining than a remake, moving the action from small town America to the big, bustling city of San Francisco where public health inspector Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) teams up with Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) to fight an invasion from outer space. Driscoll is certain her husband has experienced a massive overnight change, emerging as a completely different person and Bennell encounters the same story when he visits a drycleaners to be told by the owner that his wife is not the person she was hours earlier. The whole city appears to have changed overnight, with bus loads of commuters and normally store-hungry commuters ensnared by pods that create an exact likeness of their bodies, which when fully formed, leave the originals crumbling away. Kaufman is well served by a stellar cast here, which includes Leonard Nimoy as the shadowy Dr Kibner, and Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright who were cast as the husband and wife team running a mud bath spa which plays host to some fiendish transformations. There are cameos for Don Siegel (director of the original film) as a taxi driver, and Kevin McCarthy who appears to have been transported from Siegel's film to warn San Francisco of the escalating menace. These are wonderful touches from Kaufman, which serve to remind us of a fine slice of Sci-Fi which is actually bettered by this late '70s version.
The idea of alien manipulation on a massive scale is beautifully executed, with the chilling message 'Trust no-one' creating more than one surprise along the way. On a technical level, Kaufman's film scores highly in several departments: DOP Michael Chapman (who also has a cameo as a janitor) adds much to the sense of paranoia and mistrust, with imaginative lighting and ingenious camera angles, while Ben Burtt's sound design works so very well in tandem with Denny Zeitlins' score which turned out to be his only work as a composer. Full marks, also, to Kaufman for his decision not to let the audience off the hook with an ending that came as a big surprise to at least one member of the cast.
Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers is just as relevant today as it was in 1978, and makes a great addition to Arrow Video's increasingly impressive catalogue.

Picture quality on this Region B Blu-ray will delight fans of the film, with strong fleshtones and a retention of the grain which has not been tampered with. All in all, this seems to be an accurate representation.
Kicking off a generous selection of extras is 'Discussing The Pod'; a 50 minute roundtable where Kim Newman, Norman J. Warren and Ben Wheatley all have plenty to say about the success of Kaufman's film, sharing memories of their first viewing, and pinpointing exactly why this film has garnered so much praise.Newman in particular makes some excellent observations, declaring that the characters would be interesting even if there were no alien invasion, and that the conspiracy theme could involve whoever/whatever you're worried about.

Dissecting The Pod (17 min)
Writer and critic Annette Insdorf - who has studied Kaufman's work for over 20 years - discusses the multiple layers of Bodysnatchers, comparing the style to other Kaufman films, and succeeds in enriching our understanding and appreciation of the onscreen and offscreen contributions.

Writing The Pod (11 min)
Jack Seabrook, author of a book on Jack Finney, discusses the man's career and his most famous novel, offering a solid appreciation of Finney's talents.

Re-Visitors From Outer Space (16 min)
A featurette with appearances from WD Richter (who penned the screenplay), Kaufman, Michael Chapman, Donald Sutherland and Veronica Cartwright who explain what the film meant to them. Kaufman recalls how he approached Don Siegel with a view to making this film, and there's a hilarious story involving Don driving without his glasses through the streets of San Francisco.

The Man Behind The Scream (12 min)
Sound designer Ben Burtt reveals how some of the other-wordly sounds were created.

The Invasion Will Be Televised (5 min)
A short piece that discusses the Hitchcockian elements of Invasion, how they filmed the city at work and a demonstration of Chapman's considerable skills.

Practical Magic: The Special Effects Pod (4 min)
Here, the famous opening sequence comes under the spotlight, together with the challenges involved with design and effects.

There's also a valuable director's commentary track where Philip Kaufman acknowledges Robert Duvall's cameo, labelling him "the first pod" and speaks warmly about Donald Sutherland's extraordinary acting ability, together with the fact that Sutherland did all his own stunt work despite being "one of the clumsiest men alive". It's a thoroughly engaging track that takes us on a scene-by-scene ride through the film, greatly adding to our appreciation of just what was accomplished.

Arrow's Blu-ray is out now, and is a top-notch, value for money package for fans of '70s paranoiac cinema.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Blu-Ray Review: Betty Blue

"She was a flower with psychic antennae, and a tinsel heart."
So begins the story of Betty Blue (Beatrice Dalle) and her relationship with Zorg(Jean-Hugues Anglade), a handyman and aspiring writer who finds his world turned upside down when Betty pitches camp in his beach shack: "the first time we've met in daylight." Zorg soon discovers his girlfriend possesses a fiery temper, with his boss on the receiving end. After a series of increasingly volatile encounters with the sweaty employer, Betty sets fire to their home and the pair move on to stay with a widowed friend of Betty's (Lisa, played by Consuela De Haviland). Before long, the trio become a quartet when Lisa's boyfriend Eddy (Gerard Damon) moves in and becomes firm friends with the house guests. So, relationships and bonds are formed, but Betty gradually sinks into severe depression, driven by rejections from publishers who turn down Zorg's book and by her inability to conceive.
In director Jean-Jaques Beineix's three hour director's cut, we can better appreciate Beatrice Dalle's iconic performance, and also her character whose decent into mental illness is slower and much harder to bear than in the two hour theatrical version which is also included in Second Sight's Blu-ray release. Indeed, it's a wonderful performance from the (then) unknown Dalle who exhibits a wild horse, impossible to tame nature which actually takes centre stage in the tale, rather than just being the story of someone who is driven mad by life. Zorg (a moving turn from Anglade) does his best to turn the tide, but comes to realise Betty's world exists "not in a meadow but in a gloomy pen."

Prior to Betty Blue, Beineix had delivered two shining stars in Diva and The Moon In The Gutter, but I strongly suspect that Betty Blue will turn out to be the one he's remembered for. Gabriel Yorel's score is instantly memorable, and stayed with me on a permanent basis after I caught the film opening week at the cinema in 1986, while Jean-Francois Robin's photography hits magisterial heights, realising some beautifully lit scenes. Betty Blue is one of those movies where all individual elements and components are exactly right, and the end result is a work that is of its time, and yet also timeless.

Second Sight's Blu-ray release offers exemplary picture quality that will delight fans of this film, with gorgeous candy colours, perfect skin tones and and high levels of detail which replicate the original theatrical release. An added bonus comes with Severin Films' hour-long documentary 'Blue Notes And Bungalows: The Making Of Betty Blue' which includes valuable contributions from Beineix, Dalle, Anglade, Robin, Yorel and first time producer Claudie Ossard who recalls the joy she felt at working with Beineix. We get to hear why Beineix chose to go with an unknown actress; exactly how responsive he was to input from cast and crew and his vision of Betty as an image of female rebellion. Oh, and do listen out for Dalle's great story about an encounter in a bookstore that she swears actually happened! This documentary is beautifully made, exhibiting a real love for the film and it's one you'll return to on future occasions. The remaining extra is 4 minutes of Beatrice Dalle's screentest. Here, she's completely unused to the cold, unblinking eye of a movie camera lens and is spontaneous and completely natural: exactly the kind of girl her director needed, and she comes over that way in the film, too. It's a delightful conclusion to Second Sight's presentation that bestows reverential treatment to one of cinema's great love stories, where the central characters discover the world was not made for them.

Betty Blue is released in the UK on 25th November and is region-free.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Blu-Ray Review: The People Under The Stairs

Some 22 years after its big screen debut, Wes Craven's The People Under The Stairs is, sadly, more relevant than ever. Here, child abuse and the plight of the disenfranchised come under the spotlight as class warfare erupts behind the locked doors and windows of what can only be described as a house of horrors.
Fool (aka Poindexter) played by Brandon Adams,is part of a struggling American family who face eviction from their apartment by an unscrupulous landlord in search of a return on his investment. Fool's mother is battling cancer and can't afford the treatment she so desperately needs, so her son becomes part of a plan to steal a collection of gold coins from the home of the aforementioned owner of the block. Led by family friend Leroy (Ving Rhames), Fool is accompanied by a third party, and the plan is to get in and straight out with the cash. Unfortunately for them, the occupants turn out to be an insane brother and sister act who keep their 'daughter' a permanent prisoner, together with an assortment of workmen and delivery guys who had seen and heard too much during their business trips to the house. Soon, Leroy and his accomplice meet a grisly end, leaving Fool to face the twin peaks of terror (Everett McGill, Wendy Robie) wo are hell bent on adding him to their list of casualties. Aided by Alice (A.J. Lang)and Roach (Sean Whalen)a prisoner in the walls,Fool fights to stay alive, and find the gold coins that will be the answer to his family's prayers.
The People Under The Stairs really is a multi-layered gem, and I really enjoyed my first view of this film since its theatrical screenings back in 1991.Originally, I'd pegged it as mid-tier Craven, but now feel it belongs to his top-drawer entries. Be very sure this is a gruesome, often hard-hitting affair mixing the harrowing subject of child abuse with the impoverished state of America's underclass, as Craven keeps his foot on the accelerator to inflict a steady stream of physical and verbal abuse on the unwilling occupants of the house. Wendy Robie in particular is a real standout here as the savage, sexually frustrated woman who also figures in several of the film's frankly hilarious moments; welcome comic relief that appears and re-appears before events resume their bleak, unforgiving tone: watch out for the scene when Fool discovers Roach had his tongue cut out, mirroring the down and out class of society who also have no voice. While McGill, Roach and Fool play their cat-and-mouse game, the eerie fortress becomes yet another character in the film, with secret passages and half-lit basements bearing all the trappings of quality genre fare. It's a wild ride indeed, and thoroughly deserving of a Blu-ray release from one of our most enterprising companies.

Arrow Video's Blu-ray has robust colours and plenty of detail, even in dimly lit scenes which benefit hugely from a HD picture. There are several instances of edge enhancement, but these can be attributed to the fact that Universal supplied the HD master and no blame for these isolated glitches can be laid at Arrow's door. On the extras front, the excellent High Rising Productions (Calum Waddell, Naomi Holwill)have worked hard on a quartet of featurettes:

Fear, Freud And Class Warfare
This features Wes Craven talking about his film, revealing the idea came to him from a newspaper report concerning a couple who kept two children locked in their house. Craven also chats about the challenges of working with children, and declares 'People' to be one of his most unfettered personal works.

Behind Closed Doors
A 13 minute interview with A.J. Lang who recalls the connection she made with Craven, and also Wendy Robie who remains a close friend.

Silent But Deadly
A 14 minute interview with Sean Whalen who recalls what a great time he had playing the little rebel in the house, and the experiences of what was his screen debut.

Underneath The Floorboards
A 9 minute piece featuring Jeffrey Riddick, who chats about the impact of Craven's film and declares Wendy Robie to be his favourite character.

Fans of Brandon Adams' performance will be delighted by the inclusion of a commentary track, which is beautifully moderated by Calum Waddell. Adams proved extremely difficult to track down, but his memories of working with Craven and McGill(a personal hero, even at Adams' tender age) amongst others made the effort worthwhile.
The People Under The Stairs is out now on, and represents a good solid addition to Arrow's increasingly impressive catalogue.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Blu-ray Review: Streets Of Fire

Released in 1984, Streets Of Fire cost $14 million to make and took a disappointing $8 million at the US box office.Since then, Walter Hill's 'Rock & Roll Fable' has gained in popularity to become a genuine cult attraction for viewers old and new. The film takes place in an unnamed city as homecoming queen Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) brings her band The Attackers to play a gig in her hometown. During the performance, a biker gang named The Bombers rush onto the stage and kidnap Ellen. Her manager Billy Fish (Rick Moranis) is outraged at seeing his girl snatched and offers $10,000 to her ex-boyfriend Tom Cody (Michael Pare) to get her back. The Bombers - led by the villainous Raven (Willem Dafoe) represent a formidable obstacle but Cody, joined by ex-soldier McCoy (Amy Madigan) is well up to the task. After a thrilling shoot-out, Cody is successful in his mission, but finds his troubles are only just beginning. With affairs of the heart bubbling away in the pot, Cody must reckon with the collective might of The Bombers artillery, which lives up to Raven's boast that he can bring "a lot more guns" to the table. Overall, it's a rather thin storyline and hardly original,yet the whole production works beautifully. Performance wise, Hill's cast tick a lot of boxes: Pare, brooding and resourceful as the ex soldier of fortune, with Madigan equally impressive with her hard-talking, no nonsense character and Moranis gives a more than decent turn as the loud mouthed agent who possesses the balls to challenge The Bombers, but no muscle to back it up with.Diane Lane, already well experienced in the acting profession despite her youth, also impresses as the diva in distress and watch out for The Sorels; a delightful doo-wop band-that-never-was who bring some great music to the party.
The visuals also hit the spot, with some excellent choreography during the concert footage which was lit by Marc Brickman who worked on lighting gigs for Pink Floyd and Bruce Springsteen. Streets Of Fire is the closest Walter Hill has come to directing a musical, and the score is a constant winner with Ry Cooder imposing his considerable style on proceedings while Jim Steinman adds his talent to the mix with "Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young" and "Nowhere Fast". The film also inspired a hit single with Dan Hartman's "I Can Dream About You". All in all, it's a satisfying mixture that seals the deal on this films' cult status, and now we have a Blu-ray release to celebrate.

Second Sight's HD presentation really does lift Hill's film to even greater heights. Here, the late Andrew Laszlo's photography benefits hugely from the increased resolution,and the concert footage looks simply gorgeous. Fans will also be delighted with 'Rumble On The Lot' - and 80 minute documentary which features anecdotes and memories from key personnel, including Hill, Pare and Madigan who explains how she persuaded Hill that the part of McCoy should go to a woman. Madigan has excellent recall of the shoot as does Pare who states he can remember every day of what turned out to be an enjoyable filmmaking experience. Both actors clearly relished their time with Hill who goes into various production details, showing pride at the way things turned out, though he does express his regret that Lane's voice simply wasn't strong enough to carry the songs, instead using the combined voices of 2 vocalists. Second Sight have also included the original Electronic Press Kit which gives a nice nostalgic slant on the excitement surrounding Streets Of Fire's road to release, and music videos for "Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young", and "I Can Dream About You".
Streets Of Fire is released on Blu-ray from Second Sight on 18th November. It's a great package that will increase this film's cult following and its never looked so good.