From A Silent Classic To A US Independent Movie
♦Tripwire’s Contributing Writer JAMES DC takes a look at four new notable Blu-ray/ DVD releases, out now…
Director: Abel Gance
On DVD/Blu-ray now
In a Nutshell: Seminal Silent Masterpiece
Abel Gance’s phenomenal, magnificent, revolutionary (in both sense of the word) silent milestone is now restored, almost fully to its original state, and to the utmost, ultra-modern, digital picture quality, incorporating all of the extant (and previously lost) footage and elements, in a spanking brand new package, with extras galore. If you are a film buff, what more could you ask for?
Napoleon does what it says on the tin: it is a five and a half hour epic, detailing the early life and adventures of French military and political leader Napoleon Bonaparte. For numerous reasons, it is often cited by critics and experts as one of the most influential and powerful masterpieces of cinema – and they aren’t wrong, in this case. All you really need to know about this extraordinary film is that it broke countless artistic, cinematic boundaries upon its release in 1927, and it is still stunning today, especially in this new restoration. From the (relatively) naturalistic, nuanced acting of the lead actor, Albert Dieudonné, through to the – practically psychedelic – coloured tinting and toning, the barnstorming, thrilling battle sequences, the avant garde editing and bravura camera-work, the soaring classical music, to the radical and resplendent three-screen ‘triptych’ finale, Gance’s love letter to French patriotism and history is brimming to the full with stylistic and technical innovations. Just the opening sequence, with the child Napoleon repelling school bullies in an incredibly filmed, dazzling snowball fight is worth the price alone. Suffice to say that later cinematic geniuses like Orson Welles were indebted to the groundbreaking artistry and ingeniousness of Gance, in this, his magnum opus.
If you are at all serious about the history and landmarks of world cinema, this beautifully restored DVD/Blu-ray set is simply a must. Top marks, once again, to the BFI and their honorable endeavours to inject new life into the evergreen classics of cinema.
THE WORLD AT WAR
On DVD/Blu-ray now
In a Nutshell: Legendary TV History of WW2
The seminal 26-episode series The World at War premiered on the UK television channel ITV in 1973. Following on from other prestigious television series which chronicled the two world wars, like the BBC’s The Great War, of 1964, this version, focusing on WW2, pulled out all the stops. It is still considered one of the best television documentary series ever, and its influence on all subsequent historical TV programmes is unparalleled.
With the mellifluous and authoritative tones of Laurence Olivier narrating the whole history of the war, from the pre-war machinations of Hitler and the Nazis, through the myriad battles on land, sea and air throughout the world, the Jewish Holocaust and the atomic bomb, and finally to the war’s end in 1945, there is no better, over-arching document of the most cataclysmic and transformative event in modern human history. There may have been, over the decades since, many incisive, revelatory documentary films and TV series on the same subject – all with the hindsight of new expert theories and recently declassified or unearthed documents – but nothing can beat the sheer emotional, lyrical, hard-hitting intensity of this supreme historical and artistic achievement.
Each episode covers a different aspect of the war in detail, often utilising the more ‘subjective’ testimony of civilians, alongside the experience of soldiers, officers and politicians. Stunning, and often traumatic, archive footage accompanies the interviews, with literary and journalistic sources quoted to contextualise the imagery. The general historical thesis is – in the main – as egalitarian and objective as it can be, coming, as it does, from the ‘winning’ side, and give voice to all parties in the conflict, including the vilified yet essential viewpoint of some high-ranking Nazis, still alive at the time.
This new, high-definition version restores the original full screen format and includes eight supplementary documentaries, as well as previously unseen, extended interviews. All in all, an essential purchase of a television masterpiece, which exposes, in comparison, many modern TV documentaries – on whatever subject – for the anodyne and stunted rubbish they are.
Director: Josh C. Waller
On DVD now
In a Nutshell: ‘Ghost meets Deliverance’ Misfire
This is an against-the-odds, ‘survival’ adventure, starring the uber-fit stuntwoman turned actor Zoe Bell (most famous for Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 Death Proof). Here she plays a photojournalist, ‘Avery’ on assignment in the jungles of 1980s-set Columbia. She is there to document, and tag along with, a group of self-sufficient revolutionaries with cult-ish leanings, who live in the wild and supply medication to the disenfranchised poor. One day she spies their charismatic, but obviously mentally unstable, leader ‘Guillermo’ making a cocaine drugs deal with outside criminals, killing a child witness in the process. Once he finds out that she knows the truth about the murder, he sets the group after her, as she flees further into the jungle; what follows is a violent cat-and-mouse game, as she has to combat, and eventually dispatch, each mercenary as they attack her.
What starts off as a thrilling and intense, well crafted action film, with subtle sociopolitical overtones, rapidly descends into a repetitive, pedestrian, absurd shoot-em-up. Bell is good enough in the role, but there are a number of ridiculous cracks in the internal logic of the film, which impinge upon our suspension of disbelief. Moreover, it doesn’t know whether it’s a realistic, political thriller, or an over the top action B-movie. For one, we are expected to believe that an ‘everyday’ photographer, with no sufficient back-story to explain why, can, at the drop of a hat, become a lethal killing machine, drop kicking and karate chopping her opponents. Next, there is the unnecessary and quaint addition of the ‘ghost’ or spirit of her dead husband, who comes to her in visions at times of stress and exhaustion, to give her a romantic pep talk. Lastly, any real depth or meaning to the story gets drowned out by the accumulating action set-pieces – or it just wasn’t there in the beginning. (Apparently the bare-bones script was written in just two days, and it certainly feels like it!)
It’s a shame, because there was a lot of potential here, the ‘lone survivor fighting unseen enemies in the wild’ premise subtly reminding one of similarly themed movies, like ‘Southern Comfort’ (1981) and ‘Deliverance’ (1972) et al. However, this anaemic actioner is nowhere near as dark or powerful as those classics, being one for martial arts/action movie obsessives, only. Everyone else can take it or leave it – advisedly leaving it.
THE GREASY STRANGLER
Director: Jim Hosking
On DVD now
In a Nutshell: Disastrous John Waters Rip-off.
I often feel so ashamed and embarrassed for the talentless filmmakers of utterly stupid, vapid, crass movie fare that I cringe with discomfort in my seat as I watch the shameless, shallow guff on screen. But I rarely feel so mortified as to want to run for the exit: this awful, catastrophically unfunny, unutterably woeful film is just such an example.
It is blatantly obvious what the filmmakers were trying to achieve here – that they miss their target by so wide a margin is a miracle of sorts, and deserves some kind of medal for such wilful incompetence. The main touchstone and inspiration for The Greasy Strangler is the kind of low budget horrors, gross-out comedies and exploitation B-movies of the 1960s and 70s by the likes of the Kuchar Brothers, Russ Meyer and, especially, John Waters – their provocative, iconoclastic DNA is all over this film. But, paying slavish, paint-by-numbers obeisance to such underground classics is a very different matter from creating something fresh and vibrant, even when in thrall to said milestones.
The minimal plot follows the age-old story of an eccentric outsider and his journey towards some sort of self-acceptance. Mild-mannered Brayden lives with his grumpy, authoritarian father Ronnie, in the American suburbs. They are both very odd people, usually walking around in their tight undies, and nothing else. The father treats his son like scum, even though he slavishly cooks incredibly greasy meals for him – his favourite type of food. There is a serial killer at large, known as the ‘Greasy Strangler’ and, unsurprisingly, it eventually turns out that Ronnie turns into the animal-fat obsessed psycho every other night, smearing his naked body with dollops of grease before getting off on strangling his victims. But when Brayden becomes romantically involved with a girl on one of their inept and bizarre ‘disco’ tour guides around the city, the situation rapidly falls out of the frying pan, and into the fire.
I really don’t mind the parade of un-PC bad taste, gore, depravity and filth on show – indeed, I say ‘bring it on!’. That is not the issue here, as it has been for some ludicrously pious and uptight critics. No, what taints all scenes that display any semblance of originality or authenticity is the inherent problem of a postmodern take on a decades old ‘style’, amounting only to an ill-conceived nostalgia trip. The Greasy Strangler is a well planned, knowing iteration of such perverse classics as Pink Flamingos and , but – due to extremely limited resources – often the amateurish acting of Waters’ early zero-budget 70s films was unintentional. However, this did not matter to the audience, who interpreted, with their tongue ironically in their cheek, the awkward pantomime as funny and, paradoxically, ‘realistic’, in the context of, say, an inept, amateur dramatics semi-documentary. (The TV comedy ‘The Office’ was a fine example of this maladroit approach.) But when such traits are pedantically copied and magnified down to the smallest detail with sober, nerdish precision, decades after the fact, the tone comes across as ill-fitting and unwieldy, ultimately leading to a feeling of contrivance and pretension. If one is to employ such a ‘retro’ conceit, then it is a very fine balancing act between self-conscious, stilted misfire and knowing, ironic humour.
All of the ‘correct’ ingredients were there, in order to pay homage, whilst giving a postmodern spin, to the camp/kitsch classics of the past, with some new elements thrown in. But, even though the filmmakers gave obsessive attention to detail, along with the requisite themes and styles, the end result comes across as a pedantically faithful, lifeless, inept, morose, and – most tragically – unfunny simulacrum of much higher quality films; which ultimately is ironic, seeing as those original independent projects were made on a shoestring and had no, or little, pretensions to higher concepts of cinematic ‘quality’.