Christopher Machell Home Ent

DVD Round-up: Jun-Jul 2019 edition

Across June and July, there has been an enormous volume of home releases, all worthy of mention. Due to the high volume of releases, a selection has been reviewed below, while the rest are summarised here.

Criterion continues in its mission of delivering high quality, boutique packages for prestige cinema. In time for the 50th Anniversary of the moon landings, June saw the release of the extraordinary documentary For All Mankind, remarkable for drawing out the transcendent beauty in the achievement of a starkly scientific goal. The Heiress brought us back down to earth with its psychological tale of emotional betrayal and paternalistic control, starring the captivating Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift as the charming gold-digger who does her wrong. 

Way back in 2016, Arrow Video released American Horror Project Vol. 1, a collection of three largely-forgotten cult American horror films. The pictures within that volume were imperfect but fascinating as artefacts of a uniquely-American horror tradition and very satisfying as movies in their own right. With such a long wait for the next volume in the series, it’s more than a little disappointing to report that the films included in this set – Dark August, Dream No Evil, and The Child – are not up to the same standard either as entertainment or as a historical document. Dream No Evil is the strongest of the set, yet its shonky editing, woeful voiceover narration and drab exploitation make even this a hard sell.

A better bet is the BFI’s enormous volume, Early Women Film-Makers 1911-1940, featuring over ten hours of early(ish) cinema made by women. Presented in chronological order, the selection does not offer a comprehensive historical account of films made by women, but rather, is suggestive of the great and varied work of such greats as Lois Weber, Mabel Normand and Alice Guy-Blaché. It really is hard to beat melodrama as sophisticated as The Ocean Waif, social commentary as pointed as The Blot, or comedy as precisely tuned as Should Men Walk Home. As the selections move towards the 1940s, the shorts tend to drop of to give way to feature-length movies, but its perhaps in the earlier films where the greatest innovation is seen, challenging long-held beliefs that it was solely men who were responsible for modern cinematic language and techniques.

Finally, two British films round out our opening summary. June saw the welcome release of beloved Ealing comedy classic Kind Hearts and Coronets by Vintage Classics, while in July, Eureka continued its recent run of British war films with The Cockleshell Heroes. Kind Hearts proves just as deliciously dark as ever, losing none of its bite as the ambitious Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) works his way to inheritance by murdering twelve of his distant relatives, all played with comic relish by Alec Guinness. The Cockleshell Heroes is that standard British war film in which a plucky band of unlikely heroes get the better of Gerry through ingenuity, wit and grit. The politics of this release may well play differently now that on its 1955 release, though there’s no denying the swell of its old-fashioned adventuring.

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Dazed and Confused – 10 June (Criterion)

The teen film has had somewhat of a revival of late – 2017’s Lady Bird was followed this year by the poignant Eighth Grade and the hilarious Booksmart; this reissue of Richard Linklater’s seminal high school comedy is of a piece with the genre’s contemporary revival. It’s easy to read Dazed and Confused as the progenitor of later gross-out movies exemplified by the likes of American Pie, but its inter-generational wistfulness, willingness to examine varied expressions of frustrated masculinity, social cliques and the intensity of adolescent friendship puts it closer to something like TV’s Freaks and Geeks, or even Stranger Things.

A few elements have dated, particularly the relentless sexual harassment of women by the older boys – and the school and surrounding neighbourhood is predictably middle class and white, though the cast’s otherwise uniform heterosexuality is tempered somewhat by Anthony Rapp’s tender, sensitive Tony. Meanwhile, a very young Matthew McConaughey giving perhaps the definitive performance of that pitiable, all too familiar figure: the grown man who hangs around with teenagers to bolster his own, threadbare self-worth.

The Holy Mountain – 17 June (Eureka)

Arguably most notable for being the first on-screen appearance of Leni Riefenstahl, Arnold Fanck’s seminal mountain film is a work of sublime vision, hampered by rather plodding storytelling. Its opening dance sequence is a highlight, with Riefenstahl’s Diotima embodying the spirit of the sea, a force as powerful as the mountain range that features in the rest of the film.

While Diotima exists in harmony with nature, her male lover, Karl (Luis Trenker), seeks only to dominate and possess it – and symbolically her – by scaling the mountains of his home. When he mistakes her platonic affections for his best friend Vigo (Ernst Petersen) for mutual love, what better way to defeat him than to scale the mountain with him in a pure test of masculinity? Yet when Vigo slips on the mountain’s edge at the moment of confrontation, their fraternal love is laid bare, alas too late to save Vigo. The shadow hanging over the film, of course, is Riefenstahl’s later association with the Nazis. This is contextualised in an impressive, three-hour documentary that sets her naturalist work against her film career and its profoundly troubling politics.

Last Hurrah for Chivalry and Hand of Death: Two Films by John Woo – 24 June (Eureka)

Largely responsible for the aesthetic and style of modern action films, John Woo, with contemporaries Jackie Chan and Yuen Woo-Ping, transposed the balletic sensibility of Hong Kong wuxia – historical or fantasy martial arts – cinema on to American hero narratives. Eureka’s latest Hong Kong set showcases Woo before he made the move to doves, dual gunplay and slow motion, with two of his earliest films in the wuxia tradition. Both entries are superb showcases for Woo’s talent as an action director, though Last Hurrah for Chivalry is the superior film, both in terms of its beautiful choreography, colourful, clean soundstage design, and its liberal use of cardinal-red blood across the screen. The plot, involving local lords, vengeance and endless betrayals is the kind of boilerplate stuff that is standard for the genre, but this barely registers against all the high-flung melodrama and breathtaking action.

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Swing Time – 8 July (Criterion)

Showcasing stars Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers at the height of their powers, George Stevens’ 1936 Swing Time remains a riotously good time, equal parts Busby Berkeley-esque musical and screwball comedy, topped off with Astaire and Roger’s mesmeric dance choreography. The story is a cinch: light and straightforward but not disposable, endearing us to Astaire’s slightly goofy grifter Lucky Garnett, while Rogers exudes irresistible moxy as dance teacher Penny.

It’s a well-worn truism that Rogers did everything that Astaire did but backwards and in heels, but it really is mesmerising watching their symbiosis as dancers and performers. The clincher is David Abel’s exquisite cinematography, shooting at a distance medium shots and long takes that that privileges the precise movement of their bodies, we’re held in time and emotion with our heroes.

As fun as Lucky’s gambles and schemes are, it’s the dancing we’ve come for, the highlight being, naturally, the climactic, semi-abstract number between the pair on an enormous soundstage. The scene also reprises Astaire’s earlier version “The Way You Look Tonight” – arguably the most perfect rendition of that song, or perhaps any jazz piece – in narrative film.

Romance – 15 July (Second Sight)

Of the three releases in July from Second Sight, Catherine Breillat’s 1999 erotic thriller is easily the most provocative – no mean feat when up against the label’s two 1970s British horror releases (reviewed below). Caroline Ducey skulks through her performance as Marie, frustrated by her boyfriend’s lack of interest in her and driven to experiment sexually in increasingly adventurous episodes. As Marie explores her sexuality, the cinematography and set design gradually morphs from the cold, glassy surfaces of the apartment she shares with Paul (Sagamore Stévenin), to the deep tones of BDSM practitioner Robert’s (François Berléand) stylishly-furnished apartment and the sensuality of the ropes he uses to bind Marie.

Twenty years on, the explicit sex is still surprising, though perhaps not as jaw-dropping as on its debut. More shocking today is its suggestions of a grey area between consent and sexual assault. For example, an episode in which Marie freaks out after Robert binds and gags her, and later, a brief encounter with a stranger on a staircase that begins consensually and quickly turns to rape, never to be mentioned again. The queasiness of the latter scene is given a new dimension in the disc’s interview with Ducey, who implies that the non-professional actor picked up at a local swingers’ club – and whose ethnicity she apparently deems relevant – didn’t understand sexual boundaries himself. Meanwhile, Breillat’s approach to the film – auteurish from her perspective, tyrannical from Ducey’s – heightens the erotic, problematic texture of the film.

Coming Home – 15 July (Eureka)

The big ‘Nam films – Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, Platoon – all deal with the immediate horrors of war. Meanwhile, there are plenty of post-Vietnam films that can be read explicitly or implicitly as coded responses to the war – see most American genre cinema in the 70s and 80s. Yet there are surprisingly few films that deal as directly and realistically about the consequences on Vietnam veterans as Hal Ashby’s 1978 piece, Coming Home.

Framed around a love triangle between Bruce Dern’s All-American Marine Captain Bob Hyde, his wife Sally (Jane Fonda), and maimed Sergeant Luke Martin (Jon Voight), Coming Home is a humane examination of the costs of war that go beyond the battlefield. The film is not so much interested in the rights or wrongs of the conflict itself, but in the feelings of the men pushed through its grinder as they enter in one end and emerge from the other. The prelude, in which real vets discuss their reasons for wanting to go in the first place, is tremendously powerful. Meanwhile, the final sequence has Voight warning high school kids to be careful of recruitment sergeants selling them patriotic dreams is intercut with Dern and Fonda coming to terms with their parts in all this.

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Come Back To The Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean – 22 July (Eureka)

Film adaptations of plays can be an odd thing, not least because the media are so closely related. Hew too near to the source material and your picture becomes stagey, begging the question of why you’ve bothered to adapt it all. Stray too far from the text, broadening the canvas to something more cinematic, and you lose the essence of what made the material appealing in the first place.

Based on Ed Gracyk’s 1976 play, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean doubles down on its theatrical origins, not only confining the action to a single set, as in the play, but also by consciously using theatrical devices, such as having characters look off stage/screen to describe events happening out of sight, and two way mirrors to convey changes in space or time. Yet, far from feeling beholden to its theatrical origins, the conscious artifice of Robert Altman’s film becomes an exercise in dreaming, a nostalgic memory of a memory that works perfectly in tandem with its story of small-town regret, faded romance and enduring complex female friendship. Cher was arguably never more nuanced an actor than in her lead role here, and for a modern audience, this 1982 film is refreshingly progressive on issues such as homosexuality and transgender experience.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch – 22 July (Criterion)

A fortuitous coincidence sees Jimmy Dean’s release date paired with Criterion’s edition of John Cameron Mitchell’s 2001 film. Adapted from his stage musical of the same name, Mitchell writes, directs and stars in this blazing drama which has lost none of its punkish fire in the eighteen years since its release. Channelling some serious John Waters energy, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is about a rock band headed by the transgender Hedwig (Mitchell) on their last legs, while Hedwig’s former lover Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), rides high on success after stealing their songs.

Hedwig tells her story through performances in dingy mid-western diners and to her hardcore of fans, half-cut on vodka. Her origins as a boy growing up in East Berlin, self-discovery through music and sex, and body trauma at the hands of an incompetent gender-reassignment surgeon (hence the eponymous angry inch) hit notes both of whimsy and tragedy, while Hedwig’s telling of her own legend signals the primacy of subjective experience and self-definition. While Mitchell astonishes in a transformative, vulnerable role, Miriam Shor is equally heartbreaking as a devoted bandmate and partner Yitzhak – clearly deeply in love with Hedwig yet sidelined with her obsession in seeking revenge on Gnosis.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – 22 July (Eureka)

Has there ever been a more humane voice in American cinema than Elia Kazan? The Turkish-born Greek director’s films were sometimes susceptible to emotional simplicity, and he was undoubtedly a sentimental filmmaker, yet Kazan’s cinema was deeply empathetic. Indeed, while other directors were hawking fantasies of the American West, and the avant-garde set were revelling in the imminent self-consumption of the studio system, Kazan was few among filmmakers to give figure to modern, working-class Americana.

His first feature is neither as iconic as On the Waterfront, nor as satiric as A Face in the Crowd, yet Kazan never bettered its uncomplicated, sincere humanity. Based on the popular novel by Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is set among the impoverished tenements of 1912 Brooklyn. Francie Nolan (Peggy Ann Garner) is the oldest of two children, while her alcoholic father scrapes a living as a musician and her mother (Dorothy McGuire) picks up the pieces, forced into the role of mean parent to James Dunn’s fun, feckless father. Though based on a novel, the film’s blocking and mostly interior set design are more suggestive of a stage adaptation, even down to the eponymous tree, oft gazed on by the cast but never seen on screen. Doubtless a consequence of budgetary constraints, the result is a tight focus on character and visual nuance over grandeur: the ominous bedtime exchange, for example, between Francie and her father, and two complementary and utterly devastating sequences on the tenement rooftop. These scenes are all testaments to strife, optimism and community and are as much cinema as we could possibly need.

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Asylum and The House that Dripped Blood – 29 July (Second Sight)

Operating in the same era as Hammer, Britain’s ‘other’ major horror studio of the 1950s to the 1970s, shared actors, visual styles and Gothic-inspired stories. While older studio Hammer largely adapted classic Gothic literature and remakes of the old Universal pictures, Amicus Productions’ USP was its contemporary-set portmanteau films. Second Sight presents two of those pictures in The House That Dripped Blood and Asylum, the former being the better-known and finer film of the two. 

Both feature a similar spine-story structure, using a central narrative to spin-off otherwise unrelated short films. While Asylum features some pretty effective stories – the dismembered body of a murdered wife reanimating to exact her revenge on her husband and his mistress being one highlight – the eponymous asylum story ultimately gets in it own way, leading to a somewhat dreary, predictable climax. Happily, The House That Dripped Blood is a bouncier, less gloomy affair, balancing genuine scares and winking humour with an assured hand. John Pertwee’s vampiric dalliance pushes the film to almost silly-excess, but a few affectionate jibes at rival studio Hammer and the unashamed bawdiness of Ingrid Pitt’s formidable talents prove much too fun not to enjoy the ride.

A Blonde in Love – 29 July (Second Run)

Finishing off this round up is a near-perfect slice of Czech social realism from Miloš Forman, with his 1965 A Blonde in Love. British audiences raised on the likes of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning will find much to admire and recognise, here.  Andula (Hana Brejchová) is stuck in a small town which, thanks to Eastern bloc social planning, has a population of women far in excess of its men. As a consequence, even the gormless, middle-aged men shipped in to alleviate the problem become highly prized to the town’s female inhabitants.

Nevertheless, Andula seems to be doing alright for herself, recounting tales to her friend of having at least two men on the go. Yet the crushing inevitability of her future, stuck forever in a repetitive factory job, pursued by leering older men and let down by callow boys looking for transitory thrills, is clear even from the diegetic pop song of the opening credits. Two sequences signal this perfectly: the first, a hilarious and tender scene in which Andula sleeps with a boy who wrestles nude with itinerant window blind, is followed by an equally comic incident, with Andula turning up at his family home to be admonished by his short-tempered mother and eventually disavowed by him. Yet in the second scene, the comedy of Andula’s adventures in love swiftly transforms into tragedy, tainted with the slow, inescapable creep of social and economic entrapment.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell