Saturday, 21 March 2015

Blu-ray Review: The Manchurian Candidate (Arrow Academy)

Korea, 1952. A platoon of US soldiers are kidnapped and undergo 3 days of interrogation by Russians. The men are released and return to their homeland, with Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) receiving military honours and a hero's welcome. Shaw reserves a hostile attitude for his mother Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury) and stepfather Johnny (James Gregory) who unite in hunting down anyone they believe has communist sympathies; a mindset Raymond abhors. Shaw's comrades appear to have nothing but the highest praise for a man they advertise as a wonderful human being, but a series of nightmares plant a doubt in the mind of Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra). Marco 'sees' Raymond murder two members of the platoon - visions shared by other members of the squad - and sets out to discover the truth.
Based on a novel by Richard Condon, 'The Manchurian Candidate' boasts a fine script, some terrific performances, assured direction from John Frankenheimer and very nifty editing. While it's true that certain plot threads do require suspension of disbelief - Janaet Leigh's 'strangers on a train' encounter with Marco and subsequent whirlwind love interest may make one wonder if the point to her character is another example of Soviet involvement - but the overall effect is electrifying.
Witness the scene involving Raymond and Eleanor towards the end of the film, and drink in every drop of Lansbury's extraordinary turn. It's chilling in the extreme, very moving and culminates in a taboo moment that went further in the novel. Sinatra, too, turns in possibly his finest performance, clearly relishing the dialogue and character motivation at his disposal. If you have yet to see this film - which will surely earn a new generation of admirers - I unreservedly recommend Arrow Academy's Blu-ray release.

Image quality is superb, with a fine layer of grain and an abundance of detail. A fine showcase for Lionel Lindon's photography.
The extras begin with a director's commentary track where John Frankenheimer explains how the rights to the novel were obtained following a suggestion by George Axelrod. He chats about David Amramu's score; the talents of Lionel Lindon who was DOP on 6 Frankenheimer films; Sinatra's preference for Lucille Ball for the role of Eleanor Iselin and how he was persuaded otherwise, and why the two weeks of rehearsal time were vital. It's true tht there is some dead air in places - doubtless the director was savouring the experience of seeing his film again - but it's an informative and enjoyable chat.
'The Directors: John Frankenheimer' runs for 58m 32s, and goes through the director's television career at CBS and why he was initially against moving into cinema. He talks about a period of great despair when his films were not in demand, and there are appearances from Lansbury, Rod Steiger, Samuel L Jackson and other notable figures. We can also enjoy the clips from 'The Young Savages', The Birdman Of Alcatraz', 'All Fall Down' and 'Grand Prix' which I recall my father taking me to see at the cinema.
Next up is a 7m 48s interview where Frankenheimer, Sinatra and Axelrod discuss the film, explaining why United Artists were so scared of the picture and how everyone involved truly believed in the film and gave their very best.
'Queen Of Diamonds', shot in 2004, is a 14m 51s interview with Angela Lansbury who declares she found her role to be extremely challenging, and how her director put real passion into the film. She also cites Sinatra's performance as "The best work I ever saw him do".
'A Little Solitaire' is a 13m 17s interview with William Friedkin who records the tension between th director and Frank Sinatra: the former in pursuit of perfection, while the latter craved spontaneity. He also praises Janet Leigh's performance in what he feels was the film's most difficult role.

This Blu-ray also comes complete with another of Arrow's booklets. The first article is 'The Manchurian Candidate', written by Peter Knight. Peter's excellent piece contains information and theories about Sinatra, the Kennedy brothers and Richard Condon and goes on to discuss the fascinating subject of mind control while looking at the role of women in Frankenheimer's film. Contemporary reviews of the film are also included in the booklet, ranging from The Evening Standard to The Financial Times. Neil Sanders' piece 'The Facts Behind The Fiction' follows, looking at the case of alleged assassin Sirhan Sirhan who gunned down Robert F Kennedy. Various US projects are also discussed with direct involvement in the dark art of mind control, and interviews and declassified documents are the icing on the cake of an absolutely fascinating read. The booklet concludes with information about the transfer and a nice still of Sinatra, Leigh and Harvey.

'The Manchurian Candidate' has certainly stood the test of time, with its compelling story of paranoia, political intrigue and a stormy relationship between mother and son that will ultimately threaten the security of a nation. I strongly suspect that it will be even more relevant in the years ahead as the political machinations of world super powers work behind closed doors with their own agendas.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Blu-Ray Review: Rabid

For me, the 70s were a magical time for cinema, and my local theatres became regular haunts for a steady stream of genre fare. 'The Vampire Lovers', 'Blood On Satan's Claw', 'Dracula, Prince Of Darkness' and 'The Blood Splattered Bride' were just a few of the films to light up the big screen, along with David Cronenberg's 'Shivers'. The latter introduced me to the weird and wonderful world of an exciting new director who followed up this startling slice of cinema unease with a companion piece titled 'Rabid'.
The film begins with a road accident that leaves biking pair Hart (Frank Moore) and Rose (Marilyn Chambers) as casualties. The on-screen diagnosis forecasts Rose has just 30 minutes to live, and with the nearest hospital some 3 hours away, she's despatched to the nearby Keloid clinic. Dr Dan Keloid (Howard Ryshpan) presides over an institute that's aiming to create a franchise operation for plastic surgery resorts, aided by Murray (the splendid Joe Silver). Rose's severe internal injuries force Keloid to resort to a previously untried technique of neutral field graft: a radical method which involves the placement of her own skin to form new tissue on her abdomen.
This technique had never been used internally, and the effects result in Rose developing an insatiable appetite for blood. A small sphincter opening under her armpit houses a phallus-like spike which pierces the flesh of her victims, turning the recipient into a vampiric being. The bloody results of this epidemic - pitched as a new strain of rabies by the authorities - soon covers a wide area, with the threat that an entire city and beyond will become infected.
While Sissy Spacek was an early contender for the character of Rose, Marilyn Chambers eventually got the role, following a suggestion from Ivan Reitman. At the time, Spacek was hot property due to the recently released 'Carrie' and her involvement would doubtless have considerably boosted box office takings. For all that, Reitman's call turned out to be a good one. It's a fine physical performance from Chambers, whose leap from hardcore porn to horror can be seen as a successful move, leaving one to wonder why she didn't continue in that vein.

'Rabid' certainly built on the promise of its predecessor, anticipating themes and imagery from Cronenberg's future work, and also installed him as something of a prophet with regard to surgical techniques which looked ahead to stem cell research which was still almost 3 decades down the line.
The mind/body split has featured in Cronenberg's work through a series of challenging, thought provoking films and 'Rabid still stands tall and proud in this body of work.

Arrow Video's Blu-ray features an excellent encode of the film which was digitally restored in High Definition by Lionsgate using materials supplied by the Toronto International Film Festival Group. All restoration work was performed at Technicolor in Toronto, Canada. The colour grading on 'Rabid' seems to have caused not a little controversy, with opinions ranging from "It looks great" to criticism that the colour scheme has been revised to the detriment of the picture. Well, it's been some 37 years since I caught 'Rabid' at the cinema and, like the overwhelming majority of patrons at the time, I have no recollection of how this film is supposed to look. Some of the colours do are perhaps over-saturated in places and the levels of grain fluctuate but overall, for a low-budget offering, I'm pleased with the look of 'Rabid' and it's abundance of detail.

The extras begin with two commentary tracks. The first is with David Cronenberg, who talks about his interest in medical research, believing we've never really accepted our own bodies and strive to modify and improve them. He also talks about Marilyn Chambers' performance; his thoughts on the initial choice of Sissy Spacek and explains the difficulties of shooting a film chronologically. It's a most enlightening, stimulating talk and the same can be said for the second commentary track where William Beard enthuses about the script; the impressive scale realised by a low budget film and Chambers' performance and the heroic qualities of her character.
The video supplements on this disc begin with a David Cronenberg interview (20 min 35s) where DC recalls the critical reaction to 'Shivers' and how he was frozen out by the Canadian Film Fund. He also chats about why he found 'Rabid' a difficult script to write, and that he began to realise the way he liked to shoot, feeling more assured when working on this picture.
An Ivan Reitman interview follows, running for 12min 29s. Reitman talks about 'Animal House'; recalls his first meeting with Cronenberg, and why he suggested Marilyn Chambers for the role in 'Rabid'.
A 15min 37s interview with Don Carmody - the film's co-producer - covers his relationship with the Canadian film industry; his memories of running production at Cinepix and of working as a driver for Julie Christie on Robert Altman's 'McCabe And Mrs Miller'.
Make up and fx artist Joe Blasco rounds off the interview section, with a brief chat (3min 11s) on his work on 'Rabid' and why he never got to meet Marilyn Chambers.

'The Directors: David Cronenberg' is a 59min 4s documentary which features Holly Hunter, Marilyn Chambers, Peter Weller, Debbie Harry and a host of other familiar faces who talk about working with Cronenberg. This episode in 'The Directors' series was made just after the release of 'eXistenZ' and covers a lot of ground, looking at the New York underground movement; the making of 'Scanners' ("a nightmare" according to its director) and the hideousness of the British press following attempts to ban 'Crash'. Having attended the UK premiere at the London Film Festival, I can well remember the hysterical coverage leading up to the screening and beyond and share the director's opinion on our 'gutter press'. We also hear about the problems he faced in casting the Mantle twins in his extraordinary 'Dead Ringers', and there are clips from the likes of 'The Fly', 'Scanners' and 'Crash'.
'Raw, Rough And Rabid' follows, being a 15min 4s documentary, courtesy of the excellent High Rising Productions and featuring Canadian critic Kier-La Janisse and Joe Blasco. Here, the legacy of 'Rabid' and Cinepix are discussed, with 'Shivers', 'Death Weekend' and the Ilsa films under the spotlight.
The aforementioned supplementary material gives significant added value to this disc, underlining the achievements of a film that continues to stand the test of time. As usual, Arrow provides an informative booklet, this time containing a beautifully written article from Kier-La Janisse which looks at the human bvody in a very different way; takes in Quebec's 1970 'October Crisis' and discusses the Rose brothers who remain folk heroes in Quebec.
Extracts from the book 'Cronenberg On Cronenberg' are also included and there's a Marilyn Chambers in interview conducted by Calum Waddell in 1995.
A highly recommended release.