Archive for August, 2013
Saturday, August 31st, 2013
A Bay of Blood
by Troy Howarth
Directed by Mario Bava
Starring Claudine Auger, Luigi Pistilli, Claudio Volonte, Leopoldo Trieste, Laura Betti, Chris Avram, Anna M. Rosati, Brigitte Skay, Isa Miranda
The murder of a reclusive countess (Isa Miranda) sets off a literal chain reaction of violent death, as her greedy heirs fight and claw to take possession of her desirable bayside estate…
1971 was a banner year for controversial subject matter in the cinema. Sam Peckinpah and Stanley Kubrick, expatriate American filmmakers working in the UK, unleashed Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange, respectively. In the US, Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry was targeted by critics as “fascist,” while William Friedkin’s kinetic The French Connection would work in a similar style and subject matter, garnering Best Picture and Best Director Oscars in the process. Britain’s favorite “bad boy” filmmaker Ken Russell would take the brunt of the criticism, however, for his powerful plea for the separation of church and state, The Devils. Meanwhile, in Italy, Mario Bava responded to the trend towards more colorfully explicit thrillers, as popularized by his youthful “disciple” Dario Argento, by making Reazione a catena (Chain Reaction). The film was far and away Bava’s goriest film to date, and it would be released under a myriad of titles, including Ecologia del delitto (Ecology of a Crime), Twitch of the Death Nerve, Carnage, Last House Part 2, and A Bay of Blood, among others. No matter what title you see the film under, it would prove to be a film of surprising longevity and influence, even if its impact was not always properly cited.
The film is a continuation of the themes established in Bava’s earlier, seminal gialli, such as Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970). A group of morally reprehensible characters stab each other in the back (literally and figuratively) in order to get their hands on a piece of property – that’s pretty much the long and the short of it. Bava dispenses with the usual whodunit clichés early on, by panning up from one corpse to the black gloved hands of their assailant – this is where most other directors would have stopped, but Bava then proceeds to pan up further, thus revealing the face of the killer for all to see; this is surprising enough, but the director manages to work in yet another whammy by his THIS killer gorily dispatched by another assailant. In short, this isn’t so much a whodunit as it is a “how are they gonna get it.” Taking his cue from the more elaborate murder set pieces of younger directors like Argento and Lucio Fulci, Bava outdoes the competition by delivering a film which serves up one gory murder scene after the next. The director’s elegant sense of composition and camerawork gives the film a slick, artful sheen, and his macabre sense of humor, with heavy emphasis on irony, transforms the film into yet another dark comedy about greed, Bava style.
The excellent cast is headed by Claudine Auger and Luigi Pistilli. Auger, best known for her role as Domino in the James Bond film Thunderball (1965), would go on to play a key role in another seminal giallo of the period, Paolo Cavara’s Black Belly of the Tarantula (1972). Pistilli was already a fixture in the genre, but reached his widest international audience in such Spaghetti Westerns as Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) and Giulio Petroni’s Death Rides a Horse (1968). They are excellent as the ill matched couple, with Auger providing one of Bava’s most memorably venomous femme fatale types. Their relationship offers something of a contemporary spin on Shakespeare’s Macbeth (itself made as yet another controversial 1971 item, by Roman Polanski), with Auger’s pushy, power-mad wife acting as a Lady Macbeth to Pistilli’s ambivalent and confused Macbeth. Leopoldo Trieste (Fellini’s I Vitelloni and Coppola’s Godfather Part 2) and Laura Betti (earlier in Bava’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon) nearly steal the show, however, as the even more ill-matched medium and her henpecked, entomologist husband. Bava was himself trapped in an unhappy marriage, and as such, unhappy couplings such as this could be read as an autobiographical flourish on his part. Claudio Volonte, the brother of the famed Italian actor Gian Maria Volonte, is also impressive as the most aggressively sadistic character of the lot.
Bava’s artful lighting and fluid camerawork is sometimes compromised by an overreliance on the zoom lens, and the narrative slows down during a digression involving some horny teens who get mixed up in the action – but it has to be said, it’s this element which most closely links the film with the slasher films which would later take some influence from it. Indeed, some critics have argued that Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980) is a literal carbon copy of this picture. Cunningham has always denied seeing it, but given that it was later acquired by his company, Hallmark Releasing, and issued under the fraudulent title of Last House Part 2 – despite having been made a full year before Cunningham and Wes Craven’s watershed exploitation item, The Last House on the Left – this denial seems suspect at best. That being said, it would be unfair and more than a little unrealistic to suggest that Friday the 13th was a wholesale rip off of Bava’s dark comedy. Yes, there are elements in common – the setting, the horny teens, even the death of copulating lovers skewered together by a spear (this would be borrowed for Friday the 13th Part 2) – but the two films are also very dissimilar. For one thing, Cunningham’s movie really IS a whodunit – a fact which fans who grew up on a slew of Jason Voorhees sequels tend to forget. For another, Cunningham’s film is far more serious in tone – not to mention, also being far more judgmental of its characters. Friday the 13th would become a favorite target of critics who despised the slasher genre’s convention of linking premarital sex with violent death – but this was never really a dimension which applied to Bava’s work. Indeed, for all the violence and amoral characters which populate his work, Bava is note worthy for being very non-judgmental towards his characters – they may deserve what they have coming to them, but like an anthropologist studying a strange culture, Bava’s point of view is detached and steers clear of encouraging the viewer to look with contempt upon them; they simply behave as they’ve been programmed, as it were.
Despite some missteps here and there, A Bay of Blood remains one of Bava’s most enjoyable works. The film’s impact is greatly aided by a terrific soundtrack by Stelvio Cipriani - the first of several that he would compose for the director. Unfortunately, the film failed to find much attention or acclaim upon release, thus ensuring that he remained a less viable box office force than Argento. He would go from this most modern of his works to a Gothic throwback (Baron Blood) before suffering the double whammy of seeing his most personal (Lisa and the Devil, 1972) and experimental (Rabid Dogs, 1974) of his works being denied distribution for one reason or another. After that, his output began to slow down… and he would die in 1980, long before his work would become embraced and revered not only for its own particular qualities but for its impact on the work of so many other filmmakers.
A Bay of Blood has had a complex history on digital home video. The original Image DVD release suffered from a horribly warped and distorted soundtrack. An Italian DVD release offered an improved soundtrack but a much inferior video transfer. Anchor Bay got things closer to perfection when they issued the film to DVD as part of the second Mario Bava box set collection – but the transfer was a little muddy, and the audio was still a little tinny. In 2010, the film became the first of Bava’s films to hit blu ray when Arrow released their Region A-B-C edition. Though kitted out with some nice bonus materials, it offered a very sharp – but rather pale looking transfer. Kino have been regularly trailing Arrow when it comes to issuing the best editions of Bava’s work on blu ray, but here they had the advantage of allowing Arrow to go first – and as such, they managed to learn from the UK company’s error by issuing a far more handsome transfer. The 1.78/16×9/1080p transfer is certainly the best of Kino’s Bava releases to date – and it can join Black Sabbath from Arrow as arguably the best looking Bava blu ray transfer to date. The image is sharp and detailed throughout. Black levels are deep and stable, and the colors are appropriately vivid – this is not one of Bava’s ultra baroque films, so don’t expect the kind of color gels that one would associate from Black Sabbath or The Whip and the Body, for example. Even so, the reds are far more vivid here than they were on the Arrow edition – and red is a very important film in this extremely bloody film’s color scheme. The film is presented essentially uncut – I emphasize essentially, as the film fades to the final “The End” card sooner than usual – and the delirious end title cue by Cipriani fades out and is not allowed to play out as it has in other editions. Beyond that, the blood, gore and nudity is all fully intact.
Happily, this is the best this film has ever sounded – the mono English dub is very good, with Cipriani’s music coming off without distortion for once. This was a rare example of Bava shooting dialogue in two different versions – once in English and once in Italian, so it would not be authentic to offer an Italian track as an option in this context.
Kino have done the next best thing, however, which is to present the entire Italian language version of the film – bearing the onscreen title Reazione a Catena (Ecologia del delitto) – as an extra. The two edits are basically identical, but the Italian version preserves the final shot as intended, and goes to an end credit crawl which was never included in the English prints – this allows Cipriani’s cue to play out as intended, however. Dialogue scenes are every so subtly different, and the English subtitles point out some differences in the dialogue. The Italian version is presented in SD and looks much rougher than the English version, but it’s nice to finally have it presented on American video. In addition to the Italian edit, there are also some trailers, and a commentary by Tim Lucas which dates from the Anchor Bay release. Lucas offers a wealth of information – and in fairnesss, it has to be noted that he gets a couple of things wrong, as well, such as attributing the score for Bava’s comic western Roy Colt & Winchester Jack (1969) to Cipirani, or asserting that this was the first film Bava directed since The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1962) which credited him as director of photography – he was also credited as such on Hatchet for the Honeymoon – but these are minor quibbles in an otherwise immaculately researched track.
Film: ****1/2 out of *****
Video: **** out of *****
Audio: ***1/2 out of *****
Extras: ***** out of *****
Saturday, August 31st, 2013
Stars: Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley, Ian McShane, James Fox, Amanda Redman, Cavan Kendall
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Released by Twilight Time
Limited Edition of 3,000 units
Available at screenarchives.com
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin
This is a marvelous drama and a powerful British gangster film. The story of the retired criminal being coerced back into action for one last job is common. The retired man who just wants to go quietly on with the rest of his life and forget the things in his sordid past is also very familiar. However this time out there is a love story and an oddly attractive essay on retirement all done with a very artful hand. There is some obvious but playful foreshadowing and a few blasts of time shifting that practically yank the clutch out of the floorboards. Director Jonathan Glazer has a very adult style. He’ll give us artful compositions and imaginative editing but is not at all averse to having two good actors pull up a chair next to each other and just go at it.
Ray Winstone made his debut in the controversial and violent tale of the British juvenile delinquent system, Scum (1979). He’s a big guy who can easily be very threatening. But here we see him laying out poolside like one of those gorgeous looking travel ads in the Sunday New York Times magazine section. We see Gal relaxing, cooking actually at his Spanish villa. It is simply beautiful. He goes on in a voice over about the heat. Everything is slow and tranquil. Then a huge boulder comes down out of nowhere, narrowly misses him and smashes deep into the pool tearing up the bottom. He’ll have to have that fixed. Gal lives an idyllic life with his wife and another couple there. He is retired and living the good life. However another boulder rolls into his life in the form of an old partner in crime. He wants Gal to come out of retirement for one last job and he won’t take no for an answer.
Before we even see Ben Kingsley as Don Logan we hear about him for a half hour. It’s the kind of build up used in horror movies. He’s a short guy, small even. But he moves like a live wire all anxious and full of bursts of emotion. For the first few moments when he arrives at the luxurious Spanish villa he behaves himself but it is clear everyone is afraid of him. When he finally gets Gal alone out by the pool he is the epitome of confrontation. He badgers. He pushes. He’s arrogant, assaultive. You just want him out of there. He simply won’t go. He is relentless, like a boulder that sits in your beautiful swimming pool. Don has a history with the wife of the other couple. He taunts Gal’s beautiful wife bringing up her tainted past as a woman who starred in adult films; films that still have a fan club that meets regularly. Kingsley seems to take a shot at everything near to him just by reflex.
Director Glazer takes us away from this pressure cooker to see the germination of this job that Don wants Gal to do so badly. Ian McShane plays Teddy who sits at the top of a group of very vicious criminals. He dresses immaculately and goes to very posh and nasty parties. When he finds out about a top of the line bank vault filled with safety deposit boxes belonging to an elite and rich cliental he has his next job targeted. Various events that will not be revealed lead us to see a group of men taking turns diving into a pool with scuba tanks and underwater work lights. They tunnel into the vaults letting the pool water short out the alarm system so they can smash into the individual boxes. They move silently underwater. This is the second time we’ve seen an intrusion into what should be a relaxed swimming pool. The criminal nature of the plot has to reach its conclusions. The escalating bullying of Kingsley’s Logan must be answered. Sexy Beast gives us a conclusion of ample merit. The drama and the crime narrative are each satisfied.
The casting in this film works very well. Every part is spot on. Naturally though the match up between Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley gets most of the attention. Kingsley was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. It’s a great role and he plays it with well thought out moves. His body language is telling. In one scene he berates himself in a mirror admonishing his reflection for having such a big mouth. With no one left in the room to intimidate he turns on himself. Another time in his friend’s bathroom he urinates on the floor, not so much to mark it like a dog but more like an obnoxious schoolboy’s prank. Ray Winstone gives us a man who must sit still, who has to take it for fear of what will happen to his wife and friends. We can see him visibly shaken. Can he reach back enough into his past to punish this man who threatens everything he has built? He’s clearly been a criminal. He wife also has a past. There is no telling what kind of back story the other couple has too. Yet, we’re rooting for them to get back to a night under the stars, drinking maybe a bit too much, dancing and falling asleep with the one you care about more than anything in the world.
This is a masterful film succeeding both as a compelling crime tale and a powerful dark drama with strong characters. The production design of the of the film complements the characters well. The two hearts at the bottom of the swimming pool for Gal and his wife are very sweet. They also play a pivotal role in the storyline that is very fitting.
Video – 1.78:1 and 2.35:1
Oddly there is a choice between two aspect ratios to watch the film. This is not the old case of widescreen on one side and the full screen TV mode on the other. Both are prepared wonderfully. Looking back you can see that the 1.78:1 seems to be the more prevalent version. To me the closer proximity to the actors is preferable. The artful compositions also seem to work better in that 1.78:1 format. But go ahead and try both. Colors are strong. Black levels are solid. Facial tones, even with those baked on tans look great. Detail is fine throughout. There are two to three very minor instances of dust or flaking in the print at the beginning that only last for a bare moment. It is unusual to see that in a recent film of this quality. I only mention it so you don’t think you are seeing things. Overall this is a quality transfer that is satisfying on all levels. The sun drenched bright exteriors look hot and terrific. The posh interiors in England look great as well as that scene of the gang tunneling underneath the pool with the work lights.
Audio – English track offered in 5.1 DTS and 2.0 DTS. Subtitles are offered in English SDH. The track sounds very nice in the 5.1 soundstage. Dialogue features strong accents which take some getting used to. Ray Winstone in particular may have some reaching for the handy subtitle option. It’s worth it not to miss the colorful language and numerous slang terms. Grabbing a bit of kip is catching another few winks in bed.
Extras – Twilight Time’s signature isolated soundtrack, Commentary with Kingsley and Jeremy Thomas, trailer and a making of featurette done when the film was made.
On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic
Movie – Excellent
Blu-Ray – Excellent
Friday, August 30th, 2013
Nurse Diary: Wicked Finger (1979)
by Troy Howarth
Directed by Shinichi Shiratori
Starring Etsuko Hara, Asami Ogawa, Hiroshi Unayama, Yasuko Arakawa
Nurse Ryoko (Etsuko Hara) is engaged in a relationship with one of the doctors at the hospital; problem is, he’s married – and word is about to get out to the wrong people…
This entry in the seemingly never-ending Nikkatsu franchise of erotic films is played strictly for laughs. Unfortunately, many of the jokes are stale and most of the cast confuses aggressive mugging for high comedy. The end result is one of the less satisfying entries, though it still has its moments here and there. Alas, the filmmakers again take a rather contemptuous attitude towards homosexuality, with the lesbian characters coming off as being “sick” – though this doesn’t stop the viewer from being encouraged to ogle as some Sapphic heavy petting unfolds on screen. Such bold faced hypocrisy is not uncommon in the “have your cake and eat it too” mentality of the sex film genre, but these Japanese entries tend to be a little more prurient in their mentality – a reflection of the culture’s uneasy relationship with “alternate lifestyles,” no doubt.
Among the cast, Etsuko Hara makes the best impression – no small relief, given that she is at the center of the story and appears in virtually every scene. She’s a beautiful and engaging presence and tends to play things a little more low key than the rest of her cast mates. Alas, most everybody else appears to have gotten the “pull a lot of faces” memo and taken it to heart. The result is plenty of strained, heavy handed slapstick and double takes. This broad overplaying undercuts the effectiveness of the most potentially effective gags, notably a bit with some masturbation gone awry involving a vacuum cleaner.
Director Shinichi Shiratori does a competent job with regards to keeping the pace moving, but beyond that he fails to show much flair with regards to comedy or eroticism. The sex scenes generate little heat, and only Hara’s natural good looks and apparent flexibility make much of an impression. Production values are good and there’s some attractive widescreen lensing on display, but overall this is a sexy comedy with very little wit and even less genuine eroticism.
Impulse, a division of Synapse, continues with their ongoing releases of the Nikkatsu erotic films collection. Nurse Diary: Wicked Finger marks their 16th such release, and like the 15 that came before it, this is a satisfying – albeit frills-free – release. The 2.35/16×9 transfer is struck from excellent source materials. The image is colorful and sharp throughout. There is no discernible wear and tear in the elements, though Impulse has again sensibly resisted the urge to reduce detail via heavy DNR application.
The mono Japanese soundtrack is in good shape, as well. Removable English subtitles are included and are clear and easy to read throughout.
The only extras are a theatrical trailer and some well researched liner notes by Japanese cinema scholar Jasper Sharp.
Film: ** out of *****
Video: **** out of *****
Audio: ***1/2 out of *****
Extras: ** out of *****
Thursday, August 29th, 2013
Horny Working Girl: From 5 to 9 (1982)
by Troy Howarth
Directed by Katsuhiko Fujii
Starring Junko Asahina, Nami Misaki, Yuki Yoshizawa
Three women get their revenge on their chauvinistic, sexually preoccupied employer…
Colin Higgins’ Nine to Five (1980) was a smash hit across the globe. The satirical look at office politics and fantasy revenge scenarios helped to make country music siren Dolly Parton into a box office super star – and her catchy title theme lit up the charts, as well. Inevitably, imitations and cash ins were bound to follow – including this entry in the Nikkatsu franchise of erotic films. Taking the same basic concept, director Katsuchiko Fujii ups the sexual ante considerably… well, it is a Nikkatsu film, afterall.
In place of Dabney Coleman’s cheerfully despicable, sexist boss figure in the American film, here we have one Mr. Makimara, whose brand of harassment is more of the sexual variety. He’s married to a beautiful woman who also happens to be the daughter of the largest stockholder in the company that Makimara has his eyes on taking over, but he also turns his salacious attentions to two of the underlings in his office, most notably the equally sexually voracious Kuwano (Junko Asahina, star of I Love It From Behind!). Makimara’s sexual shenanigans get the better of him, however, when the three women band together to give him a taste of his own medicine.
Using the same basic set up as the hit American comedy, director Fujii is able to indulge in all manner of sleazy situations. The usual apparent fixation on rape and restraint scenarios so prevalent in Japanese erotica once again emerges to leave a slightly bad taste in the mouth, but if you can ignore the more un-PC elements, there’s a lot to enjoy here. The actresses are all extremely photogenic and eager performers, and the actor who plays Makimara is also very effective. In addition to the expected run of “forced” sexual acts, there’s also some lesbianism and foot fetishism thrown in for good measure, depending on one’s point of view. The various sex scenes are well done and avoid excessive padding, and the final revenge scene includes some witty touches – notably the use of a masturbation toy which makes a most unorthodox noise while… performing.
The film boasts the usual solid production values and clean, crisp cinematography one associates with the Nikkatsu product. The use of disco music definitely dates the film more than some of the other efforts by the company, but it does lend the film a certain “period” charm. At just a little over 65 minutes, the film can hardly be accused of overstaying its welcome. Fans of the company’s output will likely lap this one up, while others may find it to be a reasonably engaging intro to a subgenre which is only just beginning to get its due in international circles.
This is the latest entry in Synapse/Impulse’s line of Nikkatsu Erotic Films. The 1.78/16×9 transfer looks very nice, with sharp detail and vivid colors. The print is in excellent shape throughout, with hardly any signs of wear and tear to indicate its age.
The mono Japanese soundtrack is clean and clear. The music has great presence, and the various moans and groans come through loud and clear. Removable English subtitles are included.
There’s a trailer for the film, and some well written liner notes by Japanese cinema scholar Jasper Sharp.
Film: *** out of *****
Video: **** out of *****
Audio: ***1/2 out of *****
Extras: ** out of *****