Monday, 30 May 2016

The Firm (Alan Clarke) BFI Dual Format Release

Back in the 1970s, football violence in England often consisted of one thousand per side battles between rival fans, either inside the ground or on the way back to the railway station or coach parks.
Bloody confrontations were a weekly occurrence, with police struggling to keep these large groups apart.
As time went by, the police began to tighten their grip on proceedings, becoming wise to when and where these fights would take place. This resulted in the hooligans employing different methods to stay one step ahead of the authorities.
Club colours were discarded; smaller groups set up fights with their rivals miles away from the stadiums and weapons such as stanley knives were used to inflict maximum damage in minimum time.

Made in 1988, Alan Clarke's "The Firm" remains probably the best film on football violence, highlighting that this disreputable profession was not solely populated by the disenfranchised but often organised by men in respectable, well-paid positions.
The film follows the activities of The ICC - Inter City Crew - a London firm modelled on West Ham's fearsome ICF and led by Clive 'Bex' Bissell (Gary Oldman).
Bex - a 30 year old real estate agent - leads his mob with a rod of iron, and has ambitions to ply his trade on the international circuit.
The forthcoming European Championship tournament is firmly in Bex's sights, with a national firm consisting of England's finest in need of a leader. The ICC make their way to a swish hotel where their rivals top boys are waiting to stake their own claims. The Buccaneers - led by Yeti (Phil Davis) - and a Birmingham firm fronted by Oboe (Andrew Wilde) fail to agree on a leader, resulting in two organised '0ffs' where last man standing gets the gig.
Clarke - a lifelong Everton fan - hated football violence, and shows this bloodsport at its most damaging.
The BFI disc contains the original BBC broadcast which was cut to run at 1 hr 7 mins.
The director's cut is also included, running for 1 hr 8 mins 6 secs.
The additional footage, deemed to controversial to be screened, further amplifies the extreme damage to life and limb, with the revenge attack on Oboe being a strong case in point.
One of the film's sharpest observations is the contrasting effects of football violence on the family unit.
Bex's wife Sue (Lesley Manville) constantly tells her husband that his involvement has to end, fearing for his well being, and there's a particularly upsetting scene when Bex's young son picks up a stanley knife that's lying around like a discarded toy.
Even parents have a role to play here, with a proud dad reminiscing about having it with Millwall back in the day.

On the casting side, there are some very strong performances. Lesley Manville as the long-suffering wife who reveals her liking for rough sex at the culmination of a disturbing scene that began as something entirely different, while Davis and Wilde are both excellent as contenders for the crown. Best of all has to be Gary Oldman who turns in a frighteningly intense performance, keeping his troops toeing the party line by adopting a rule-by-fear persona and accepting casualties as a small price to pay en route to the coveted number one spot.
For my money, "The Firm" remains the father of football violence films, and is every bit as savagely realistic as the day it came out. The activities portrayed may be offensive in the extreme to many, but it also captures the undoubted buzz experienced by members of football's very own fight club.

This BFI dual format release includes two commentary tracks. The first features Gary Oldman flying solo: a difficult task, but he acquits himself admirably. He talks about working for the late director; Clarke's methods; John Ward's photography; acting with Lesley Manville (his wife at the time) and throws in some golden anecdotes, including why cast and crew had to receive a police escort when things got a bit hot during filming.
The second track features Lesley Manville, Phil Davis, author Dave Robinson and TV archivist Dick Fiddy.
Lesley talks about Clarke's censorship battles with the BBC; how they shot the scene with the toddler and the knife and why she elected not to inform Clarke before or during the shoot that she was pregnant.
Al Hunter's research for the film is covered - including a meeting with two members of West Ham's ICF - together with much admiration for Clarke who gave his actors room to breathe. Alternative endings for "The Firm" are also discussed.

Next up is "Elephant" (37m 39s)
This controversial short film was screened by BBC2 on 25th January 1989, and turned the spotlight on chilling executions carried out by the IRA.
Almost completely bereft of dialogue, "Elephant" comprises of a series of murders where one, sometimes two hitmen turn up at petrol stations, swimming pools, football fields and houses to kill those who have incurred the wrath of the Irish Republican Army.
Sometimes there is recognition shown by the victims who seem to know the man with the gun, while others stare blankly at the intruder, but the end result is always the same.
Ward's camera lingers on the various death poses, driving home the obscenity of these acts that take place in a world of emptiness where there are no cars, passers-by or shoppers to witness the slaughter.
It's a tough watch to be sure, but it did educate the public over here in England and make them aware of what was happening in Northern Ireland on a daily basis.
Mark Kermode and producer Danny Boyle offer a thought provoking commentary track where Boyle begins by explaining how he came to work with Alan Clarke. He talks of a man who treated everyone the same; explains why Clarke chose to tackle the subject of civilian murders in Northern Ireland and his reasons for not wanting the film to be shown over there.
Kermode makes some excellent points during the conversation, regarding the settings; the fact that those who got away were not witnesses and declares the murders were un-cinematic.

Open Air Discussion of Elephant BBC1 (21 min)
Screnned on the evening after Elephant's BBC2 airing, Susan Rae presents a phone-in with Alan Clarke taking calls from a largely critical audience. The director was in LA at the time, but close enough to feel the heat from aggrieved callers; some of whom felt his film to be an insult to the people of Northern Ireland.
Clarke defends his work admirably, as does Danny Boyle who appears in the studio for the second half of the programme to take more calls.

Alan Clarke: Out Of His Own Light part 12 (36m 20s)
A fascinating documentary segment, covering "Elephant" and "The Firm", with valuable input from Brian Cox, Stephen Frears, Paul Greengrass, Clarke's daughter Molly, John Ward and other key figures in this story.
Itr's frequently moving to witness the love and respect they had for this much-missed director and a nice way to end one of the finest releases of 2016 thus far.

"The Firm" Blu-ray/DVD combo is available now as a separate release, or as part of the BFI boxset:
"Dissent & Disruption Alan Clarke at the BBC 1969-1989".
Take a look at the contents listed below

lthough probably best remembered for the controversial and groundbreaking dramas Scum, Made in Britain and The Firm, the breadth of Alan Clarke’s radical, political, innovative, inspirational work, along with his influence on generations of filmmakers, such as Gus Van Sant, Paul Greengrass, Andrea Arnold, Harmony Korine, Clio Barnard, Shane Meadows, should see him rightly regarded as one of Britain’s greatest ever filmmaking talents.

This long-overdue collection finally brings together all twenty-three of the surviving stand-alone BBC TV dramas that Alan Clarke directed between 1969 and 1989, including such neglected classics as To Encourage the Others, Horace, Penda’s Fen, Diane, Contact, Christine and Elephant, and also includes Scum and the first ever presentation of Clarke’s original Director’s Cut of The Firm, assembled from his personal answer print, discovered in 2015.

Among the extensive extras, which include David Leland introductions, extracts from BBC discussion shows Open Air and Tonight and newly-produced documentaries and audio commentaries, this Limited Edition 13-Disc Box Set also includes a bonus DVD of Clarke’s Half Hour Story episodes, made for Associated Rediffusion during the late-60s.

The Last Train through Harecastle Tunnel (1969)
Sovereign’s Company (1970)
The Hallelujah Handshake (1970)
To Encourage the Others (1972)
Under the Age (1972)
Horace (1972)
The Love Girl and the Innocent (1973)
Penda’s Fen (1974)
A Follower for Emily (1974)
Diane (1975)
Funny Farm (1975)
Scum (1977)
Nina (1978)
Danton’s Death (1978)
Beloved Enemy (1981)
Psy-Warriors (1981)
Baal (1982)
Stars of the Roller State Disco (1984)
Contact (1985)
Christine (1987)
Road (1987)
The Firm: Director’s Cut (1989, previously unreleased)
The Firm: Broadcast Version (1989)
Elephant (1989)
Bonus Disc (DVD only)
The Gentleman Caller (1967)
Goodnight Albert (1968)
Stella (1968)
The Fifty-Seventh Saturday (1968)
Thief (1968)

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Blu-ray Review: Beat Girl (BFI)

Newly weds Paul and Nichole Linden (David Farrar, Noelle Adam) arrive at their Kensington home to encounter a resentful teen still troubled by her parents breakup.
Jennifer (Gillian Hills) is hostile towards her stepmother from the word go, while her relationship with father Paul is a classic case of parental neglect as his City 2000 project holds centre stage: a revolutionary housing plan which fails to understand the people who will dwell there.
Jennifer is part of a rebellious group who congregate in clubs, coffee bars and, at one memorable rave, Chislehurst Caves,and adopt an anti-authority stance which their elders can never understand.
Her friends - who include the coolest of Beatniks Dave (Adam Faith), gorgeous singer Dodo (Shirley-Ann Field) and Peter McEnery's Tony who constantly brings up his military father, "weighed down by medals."

A Soho cafe called 'The Off Beat' is their haven and also marks the spot where Nichole's troubles multiply when she bumps into an old friend named Greta (Delphi Lawrence), known as 'The Duchess' at 'Les Girls' strip club.
Jennifer discovers her stepmother and Greta go back to a life in Paris where "it's not easy to stay respectable on an empty stomach", and decides to build on this knowledge to wreck a marriage.
Events take a sinister turn when Jennifer, under age, meets 'Les Girls' owner Kenny King (Christopher Lee) who immediately senses another conquest may be on the horizon.
Of course, Lee had appeared as Count Dracula two years earlier, and here, his character in Terrence Fisher's film possesses him in a chilling scene.
Witness King grooming his prey, offering her an exciting alternative to her current situation, into a life as one of the 'undead' who enjoy brief riches before losing their position as the next victim rolls up.
Here, there's no glamour, save for a quick honeymoon period, just as the vampire brides promise of immortality is a hollow one.
Rebellion and her juvenile delinquent persona evaporate in the face of true evil.

Jennifer and her crew were survivors: war babies who emerged from the rubble after The Blitz.It was a perilous situation brought home when Dave recalls his first home was a London underground station.
In "Beat Girl", attitudes and memories of these experiences fuelled a swinging generation, and director Edmond T Grenville's direction guides the impressive cast through a moment in time where squares did not fit into their circle.
Hills, Faith, Field, Lee and co all make their mark a memorable one, and watch out for Oliver Reed - Plaid Shirt in the credits - who moves, grooves and smoulders with the best of them as The John Barry Seven kick up a storm, amalgamating Swing and Jazz to great effect.

This BFI Blu-ray presentation was newly remastered in 2K, with a glossy monochrome look beautifully rendered.
The disc includes 3 versions of the film, with the main cut running for 1 Hr 27M 42s.
The alternative version was released to certain countries overseas and runs for 1Hr 32M 9s.
An additional scene with Paul And Nichole on a London-bound train; Jennifer showing a book on jazz to Nichole and a softer version of a striptease make up the extra minutes.
The extended version runs for 1Hr 32M 38s and is basically the same as the alternative cut. According to the booklet accompanying this release, it's a hybrid version, assembled from different elements.

The extras begin with an interview with Gillian Hills, running for 25m 26s.
Gillian - who looks stunning - talks about "Beat Girl" being a Godsend for her, and displays excellent recall as she talks about her director and a cast that contained some extraordinary talent.
It must have been quite an experience to appear in this film at such a tender age, and Gillian's fine performance has lost none of its vitality down the years.
This interview is a valuable account of a film where everything came together, a time Gillian recounts with real warmth.

Next up is "Cross-Roads"; a 1955 supernatural short which runs for 19m 17s.
Christopher Lee headlines as Benson, who is on his way to the London offices of Bernard J Maskell (Ferdy Mayne); an unscrupulous impresario soon to meet his match.
This is a wonderfully engrossing 'quickie', directed by John Fitchen, and boasting one scene in particular that will strike a chord with Hammer buffs, as the camera settles on Lee's eyes which display every ounce of the rage and savagery of a Dracula that was still 3 years away.

"Beauty In Brief" (3m 50s)
A 1955 striptease short, where full-on nudity is avoided as a young woman anticipates her wedding with attire that her intended would surely approve of.

"Goodnight With Sabrina" (3m50s)
Sabrina (Norma Sykes) entertains us from her own apartment, swapping evening gown for bath and bed, before bidding us goodnight.
As Arthur Askey would have said, "I Thank You".
The BFI have also included a 20 page booklet which includes Gillian remembering "Beat Girl"; Vic Pratt's essay on the film; Johnny Trunk's essay on John Barry's score, and Jo Botting's look at Edmond T Greville's work.
It all makes for required reading.
As an historical document of times gone by and a hugely enteraining film to boot, "Beat Girl" thoroughly deserves its chance to take another bow. A jewel in the BFI 'Flipside' crown, no less.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

DVD Review: Symptoms (BFI)

A good number of you may be familiar with Jose Larraz via his ex and blood romp "Vampyres", which featured Marianne Morris and Anulka as creatures of the night roaming the countryside in search of their prey.
"Symptoms" is a different story, being largely unseen in the UK during the four plus decades since its release.
Now, the British Film Institute has made this Euro Horror gem available for home viewing after finding the original negatives.
Larraz's film was chosen as the British entry for the Palme d'or for the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, ruffling a few feathers along the way, due to popular support for Ken Russell's "Mahler".
The reception in Cannes was largely positive, but "Symptoms" sank without trace, becoming a sleeping giant waiting to be re-born.

The film is set on an English country estate where Helen Ramsey (Angela Pleasence) has returned following a period of convalescence in Switzerland. Helen invites her friend Anne (Lorna Heilbron) to stay; the latter hoping for a peaceful holiday amidst beautiful surroundings.
Anne's first night is largely undisturbed, save for the sound of laughter which Helen claims not to have heard.
A photograph of a dark haired beauty who Helen identifies as Cora, and the sinister presence of odd job man Brady (Peter Vaughan)combine with a past tragedy and a future where "something is about to happen".
As a fierce storm and driving rain take hold, "Symptoms" becomes ever more disturbing, with apparitions appearing in mirrors and footsteps patrolling the attic, setting nerves on edge in fearful expectation.
As an exercise in psychological terror, "Symptoms" scores highly, charting a descent into madness and beyond to a most disconcerting degree.

There's much to enthuse over here, from both sides of the camera: a trio of fine central performances, with Pleasence and Heilbron playing well off each others chalk-and-cheese characters, while Vaughan recalls the lecherous locals of Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs" with eyes that strip the very souls of his neighbours.
John Scott's eerie score is perfectly in tune with on-screen events, intensifying when the numerous slayings occur, with Herrmann-esque flourishes, while DOP Trevor Wrenn's photography - presided over by Larraz himself - captures haunted woods and gloomy interiors while showing the countryside in all its autumnal glory.
It's a team effort that pays rich dividends, taking up the baton from Roman Polanski's "Repulsion", to fashion a compelling account of what can happen when the red signs of madness take an icy grip.
"Symptoms" is fully deserving of the reverential treatment bestowed by this BFI release.

Image quality on my DVD screener will be a revelation to those who discovered the film via beat-up home video incarnations, while newcomers will be pleased by this restoration which delivers deliberately muted colours and strong detail.
The supplementary material begins with the 70s 37s documentary, "On Vampyres and Other Symptoms".
Recorded in 2011, this absorbing documentary looks at the director's formative years - his father told him the best lessons are learnt on the street - his talent for drawing comic books, and his late start in the world of filmmaking, which began after a meeting with Josef von Sternberg.
Larraz talks about his literary influences; his thoughts on life, death and life after death and gives his forthright opinion on the Cannes festival.
There's also a lovely scene where Marianne Morris and Anulka take to the stage to present Larraz with an award at a festival screening.

"From Barcelona To Tumbridge Wells: The Films of Jose Larraz".
A 24m 11s episode from the essential 'Eurotika' series.
Here, Larraz talks about his fascination with ancient legends; Thomas Owen's books and some of his own previous work.
Marianne Morris remembers her work in "Vampyres" and her initial reaction to the film, while Brian Smedley-Aston chats about his relationship with Larraz and some of the films they made together.
Some very strong clips from "Vampyres" are included, which should see you reaching for your own copy, or palcing an order.

An Interview with Angela Pleasence (9m 11s)
Angela recalls how she got the lead role in "Symptoms", going on to describe Larraz as a remarkable talent but someone she didn't always agree with.
We hear about an accident which occurred on the set; 19 hour shoots and her opinion on "Symptoms" which she saw just 3 days before doing this interview earlier in 2016.

An Interview with Lorna Heilbron (17m 11s)
Lorna talks about her time at drama school; her memories of Larraz (an intense and also charming man), and how she had to develop an inner stillness for her role.
Peter Cushing, "The Creeping Flesh" and her life after acting also figure in this interview.

An Interview with Brian Smedley-Aston (16m 20s)
Brian's early career in the cutting room; his contribution to Cammell and Roeg's "Performance"; his work with David Greene and his recollection of the 1974 Cannes Festival with its strong line-up round off this fascinating trio of interviews.
There's also an illustrated booklet with this dual format release, which features a beautifully written essay by Vanity Celis who delivers a persuasive overview of this film.
"Symptoms" is available to buy now, and destined to be on many best of 2016 home video lists.