Friday, 22 February 2019

Parents

Cast: Randy Quaid, Mary Beth Hurt, and Sandy Dennis

Director: Bob Balaban

83 minutes (18) 1989
Lions Gate Blu-ray region B
[Released 25th February]

Rating: 8/10
Review by Christopher Geary

“Leftovers from what..?”

A decidedly odd little horror, Parents is a quirky mystery-movie of engagingly stylised black-comedy, with a 1950s period setting where the brightly cheerful colour schemes conceal a grimly brooding tale of suburban cannibalism with gigantic meals cooked for a charming family of three, devouring fleshy platefuls of glistening protein gastronomy.


Moving into a new house, the Laemles quickly acclimate themselves into a neighbourhood that’s unbearably distant for the pressurised imagination of young Michael (Bryan Madorsky, in his first screen role), a morbidly sulky boy so desperately serious, and seemingly ‘manic-depressive’, that he effortlessly freaks out well-meaning social worker and school shrink Millie (Sandy Dennis). Randy Quaid plays a psycho dad Nick in what might qualify as his career-best performance of the 1980s, at least, and Nick’s wife, Lily (Mary Beth Hurt), is the epitome of a quaintly post-war homemaker, an adventurous whizz in the kitchen who denies any wrongdoings when it comes to supersized family dinners or other housework.

    
“What have we said about snacks late at night?”

Usually, such things (like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for instance) are darkly dreary, with shocks that are hammered home with swinging axes, but here’s a differently mannered childhood fantasy about domestic betrayals, very cleverly directed by Bob Balaban, who serves up ominous chills with a feverishly compelling air of smirking normality in a sitcom format. As a character-actor, Balaban had appeared in three of the greatest American SF movies, Spielberg’s magnificent UFOlogy trip Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977), Ken Russell’s masterpiece Altered States (1980), and the sequel to Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, Peter Hyams’ 2010 (1984), so it’s fascinating to see him directing this kind of picture that reveals another side to Balaban’s genre interests, following similarly themed TV work, helming episodes of anthology shows Tales From The Darkside (1983) and Amazing Stories (1985).  


Is this a pro-vegetarian propaganda piece, centred on the familiar ‘meat is murder’ diet slogan? Yes, but Parents emerges from its various references as an unrepentantly fierce critique of consumer society, delivered for any TV dinner of your choice, with all its fatty jokes trimmed off. Some visual elements are clearly borrowed from early David Lynch’s oeuvre (particularly Eraserhead and Blue Velvet), and aspects of the Nightmare On Elm Street franchise, but Balaban concocts a startling recipe for sub-genre success, one that scores highly even when it’s matched against broader knockabout routines in Joe Dante’s excellent comedy The ’Burbs (1989).  


Bonus material:  
  • Commentary track with Bob Balaban and producer Bonnie Palef
  • Isolated score selections and audio interview with composer Jonathan Elias
  • Leftovers To Be - with screenwriter Christopher Hawthorne
  • Mother’s Day - with actress Mary Beth Hurt
  • Inside Out - interview with director of photography Robin Vidgeon
  • Vintage Tastes - with decorative consultant Yolanda Cuomo
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Radio spots
  • Stills gallery

Thursday, 21 February 2019

Class Of 1999

Cast: Bradley Gregg, Stacy Keach, and Pam Grier

Director: Mark L. Lester   

96 minutes (15) 1990
Lions Gate 
Blu-ray region B
[Released 25th February]

Rating: 7/10
Review by Steven Hampton

This sequel to Class Of 1984 is basically a standard-model exploitation movie of sci-fi and action. If the influence of Blackboard Jungle (1955), was most evident in Class Of 1984, then pre-millennial themes of corporal punishment in teenage education sting these rowdy students much like humanity is besieged in the man versus machine dramas of Westworld (1973), and The Terminator (1984), albeit with stunt gags often presented here, quite winningly it must be said, as tongue-in-cheek satire. This is when and where Class Of 1999 nods most affectionately to RoboCop (1987), as the various decision-making processes of three mecha-teachers go horribly wrong.


Class Of 1999 has newly paroled teen Cody (Bradley Gregg) going back to school where the Mega-Tech company and federal defences now provide strict android teachers capable of enforcing programmed rules against rebellious students, and brutal discipline to eradicate gang violence. Kennedy High School’s headmaster, Langford, is portrayed by Malcolm McDowell, whose screen presence chimes with the unrelated Roddy McDowell, of Class Of 1984, but also brings welcome genre references to a British movie, Lindsay Anderson’s classic of allegorical revolution in a boarding school, If.... (1968).


Stacy Keach essays the smirking yet deranged albino inventor, Bob Forrest, who conspires with Langford to employ inhuman methods, including splatterpunk SF mayhem against unruly kids. His humanoid tools of authority are Hardin (John P. Ryan, It’s Alive), Connors (blaxploitation queen Pam Grier, Jackie Brown, Ghosts Of Mars), and Bryles (Patrick Kilpatrick), playing quirky variations on stereotyped school-teachers with cybernetic enhancements to deal with disobedient children. Class Of 1999 delivers savagely cynical futurism with a gross-out horror climax, alternating from cheesy jokes to militarised ultra-violence, while also successfully bridging the conceptual gaps between aforementioned sci-fi movies and off-beat contemporary thrillers like The Warriors (1979), and John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13 (1976).     


The action-packed, explosive finale, where rival gangs team-up against homicidal battle-droids involves the rescue of a kidnapped girlfriend, before a school bus is used like a battering-ram, smashing through the main doors. The director, Mark L. Lester, is a highly capable creator of several cult or genre pictures, including Stunts (1977), Firestarter (1984), Commando (1985), Showdown In Little Tokyo (1991), Night Of The Running Man (1995), and White Rush (2003). Are some of these movies just guilty pleasures? Well, yes... but most of Lester’s work is good fun, scoring higher points than usual, especially when compared to the standards of many other movies from the VHS rentals era.    



Disc extras -
  • Audio commentary by Mark L. Lester
  • School Safety: interviews with Lester, and co-producer Eugene Mazzola
  • New Rules: interview with screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner
  • Cyber-Teachers From Hell: interviews with special-effects creators Eric Allard and Rick Stratton
  • Future Of Discipline: interview with director of photography Mark Irwin
  • Theatrical trailer
  • TV spots
  • Still gallery
  • Video promo

Monday, 18 February 2019

Class Of 1984

Cast: Perry King, Timothy Van Patten, and Roddy McDowell

Director: Mark L. Lester    

98 minutes 18 1982
101 Films Blu-ray region B
[Released 25th February]

Rating: 8/10
Review by Steve Hampton

“Life is pain. Pain is everything. You will learn.”

An unnerving portrait of violence in schools, especially with guns, this looks unfortunately so topical that it’s somewhat controversial to see Class Of 1984 getting a re-release on the premium home-entertainment format. Problems of modern juvenile delinquency are fuelled by a punk rebellion, and falling or failing education standards, resulting in quite mindless and constant aggression. In this ‘lawless zoo’ of a wholly American educational institution, a grim situation is further aggravated by drugs and racism, amidst rumbling echoes of Richard Brooks’ seminal The Blackboard Jungle (1955), and a clever title, just ahead of its time, that riffs blatantly upon George Orwell’s dystopian SF novel, 1984 (1948).


New-in-town music teacher, Andy Norris (Perry King), seems endearingly naive, but he’s also engagingly sympathetic to troubled children, even more so as he's appalled by the bitterly  confrontational misbehaviour of gangs when he’s employed at the rundown Lincoln High School. Norris is facing up to one of the greatest dilemmas of our time - how can a responsibly moral establishment figure manage to properly and fairly educate young people when so many of them simply refuse to learn anything? Active participation in various classrooms is rejected in favour of bullying, sporadic rioting, and other criminal activities.
   

Before achieving stardom as the time-travelling hero of Back To The Future, a chubby Michael J. Fox here plays a trumpet in the school band, at least until he’s stabbed and so winds up in hospital. Clever brat Stegman (Timothy Van Patten) is the ruthless gang leader who provokes everyone in sight without any obvious reasoning beyond a surly disruptive attitude, but his apparent case of utterly psychopathic charm is quickly exposed, to an opposing and unsubtly moral force, when Norris attempts to deal with the nasty boy’s cruel antics. Roddy McDowell plays biology teacher Corrigan, a man who cracks under pressure after the movie’s first hour, and he starts teaching a full class at gunpoint. This sequence is a decidedly moving portrayal of vengeful authority run amok, for a tragedy just waiting to happen. It's certainly a potent theme that media has often returned to, particularly in French TV movie, La Journee de la jupe (aka: Skirt Day, 2008), starring the great Isabelle Adjani.   


Long befre the bell rings on the closing action, one kid climbs up the flagpole and falls to his death. Vandalism in school corridors, labs, or workshops, reflects the mental turmoil of broken homes, dysfunctional families, and social depravation. Like the vicious ‘droogs’ (Nadsat for ‘friends’) in Stanley Kubrick’s celebrated A Clockwork Orange (1971), Stegman’s gang of thugs are not averse to home invasion, sexual assault, and kidnapping. Pervy gang moll Patsy (Lisa Langlois, Transformations, Mindfield), lures reactive hero Andy into a final and ultimately fatal pursuit, resulting in a night of hysterical mayhem, complete with an accidental lynching above a theatre stage.


The stunning resurrection granted to Class Of 1984 for this welcome HD release really ought to spark a career retrospective for its under-appreciated filmmaker, and the disc extras reflect this very well. 


Bonus material:

A limited edition booklet includes ‘Future Retro: The Punk Culture And 1980s Sci-Fi’ by Scott Harrison, and ‘And Pain Is Everything: an interview with director Mark L. Lester’.

Disc extras:
  • Commentary track with director Mark L. Lester
  • Life Is Pain... an interview with writer Tom Holland
  • Do What You Love - a career retrospective of Perry King
  • History Repeats Itself - an interview with director Mark Lester and composer Lalo Schifrin
  • Blood And Blackboards - interviews with cast and crew
  • Girls Next Door - interviews with actresses Erin Noble and Lisa Langlois
  • Trailer and TV spots
  • Stills gallery

Sunday, 20 January 2019

King Of Thieves

Cast: Michael Caine, Charlie Cox, and Ray Winstone

Director: James Marsh  

103 minutes (15) 2018
Studio Canal Blu-ray region B
[Released 21st January]

Rating: 8/10
Review by Steven Hampton   

Based upon a true story of the Hatton Garden burglary that made headlines in 2015, King Of Thieves is a hugely entertaining heist movie that specifically recalls the glory days of Ealing classic comedy The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), but it’s not really much like that, at all. Despite its obvious appeal as an old boys caper, full of wrinkly blokes doddering about in search of purpose and meaning in life, its crime drama explores how elderly survivors can still exist in a treacherous London underworld through twilight years with paranoia and a history of violence. These are diamond geezers, but they're a bit wobbly on replacement hips and frequent medications, while plodding through their sixties and seventies, thanks to the ensemble cast of a lifetime.


Kenny (Tom Courtenay, The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner), Terry (Jim Broadbent, Cloud Atlas), Danny (Ray Winstone, Sexy Beast), Billy 'the fish' (Michael Gambon, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover), and Carl (Paul Whitehouse), team up with OAP widower Brian (Michael Caine, Harry Brown, Get Carter) for one last job. Lounging around in pubs, ogling waitresses, cackling and guffawing like retired soldiers when they're not swearing like jolly drunken sailors, the habitual offenders of James Marsh’s movie smartly mine a rich seam of elderly veteran and age-rage humour. They might appear harmless enough but, watch out, Brian’s got a bus pass, their gang has a deaf diabetic as look-out, and every one of them is increasingly desperate for a piss.


“In this game, there’s what you know and what you don’t know, and if you don’t even fucking know what you don’t know, you know fuck all!” Amusingly, the old men’s ace is the mysterious Basil (Charlie Cox, TV’s Daredevil), a young techie with access to keys and a basic knowledge of 21st century security. To counter the otherwise leisurely pace of this Easter weekend crime, crucial action makes use of a wholly energetic fast-cutting, from the job’s prep montage to smash ‘n’ grab drama in the safe-deposit vault, so that key events play like scenes from a typical Guy Ritchie thriller.


Apart from the relaxed presence of Caine on good form, Broadbent is doing his best psycho impression as the frighteningly volatile Terry. Far more than just a starry revision of Ronnie Thompson’s The Hatton Garden Job (aka: One Last Heist, 2017), here’s a freshly iconic take on genre themes of ‘victimless crime’, with the daring actions of widely experienced villains, winningly portrayed by a gallery of great British actors, as this highly commercial assembly of instantly recognisable faces, with careers of dazzling screen credits, clearly enjoy themselves while playing infamous rogues.


Notable use of The Killers’ song The Man, and a jazzy score link this often darkly witty modern picture to British cinema’s treasure of retro images and sounds, as some vintage clips from the likes of Billy Liar (1963), The Italian Job (1969), and Scum (1979), appear in evocative career-flashbacks as a celebratory tribute to the longevity of these stars, that linger not fade into social memory, and KOT presents its true face in the well-worn, yet not always world-weary, expressions of this amazingly impressive cast of seniors.

Disc extras:
A making-of featurette
Michael Caine interview (seven minutes)
A featurette on casting the crooks
Deleted scenes
Trailer

Friday, 18 January 2019

Opera

Cast: Cristina Marsillach, Ian Charleson, and Urbano Barberini

Director: Dario Argento

108 minutes (18) 1987
Cult Films Blu-ray region B
[Released 21st January]

Rating: 8/10
Review by Christopher Geary

Even for horror fans, Dario Argento’s cinema can be an acquired taste... What one viewer regards as peculiarly fascinating surrealism, another might judge to be simply a narrative incoherence. Although it often seems that the central values of Argento’s oeuvre flip-flop, from his imitation of Hitchcockian intrigues, to pure aesthetic and technological cinematic merits, there can be no doubt his commitment to a dazzling inventiveness for murder has given us more than a handful of genuine horror classics.


Opera (aka: Terror At The Opera) rips off Phantom Of The Opera, but gets away with it because it adds raw fears and unforgettable visual stylisation to its electrifying fusion of macabre shocks, gruesome violence, black comic characterisation, and borderline campy dialogue. Oddly enough, this is a rather superior genre film to Argento’s own version of Phantom Of The Opera, made in 1998.


In Opera, understudy Betty (Cristina Marsillach) wins a coveted stage role, when the diva’s accident during rehearsals for a new version of Verdi’s Macbeth gives the young singer her first chance in the spotlight. However, the rising star soon becomes a tortured witness to the activities of a vicious killer who forces her to watch as helpless new victims die in agony. Some of this movie’s violence occurs off-screen, but our heroine’s terrified expression as an unwilling observer sells a frightful impact, so we (probably) all prefer not having to look at every single gruesome thing that she sees, anyway. Despite creative misunderstandings of identity and cunning whodunit misdirects, Opera really stands or falls based upon its ingenious and enthralling murder set-pieces, and here Argento surpasses many fans’ expectations with several spectacular and memorable kill-shots that are always worth repeated viewings.
   


Cast as Lady Macbeth, Betty survives bad luck and the cruelty of her bondage ordeals while she pits her wits against a mysterious psycho-killer. Argento’s renowned signatures of visual dazzle and creative ultra-violence have rarely been this precisely and skilfully composed, or so efficiently choreographed, whether for generating unease or habitually and crazily inventive death scenes, where the intensely theatrical unreality of a staged opera is expertly woven together with nightmarish flashbacks.


Some filmmakers would have us believe that the a vital element in the creative process is writing the script. They tell us that a good script is essential, but I tend to disagree. A screenplay is certainly not a movie, anymore than a shopping list is a dinner party, or a business plan (just ask any self-employed worker how useful a page of numbers really is!) is a factory or any other going concern. 

Auteur theory maintains that the director, carrying overall responsibility for the filmmaking project, is the true author of a movie, not the screenwriter, and this idea applies to Argento more than most directors because his best work succeeds while lacking some of the things often deemed to be essential in a proverbial ‘good’ movie. Plot structure, convincingly portrayed characters with credible motives, believable storytelling techniques and comfortable moralising are rarely found in Argento’s brand of slasher cinema.


And yet his work is just as interesting, compelling, and entertaining as other kinds of tragedy depicted on screen, and many Argento pictures boast the kind of demented narrative drive and striking mise en scene which leaves the supposedly shocking horrors of many Hollywood filmic terror masters looking sadly tame and bloodless. Whereas the average US filmmaker uses the apparatus of filmmaking like a sculptor wields a hammer and chisel, chipping and carving away excess to reveal a statuesque artwork beneath, Argento’s approach is more like that of the potter. 


When he wants a particularly grand effect, instead of removing existing material he simply adds more clay! Argento’s acrobatic camera would doubtless score highly with a panel of Olympic gymnastics judges and, arguably, the Italian maestro has made better artistic use of tools like Steadicam (intriguing POV shots) and the Louma crane (swooping abound theatrical settings) than American directors, including the widely acclaimed Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese.   


Superbly restored and re-graded with a 2K scan, in consultation with Argento, this HD release for the Blu-ray edition includes improved English subtitles for the Italian track.

Disc extras:
Aria Of Fear - a brand new candid interview with director Dario Argento
Opera Backstage - a documentary showing Argento making Opera (40 minutes)
Featurette about the restoration process


Monday, 14 January 2019

Backtrace

Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Matthew Modine, and Ryan Guzman  

Director: Brian A. Miller  

92 minutes (15) 2018
Signature DVD Region 2

Rating: 6/10
Review by Jeff Young

Seven years after a robbery gone awry, the lone survivor of a shoot-out is snuck out of a secure hospital. The patient, Macdonald (Matthew Modine), decides on the spot to take a red pill as the first stage of testing an experimental drug to fix his memory problems. A former nurse, Erin (Meadow Williams), administers this clearly illicit treatment, reviving a lost history with tortuous scenes of mental quakes and camera shakes. Stallone plays the top detective, Sykes, unexcitedly musing about professionalism and sharpness of conduct in the field. 


Proficient director Brian Miller - the maker of Officer Down (2013), headlined by Stephen Dorff; sci-fi adventure Vice (2015), featuring Thomas Jane; and Reprisal (2018), starring Bruce Willis - churns out routine or undistinguished movies, centred on cops or crooks, usually following redemptive story-arcs. Moral quandaries are explored to highlight each busy crossfire of blatant corruption and extra-legal themes. Miller often champions world-views with narrative flashbacks that convolute procedural tales usually lacking sufficient heroes or wholly competent villains.


A somewhat grungy authenticity elevates this otherwise lacklustre picture from apparent production-line origins (perhaps it was shot while Miller’s favourite lead Willis was away for his annual weekender holiday?). As a violent crime drama, Backtrace is made more worthwhile by its vaguely sci-fi mystery elements of the amnesia thriller formula, where recall forms the basis for identity and persona, in addition to uncovering a lost but never forgotten, and highly desirable prize.


In this particular case, it’s the secret location of the robbery’s reportedly buried loot. Backtrace concerns a $20-million treasure map stashed in the back of Macdonald’s head. The puzzle is painstakingly unravelled with much of the agony suffered by Macdonald, as Modine registers the character’s traumatic experiences and his intense struggle to fully remember what’s happened to him. A guns-blazing finale is no guarantee of thrilling quality, but Backtrace does not fail in that respect.