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DVD & Blu-ray Thoughts

Blu-ray: Dressed to Kill

Dressed to Kill Title

One of the best and most controversial films of Brian De Palma’s career is this macabre erotic thriller.

When a sexually frustrated housewife (Angie Dickinson) meets a tall, dark stranger in a museum, she sets off a series of events which involve a prostitute (Nancy Allen), her psychiatrist (Michael Caine) and her son (Keith Gordon).

Throughout his career De Palma was often accused of misogynistic violence and ripping off Hitchcock and this probably represents the apex of that period.

The debts to Hitchcock are clear: the shower scenes and narrative owe a debt to Psycho (1960) and the museum sequence is a straight homage to Vertigo (1958).

Despite this, I’ve long held the view that De Palma, at his best, is much more than just a Hitchcock imitator.

Although he channels the master of suspense, he adds his own signature touches and – at his best – the end result was different enough to justify accusations of mere imitation.

There are several memorable scenes: the bravura dialogue-free scene in the museum, a murder in an elevator, and a cat-and-mouse chase in a subway all provide ample evidence of the director’s skill.

He also manages to elicit some fine performances from his cast: Dickinson brings a glamorous, flawed grace to her part, Caine is suitably enigmatic, Gordon has a geeky, sly charm and Allen is excellent in what could have been a token prostitute role.

The only supporting performance that rings a little false is Dennis Franz (a De Palma regular at this time) as the seen-it-all New York detective, but even his character has an enjoyable twist.

This new UK release from Arrow Video is the full uncut version, which means the graphic opening showering scene and some of the violence and offending language is back in.

Although this was De Palma’s intended cut you can see why it triggered controversy at the time, principally amongst feminists and the gay community, as the film is a provocative mix of sex, killing and suspense that is artfully rendered.

When it was released in the UK it had the misfortune to open around the time of the Yorkshire Ripper killings, thereby increasing the backlash against it.

It still has a lurid atmosphere, though not a creepy one, and the stylised cityscape and shadowy interiors are all part of the way in which De Palma pushes the buttons of an audience. For some he pushed too hard.

Pino Donaggio’s lush score adds a rich texture to the film, with strings and piano cleverly offsetting some of the sleazy horrors on screen.

Dressed to Kill in some ways is the quintessential De Palma film: full of carefully constructed suspense, Hitchcock references and a sly gallows humour (what long time devotee Pauline Kael called the “alligator grin” in his work).

Although he would continue in this vein with Blow Out (1981) and Body Double (1984), he opted for larger scale crime dramas such as Scarface (1983) and The Untouchables (1987).

But there remains something distinct about this point in his career when he was allowed the creative freedom to put his vision on screen.

BONUS FEATURES

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of the feature.
  • Optional original uncompressed Mono 2.0 Audio and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround Sound.
  • Symphony of Fear: Producer George Litto discusses his working relationship with Brian De Palma.
  • Dressed in White: Star Angie Dickinson on her role in the film.
  • Dressed in Purple: Star Nancy Allen discusses her role in the film.
  • Lessons in Filmmaking: Actor Keith Gordon discusses Dressed to Kill.
  • The Making of a Thriller – A documentary on the making of Dressed to Kill featuring writer-director Brian De Palma, George Litto, stars Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen and Dennis Franz.
  • Unrated, R-Rated, and TV-Rated Comparison Featurette.
  • Slashing Dressed to Kill – Brian De Palma and stars Nancy Allen and Keith Gordon discuss the changes that had to be made to avoid an X-rating.
  • Original Theatrical Trailer.
  • Gallery of behind-the-scenes images.
  • Reversible sleeve with original and newly commissioned artwork by Nathanael Marsh.
  • Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic and author Maitland McDonagh, and a new interview with poster designer Stephen Sayadian by Daniel Bird, illustrated with original archive stills and promotional material.

Dressed to Kill is out today from Arrow Video

> Buy it on Blu-ray from Amazon UK
> Brian De Palma at the IMDb and Wikipedia

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DVD & Blu-ray Thoughts

The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation on DVD

One of the landmark films in cinema history is D.W. Griffith’s controversial Civil War epic, which still has the power to startle and shock nearly 100 years since it was made.

As cinema crawled out of the era of novelty and nickelodeons at the turn of the 20th century, it gradually began to embrace more sophisticated visual techniques.

One of the foremost pioneers of these new techniques such as the close-up and the pan, was D.W Griffith, whose film Judith of Bethulia (1914) was one of the earliest features ever to be produced in America.

But it was with his next film, an adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s play and novel The Clansmen and the result was a three hour epic set during the US Civil War.

Depicting the relationship between two families, the Stonemans of the North and the Camerons of the South, it explores the bitter divides that opened up during the abolition of slavery and the subsequent era of Reconstruction.

The film itself has continued to generate controversy: the use of white actors in blackface, the presentation of the Ku Klux Klan as heroic and the Northern armies as villains (remember they were the ones against slavery) looked appalling then and now.

Added to this was the real life rise in KKK membership and lynchings in the South due to the film’s massive box office success. (Another strange bit of trivia is that director John Ford made a cameo as a Klansman.)

So given all this horrendous back story, why should you see it?

The principle reason is that, despite all its odious qualities, the film dared to imagine that cinema could be something other than moving pictures on a screen.

More than that, Griffith managed to synthesise visual techniques into a coherent whole.

Like that other great pioneer Sergei Eisenstein, who directed cinemas’ next great landmark Battleship Potemkin (1925), he managed to lay the foundation for what we regard as modern cinema.

With the famed Russian director we got the power of editing to elicit emotion, but it was built on the tracks laid down by Griffith.

It is ironic that two cornerstones of the film industry were either racist (The Birth of a Nation) or communist propaganda (Battleship Potemkin) when it is associated with Hollywood and a global industry worth billions of dollars.

The Director’s Guild of America for a long time named their prestigious honourary award after Griffith, but in 1999 changed it because it had “helped foster intolerable racial stereotypes”.

One of the last winners of the award under Griffith’s name was Stanley Kubrick in 1997, who mentioned him in this speech:

The phrase ‘inspiring and intriguing legacy’ is an apt one.

Despite being lauded by directors such as Welles, Renoir and Hitchcock he ended up dying alone in a hotel, shunned by the industry he had partly helped create.

The Birth of a Nation retains that curious duality: it is a film that has to be seen despite itself.

> Buy The Birth of a Nation on Blu-ray or DVD from Amazon UK
> Find out more about D.W. Griffith at Wikipedia
> The Birth of a Nation at the IMDb

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DVD & Blu-ray Reviews Thoughts VOD

VOD: Arbitrage

Richard Gere in Arbitrage

A highly impressive drama about a rich hedge fund manager explores many unpleasant truths about the nature of Wall Street.

In a clever twist on ‘the wronged man’ genre, writer-director Nicholas Jarecki depicts the struggles of Robert Miller (Richard Gere), a billionaire head of a company on the brink of bankruptcy.

Only a trusted few know the truth and matters escalate when his daughter and chief accountant (Brit Marling) begins to suspect wrongdoing.

Things get worse when he flees from the scene of a car crash involving his mistress (Laetitia Casta) and is pursued by a dogged detective (Tim Roth).

In Hitchcock films such as Saboteur (1942) and The Wrong Man (1956), innocent protagonists struggle to clear their name after they are wrongly declared guilty of something.

Jarecki inverts that trope here by making his character guilty of many things (infidelity, fraud and perverting the course of justice) and still making us root for him as his tries to extricate himself from crisis upon crisis.

The casting of Gere was clever: in what is his best screen performance in years, he somehow manages to elicit our sympathy whilst engaging in some despicable acts.

But the cold truths this story digs into have any number of real life parallels in the US financial sector over the last few years.

The basic theme is that for the super-rich denizens of Wall Street anything is a deal that can be negotiated, even if that comes at a heavy cost for others.

Complicit are investors ignoring false accounting and his wife (Susan Sarandon), who ignores her husband’s mistress in exchange for an opulent lifestyle.

In the wrong hands, Arbitrage could either be a ponderous, moralising drama or an overblown thriller, but Jarecki gets the balance just right.

He is aided by some fine supporting performances from Marling (following her impressive writing and acting turns in Another Earth and The Sound of My Voice) and Nate Parker, who excels in a key supporting role.

For his first feature Jarecki has wisely recruited some solid behind-the-scenes talent: composer Cliff Martinez lends the film a tense, atmospheric score and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux gives the film a highly impressive visual sheen.

Shot on a budget of just $12 million, it has currently has made close to $50 million with a pioneering simultaneous release on cinema and VOD.

Although not the first film to take this approach, its substantial earnings on multiple platforms may be seen as a landmark, as the new release model for mid-budget indie films like this takes shape.

In the UK, it was available on iTunes two weeks before the DVD and Blu-ray, suggesting that Apple and the distributor (Koch Films) were monitoring this as the kind of canary in the coal mine.

If the US video-on-demand performance ($12 million) is anything to go by, then things look promising.

Arbitrage is out now on DVD, Blu-ray and iTunes

> Official site
> Reviews of Arbitrage at Metacritic
> Richard Gere talks to Thompson on Hollywood about the film

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DVD & Blu-ray Reviews Thoughts

DVD: Mea Maxima Culpa – Silence in the House of God

Mea Maxima Culpa

A haunting and frequently shocking expose of child abuse in the Catholic Church, Alex Gibney’s latest film explores an insidious web of corruption and cover up.

Gibney has explored corruption in institutions before (e.g. Enron, the US military) and here he examines the story of four deaf men who were abused by priests in the 1960s before travelling higher up the church.

Interweaving it with other stories, a devastating portrait quickly emerges of a bankrupt institution that has not only shattered people’s lives, but actively sought to conceal wrongdoing at the highest levels.

Intriguingly, Pope Benedict XVI stood down in February around the UK theatrical release and in doing so he became the first Pope to resign in 600 years. Many have speculated that the abuse scandals (that this film partly explores) gave him a good reason to retire.

When he took over in 2005, he immediately had to deal with a situation that led to an explosion of abuse claims and law suits against the church and accusations that the Vatican was complicit in the cover up.

Although films such as Deliver Us From Evil (2006) have covered this subject by focusing on a single figure, Gibney’s film adopts an unusual approach in starting out with Father Lawrence Murphy abusing his pupils at the St John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

It then gradually follows the trail of abuse into the wider world, which included Tony Walsh, the notorious Irish priest who was also an Elvis personator, Father Marcial Maciel, who was ‘punished’ by being sent out to Florida, and on to the Vatican.

Perhaps worst of all is that the Church not only denied and covered-up many of the cases, it also delayed in punishing paedophile priests and even adopted the policy of posting them to other communities.

At one point there is the utterly surreal revelation that at one point the Vatican suggested putting all the offending priests on a dedicated island.

Despite the dark subject matter, this is an important historical work and has a interesting stylistic touch: whilst watching the deaf interviewees, we hear actors such as Chris Cooper and Ethan Hawke voice their words.

Although such a device may have sprung from necessity, it adds an extra layer to their testimony, literally giving them the voice they were denied as young boys.

There is also some remarkably powerful home video footage towards the end of the film as it comes full circle back to St John’s School for the Deaf.

An important document of a massive scandal, it is also a stark reminder of the emotional destruction wrought by a large, unaccountable institution.

> Buy the DVD at Amazon UK
> More on the film at the IMDb

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DVD & Blu-ray Reviews Thoughts

Blu-ray: To the Wonder

Ben Affleck and Rachel Adams

Terrence Malick’s latest film premiered last Autumn to largely mixed reviews but whilst it is the most extreme film he has made in his trademark style, it has a refreshing boldness to it along with some beautiful sequences.

Malick’s work has frequently eschewed conventional notions of filmmaking with their sparse dialogue, dreamy visuals and obsession with nature.

This has been amplified since his return to Hollywood in 1998 after a self-imposed 20 year exile, where films such as The Thin Red Line (2005), The New World (2005) and The Tree of Life (2011) have gone even further than his earlier work Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978).

He has never been afraid to tackle big themes such as love, death, nature or even the creation of life itself.

In doing so he has also established certain stylistic flourishes: hushed interior monologues; shots of plants; and use of classical music.

With To the Wonder he has taken his trademark elements and turned them up to the nth degree, but whilst the end result falls short of his best films, it is by no means the unintentional work of self-parody that some have suggested.

The story centres on a man (Ben Affleck) torn between two women: Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a European he has met in Paris who comes back to the United States with him, and Jane (Rachel McAdams), the old lover he reconnects with from his hometown in Oklahoma.

In addition, there is a priest (Javier Bardem) struggling with his faith and lack of hope in the world.

They are the basic building blocks of the story but Malick does something much more radical with the narrative, stitching together what appears to be highly improvised sequences in which characters say little or no conventional dialogue.

If this was any other director then we could be in serious trouble, but with Malick he somehow manages to keep things interesting as the characters thoughts and actions wash over us in a kind of cinematic reverie.

It helps that he is one of the great visual stylists in the history of cinema and aided by his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, puts some remarkable imagery on-screen.

As the characters walk around, often tracked by a seemingly ever-present Steadicam, we get to see them engage in a loose and fluid way that not only suits the narrative approach but after a while becomes hypnotic, seeming imitating the pace of everyday existence.

There is also Malick’s trademark use of magic hour, stunning use of natural light and interesting use of locations, which include Paris, Normandy and Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

Plenty of viewers will balk at the methods of To the Wonder but the sheer audacity of the execution is something to behold.

> Official site
> Buy the Blu-ray or DVD at Amazon UK
> Reviews of To the Wonder at Metacritic