Monday, 21 November 2011

THE DEVILS (Ken Russell) [1971]

This post serves as a comparison for the many versions available of this film. I own most of them. You're probably reading this in the wake of the BFI's announcement of a Region 2 release in 2012. Good news, but most people are incredibly annoyed that it's not the 'uncut' version which people have been craving for years.

Anyone who knows anything about this 1971 Ken Russell movie will know it was hacked to pieces by Warner Brothers US because it was deemed...savage as hell. There is an infamous 'Rape of Christ' sequence. It sounds shocking but in the context of the film it is a key scene. Its omission is a howling blemish on the film.

However, the rest of the film is largely intact whichever way you decide to watch it. There are a few pieces missing here and there but these are practically lost forever. A great shame, but the rest of the film is so good it's worth seeing; at least until the British release in March 2012.

The versions available to the general public at the time of writing are as follows:

The Warner Brothers PAL VHS (late 80s).
The Japanese PAL Laserdisc (late 80s).
The Maverick Directors PAL VHS (late 90s). I own this.
The 'Definitive' NTSC Bootleg DVD (late 2000s, also known as the 'Angel' or 'Euro Cult' DVD). I own this.
The Spanish PAL DVD (2010, legitimate release known as 'Los Demonios'). I own this.
The Korean PAL DVD (2011, questionable legitimacy). I do not own this. I hear it is much the same as the above.
The iTunes Digital Version (2008, 2011). I own this.

Now, to clarify, there are generally two main sources for these releases. I will refer to them as the UK version and US version. The UK version, in PAL format, runs for roughly 107 minutes. The US version is butchered, and is roughly 103 minutes long. The problem comes when deciding what you value more - picture quality, or content. Put simply, if you want content, watch the Maverick Directors VHS. It's sourced from a fairly clean print and is the 'theatrical' UK release - missing only the Rape of Christ and several other 'shocking' scenes. The problem is it is VHS. If you still have a VCR, great. But I find it difficult to watch in the aftermath of High Definition Media.

For quality, you'll want to find the Spanish PAL DVD. It's a great print. Non-anamorphic, unfortunately, but a clean transfer from a theatrical print. The only problem is it is the US version - cut to ribbons, and then some. Several lines of dialogue are cut as well as the visually graphic scenes. Now, for a comparison.

We all know what VHS quality is like. Grainy with obvious horizontal lines due to it being on magnetic tape. This edition is presented in a slightly cropped 1.78:1 aspect ratio.  There is some picture missing from the sides. This is a shame as it has wonderful set design from wonderboy Derek Jarman. I unfortunately am unable to take screenshots of this copy as I have no means of connecting my VCR to my computer. But you get a rough idea of what it would be like.

The Bootleg DVD is also cropped to roughly 1.85:1. It is 16x9 anamorphically enhanced. The problem is, it's sourced from the VHS so the quality is roughly the same. The missing footage (which DOES contain the Rape of Christ) is inserted from a PAL TV transmission from the 'Hell on Earth' documentary. Quality is fuzzy but not unwatchable. It appears to have been converted from PAL to NTSC and the usual ghosting artifacts appear. Here:

As you can see, it's poor quality. Not atrocious, and somewhat watchable, but hardly reference quality. Let's compare it with the Spanish DVD:

As you can see it is much, much better quality and a massive amount of image data is restored to either side of the screen. Now, those might just look like some cardboard sheets to you, but a hell of a lot of time and craftsmanship went into making those, so they could be proudly displayed in the opening sequence. I am glad I can finally see them there. The iTunes edition is similar. Here:

Slightly lower resolution, but the print is less dark and retains the same amount of information in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It looks very good for a 1.4GB video file. Very good. Watching this version was the first time I noticed how well lit many of the interiors are. For example, Spanish:

And the iTunes:

While in this instance the iTunes version appears darker than the Spanish disc (when usually throughout the film it is the other way round), I think this makes it look better. The dappled light falling across Oliver Reed's big manly shoulders looks much better and less like it is coloured in with crayons. A further example. Spanish:


Now, I like redheads, but Vanessa Regrave's hair has a much better tone in the iTunes version; a lot less artificial. It's actually closer to the Bootleg/VHS:

Except sharper and much more on screen.

The final note is that this is an amazing film, one of the finest post-war British films that sits at the top with Kes, Scum, The Servant and Mona Lisa. Warner Brothers' constant disdain for releasing it with reinstated footage is tragic. Still, I would encourage anyone that holds British cinema dear to their heart to track down a copy - preferably the iTunes version, and watch the hell out of it. Or you can wait until March 2012 to see what will hopefully be a beautiful new high-definition visual transfer (albeit not on high-definition medium).

Some related interesting links:

Monday, 27 June 2011

THE MUSIC LOVERS (Ken Russell) [1970]

This film is particularly close to my heart. It's 40 years old and only today - June 27th, 2011, has it got its first release anywhere in the world.

Before this I had a reasonable quality bootleg recorded from VHS. Widescreen with decent sound, but grainy and banding picture quality. This new DVD is quite impressive - strong sound and decent visuals. Not much in the way of remastering though. Here's a comparison:

There are no extras, no subtitles, and the blurb on the back of the box has strange grammar choices. It also says it is 4:3 full frame but the actual picture is 16:9 anamorphic.

I also believe this is the first review of this DVD on the internet. I wonder if anyone else has even bought it?

Sunday, 12 June 2011

DECODER (Muscha) [1984]

Decoder is a really bizarre cyberpunk movie from West Germany. It is notable for starring no real actors, having a new wave soundtrack from the likes of Einsturzende Neubauten and Soft Cell and featuring cameo appearances by counter-culture icons Christiane F., William S. Burroughs and Genesis P-Orridge.

The film is very much based on the writings of William S. Burroughs and those unfamiliar with his writings will find this a little hard to follow. In William S. Burroughs book The Job, he talks of how he shut down a coffee shop by recording the owners' voices on tapes (or something like that) and playing it back in inconveninet times. They went out of business. It's a long time since I've read it, I don't remember exactly! But I do remember him saying the tape recorder is a weapon of the electronic revolution  (play sound effects of riots and fighting and the cops the sound of gunshots and their guns are drawn, etc).

The film is lit mostly by neon hues and features some bizarre set pieces, such as a riot breaking out due to unsettling muzak being played in a burger restaurant, a sermon from King (Queen?) of weird Genesis P-Orridge and a woman who really likes frogs (!?) it's pretty strange, but as it has a very short runtime it is quite entertaining.

I downloaded this from the internet years ago. It was a pretty shoddy VHS Rip (I think) with white lines at the sides where the frame didn't fill the whole picture and the back of the telecine is visible. This lends the film a real bootleg quality to it - as if the video itself is a tool for revolution. Finding it was near impossible as it was only released in Germany until last year when it got a DVD release.
I have not had the chance to check out the DVD and the screens above are from my downloaded copy.

BARFLY (Barbet Schroeder) [1987]

Being a big Mickey Rourke fan it is no surprise I should write about one of his lesser-known roles. It's also interesting to see the two biggest adverts for bad plastic surgery together in one movie! They both ruined their beautiful faces with surgery, and this movie offers a glimpse of what they would become!

Barfly is a biography of Charles Bukowski, alcoholic and author. It is considered by fans of Bukowski to be a much better film than the recent Factotum starring Matt Dillon (who previously appeared with Mickey Rourke in Rumble Fish) and a much more accurate one. It also starts Jack Nance as an eccentric private detective.

Down-and-out Rourke meets down-and-out Dunaway in the bar and they go drinking together. That's it! That's the movie! Actually it's not - a strange love triangle begins involving a pretentious publisher who mistakes the protagonists occasional inane scrawlings for something much more didactic. Rourke gets into a lot of fights, sleeps on the streets, rows with his girlfriend (who herself is having an affair) and by the time it's over the characters have gone back to their same old's the journey that matters in this film.

There's a blu-ray available on Amazon for a not inconsiderable sum as well as several overpriced out of print Region 2 DVDs. I've also seen it in a double bill pack with The Pope of Greenwich Village, another Rourke film.

BENT (Sean Mathias) [1998]

Here's an interesting one. I'm a bit of a fan of Clive Owen as he has appeared in several of my favourite films. I hadn't heard of this one. Then I saw a picture of Clive Owen with no hair!

Bent is a gay interest film set in World War II. A young homosexual playboy gets caught up in the Night of the Long Knives after a night with a gay SA soldier. As the soldier is slaughtered in front of him he escapes to visit Ian McKellen, his gay uncle, and along the way also meets Mick Jagger playing a drag queen, in a nice little cameo. Eventually he is caught by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp. In a gruelling scene, a man is beaten to death in front of him for no reason. He befriends a young Jew, and in order to remain with him chooses a yellow star instead of a pink triangle, thus identifying him as Jewish and not gay. Apparently, the treatment of gays was (hypocritically) far worse. There is a bit of debate about how much he values his identity but really he just does this to remain with his new found friend.

It is pretty overwrought, as many films which are adapted from stage plays are. But there are some fine moments, and the cramped relationship between the two men grows in the subtlest of ways. Tasked with moving stones all day, they manage only fleeting moments to talk to each other but when they do it is emotionally charged. There is one horribly embarrassing scene in which they are talking to each other, with eyes closed, very sexually, and eventually it is implied they simultaneously ejaculate without touching each other. It was difficult to view, and not because it was homosexual but because it was ridiculous!

It's mostly very well acted - Clive Owen has come under fire for his acting style, but it sort of appeals to me. He is best at acting when he's not saying anything. This worked well for his role in Croupier (my favourite film) and as the smouldering Dwayne in Sin City. The SS officers are portrayed well - speaking in cold, horrid curt tones and not coming off as too rabid or cartoon-like. This film apparently won a special prize at Cannes, but according to IMDb the director Sean Mathias never made another film, and is primarily an actor. He was also a long-term partner of Ian McKellen!

I ordered this film from a South Korean vendor on eBay - it was cheap and had free postage. Took a while to arrive but that is to be expected. Of course, about a week later a Dual Format Blu Ray/DVD appeared in the UK. Never mind! My Korean edition is a sound package - with a nice cardboard slipcase and a Region Free NTSC disc with excellent print quality. I would probably recommend this over the expensive Blu Ray. 

DIABEL (The Devil) Andrzej Zulawski [1972]

Andrzej Zulawski's film Diabel is his second film after The Third Part of the Night and was banned upon its completion - though I don't think it was quite as complete as the director intended. He was plagued by Polish authorities throughout his career and at least one of his other movies remains incomplete, with 'gaps' filled in by a chorus style voiceover. Diabel unfortunately remains a disjointed though not completely awful affair.

Diabel was made in 1972 but not seen for many years; and even then, not many people saw it at all, and still haven't. Presumably, a hypothetical person would discover Andrzej Zulawski's films through the excellent Possession - by far his most popular, if not his most accessible film. That's how I discovered him anyway. He has been criticised for being a very pretentious filmmaker, particularly with his later French films L'amour Braque and Szamanka.
Diabel is a strange tale about a prisoner of war who is broken out of jail by a mysterious man in the middle of some sort of revolution. My memories of this are slightly marred, for two reasons; a) I did not enjoy the film and b) the copy I had was so dark that there were many things I simply couldn't make out.

Anyone who saw Possession will see stylistic similarities in this film. The camera constantly whirls round in a frenzy, and is always on the move. Characters seem to dip in and out of hysteria, committing murders at random and so forth. It also has a bizarrely theatrical feel to it and all the actors are very...'actorly', if that's even a word.
So anyway, this man gets busted out of jail and...I think he is given a list of people to kill or something. He returns to his family home to find his father laying in state, the house partially burned down and something to do with his sister wearing her dead mother's clothes or something? He goes nuts when he finds out his mother is living as a prostitute in a nearby hamlet and pays her a visit. Needless to say, stuff gets pretty out of control...
The mysterious messenger wants from the protagonist a list of names - his fellow revolutionaries. He needs this list to pass to another man...presumably the titular Devil, allowing the film to end in a crescendo of bizarre violence, with an ending you could never make's worth a look if you liked Possession or films like The Hourglass Sanatorium.

Unfortunately, the only existing DVD of this to my knowledge is released by a Polish company called Polart. It's a reasonable print but is very dark and has been converted from NTSC to PAL, which makes everything look like it is made of cardboard. I bought a bootleg on eBay at first, but the quality was so horrible...I can't even describe it. OK, I'll show you a picture. Are you ready for this?

VOMIT! Utterly horrible, I threw it away along with the cheap cardboard slipcase it came in! The PolArt version is one way to watch this - the other way is a slightly better value option, and that is to buy the Zulawski boxset - available from Poland but also being sold on eBay UK. It's expensive at £45, but the single Devil DVD sells for about £40 on Amazon! There are probably torrents available too if you're 'that way inclined'.


Saturday, 11 June 2011

POSETITEL MUZEYA (A Visitor of a Museum) Konstantin Lopushansky [1989]

Posetitel Muzeya (A Visitor of a Museum) is a 1989 film by Russian director Konstantin Lopshansky. You're either asking who that is, or you're one of the very few people who has managed to watch one of his obscure and elusive films.

If it is this one, then you probably came away from it feeling as I did - horrified, miserable, depressed and impressed.

A Visitor of a Museum is a post-apocalyptic film - though more similar in theme and style to Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker than any American or British production. It is very Russian. The basic plot is this: A man journeys across a wasteland (don't they all start like this) made up of endless piles of trash. He plans to visit a museum which is only accessible during low tide - which happens for seven days every year. The only problem is, the museum is three days walk away - so time is of the essence if you don't want to be stranded in the middle of a toxic estuary.
This grim and depressing world is populated by two types of people - the 'ordinary' people who are not unlike you and I...I have read, in one of the very few reviews online, these people referred to as 'The Materialists' who are presumably the scapegoat for the entire world turning into a pile of festering rubbish. Then, on the other hand, are the 'degenerates' - a rather derogatory term for the post-apocalyptic staple 'mutants'. These are incredibly pitiful specimens, all of them played by deformed actors (most of whom, apparently, were clinically insane) who mope about the 'Reservation' where they are kept to do manual labour. They are prone to fits of religious hysteria, in which they pound the walls screaming 'Let us out of here!' which becomes a sort of Christian mantra and a prayer for salvation.

Our protagonist (whose name, I believe, is never mentioned) is a tourist, who has planned a journey to this museum. He is very secretive as to why, but that is nobody's business. He simply has to register his interest with 'the Inspection' - a remnant of bureaucracy who seem to have an unusual fascination with high-heeled least one male character in the film wears them.
Several times throughout the film, the protagonist is plagued by horrifying dreams in which he bangs the walls and acts like one of the degenerates. He is discovered by one of the materialists in the middle of one of his throes and exposed. The degenerates become aware of this and decide he is some sort of messiah...
I won't give any more away - there is plenty to take away from this disturbing piece of cinema. You're probably wondering about the museum, or the journey there, or what happens once he gets there. I'll leave you to find that out.

Unfortunately, this film has never made it to any home video format. Not even VHS. So how do you watch this? I think there is a copy on youtube. If you have a little more patience there are at least two Rapidshare sources, though I think these are without subtitles. There are also several torrents floating around with subtitles, so extract these from the torrents and get the film itself from Rapidshare would be my recommendation. The copy I watched was actually of very good audio/video quality - which is strange, and makes me wonder where it was sourced. I recommend this to fans of Tarkovsky and anyone interested in this sort of film (even Book of Eli tipped its hat to this film...I find it completely baffling how this movie is not well-known). I don't think I'll get into any trouble for advertising this, so here is a link to a high quality MKV file of the film, 1GB in size.
You'll have to find the subtitles elsewhere!