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All reviews - Movies (51) - DVDs (43) - Books (7)

A poor swansong for Gabin made worse by a dire DVD

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 6 February 2013 01:00 (A review of L'Annee Sainte [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC])

It's a sad fact that many of the greats bow out with especially weak films, and sadly that was the fate that befell Jean Gabin with 1976's L'Année Sainte, an increasingly tiresome comedy that sees Gabin and Jean-Claude Brialy as crooks masquerading as priests en route to Italy to recover their hidden loot. Unfortunately they don't get further than the plane, which is promptly hijacked, leading to... well, not a lot either in the way of comedy or drama. It's such a particularly weak effort that you can only guess that the main attraction for Gabin was that he got to sit down for most of the shoot. Making matters worse is that the US DVD is terrible. Poor picture quality is the least of its problems - it's the subtitles, or rather the frequent lack of them, that really cripple this release. Half the lines go untranslated, leaving sentences unfinished and non-French speakers lost. Those that do appear aren't exactly too convincing either, with no punctuation and words like guy mistranslated as gay, others a clumsy mixture of words and stray letters or numbers and whole sentences often becoming nonsensical. One to avoid.

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Jour de fête (DVD and Blu-ray) review

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 6 February 2013 12:50 (A review of Jour de fête (DVD and Blu-ray))

Sadly not the definitive Blu-ray release this delightful film deserves

Even though it hasn't been seen in the version originally released in cinemas in 1949 for years, Jacques Tati's Jour de Fete is still one of the most truly delightful comedies ever made. Expanded from his marvellous short film Ecole des Facteurs, made two years earlier, the majority of the film is a beautifully observed comedy about the foibles of a small village as it gets ready for and enjoys its annual Bastille Day fair. There's not much plot, just a series of little vignettes - trying to raise a flagpole, an unspoken flirtation between the merry-go-round man and a local girl under the watchful eye of his wife, a jukebox that won't work, paint that won't dry - while a crookbacked old goose woman passes the odd comment. Yet it's filled with beautiful sight gags, with the whole town, its animals and even balloons and bicycles seeming to conspire with the filmmaker with their uncanny comic timing. With his lanky frame and baggy pants, Tati gets great comic mileage out of his bicycle in particular, whether he's trying to make his way home after a few too many or trying to show the village that he can be just as speedy and efficient at his job as the American postmen in a newsreel. Sweet without being sickly, good natured without being twee, it benefits from Tati's great eye both for visual composition and small details like the girls limping home at the end of the day without losing sight of the bigger picture, opening and closing with perfect symmetry as a child skips after the truck carrying the Merry-Go-Round horses, first as it moves towards the village and finally as it departs to the accompaniment of Jean Yatove's charming score.

As with Polygram's video release and the BFI's earlier DVD, the Blu-ray release includes the original colour version that Tati shot but was never able to use in his lifetime when the company whose colour system he used went bust. Instead, Tati released a black and white version that was shot at the same time as what turned out to be a very wise precaution, but sadly the disc doesn't include that version. Instead it includes Tati's 1964 reissue version that reworked the film less than successfully.

While you can understand the rationale for the changes he made, they really do the film no favours. Along with slight tweaks to the editing, he introduced the new character of a visiting artist in newly shot sequences who observes and comments (sadly far too much) on the action. It sounds like the right sort of idea for the reissue, since by the early sixties the way of life the film gently celebrates was already almost extinct, but it doesn't work at all. Despite being shot in the same locations, he never interacts with anyone, changing the emphasis from the original version's insider's view of village life to that of an outsider. Worse still, in the English language version he's a very patronising figure, and one who won't shut up even when he has nothing to say - and unfortunately he's almost the only voice left in the picture. While the villagers do still speak, he often speaks over them, and when he doesn't they're not subtitled in English so many jokes and plot points are lost. The effect is unfortunately like one of those foreign children's programmes that they couldn't afford to dub with a full cast and just had one voice over telling you what you're watching. To make it even worse, the English narrator has the audacity to complain about the goose woman who sparingly narrated the original for `muttering to herself'!

Then there's the colour. Tati clearly hadn't entirely abandoned the idea of a more colourful film, but here that takes the form of the artist adding a few splashes of colour to his sketches which are suddenly mirrored in the film itself as the tricolour and decorations get a bit of red and blue grafted on them on the otherwise monochrome film. Unfortunately it's more distracting than complimentary, especially since the effect is highly variable. As with his reissue version of M. Hulot's Holiday, which added a joke spoofing Jaws, Tati does make one change to Francois getting changed at the Post Office so that we never see him getting changed but simply hear him and see the creaking steps as he runs up and down. It's a nice visual touch, but it's ultimately no more effective than the gag it replaces, and as with so much else in this version it tends to sideline the people who were once at the heart of the film.

Also included are Tati's three short films, the first two displaying a huge influence on Jour De Fete. 1936's Soigne ton Gauche, directed by Rene Clement, is set in a small village and features a postman on a bicycle in shots that would be copied in the later feature (as would Yatove's jaunty theme music), but this time Tati isn't the one in uniform but is playing a Ray Bolger-like farmhand who gets hired as a sparring partner for a visiting boxer in training. It's all a bit shapeless and less funny as it goes along, but the second, 1947's L'Ecole des Facteurs, is one of the best things Tati ever did. Starting off with Tati and two other new recruits finishing their training before following him on his first round, it virtually is the climax of Jour de Fete - stamping the letters on the back of the truck, tangling with the level crossing, chasing the runaway bike, outrunning the racing cyclists - in a neat 14 minutes, this time with Tati taking the director's chair as well as the starring role. Also included is 1967's Cours du Soir, partially filmed on the set built for Playtime before retiring indoors for a not particularly funny and at times interminably drawn-out lecture on mime with a few practical examples, including a throwback to Francois the postman.

Unfortunately the BFI's Blu-ray release is slightly disappointing despite nearly getting it right. While it includes the Thomson-Color version and the 1964 reissue version, it doesn't include the black and white original French release, which has slight differences to the colour version as well as better picture quality. While it's a good restoration, especially considering the colour system became obsolete in post-production, forcing Tati to release the black and white version he filmed at the same time as a precaution, the colour version has modern titles, a new closing shot and suffers from the limitations of the early colour process. This tends to soften detail, has some lines that look a bit like it's being projected onto high quality bonded velum paper and has the tones of a faded forties postcard, while some shots in the restoration are actually colorized black and white. The quality on the 1964 version is very inconsistent, initially being much cleaner before reverting to very obviously duped material for anything in the same reel as the partially-coloured sequences, becoming quite bad indeed in the too dark night scenes. Far worse is that the BFI have only included the English language version, without subtitles, even though they originally released the French version with subtitles - and crucially without the artist's endless yakking - on video.

And while it's wonderful that they've included the three Tati short films that they didn't include on their original DVD releases, these have only been included on the DVD version on this dual format release and haven't been remastered from the old deleted video release. L'Ecole des Facteurs in particular shows a lot of DNR work that adds an unwelcome blur to many shots. Similarly the trailer included is the 1995 colour reissue trailer despite being listed as the original trailer. All of which niggles do rather leave you with the feeling that they've stopped short of giving it the kind of definitive release it deserves. Still, it's the best English-friendly version for the time being, and the original version is still a delight.

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The Illusionist review

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 6 February 2013 12:48 (A review of The Illusionist)

Beautifully animated but, despite its excellent pedigree, never quite works

Marred by something of a family feud over whether Jacques Tati's semi-autobiographical screenplay (co-written by an uncredited Henri Marquet) that lay forgotten and unfilmed for several decades was inspired by the illegitimate daughter he abandoned or the legitimate one he felt guilty for ignoring and to whom the film is dedicated (in truth it seems a mixture of both), Sylvain Chomet's followup to Belleville Rendezvous, the beautifully animated L'Illusionniste aka The Illusionist, comes with an excellent pedigree but somehow never quite works.

Despite the role originally being intended for Pierre Etaix, Tati himself is recreated in animated form as stage magician Tatischeff (his real name) with a vicious rabbit that hates him who is forced to travel ever further afield to find work as the dying music hall finally succumbs to the twin threats of rock'n'roll and TV. Tatischeff is at once recognisably Tati and yet not Tati: like its writer, the character is an awkward presence on the sidelines of a world he doesn't quite fit in even in scenes built around him, but he lacks Tati's screen presence and ability to seem as if he had accidentally stumbled into his surroundings. As per Tati's own films, it's fundamentally a silent movie: what little dialogue there is is a mixture of French, English and Gaelic but mostly gibberish that's universally understandable. Unlike his later films there's a stronger narrative spine that sees a poor Scottish girl so enchanted by the gifts she believes he really has produced by magic adopting him and following him on his travels, but while there are amusing moments, like the rabbit stew supper, and some nice sight gags, the heart is never really there, keeping us at a remove. Both main characters are remote and with the few supporting characters either suicidally desperate or casually unscrupulous, it becomes hard to genuinely care.

Many complained that Chomet's adapted screenplay substantially watered down Tati and Marquet's original, which dealt much more directly with the void between Tatischeff's stage persona and the fallible real man as he keeps up the deception that his magic is real to avoid disillusioning the girl, only for her boyfriend to ultimately expose them as cheap tricks. In Chomet's version, she simply starts to outgrow him as she falls in love, the film almost winding down inconclusively rather than coming to a point. Instead the film's pleasures are purely visual: the animation is beautiful and the British countryside and, in particular, the city of Edinburgh beautifully rendered, the camera often taking to the skies and flying around them as if to express the joy the characters never realise. It's a film I'd really like to love, but for all the genuine artistry on display it just wouldn't let me in.

The UK DVD has a fine unsubtitled widescreen transfer and, chief among the initially frugal looking extras (brief featurette, stills gallery and trailer), a not entirely convincing 75-minute Q&A with Sylvain Chomet, who seems to tell a different version of the story behind the film in every interview he gives and occasionally seems more than a little short-tempered when anyone tries to get him to clarify things.

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Dark magic

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 6 February 2013 12:45 (A review of Beauty and the Beast [Blu-ray] - Criterion Collection )

The first third of La Belle et La Bete may seem a little too long and a little too slow, but the film still has the power to cast its spell over an audience. At times, perhaps from a modern viewer's perspective, you find yourself admiring the technique a little more than its soul, and Jean Marais' performance as the Beast strangely pales compared to his two-faced suitor, but then he was never exactly a great actor. Yet the complexity that Cocteau manages to bring to the film is still surprising, with neither the brother nor suitor descending to the easy caricature of the two ugly sisters: the former knows he and his sisters are wastrels, but that doesn't make him less of a liability, while the latter is almost in denial of his own nature. But ultimately it's the magical design that seduces, a fairytale kingdom smack in the middle of a believable world, but neither necessarily a benign one.

Criterion's restored DVD and Region A-locked Blu-ray is quite superb, boasting an excellent transfer and a selection of very good extras that exceed those on the BFI's UK DVD - audio commentaries by Arthur Knight and Christopher Frayling, 1995 documentary Screening at the Majestic, TV interview with Henri Alekan, extract from TV show Secrets Professionnels - Tete a Tete, optional Phillip Glass opera soundtrack, stills gallery, film restoration demonstration, trailer and booklet including article by Jean Cocteau and (though curiously not in the Blu-ray version) Mme. Leprince de Beaumont's original story. By contrast, the BFI's DVD only includes the Frayling commentary, Screening at the Majestic documentary and stills gallery. Do bear in mind, however, that Criterion's Blu-ray is Region A-locked.

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Les visiteurs du soir [Blu-ray] - Criterion Collection review

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 6 February 2013 12:41 (A review of Les visiteurs du soir [Blu-ray] - Criterion Collection)

"It isn't worth a single tear. It's nothing but a story invented to amuse the Devil."

"Could you be the cause of all these troubles?"
"What do you expect? No-one loves me. I amuse myself as best I can."

Overshadowed outside France by both that other Medieval romantic fantasy and its director's Les Enfants du Paradis but revered in its homeland as one of the great films of the war years, Marcel Carne's Les Visiteurs du Soir has been particularly hard for non-French speakers to see for years: not released on video and unseen on UK TV for three decades, it's only with Criterion's largely unheralded DVD and Blu-ray release that many will have got the chance to finally see his tale of demons and marvels. While it doesn't cast as magic or as poetic an ethereal spell as Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete, it's still an impressive fable whose added resonance for a Nazi-occupied population is easy to see even if Carne and co-writer Jacques Prevert always insisted that no anti-Nazi subtext was intended, the Medieval setting simply the easiest way to get around the German censors.

The plot is simple: two minstrels arrive at a castle, whose occupants are celebrating the betrothal of the Baron's daughter initially unaware that the two visitors (Arletty and Alain Cuny) have been sent by the Devil to sow discord by loving and destroying them and leaving the Devil to pick up the tab. Not that they don't have plenty of raw material to work with: despite the jollity of the banquets and the lack of work for the executioner, the castle is almost underpinned by sadness. The Baron (Fernand Ledoux) is still mourning his lost wife, the servant girl all too aware that her plainness ensures the page she loves won't even look at her and the groom (Marcel Herrand) is more interested in songs of hunting and killing than of love, confused by his bride-to-be Marie Dea's kindness towards unfortunates and dismissing her dreams because "Dreams are dangerous and useless. I never dream myself." For all the elegance and fairytale settings, it's a cruel world where love is a weapon to make people tear themselves apart: "It isn't worth a single tear. It's nothing but a story invented to amuse the Devil." It's a game the envoys have played so many times they're working from the same script, telling each new victim "As soon as I saw you, I knew why I'd travelled so far. I thanked Heaven for leading me to you."

Yet the envoys aren't ethereal symbolic figures but have their own tortured dysfunctional relationship of recriminations and mockery, revisiting their failed and false romance on their victims. Arletty enjoys her work, particularly if it means leading men to their death or to the very place she has come from, but Cluny is increasingly tortured by the deal he has made with the Devil, even more so when he genuinely falls in love with the bride-to-be. From then on the film becomes a battle for hearts and souls as Jules Barry's Devil enters the fray, appearing everywhere at once to mislead, corrupt or gently scold the mere mortals. It's easy to see why so many saw him as Hitler incarnate, making empty promises and offering those who collaborate with him every comfort but never able to still the pure hearts that defy him. He's a cheerful soul, certain of his eventual victory and uncomprehending of the notion of resistance, but thanks to Jacques Prevert's dialogue he doesn't get all the best lines - most of those, surprisingly, go to the lovers, true or false.

It's a surprisingly lavish production for a French wartime film, Trauner's design and Roger Hubert's photography giving it a deceptively simple and attractive look for a film filled with betrayal, hopeless longing and torment. It generally favors simpler special effects than you might expect from a period fable, but at their best, such as when the envoys stop time to steal a tryst with the groom and bride-to-be, they're quietly effective. At times the film threatens to lose its grip and some of the dungeon scenes with a distressed Cluny stray perilously close to bad acting, but the spell is never broken and its easy to see why the film found such a special place in French cinema with its own brand of dark magic and cruel love. Oh, and look out for a young Simone Signoret and Alain Resnais as extras in the banquet scene.

Aside from the customary booklet there's also a 37-minute talking heads documentary with friends of Carne and Prevert and film historians that provides much information and anecdotes about the film's tortuous development - Carne had been having trouble finding a project that would pass the German censors after getting out of his contract with the German-backed Continental Films while Jacques Prevert and composer Joseph Kosma had been collaborating on an unrealised version of Puss in Boots - and its difficult production, which was complicated by wartime shortages (fabric for the costumes was almost impossible to find while the food in the banquet scenes had to be sprayed with toxic chemicals to stop the starving extras eating it), Vichy bureaucracy (because it was shot in both Occupied and Unoccupied France), anti-Semitic laws (both Kosma and production designer Alexander Trauner had to use fronts because it was illegal for Jews to work in French films) and scheduling (Jules Berry was making three films at the same time, shooting one in the morning, one in the afternoon and another in the evening and couldn't remember his lines), and surprisingly rapturous reception from both right and leftwing critics.

It even covers the problems of exhibiting films in wartime - newsreels were shown with the lights on and a gendarme in attendance to stop the audience booing the Nazis, while only a limited number of tickets were sold to ensure that the nearest air raid shelters didn't get filled up, making it's hugely successful run - it was the biggest French hit of the war years - all the more remarkable. It's not particularly strikingly made, but it tells the stories in a pleasingly straightforward fashion and puts the film in its historical perspective even if the transfer is obviously taken from a video master. The film's original French trailer fares worse in the picture quality stakes, looking like it was mastered from a juddery dialup internet download, but the transfer on the film itself is a beautiful restoration job with clear, sharp detail, plenty of depth and no obvious signs of digital tinkering. However, do be aware that the Blu-ray version is Region A-locked.

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A mixed bag of mystery and imagination

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 6 February 2013 12:37 (A review of Spirits Of The Dead )

This review refers to Arrow's UK Blu-ray release.

In the Sixties it seemed you could hardly move for Continental `portmanteau' films - collections of short films by major directors sharing a common theme like Paris Vu Par, Ro.Go.Pa.G or Love at Twenty, which offered marketable but cost-effective international co-production possibilities that could attract big stars for a week or two's work. Spirits of the Dead aka Histoires Extraordinaires was one of the more intriguing ones, offering three of Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination (one of the film's many alternate titles) directed by Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini with an all-star cast. Despite being similarly less than faithful to their source, the result is a world away from Roger Corman's remarkable run of Sixties Poe films with Vincent Price (and might have been even more different had original co-directors Orson Welles and Luis Bunuel stayed aboard), though that didn't stop the US distributors adding an introductory voice over by Price to forge a link in audience's minds. Critics weren't kind to the first two stories, alternately hating or being bored by them, but absolutely loved Fellini's, and that acclaim has cast a pall over the rest of the film ever since.

Despite the general disdain meted out to it, Vadim's take on Metzengerstein is surprisingly successful on its own terms. The then-Mrs Vadim, Jane Fonda, stars as a perverted and sadistic countess who, when her cousin (Peter Fonda) spurns her advances, burns his stables for revenge only to inadvertently burn him as well and unleash a black stallion that no-one else can approach and with which she becomes ever more fatally obsessed. Neither Fonda is exactly taxed in the acting department, Peter particularly monolithic and wooden, but Jane at least, still in her bimbo days, is suited well enough for her part that it's less of a problem in her case. The opening but far from explicit depravities, with Jane wearing even more outrageous costumes than Barbarella as she has her wicked way with men and women alike, gradually gives way to a convincingly dreamlike dread that may not actually chill but does summon up the spirit of Poe in its restless way, with Claude Renoir's cinematography of burning buildings and thick black smoke blocking out the sunset heralding an increasing feeling of a pending storm about to break. It's the kind of thing that'll either lull you along with it or bore you into hitting the fast forward button, but it does create an atmosphere.

Louis Malle's involvement was purely pragmatic: unable to raise the backing for Le Souffle au Coeur/Murmur of the Heart after both Viva Maria! and The Thief of Paris failed to set the box-office on fire, William Wilson with Alain Delon and Brigitte Bardot probably seemed like a good way to raise his profile without taking all the blame if this one flopped as well. He never made any secret that it was work for hire rather than a personal piece, and it shows in a solid but uninspired bit of storytelling that runs efficiently through the plot without ever really conjuring up much in the way of atmosphere or the growing paranoia the tale demands. Even the perversion and sadism is fairly matter of fact, though that sometimes works in the episode's favour as Alain Delon's thoroughly nasty sociopath casually bullies and debauches his way through boarding school, medical college and the army - his idea of bullying involving pits of rats and his idea of debauchery involving scalpels and a whip - only to be constantly plagued by a double with the same name who spoils his fun and destroys his self-confidence until he can bear it no more. It's an elegant production, but, like its blithely monstrous protagonist, it lacks character.

The third story was originally to have been a composite of The Masque of the Red Death and The Cask of Amontillado directed by Orson Welles, but when that fell through Federico Fellini, heavily in debt after a science fiction film collapsed in pre-production, filled the gap with his very loose adaptation of Never Bet the Devil Your Head as Toby Dammit, and took what critical praise was going. When the film was subsequently restored and screened as a solo short, it was proclaimed as a lost masterpiece. It's not, but it is a remarkably stylish fever dream - or rather nightmare - that could only possibly have been directed by Fellini

Terence Stamp is the self-indulgent and obnoxious movie star jetted into Rome to make the first Catholic Western, haunted by the image of a malignantly grinning child playing with a white ball and consumed by pain and pathetic self-loathing which he expresses with a variety of infantile expressions caught somewhere between a grimace and silent laughing at a dirty word as if never knowing whether to laugh or scream. He's every untalented, selfish, immature and self-destructive egotist who thinks living the rock'n'roll lifestyle and behaving badly is their full time day-and-night job rolled into one manic-depressive bundle of nerves. He knows he's squandered his talent and that he's not just impossible to work with but impossible for even him to stand anymore. He's beyond redemption and working his way down to damnation one infernal circle at a time, from the surreally sun-bleached airport arrivals lounge to a grotesque awards ceremony before driving the new Ferrari that's his only reason for making the film straight into the mouth of Hell. And Fellini films it all from right inside his fevered head as his disorientation at finding himself the centre of attention in an increasingly nightmarishly strange world is mirrored in a visual and editing style that's like you've been spun around the room despite having a drunken headache and can't make much sense out of what's around you.

It's easily the trippiest and most visually striking of the three, with Giuseppe Rottuno's vividly stylised photography far more ambitious than anything his two predecessors in the film cooked up, while Nino Rota's signature Fellini sound stamps the master's signature all over the proceedings. It's an exercise in excess and atmosphere that creates a very Felliniesque phantasmagoria that may not be something you'll hold close to your heart but certainly leaves your senses assaulted in a way the other two episodes don't.

Arrow's UK Blu-ray release is a bit problematic - at once a clean and pin-sharp restoration but at times looking too clean, as if it's had some of the sin scrubbed out of it and the brightness boosted. This is particularly noticeable in the first story that looks far more atmospheric in the unrestored French version also included on the disc, which shows some signs of color fading but at least looks like it's been graded with an eye for the decadence of the story. No such problems with the other two, though the multi-lingual soundtrack curiously doesn't include Terence stamp's opening narration in English but uses an Italian voice-over artist instead before reverting to Stamp's voice for the remainder. The English dub track is also included on the restored version. Extras are a bit lighter than the packaging makes it seem - the international trailer and Vincent Price's voice-over narration from US version, though the initial copies also came with an impressive 60-page book reprinting the original Poe stories.

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RoGoPaG [Masters of Cinema] (Dual Format Edition) [1963] review

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 6 February 2013 12:29 (A review of RoGoPaG [Masters of Cinema] (Dual Format Edition) [1963])

Thank heaven for Pasolini (and Gregoretti)!

Ro.Go.Pa.G aka Let's Wash Our Brains: Ro.Go.Pa.G is one of the more highbrow entries in the slew of anthology films so popular with continental producers in the 60s. Ro is Roberto Rossellini, Go is Godard, Pa is Pasolini and G is the all-but-forgotten Ugo Gregoretti, and the common link is that each has half an hour to present a story about the beginning of the end of the world, although in reality it was because producer Alfredo Bini had three of the directors under contract (Pasolini was the odd man out) and wanted to give them something to do while waiting for their next features.

It gets off to a poor start with Rossellini's at times surprisingly shoddily made Virginity. It compliments its poor back projection that resolutely fails to sell the idea that its' characters are in Thailand rather than on recycled sets in an Italian studio with a rather trite tale of Rosanna Schiaffino's air hostess being pursued by Bruce Balaban's enamoured American salesman. It takes forever to get going before heavy-handedly hammering home it's too neat conclusion about what really attracts him and what she needs to do to repel him. There are a couple of nice moments amid the product placement, particularly Balaban going through a checklist of how to talk to women and realising he's as ignorant of the concept of empathy as he is romantically clueless, but the episode is a bit like one of those forgettable non-conversations you have waiting in a queue at an airport boarding gate. Still, it does have one memorable exchange when it suddenly introduces two new characters with the solution to her problems via the magic of psychological diagnosis via home movies: "Of course, America and England are full of sex maniacs and stranglers." "Full, no. There's still a little space left."

Godard's The New World is a bit of an improvement, though it's equally trite in its grafting a Big Subject of the Day - the threat of nuclear annihilation - onto largely mundane images and everyday incidents that are connected to it only by the narration. Change the narration and it could be just another of his exercises in male-female non-communication as Alexandra Stewart blithely evades boyfriend Marc Bory's questions about their deteriorating relationship and their `ex-love.' It's the narration that tells us these are the subtle results of a nuclear explosion over Paris that nobody noticed until it was in the papers and then completely ignored and went about their everyday lives. There are some visual oddities thrown in, like the uncommented on knife that Stewart keeps tucked in her knickers or a striking shot of the Eiffel Tower half obscured by clouds like the one visible bit of wreckage in the aftermath of the unseen explosion, but Godard seems more interested in playing with the soundtrack here: aside from the disconnect between narration and visuals, he regularly alternates shots of the roar of city life with silent shots of the busy city before just seeming to lose interest and bringing the episode to an abrupt halt.

Thank heavens for Pasolini, who kicks the film into life with the viciously satirical La Ricotta, a truly divine bit of black comedy observing the shooting of the Passion scene from a tacky devotional postcard religious epic shot in deliberately artificial static colour tableaux while in the black and white real world the crew ignore the hungry poor in the background, twist to rock and roll on the radio or taunt the crucified with food and drink, Christ and the Good Thief argue politics on the cross between takes, policemen pick flowers because they've nothing else to do, actors overact, think of their dog or pick their noses and the aforementioned dog steals the starving actor playing the Thief's lunch. Presiding over it all with wistful disinterest in the director's chair is a bored Orson Welles as the worn-down Marxist making a film about Christ for a Capitalist. The voice on the soundtrack may not be Welles, but the occasional cynical twinkle in his eye as he quotes Pasolini's Mamma Roma and casually dismisses an interviewer who is incapable of understanding anything more profound than the simplest of facile soundbites is pure Awesome. The words may be the director's, but when quietly he says "I am a force from the past," his sheer presence and history gives it a real weight.

Its barbs at hypocrisy, piety and the resigned nightmare of being stuck creating bad `art' for the money are all very much to the fore, but the observational naturalism (a couple of cinematic flourishes aside) and casually cheerful blasphemy of the crew as they engage in more earthly pursuits is entirely convincing. It's one of the most astonishingly accurate depictions of a movie set you'll probably ever see, and it's definitely the highlight of the film. The Catholic Church didn't agree, missing the point entirely (something you can't help feeling that their boss's son wouldn't) and landing Pasolini with a four-month suspended sentence for `publicly undermining the religion of the state.'

Gregoretti's Free-Range Chicken is almost as viciously satirical, this time setting rampant consumerism as its target, moving between a lecture on marketing and Ugo Tognazzi, Lisa Gastoni and their brood (a very young Ricky Tognazzi and Antonella Taito) en route to view some land they can't afford to invest in and constantly distracted by things they don't need to spend their money on. Gregoretti avoids going over the top, even when Topo Gigio is roped into selling televisions on their brand new television set (we meet Tognazzi getting a strained wrist signing the 24 installment cheques for it) or diners are replaced by battery chickens in a narrow motorway service station diner, opting instead for the everyday pressures as the family casually talk themselves into more purchases. Some of its points are even more pertinent today, with the expert's assertion of the need to eliminate human intermediaries in the sales process to allow the buzz and false sense of freedom of impulse buying to overcome the realisation you don't need what you're spending money you can't afford to waste tailor-made for the one-click internet age. That they're delivered by a man who has lost his voice and is talking through an electrolarynx only underlines the point. There's also a chance to see where Five Easy Pieces' most famous and oft-repeated scene came from when Tognazzi tries to order one egg from a waitress who won't be budged from the set menu and its two eggs. It's not particularly subtle with its allegories, but it's a much more effective and satisfying entry than the first two and, along with the Pasolini, ironically justifies the purchase price for anyone thinking of making an impulse buy...

It has to be said that the Blu-ray starts off as a bit of a disappointment, especially from the usually reliable Masters of Cinema. All four stories were shot by different cinematographers and on different film stocks, and it shows. Rossellini's episode, photographed by Luciano Trasatti looks terrible, with no depth, comparatively little detail and a very dupey look that isn't just limited to the flat stock footage it over-relies on. The Godard, photographed by Jan Rabier, is enough of an improvement to make you think the problems may derive from the original cinematography or lab work on the first episode, but it's still not going to knock your socks off, looking like a good quality DVD. It's not until you get to the Pasolini episode, photographed by Tonino Delli Colli, that the disc starts to really impress, and, along with Gregoretti's story, photographed by Mario Bernado, starts to look really good. The only soundtrack option is for the Italian language dub, but the final story benefits from an excellent translation that finds British equivalents to the brands that pepper the children's every other sentence.

Extras are light - the original five-minute Italian trailer and a substantial booklet on the episodes and the making of the film. It's not one that can be given an unreserved recommendation, but it's worth it for the Pasolini alone.

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Yesterday Today Tomorrow [US Import] review

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 6 February 2013 12:22 (A review of Yesterday Today Tomorrow [US Import])

A crowdpleasing trio of sex comedies with Loren and Mastroianni at their most likeable

NB - As is their wont, Amazon have unhelpfully bundled the reviews for the various different releases and formats of this film together. This review refers to Kino Lorber's US Blu-ray release.

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow grabbed the Best Foreign Film Oscar and was a big hit with international audiences, and while it's far from high art, it's not difficult to understand why. It's a glossy crowd-pleasing trio of sex comedies starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni that, by the sheer virtue of being foreign, gets away with far more than Hollywood pictures of the day could. Not that it's that risqué by modern standards, but it makes no bones about what its stars are really after. In the first, Adelina, Loren is one of the legion of women selling contraband cigarettes on the streets of Naples who finds that she can stay out of jail as long as she is pregnant - so she sets husband Mastroianni to ensuring that she's always pregnant whenever the police arrive every 15 months: fine at first, but after six children he can barely stand... The second and shortest, Anna, sees Loren's rich trophy wife trying to convince Mastroianni's journalist that she's not really interested in money only for an accident in her new Rolls Royce to test her real priorities. The final story, Mara, is the one that earned the film its place in the iconic scenes Hall of Fame for the striptease Loren's high-class courtesan performs for Mastroianni's pervy civil servant (something the filmmakers were smart enough to keep for the film's grand finale). It's really almost an afterthought to the plot itself, which sees the disapproving next-door neighbours' grandson decide to chuck in life in the seminary in favour of more earthly pursuits with La Loren...

Unusually for the continental anthology films of the period, Vittorio De Sica directs all three tales, and shows a light, populist touch and a great eye for his locations that yields pleasing results. None of the stories are particularly outstanding in themselves, but they're all played and packaged so likeably that it doesn't matter. Loren and Mastroianni bring different sides of their talents to all three of their roles while oozing screen chemistry together in the process - both stars have rarely been as likeable as they are in the first story - and the whole thing is perfectly packaged. Giuseppe Rotunno's colourful Scope photography and the pleasing score by Armamdo Trovajoli, who cameos as the sports car driver in the second story, keeping things bright, breezy and attractive regardless of the characters' income brackets - De Sica may have made his name with The Bicycle Thieves, but he'd left neo-realism far enough behind by then to ensure that even the poor sections of Naples look gorgeous.

The film has a very chequered history on DVD, with many atrocious Public Domain releases boasting poor picture quality or dubbed soundtracks. Kino Lorber's region-free English subtitled Italian language Blu-ray release may not be perfect, but it's almost certainly the best the film has looked on home video, with a very respectable 2.35:1 transfer that isn't quite as good as some might like but certainly does the film's rich colour scheme justice even if the definition shows the limitations of the cost-cutting Techniscope process used to shoot the film (often dubbed the poor man's CinemaScope, instead of squeezing the image on a single frame with an anamorphic lens, it would print two unsqueezed images on the same area with an ordinary lens, thus using only half the amount of film stock but also ensuring a loss of picture quality as well). A decent package of extras includes the film's Italian trailer (which includes an alternate take of the striptease) as well as trailers for Kino's other Loren titles, a brief stills gallery and, on a separate DVD, a feature length documentary on the director, Vittorio D, which includes interviews with Loren, Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen and others.

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Sunflower [US Import] review

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 6 February 2013 12:19 (A review of Sunflower [US Import])

A nice idea but too rushed and half-baked to really pay off

NB - As is their wont, Amazon have unhelpfully bundled the reviews for the various different releases and formats of this film together. This review refers to Kino Lorber's US Blu-ray release.

Vittorio De Sica's Sunflower is one of those nice ideas for a love story that doesn't really pay off. Sophia Loren is the devoted wife who refuses to believe missing husband Marcello Mastroianni is dead on the Russian front after the end of the Second World War and determines to find him. Unfortunately the stars never really convince, playing almost parodic working class characters who are more mildly irritating than engaging - with his exaggerated nasal accent and her bad wig they just remind you of one of those couples who you end up constantly sharing a dinner table with on holiday despite all your best efforts not to. It's a slave to clichés - not one, but THREE railway station separations! - but despite the sizeable budget often feels too rushed and half-baked to allow many of them to work even as a production line tearjerker. There's even some surprisingly poor camerawork at times in the Italian scenes that makes you wonder if anybody was that bothered about the final result. A few moments stand out, like the cabin packed with soldiers sleeping on their feet in the Russian winter or a field of sunflowers that are the only marker for the graves of unknown soldiers and peasants, and the last half hour is fairly effective, but it doesn't add up to much.

This is another title that has had a troubled history on DVD, from a decent transfer as part of Lionsgate's US NTSC Sophia Loren 4-Film Collection [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC] to a dire public domain release from Jef Films. Kino Lorber's US DVD and region-free Blu-ray release is certainly the best of the bunch, with a good widescreen transfer in the original Italian with English subtitles, stills gallery and Italian trailer. That edition is also available as part of the Sophia Loren: Award Collection [Blu-ray] [US Import] with Boccaccio '70, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, Marriage Italian Style and feature-length documentary Vittorio D.

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The end of the affair

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 6 February 2013 12:18 (A review of The Night (1961) ( La Notte ) ( La Nuit ) [ NON-USA FORMAT, PAL, Reg.2 Import - United Kingdom ])

Masters of Cinema's UK region-free PAL DVD of Michaelangelo Antonioni's La Notte may not have many extras (just a trailer and a detailed booklet) but it has marvellous picture quality that puts Fox-Lorber's previous US release to shame - it looks like it was shot yesterday, which is just as well since the visuals are so important.

Surprisingly accessible, it's one of the great films about architecture - not just the architecture of a city in transition but the emotional architecture of a relationship in quiet crisis. There's a real attention to the shape of things, with clear, clean lines that people never quite fit in. For much of the film Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau are constantly separated even when sharing the same frame while in some scenes it is hard to tell what is the reflection and what is the real image, consigning characters to a virtual visual limbo, ghosts haunting their own empty lives.

It defines the state of their relationship in much the same way that Anthony Mann's films use the landscape to define character rather than just to create an environment, going further to offer a state of the nation address. Moreau is part of an Italy that's being torn down and discarded: Mastroianni is drifting towards a post-war modernity where conspicuous wealth and angular concrete, steel and glass design create a kind of anonymous gilded inertia where trivia surpasses real heartfelt connection with people or the past. The relationship is in its last gasps, occupying a kind of wasteland awaiting redevelopment: the scene with Moreau dispassionately reading a love letter filled with powerful and passionate emotions that Mastroianni has forgotten he ever had (he doesn't even remember who wrote the letter) is a killer.

Besides, the film comes highly recommended in the end credits of Monty Python's Life of Brian ('If you have enjoyed this film, why not go and see La Notte?'), so you know it's worth it!

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