Jun 17, 2019

10 Years of Arrow Video, 10 Recommendations.

My film fandom covers many things. I’m a fan of actors, of directors, of cinematographers, of genres, but my interest in Arrow has been the first time that I’ve specifically been a fan of a distributor. As a lover of all things horror and exploitation, I fell in love with them and began, in a low key way, collecting their releases in their early years. They’ve diversified, moving beyond but never abandoning the reissued video nasties and other Italian horror that formed many of their early outings, but always sticking to what seems to be the guiding principle of providing the best available prints and as many relevant extras as they can pack a disc out with.

With this in mind, and Arrow’s 10th anniversary sale on now, I thought I would recommend 10 titles I love from their immense and excellent back catalogue.

The Beyond
The video nasties were my way into horror cinema and my way into Arrow. This release was probably the moment I decided I would start keeping an eye on Arrow as a label. I’d seen The Beyond on several DVD releases, but this uncut and spotless edition brought out, better than ever before, the hypnotic dreamlike quality of Lucio Fulci’s visuals for the film and sucked my right into its surreal world along with Catriona MacColl and David Warbeck. An essential piece of Italian horror and British censorship history given the best release it had ever had.

Blood Hunger: The Films of Jose Larraz Boxset
When I was a teenager, there was a series on Channel 4 in the UK called Eurotika. Late on a Friday night they would show a short documentary on an exploitation filmmaker, a reel of exploitation trailers and a film by the director profiled in the documentary. This is how I discovered Jose Larraz and later his beautifully shot, and rather haunting, erotic horror movie Vampyres. Arrow’s recent, and essential, boxset bundles the best ever version of that film with two of Larraz’ others: his debut, Whirlpool and The Coming of Sin, an image from which fascinated me when I saw it all those years ago on Eurotika and has always stuck with me. All of them are making their UK Blu Ray debut here. To my mind, this is a perfect example of a filmmaker too often overlooked because of the genre he worked in finally getting the treatment his work merits.

The greatest American horror film of the 90s? Certainly you could make a solid argument for it. What sets Candyman apart from the other films about famous horror boogeymen is how deeply the screenplay engages with politics (something the Jordan Peele produced reboot, due next year, will carry over). This is as much a film about race and gentrification as it is about a monster with a hook, today it feels as relevant as it ever has, if not more so. Again, Arrow’s beautiful boxset edition massively exceeds any previous release, including two cuts of the film, three shorts by Bernard Rose and a stunning 40 page booklet full of storyboards.

The first Stephen King adaptation and still, to my mind, the best by a distance. Carrie is brilliant on multiple levels; it works as pure horror, as a reflection on the high school experience and as a showcase for the brilliantly sustained performances of Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, as well as for Brian DePalma’s direction. Unfortunately the beautiful boxset that Arrow put out isn’t available any more, but the standalone disc is, and that boasts the same stunning transfer (miles ahead of the previous blu ray) and contextualising extras both archival and newly produced.

Crimson Peak
If it’s not quite Guillermo Del Toro’s best film, his ‘gothic romance’ ghost story is by a distance his most underestimated and another stunning boxset from Arrow provides the opportunity for an already overdue reassessment. I love everything about it, from the customarily stunning and incredibly detailed design, to Jessica Chastain’s glorious scenery chomping as Tom Hiddleston’s sinister sister. The beauty carries over into Arrow’s packaging of the film in a presentation box, I only wish it creaked as you open it, just to add to the creepy feel of the whole thing.

Female Prisoner Scorpion Boxset
I had seen the first of this series a few years prior, but it was through Arrow and their releases that I properly discovered Meiko Kaji. Kaji was a notable  presence in Japanese exploitation cinema in the seventies and, for my money, one of the purest movie stars we’ve ever seen on screen. There are plenty of good actors, but few true movie stars - the people who walk on screen and own every frame they are in, inextricably drawing your eye. Kaji is one of those people. These films, with her as the vengeful Sasori, are driven increasingly by her physical presence - by the end of the fourth film, Grudge Song, she’s no longer a character but a pure force of nature. The visuals are powerful and often striking,but it’s Kaji who makes these films extraordinary.

Hounds of Love
Serial killer films are one of my favourite horror sub-genres for one simple reason: the fact people like this actually exist in the world make those movies scarier than, say, one about a boogeyman that kills you in your dreams. One of Arrow’s still relatively rare releases of a brand new film, Hounds of Love is one that can stand alongside true classics like The Black Panther and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. An Australian film based on a real case from the 80s, it’s a stunning directorial debut for Ben Young, whose opening sequence alone - essentially the film in miniature in 10 minutes - serves notice that he could be a major figure to watch. Likewise, the performances from Stephen Curry and a pitiable yet terrifying Emma Booth are revelatory.

The Lickerish Quartet
Of the three Radley Metzger films released by Arrow, this is by far the best. A surreal softcore drama that is as much about storytelling and filmmaking as it is about titillation (though it doesn't skimp on that). It's about a family who go to fairground and end up bringing home a beautiful motorcycle stunt rider who looks exactly like the woman in a porn film they were watching earlier. Dealing with perception and how we interpret cinema, it's the film that best shows off Metzger as not just a craftsman but an auteur, elevating what might, in other hands, just be smut. This isn't one of the most comprehensive Arrow disc, but it was an introduction to a film and a filmmaker who I have come to be a great fan of. This may be the film I have become most evangelical about, having first seen it via Arrow.

Joe Dante is one of the great genre filmmakers, for over 40 years now he has been remixing his influences into a truly distinctive filmography with a wit that is totally specific to him. This is clearly his most personal film, and for me his best. A charming coming of age movie about a kid who loves monster movies getting to meet his idol (a producer played by John Goodman as an amalgam of William Castle and Alfred Hitchcock) when he premieres his new film in Key West the weekend of the Cuban missile crisis, Matinee is Dante's most devoted love letter to cinema and what it means to those of us who find solace and escape in it. The film packs so much into under 100 minutes; a sweet romance, political commentary, hilarious B movie parodies and so much more. The Blu Ray is similarly brilliant, presenting the film with plenty of extras and, for the first time on UK home formats, in its proper ratio. 

Psycho II
Delayed sequels and reboots are popular among studios at the moment, but they don't always seem like a good idea. This would seem to be the grand champion of terrible and pointless sequel ideas. How could you possibly, 23 years on and without Alfred Hitchcock, continue Psycho? Tom Holland's screenplay and Richard Franklin's direction square the circle brilliantly, paying tribute but always making sure to do more than slavishly homage, cutting their own path and bringing the film into the 80s, using the greater freedom they have to show violence and blood. Perhaps even more importantly, they find  an interesting direction for Norman Bates' story, making him a somewhat sympathetic figure and drawing a performance every bit as brilliant as in the original from Anthony Perkins. I was so happy when Arrow announced this film, as I'd been championing it since the first time I'd seen it and was glad that it would not only get an HD release, but the deluxe treatment.

The Witch Who Came From The Sea
The first volume of the American Horror Project, containing this, Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood and The Premonition, may be long deleted, but the single disc release of The Witch Who Came From The Sea remains an essential piece of any horror fan’s collection. The story comes off like a video nasty version of To Die For, as a television obsessed woman (played by Millie Perkins, who was Anne Frank in the 50s film), traumatised by her childhood, begins to lose her grip on reality and starts murdering men. Confrontational at times, hypnotic at others and driven by impressive, sometimes surreal, visuals from Dean Cundey (later DP to Spielberg and Carpenter) and an astounding performance from Perkins, this is a true original. The fact we still have this film, which could easily have disappeared, is reason enough to be thankful the video nasties list existed.

Also Recommended: Combat Shock [DVD only], Don't Torture a Duckling, The Last American Virgin, The Last House on the Left boxset, Night of the Comet, Spider Baby, Stray Cat Rock boxset, Suture, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Vigil

Jun 6, 2019

X-Men: Dark Phoenix [12A] [2D]

Dir: Simon Kinberg
There is no denying that the original X-Men film helped kickstart a revolution in mainstream cinema. Yes, Blade had helped rehabilitate the superhero movie somewhat, but for the mass audience it was the success of X-Men that repopularised the genre and its sequels and spin offs that acted as some level of proof of concept for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is rather ironic that a series about mutants - frequently spoken of as the next stage in human evolution - has, in the space of 19 years, gone from looking groundbreaking to being desperately outpaced by the things that evolved from it.

I’ve always felt that the third of the initial trilogy, The Last Stand, got something of a raw deal from critics and audiences. It’s not so much a truly bad film as it is one that ended up chaotic. It has too many ideas - many of them good - and is unable to pay most of them off in a satisfactory way, and the behind the scenes ructions (including a late director change) can’t have helped. For many of the fans of the comics though, the film’s greatest sin was squandering the legendary Dark Phoenix storyline, which stretched through multiple years in the comics. It’s no surprise that with the timeline reboot provided by Days of Future Past, there would be another attempt to adapt this storyline. What is perhaps surprising is just how much worse than the last attempt Dark Phoenix turns out to be.

This continuity of X-Men films, begun with 2010’s First Class,  is now four films old and fatigue had seemed to set in with the last entry, 2016’s Apocalypse. In that film Jennifer Lawrence, as Mystique, seemed particularly checked out, almost certainly aware that her career had long since passed the point at which she needed these films. For Dark Phoenix, the virus has spread, infecting not just the veteran cast but most of the new faces added for Apocalypse. This isn’t the worst film you’ll see this year (it’s not the worst film you can see this weekend), but it is the one with the strongest and most pervasive whiff of contractual obligation. None of the main cast seems invested in the story they are telling here, which leads to the whole thing feeling dry and bloodless, like watching the actors walk through blocking, speaking their lines out loud but seldom putting emotion or intention behind them.

This is, unfortunately, notably true of Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, on whom the entire plot turns. Let’s forget that we clearly saw her Phoenix persona manifest at the end of Apocalypse (Simon Kinberg, who wrote both films and makes his directorial debut with this one, certainly has), here the power that she incubates after it crashes through her during a space rescue mission appears to be something that feeds on her pain. This is something we can infer from the story, but less often from Turner’s frequently blank-faced work. The relationship between her and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), barely developed in the previous film, isn’t remotely convincing, and that too should be an emotional fulcrum for the film, especially in its third act. Scenes between Turner and Jessica Chastain should be compelling, with Chastain at first seeming to be a mentor figure but lusting after the power that Jean contains, unfortunately these moments too are painfully dull. There is likely a lot of material with Chastain on the cutting room floor, all that remains is the barest hint of a motive and an origin for her character, but she is hopelessly under served by what remains of her story arc, and looks like she’s well aware of the fact.

Aside from the cast appearing bored and the obvious swathes of cuts to get this down to 114 minutes (Apocalypse and Days of Future Past both came in around 140), there are sticking point in the form of the chasmic logic gaps in the timeline of these films. First Class was set in 1962 and with each film set roughly a decade later we have now ended up in 1992. Obviously some mutants age more slowly thanks to their powers (this was something specified about Mystique), but most don’t and we’ve previously seen that Professor X and Magneto (again played by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) clearly don’t. They should both be around 60 at the time of this film and there is no effort made to give them or any of the other characters any sort of ageing make up. Obviously heavy prosthetics aren’t much fun to wear and impact on your shooting schedule, but a little nod in the direction of making them look, at the very least, older than they did thirty years ago in movie time, would be both welcome and much less distracting.

Kinberg’s work feels as nonchalant as that of most of his cast. The writing is functional at best. He struggles to combine the various storylines interestingly and hardly manages to find any personality in the characters, especially the newer ones. As a director, he makes a resolutely middle of the road debut. This is too expensive a film with too big and professional a crew to look anything other than proficient, but Kinberg stamps no directorial authority on it, finds no interesting or provocative images, there’s nothing individual in his approach to either character or action. 

There are a few minor plus sides here. Michael Fassbender, even when disinterested, is too good an actor not to have a few compelling moments. Any emotional weight in the film comes from him in relation to the fate of a another character and the lengths it drives him to. The only person who seems to actually be enjoying himself is Kodi Smit-McPhee, whose performance as Nightcrawler is a genuine and much needed bright spot and whose powers, while not used as well as in X2’s opening sequence, lead to easily the film’s best action. While it’s neutered by the utter lack of stakes, there is at least some visceral enjoyment to be had from the climactic action set piece on a train, finally unleashing all the characters’ powers in an extended action sequence. 

That, sadly, is about all the good news. It’s not just that X-Men: Dark Phoenix is bad - though it is. The real disappointment is that after such a promising start for this cast and this section of the X-Men movie universe, this is the end. 19 years, a dozen films and rather than the truly earned climax that the MCU’s first decade went out on, this series ends with a pitiful whimper.

Jun 5, 2019

Godzilla: King of the Monsters [12A] [2D]

Dir: Michael Dougherty
Having only seen the very first of the Japanese Godzilla series, I can’t claim to know a lot about kaiju films, but I know a terrible blockbuster when I see one. Whether it desecrates its sources or does full justice to them, on its own merits Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a giant-sized, nuclear fire breathing catastrophe.

The 2014 reboot of Godzilla was an attempt to reclaim the English language interpretation of the monster franchise from the godawful silliness of Roland Emmerich’s 1998 take. In its favour, it had a decent cast and an admirable attempt to treat the idea seriously. On the other hand, it was only barely a Godzilla film, focusing most of its attention on underdeveloped human characters and consistently cutting away from the monster fights (which were generally viewed from a distance and through a hazy picture). These issues were all raised and it looked from the trailers as though King of the Monsters was going to see the filmmakers throwing up their hands, copping to their mistakes and performing a course correction. Never believe trailers.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is essentially a doubling down on every single thing about the 2014 film. Exceptional cast: Check. We’ve got Vera Farmiga, Kyle Chandler, Millie Bobby Brown, Ken Watanabe, Ziyi Zhang, O’Shea Jackson Jr, Bradley Whitford and a ridiculous cast list besides. Now, can we find them a script even stupider, with characters even less worth caring about than last time? You bet we can. Intelligence may not always be the first thing one looks for in a blockbuster screenplay, but King of the Monsters writing is thunderingly stupid from concept on down. For all the exposition, the plot couldn't matter less (which Is why I've not offered the usual summary). The character motivations seldom make sense, the science, even within the world of the film, seems bafflingly nonsensical and the dialogue is abysmal be it raw exposition or ‘character’ based. Still, who cares about the humans? We’re here for the monsters. If only the film were too. Not only is the vast bulk of the 131 minute running time given over to the by turns tedious and cloying human stories, when the film does deliver on the promise of its monsters it is, once again, pitifully underwhelming. 

There is a certain charm to the shonky practical effects of the Japanese Kaiju films, they may not be convincing, but they are physically real and thus they have presence that CGI never quite manages, but that’s far from the biggest issue at play here. I can’t speak to whether the designs of the various monsters stick close to their original looks, but they are largely fairly grey and dull. Godzilla himself is the biggest problem in this respect; until he lights up with his blue fire, he’s a greyish brown pile of pixels that lumbers across the screen. If anything he looks worse on the few occasions the film cuts in close to him, with facial design that makes it appear as though he’s always squinting, which isn’t the most intimidating look for a monster. 

As well as them often looking bad, the film uses the monsters poorly. Director Michael Dougherty continues the tactic of Gareth Edwards’ 2014 film in that he frequently cuts away from the monster battles just as they threaten to be fun, returning us to ground level and the dullard humans we’re supposedly invested in. The few extended battles that are allowed to play out are often tough to see, with darkness, wind, rain, debris and dust amounting to a haze of digital noise that we have to peer through to figure out what we’re watching. Add this to the lack of any presence - in terms of character or physicality - behind the monsters and what these sections of the film amount to is watching someone play an advanced videogame in a thunderstorm.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a criminally wasteful film, handed a hugely talented cast and an estimated $200 million budget only to do nothing with it other than loudly announce its own colossally pointless existence.