Friday, 22 May 2015

Blu-ray Review: The Long Good Friday (Arrow Video)

February 1981, and the opening week of "The Long Good Friday" cinema release saw me heading to my local theatre with not a little enthusiasm. I wasn't disappointed, either.
John Mackenzie's gritty take on organised crime in London delivers straight down the line, and remains one of the very best British films.
Cockney crime lord Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) is very much one of the old school, refusing to deal in filthy drugs and instead relying on partnerships with corrupt councillors and dodgy Old Bill to help keep his business in front and on top. Fiercely patriotic, Harold has a vision of putting London on the map as the absolute centre of European commerce, and arranges for American counterparts to travel to 'The Smoke' with the aim of securing his support for an exciting docklands development. Charlie (Eddie Constantine)duly arrives with his lawyer in tow, but things have already started to go badly wrong.
Someone is trying to wipe out Harold's firm, with a fatal stabbing and a couple of bombs putting serious dents in Harold's personnel and his credibility.
Could it be a rival firm committed to ending a decade of peace and stability, or an organisation far more powerful than Harold and his rivals?
Shand is in danger of losing not just his potentially lucrative deal with The Mafia, but also his existing empire, and instructs Inspector Parkinson (Dave King) to discover who is responsible for the murders of his men.
When the truth emerges, it's chilling in the extreme.

I've seen "The Long Good Friday" at the cinema, on TV, video, DVD and Anchor Bay's earlier Blu-ray release, and its power down the years remains undiminished.
Part of its lasting appeal has to go down to the cast and its 2 main players in particular.
Hoskins is pure dynamite, lacing his actions and reactions with humour and exhibiting a steely determination tha his 'Hands Across The Ocean' deal will not be thwarted by anyone, while Helen Mirren is far more than a gangsters trophy wife, coming across as a smart, strong lady who can deal with almost anything and anyone.
There's sterling support too from Derek Thompson, P.A.Moriarty and Bryan Marshall as the conniving councillor who although almost permanently drunk, is able to see the clearest. Look out for a feature debut from Pierce Brosnan, too.
It's a violent, not for the faint-hearted affair, with lines of eminently quotable dialogue and complex characters that have grown in stature during the passage of time. It also boasts one of the most memorable closing scenes in British cinema history, and one which is justifiably praised and analysed in the supplementary features. The film plays to a driving Francis Monkman score, and boasts terrific photography from Phil Meheux.
A stone classic, and more than worthy of the reverential treatment bestowed by Arrow Video's Blu-ray.

This is a 2K transfer scanned on a pin-registered Arriscan, and graded on Baselight grading system. The end result is image quality that beats the previous Blu-ray release in every department. Certain scenes are almost 3D-like, with interior and exterior scenes delivering improved stability, sharpness, more realistic colour and grain which is handled with sensitivity. Another triumph for James White and David Mackenzie, with Phil Meheux lending his own expertise and observations to help deliver a flawless transfer.
The extras begin with a director's commentary track where John Mackenzie begins by declaring this was Francis Monkman's first film score and pays tribute to his compositions. John talks about the performances, with much praise for his fine cast; the challenges posed by set designs on a tight budget; the problems he faced with nervous distributors, and why the famous finale came easily to him, explaining he normally struggled with endings.

"Bloody Business: The Making Of The Long Good Friday" follows, being a 54m 52s documentary featuring interviews with Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren, John Mackenzie, Phil Meheux, Pierce Brosnan and producer Barry Hanson. Shot in 2006, this documentary contains some valuable input. Helen Mirren reveals she thought her character sucked and went on to insist Victoria Shand emerged as a strong character with a major say in her husband's life. We hear why Anthony Francisosa flew in for the shoot and flew straight back; why Bob Hoskins pushed for a court case with solid backing from many fellow actors, and how his background helped to shape the character of Harold Shand.
A series of interviews follows, with Barry Hanson the first to hold forth (5m 40s). Barry recalls working with Hoskins before in a stageplay of "Richard III"; describes how Bob gave the audience confidence and notes the Shakespearean qualities of TLGF.
Screenwriter Barrie Keeffe is next in the frame (8m 28s). Barrie recalls his script for this film was the fastest he ever wrote; talks about his theatre work and of the contributions made by Bob and Helen, feeling the latter held things together in the film with her strong character.
Phil Meheux (3m 18s) explains why TLGF was originally pitched as a TV film; why he initially felt lukewarm to the gig of cinematographer and why he decided to alter one shot in this restoration.
"Hands Across The Ocean" is a 7m 10s featurette showing 5 brief sections that were revoiced to make things clearer to American audiences. Some of the phrases used would certainly be unfamiliar to many of our American friends, so "Bollocks" becomes "Balls" and "gobbed on" becomes "spat upon".
So that's the steelbook release, but there is a second disc of extras which can be found in Arrow's boxset which comprises of "The Long Good Friday", Neil Jordan's wonderful "Mona Lisa" (which also starred Bob Hoskins) and a 100 page hardback book.

This second bonus disc begins with "Apaches" (27m 26s). This short film was made in 1977, and commissioned by The Central Office Of Information on behalf of the Health and Safety executive. It's an early collaboration between Mackenzie and Meheux, with the aim of alerting rural children about the dangers of playing on farms. Here, six children adopt the characters of Apache indians, playing hide and seek and climbing aboard tractors during daily work routine.
A series of nasty accidents follows, that would have undoubtedly put the fear of God into many kids and their parents when viewing this short.The sight of school desks being cleared, names removed from coat pegs, the funeral of one who died way too young and a grief stricken mother sat beside her child's empty bed leave a powerful impression, making this a giant amongst public information films. The end credits carry a list of youngsters who had their lives cut short by farm accidents, further amplifying the overall effect of this short, sharp shock.

A Q&A with John Mackenzie and Bob Hoskins follows (27m 50s), shot at London's National Film Theatre in March 2000, and moderated by Richard Jobson who I first saw leading The Skids at London's Marquee club back in the mists of time.
We hear about the involvement of actual gangsters on the set (including an hilarious argument on the 'cutting' scene); the role of Handmade films in this amazing story;Bob talking about being re-dubbed with a Wolverhampton accent, and how advice from Bob Mackenzie was responsible for shaping his career and approach to acting.

A series of interviews follows, recorded in 2014-15.
Barry Hanson (14m 18s) Barry discusses TLGF original title ("The Paddy Factor") and where it came from; gives the lowdown on Handmade films involvement; talks about the performances of Hoskins and Mirren and states that around one quarter of the way through filming, they realised they had a classic on their hands.

Barrie Keeffe (14m 18s) Barrie chats about 60s London with the Krays and the Richardsons and how the former tried to get involved with the Mafia; explains where the spitting scene came from and recalls TLGF was his first film and an instantly memorable one.

Phil Meheux (17m 37s) Phil recalls joining the BBC as a projectionist; his rise to the role of cinematographer and how Bob Hoskins' eyesight caused several problems.

Simon Hinkley. First assistant director (18m 10s) Simon recalls working with Bob Hoskins on "Pennies From Heaven"; that Eddie Constantine was not the most popular choice to play the Mafia kingpin, and relates how several people attempted to pen a sequel to Mackenzie's film.

The interviews are rounded off with Carlotta Barrow, assistant art director (6m 9s) Carlotta talks about designing the interior of the yacht; the brilliantly staged 'upside down' scene at the abattoir and the construction of the pub that fooled many thirsty consumers. The interviews were edited by Michael Brooke who, together with Daniel Bird, played a large part in the work and expertise behind Arrow's "Boro" set and their Blu-ray of "The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Miss Osbourne" which will be my next review here.

There's also a collectors booklet, featuring new writing on the film by BFI curator Mark Duguid, together with a nice selection of stills.
I know we all feel considerable regret that Bob Hoskins and John Mackenzie are no longer with us, but Arrow's Region B Blu-ray is a wonderful testament to their talents. Both the steelbook and the boxset are available to buy now, and stand proudly in a year of fantastic releases for UK Home Video.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Looking Back At A Chinese Ghost Story (1987)

The recurring theme of 'Love From Beyond The Grave' invariably provokes a dewy-eyed response from cinema-goers everywhere, and A Chinese Ghost Story also features tear-stained moments of romance from a love that can never blossom. Ching Sui-Tung's remake of The Enchanted Shadow (1960) certainly has a few of those lump-in-your-throat scenes, but it also moves like an express train at times, combining action, humour and amazing pre-CGI effects.

The much-missed Leslie Cheung takes the central role of Ning Tsai-Shun - a debt collector down on his luck - who seeks shelter from the rain and ends up at the Lan Yeuk temple. It's here he encounters the beautiful Siu Sihn (Joey Wong); a girl with "cold hands and a pasty complexion".

"You seem really kind. It's a shame you came to the wrong place", declares Sihn. Before long, this heartfelt admonition casts a shadow over Shun and his newfound ally, Master Yan (Wu Ma); a Taosist swordsman who will soon risk life and limb in a duel between two worlds. The deal here is that Sihn is a ghost who is forced to lure young men into the temple where a tree demon is waiting to devour their souls. An arranged marriage to the evil Lord Of The Black Mountain places a seemingly irremovable object between Sihn and her earthly lover, leading to a battle royale in the underworld.
Horror/fantasy cinema has been responsible for some chilling visions of Hades, from the barren landscape of The Beyond to the fluorescent colours in Mario Bava's Hercules In The Haunted World. The Hell depicted in A Chinese Ghost Story must rank as another major achievment, as a single soundstage is transformed into a mist-shrouded abyss of the damned. It's here the fertile imagination of producer Tsui Hark really goes into overdrive, constructing a series of pulsating set pieces that may well leave you out of breath.Hark really does throw some blistering scenes of mayhem into the mix, while reminding us that he's a master of subtle changes of pace when the script demands: listen out for numerous lines of madcap humour, and feast your eyes on some beautifully lit scenes accompanied by a gorgeous swirling soundtrack which occasionally shifts gear to reveal cues reminiscent of David Bowie's 'Low' album.

Widely acknowledged as a classic slice of Eastern delight, A Chinese Ghost Story casts its net further afield, with zombie riffs (albeit of the more docile kind) and nods to the tree horrors of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead.

This really is a visual treat, and the Region 2 DVD from Hong Kong Legends does it full justice. HKL's presentation looks remarkably crisp and colourful with blue ground mists, the warm glow of candlelight and those different shades of green in the New Territories exterior scenes all looking better than ever. Blacks are also spot on, and there's plenty of detail in night-time scenes - check out the 'company of wolves' scene in the forest.

This sumptuous transfer gives plenty of bang for your buck, and there are further praiseworthy aspects to consider.The ubiquitous Bey Logan flys solo on an audio commentary that's a mixture of historical background, anecdotes and sharp observations drawn from his considerable experience as a writer and an actor. We learn about Poo Song Ling ("The H.P.Lovecraft of his day") whose novel, 'The Magic Sword', inspired the original film and this remake; the careers of cast and crew - included the 7 DOP's Tsui Hark employed for this film - and get the lowdown on the revised ending.This wealth of information is delivered at something approaching breakneck speed, yet it's easy on the ears and greatly increases ones admiration for the film and its cast and creators.Logan is never slow in making personal observations regarding the various production techniques employed here, expressing a preference for physical props as opposed to CGI, admiration for the stop-motion and steadicam work, and great enthusiasm for the performances of the main players. Logan's talk also takes in a few cultural sidebars, revealing that the supernatural is widely accepted as solid fact by the Chinese people.

HKL have also thoughtfully provided two interviews. The first is an informative 23 minute chat with Tsui Hark who expresses his admiration for Cheung (who initially refused the role of Shun); explains why Joey Wong wasn't first choice for playing Siu Sihn, and offers his reasons for frequently casting singers in many of his films. The second interview - a 29 minute Q&A with Wu Ma - is just as enlightening, revealing this actor/director has worked in the industry for 41 years. Wu Ma tells us why he feels Hark is an incredibly demanding person to work for; gives his reasons for believing that aspiring actors should begin their careers in TV rather than movies, citing Chow Yun Fat, Tony Leung and Andy Lau as prime examples of the benefits of this route, and like Hark, chats about Leslie Cheung, hoping that his spirit is at rest.

The remainder of this disc contains trailers for some mouth-watering releases from Hong Kong Legends and Premier Asia - including clips from The Warrior, Zu Warriors From The Magic Mountain and Naked Weapon - and all of them look in excellent shape. You'll also find 2 trailers for A Chinese Ghost Story: the UK version has a female voice- over which works really well, and makes a refreshing change from the norm.

There is one more feature to tell you about, and my advice is to make this your last port of call. 'A Star Shines In The East' is a short text and stills tribute to Leslie Cheung. Here, the words of Bey Logan convey the sadness surrounding Cheung's suicide, and pays tribute to his short time amongst us. It's a sad note to end on, but reminds us that this talented actor/singer left so much to be remembered for.

This film is long due for resurrection via high definition, and one hopes an enterprising company will treat us to a Blu-ray in the not-too distant future.

Blu-ray Review: Coffy (Arrow Video)

For many filmgoers, their first encounter with Pam Grier came with Quentin Tarantino's 'Jackie Brown'. Here she plays a woman at the crossroads in her life, in what I still consider to be QT's finest film to date. It's a superb performance from Grier, and I hope it inspired thousands of people to seek out her previous work.
In 'Coffy' (1973) - directed by Jack Hill - Grier takes the role of nurse named Coffin who serves her community conscientiously, caring for the sick and injured. Coffy's younger sister Lubelle is hospitalized after taking contaminated smack aged 11, and we see her when Coffy takes her cop friend Carter (William Elliot) to visit. Carter has strong feelings for Coffy, who is currently dating Howard Brunswick (Booker Bradshaw); a a runner for congress who as departed from the straight and narrow, becoming a villain you really will love to hate.
Throw in the outrageous 'King George' - an archetypal pimp played by Robert Doqui - and the loathsome Vitroni (Alan Arbus) and you have more than enough baddies to light the fuse in this solidly entertaining revenge movie.
Coffy embarks on a one woman crusade against the greed and human misery of the drugs trade, which has claimed and ruined countless lives. A blast to the face with a shotgun; cat fights with jealous bitches during an undercover stint and a final encounter with Brunswick combine to show Coffy to be a multi-layered character.She's a classic beauty, not afraid to use her looks and her body as a means to an end, very smart and when the chips are down, prepared to fight dirty against those who have always fought that way. She's no trained assassin either, using her street experience and improvisational skills to wage war on the industry that preyed on her little sister.

A word, too, for Sid Haig. His presence in a Jack Hill movie is always something to behold. Here, he plays Omar; a henchman who is always prepared to go above and beyond the call of duty while exhibiting a sadistic glee as he goes about his work.
There are actions scenes a plenty here, one on one combat sequences and some eminently quotable dialogue, with Roy Ayres score tearing it up in the background. There's also a certain charm to this picture and other Blaxploitation gems, as referred to by Jack Hill in his interview (more on that later).
The likes of 'Coffy', Foxy Brown' and 'Shaft' amongst others belong to a golden age of cinema revered by old school fans, from a generation where exploitation filmmaking was (almost) a respectable profession.

Arrow Video's Blu-ray presentation is a solid transfer with daylight scenes looking particularly strong. Interior scenes do vary but it's a good organic reproduction overall and impressive, considering it's a dated master.
Fans of this film will be delighted by the inclusion of a Jack Hill commentary track
Here, the director explains how Larry Gordon pitched the idea for 'Coffy' as revenge for losing the 'Cleopatra Jones' gig, and declares the titular character was written specifically for Pam Grier. Jack goes on to talk about racism inside and outside the industry; the fight to get his film an 'R' rating; why working a low budget tight production schedule can be a benefit and how a scene from 'Richard III' inspired the memorable finale in 'Coffy'. Jack is very generous in his praise for the actors, explaining how they helped him capture certain lifestyles to add to the knowledge he'd gained during his time as a musician working the clubs, and remains justifiably proud of his film which certainly delivers straight down the line.

'A Taste Of Coffy' (18m 49s) is a Jack Hill interview. It does contain some overlap with the commentary track, but it's good to actually see him telling some of those stories, which include his battles with AIP; a frightening audience reaction at a screening he attended and the way 'Coffy' connected with both black and white audiences.

'Pam Grier: The Baddest Chick In Town' is a 17m 38s interview with the great lady, where she reveals that certain aspcts of Coffy reminded her of her mother.
She remains proud of portraying a woman helping the community (in more ways than one), and has some nice memories of the film and also of a particularly painful onset accident.

'Blaxploitation' is a 28m 56s video essay from author Mikel J Koven that charts the history and development of the genre. Mikel explores the five early stereotypes of black characters; talks about social change, the Black Panther Party and political assassinations. There are clips from the revolutionary 'Sweet Sweetback's Badass Song', together with footage from 'Coffy'and 'Foxy Brown', and the role of music in these films is also discussed, with praise for artists who include Bobby Womack and Curtis Mayfield.
The decline of the genre, with safe films shifting the movement from 'R' to 'PG' is also examined. It's an excellent essay, and takes us nicely into a theatrical trailer and image gallery.
Arrow also includes a booklet featuring writing from Cullen Gallagher and Yvonne D. Sims.
Cullen's essay - 'Coffy' - takes a look at American International Pictures; changing conciousness in America; the dangerous women of film noir, and studies Grier's character, making some excellent observations.
Yvonne's essay - 'Pam Grier' - takes us through Pam's early years; her career in film and her television work, giving us many titles for further appreciation of this legend.
Arrow's Blu-ray is locked to Region B, mand availabel to buy now.