Sunday, 27 July 2014

Blu-ray Review: L'Assassino

Italy has produced many top-tier film directors: Fellini, Antonioni, Mario Bava, Dario Argento.... the list goes on. You may like to add the name of Elio Petri to this very special club. I first encountered his work via a VHS tape of the rather splendid 'A Quiet Place In The Country', and made a mental note to acquire further titles from his filmography. Now, Arrow Academy's Blu-ray release of 'L'Assassino' (aka 'The Ladykiller Of Rome') will further raise his profile, hopefully paving the way for more Petri films to emerge on UK home video.

Fresh from Fellini's 'La Dolce Vita', Marcello Mastroianni fills the boots of Alfredo Martelli; an antique dealer who was described by Petri himself as being part of "a new generation of upstarts". This is a particularly apt description as Martelli is a character who is difficult to take a shine to, being an active participant in a decline of the moral values movement where the only person is me, the only number is 1 and the only time is now. He's engaged to one Nicoletta Nogoro (Cristina Gaioni)who is the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, and not exactly on poverty row. The only other woman currently in his life - save for his mother who is soon bundled back onto a bus after a short-lived visit to see her son-is Adalgisa De Matteis (Micheline Presle) who financed Martelli's new shop. A healthy bank account is clearly number one on Martelli's list of female attributes, but does this self-serving policy lead to murder?

When De Matteis is found dead in her hotel room, it emerges that Martelli visited shortly before she died. Was Martelli really responsible for her murder, or should the police look elsewhere for her killer? Petri uses flashbacks to add background to key characters and their relationships, while an old school police commissioner - the wonderfully named Palumbo (Salvo Randone) attempts to crack Martelli while refusing to hide his disdain for the lifestyle of the accused. As the film progresses, some members of the audience may well feel a shred of sympathy for an increasingly beleaguered man who protests his innocence loud and long. Indeed, it's somewhat disconcerting to witness the police and even fellow prisoners gradually wear him down, making this an uncomfortably fascinating character study. 'L'Assassino' could be said to be one of the forerunners of the Italian 'giallo' genre, but without black-gloved killers and graphic murder scenes. It's more tone and atmosphere, with a greater degree of police involvement than is often the case, and flashback scenes that may well change your mind with regard to innocence or guilt. It's certainly a fine, confident piece of work, and all the more impressive when you consider it was Petri's feature debut, back in 1961.

Arrow Academy's Blu-ray presentation is a fitting showcase for Carlo Di Palma's luminous monochrome photography, with good depth and fine detail. It was made from the original camera negative (missing the first and last rolls) and from a first generation interpositive, and these two elements were scanned at 2k for this restoration . The sound is uncompressed 2.0 from a 35mm negative and digitally remastered with Piero Piccioni's jazz-tinged score beautifully rendered. The film is preceded by a 9 minute introduction from Pasquale lannono, who talks about Petri and his active interest in politics; his formative steps in the business making documentaries and how 'Ossessione' and 'Rome Open City' kindled his involvement in cinema.
'Tonino Guerra: A Poet In The Movies' was shot in 2008 and runs for just over 51 minutes. Here, Tonino speaks about his childhood; his early career as a school teacher; how he got into the movies as a result of a poetry book, and his great passion for drawing. We also hear about the great directors who have benefited from his screenplays: Antonioni, Fellini, Vittoria De Sica and Francesco Rosi to name but a few. There's also a special mention for Tarkovsky's wonderful 'Nostalghia'.
This most welcome release also comes complete with another of Arrow's splendid booklets, offering a beautifully written feature by Camilla Zamboni which considers the camerawork, Martelli's character, the state of Italian cinema when this film came out and pretty much everything you need to know in order to further understand and appreciate this film. There's also a selection of reviews, Petri's piece, 'Italian Cinema: A Castrated Elephant', which discusses Italian cinema and a fine selection of stills.

'L'Assassino' is available to buy now, in a dual-format release comprising a Blu-ray and a DVD and is region B/2.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Blu-ray Review: Under The Skin

Adapted from Michel Faber's novel, 'Under The Skin' underwent a ten year gestation period to finally emerge as a serious contender for film of the year. 'Under The Skin' begins with what first appears to be the docking of a spaceship before we realise it's actually the construction of the human eye, followed by a succession of words repeated and spoken in English. The re-birth of an alien being in human skin sets the scene for Scarlett Johansson to begin studying the UK wing
of Planet Earth in Glasgow.
A shopping centre, busy streets where day becomes night taking us to clubland and Scottish scenery, whether it's a beach of death or secluded snow-covered woods all form the tapestry of an alien planet ripe for discovery and learning.
The alien is slowly integrated into our society, luring single men with the prospect of the one thing that will entice them. The fact that the victims are single may suggest extra-terrestrial policy deems their disappearance will not be as noticeable as a husband and father, but it seems more likely the alien is fascinated by the unattached and the fact that they choose to live alone.
The death scenes in this film - which mostly take place in an area between two worlds - are beautifully staged and witnessed with no emotion: think back to the beach scene where reaction to human adversity and death are met with indifference, but in this case, familiarity can breed things other than contempt. An encounter with a deformed man installs compassion, or at least the stirrings of compassion in this visitor from the stars,who seems to be learning how to be human. We see from early in the film that she is not alone, with a being on a motorcycle monitoring encounters, interaction and reaction to this strange new world and its inhabitants. Is the creature slowly becoming human? Are the ebbs and flows of human existence beginning to take a grip?

It's a marvellous performance from Scarlett Johansson, who tailors her character to move from indifference to fascination to the germ of real feelings that may well take root and grow, threatening to cut short her allotted time on Earth.
'Under The Skin' would make for a fascinating double-bill with Nic Roeg's 'The Man Who Fell To Earth', (though it's possibly open to debate whether David Bowie's character really was an alien) and will likely reach the same level of cult stardom over the years ahead. With multiple cameras that place us at one with the alien's vision of Earth, a suitably other-worldly score from Mica Levi and a wholly successful mix of professional actors and members of Joe Public who were approached by Johansson's character, totally unaware they were being filmed, this is an absorbing, haunting feature that casts its spell right from the word go. There really is too much going on here to fully take in on a single viewing: consider the opening scene and a comparison to 2001: A Space Odyssey, with the dawn of man replaced by the rebirth of one being into a different race; the use of mirrors, waiting for the alien to recognise what it's becoming, and the processing plant where naked victims enter a dark void and undergo an eerie transformation - food to sustain or just a means of disposing of living, breathing witnesses to intergalactic investigation? There's also a rather intriguing sidebar concerning the alien on the motorbike who may well have engineered the final act that will stay with you for a long time.
With 'Sexy Beast', 'Birth' and now 'Under The Skin' under his belt, director Jonathan Glazer is a major talent, and we await his next film with not a little impatience.

Studio Canal's Blu-ray presentation has a lot to take in, from the grey Glasgow streets shot verite-style, to countryside containing beautiful scenery and unforgiving terrain, and rendering them with clarity . Darker scenes contain plenty of detail, and interior sets such as the shopping centre and grocery store exhibit bright colours that really stand out in high definition.

As far as supplementary material is concerned, we get ten featurettes which run for a total of approximately 40 minutes. Camera, casting, editing, locations, music, poster design, script, sound and VFX are all covered, with input from Glazer and his crew. Kahleen Crawford (casting), Paul Watts (editor), Eugene Strange (location manager) and Mica Levi (music composer) are just a few of the team to speak about their accomplishments. The music, representing nature and undefined forces; the challenges posed by an almost daily arrival of 30 hours of footage to go through, and the search for a professional rider for some dangerous motorbike footage are all discussed, with the material covering pretty much all the bases. It would have been nice to see a Scarlett Johansson interview, featuring her take on the role and the film in general, but the absence of a director's commentary track maybe isn't such a bad thing. Jonathan Glazer speaks well on the interview footage and would undoubtedly make for an absorbing commentator, but 'Under The Skin' is very much a film where you draw your own conclusions and interpret events without directorial signposts.

'Under The Skin' is released on Blu-ray by Studio Canal on 14th July. If you missed this film at the cinema, be assured all the hype is fully justified. A masterpiece, no less.