Blu-ray: Dario Argento’s ‘Suspira,’ ‘Cat O’ Nine Tails,’ ‘Deep Red,’ ‘Opera,’ and ‘The Church’

Suspiria (Synapse, Blu-ray)
The Cat O’ Nine Tails (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)
Deep Red (Arrow, Blu-ray)
Opera (Scorpion, Blu-ray)
The Church (Scorpion, Blu-ray)

Dario Argento was the master choreographer of the distinctly Italian art of horror known as giallo, was a baroque, often sadistic kind of slasher movie that favors intricately-designed murder sequences and aesthetic beauty over logic. Call him the pop-art fabulist of the slasher movie set. Combining Hitchcockian camerawork, lush, over-saturated colors, rollercoaster-like thrills, and at times surreal situations, Argento could overcome the sadism and misogyny in his gallery of sliced and diced beauties with the sheer cinematic bravura and beauty of the sequences. In his best films Argento delivered murder as spectacle with razor-sharp execution and turned horror cinema into a dream-like spectacle with a dash of sexual perversity. Which may be why his films have a cult following but little popular interest in the U.S., where audiences are more interested in literal explanations.

Synapse Films

Suspiria (Italy, 1977) was his only American hit, a stylish, surreal, downright puzzling piece of seventies Grand Guignol weirdness. Jessica Harper is an American ballet student in a creepy European dance academy run by Joan Bennett and Alida Valli, who seem to preside over a series of bizarre murders as well. The story has something to do with witchcraft and a coven that has made its home in the sinister school, but then plot was never Argento’s strength. Suspiria’s fame comes from operatic set pieces of lovingly choreographed violence—one young woman dropped through a stained glass ceiling until a rope around her neck breaks her fall (among other things), another swimming through a room filled (for no explicable reason) with razor wire (the first Saw borrowed this idea)—and Argento’s dreamy cinematography and vivid, full blooded imagery. He never really made sense, but in an era filled with masked brutes hacking up kids and co-eds, Argento brought a grace to the vicious business of murder and a dream logic to terror. Watch for Udo Kier in a supporting role.

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Blu-ray / DVD: Oscar winner ‘The Big Short’ and Guy Maddin’s ‘Forbidden Room’

Big ShortThe Big Short (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – Adam McKay is not necessarily the guy you look to for dramatic outrage at the greed and failure behind the economic collapse of the last decade. He is, after all, the director who guided Will Ferrell through such comedies as Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and The Other Guys. Yet here he is, adapting Michael Lewis’ nonfiction book on the reasons behind the financial collapse and coming away with a hit movie, five Academy Award nominations, and an Oscar win for Best Adapted Screenplay (shared with Charles Randolph).

The Big Short is serious and angry. It’s also very funny, which is its secret weapon. What’s a subprime mortgage? Here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain it to you. Need to explain what a CBO is without driving audiences away? How about Selena Gomez at a casino?

In the hands of McKay and his co-conspirators, the financial fraud of the 2000s is nothing short of a criminal farce with dire consequences. For us, that is, not the folks who perpetrated the crisis out of greed, criminal neglect, and reckless abandon. In this company of thieves and accomplices, the heroes of this story are a few men who saw through the façade and proceeded to bet against the house. They are, of course, outliers with idiosyncrasies.

Christian Bale is Dr. Michael Burry, a genius on the autism spectrum who doesn’t get sarcasm and fights anxiety with death metal. Steve Carell is Mark Baum, the outraged, angry head of a small investment team whose social skills are only slightly better than Burry’s. Brad Pitt is Ben Rickert, a disillusioned trader intrigued by the findings of two young guys (Finn Wittrock and John Magaro) with a private investment fund. These guys, independently of one another, figured out that the so-called Triple AAA mortgage bonds were built on a foundation of ready to collapse at the first tremor of panic.

Ryan Gosling is the junior Gordon Gekko who narrates the story and provides color commentary with a cynical wit. A slick suit with a feral bloodlust for money, he’s not like these outsiders who, to some degree or another, are appalled at the degree of corruption and lack of accountability they discover in their respective campaigns of due diligence. He’s just a man who smells profit and signs up for his share, but it also makes him an effective master of ceremonies. He’s got no illusions to be shattered, which makes his incredulity all the more effective.

BigShort

Let’s be clear: the characters of The Big Short are constructs with no dimension beyond their surface quirks and McKay, who has the chops for ensemble comedy and visual humor, hasn’t any idea how to stage or shoot a dramatic scene. This isn’t a film so much as an illustrated screenplay sustained by screen personalities and directorial momentum.

Given that, The Big Short is the film that we needed at this time. Its star power alone brings in folks who wouldn’t think of watching a documentary, and the jumpy pace and steady laughs are just the thing to pull viewers through the arcane details of the investment business to understand how it fell apart. At least in its broad strokes. You may not remember all the economic details once the film is over but you should come away with a sense of outrage, a checklist of those responsible, and a realization that the marketplace is not some pure self-correcting financial ecosystem but a free-for-all built on greed, faith, blind obedience, ignorance, and a disturbing lack of accountability. That the film has you laughing instead of crying is bonus.

The Blu-ray edition includes five featurettes and bonus copies of the film on DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD.

ForbiddenRoomThe Forbidden Room (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD, Netflix) – Canadian iconoclast Guy Maddin has been making strange, surreal films that evoke the images and storytelling traditions of silent movies for decades. The Forbidden Room (2015), which he co-directed with his former student Evan Johnson, is like a compendium of his obsessions and cinematic fetishes. It opens on a mock-instructional film on “How to Take a Bath,” shifts to a submarine trapped at the bottom of the sea where a lumberjack (Roy Dupuis) inexplicably appears, shifts to his story of a feral forest adventure and a damsel in distress, who finds herself transported to an exotic nightclub out of an old Hollywood movie, and so on.

The film arose from a project called “Séances,” a museum installation at the Centre George Pompidou in Paris where he “remade” lost films and unfinished projects from the silent and early sound era. The Forbidden Room, partly shot concurrently with that project, is a collection of scenes and movie clichés reworked with campy exaggeration and absurd, cartoonish twists. Shot on a minimal budget, with a production design that favors ingenuity and creativity and a cast that includes such major European actors as Geraldine Chaplin, Mathieu Amalric, Udo Kier, and recent Oscar nominee Charlotte Rampling (some of them in multiple roles), it has a whimsical, absurdist sense of humor. The actors engage in the exaggerated performance style of silent movie melodramas and comedies and Maddin digitally “ages” his films with scuffs and scratches and cracks and even distorted frames as if they were from decaying nitrate prints from the 1920s. Those distortions are given a life of their own with his digital tools and even become cinematic devices of their own, morphing from one image to another as if released by the ghosts of early cinema.

The result is something that defies explanation, let alone description. Maddin make no effort to make sense of any of it, or even worry about any kind of dramatic closure. It’s all about the texture, the weirdness, the quality of the cinematic moment. This is not for audiences who demand story and character and narrative logic. But if you can put expectations aside and lose yourself in the ravishing dreamscapes and absurd situations that Maddin creates on his tiny stages with his mad collaborators, you’ll discover a cinematic experience like no other.

Blu-ray and DVD with filmmaker commentary, two featurettes, and a bonus short, plus a booklet.

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Videophiled: ‘Vice and Virtue’ and ‘Mark of the Devil’ – Sex and sadism on Blu-ray

ViceVirtue
Kino Lorber

Vice & Virtue (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) is the titillating title that Roger Vadim gave to his 1963 take on two Marquis de Sade stories, “Justine” and “Juliette,” which he reframed as a morality play set in Nazi-occupied France. Annie Girardot and Catherine Deneuve star as sisters representing diametrically opposed responses to the occupation. Girardot’s Juliette, aka “le vice,” turns collaborator and becomes the willing mistress to a ruthless and equally opportunistic SS colonel (Robert Hossein), while the idealistic young Justine, aka “le vertu,” defies the Nazis and is sent to “The Commandery,” the brothel clubhouse of a particularly sadistic brotherhood of officers in a country castle. Vadim revels in decadence and suggestions of sadism and sexual enslavement, attempting a kind of arthouse version of sexploitation by way of high melodrama and gothic horror, but it’s a weird confusion of bland elegance and tastelessness, a perverse fairy tale of innocence under assault and corruption punished in the end. It was the first major role for Deneuve but her part is small next to the power games and sensual distractions of her high-living sister and her calculating lover. They’re a natural couple with no allegiance to anything but their own power and pleasure.

Vadim made his debut just before the French nouvelle vague broke through, creating a sensation with … And God Created Woman and its voluptuous sex kitten star Brigitte Bardot in 1956. Where the rest of France’s ambitious young filmmakers were experimenting and exploring, trying to find fresh and authentic ways to express themselves and examine the world around them, Vadim was a self-promoter with an eye on the box-office and a canny understanding of how sex sells. He presented himself as both sexual rebel and polished studio man, making films with a flamboyant style and an erotic flair, even if it was all in the licentious suggestion of debauchery. Vice and Virtue comes off as particularly calculated—the spectacle of innocent beauties degraded at the hands of Nazi officers anticipate the grotesque Nazi-sploitation films of the seventies—and cynical, set against elegant locations and directed with self-consciously theatrical flair. His lighting effects, where the screen goes dark but for a spotlight on a single character, is contrived at best and ultimately distracting. But finally, there is no investment in a moral, merely a pageant of depravity mostly hinted it with the hope that the audience will fill in the rest.

The widescreen black and white film is nicely mastered and looks quite nice. French with English subtitles, no supplements beyond a trailer.

MarkDevil
Arrow / MVD

Mark of the Devil (Arrow / MVD, Blu-ray, DVD), a sadistic tale of a corrupt inquisitor and his reign of terror in the name of the church in 1770 Austria, is not for all tastes, and certainly not for all stomachs. The commanding Herbert Lom stars as the Inquisitor and a handsome young Udo Kier takes a rare romantic lead as a young Baron who rescues an innocent peasant girl from the clutches of a local witch-hunter (the villainous-looking Reggie Nalder), only to run afoul of Lom’s unholy warrior. An early entry in the “sex and sadism” genre, this is an exploitation film with an intelligence behind it, but an exploitation film nonetheless: director Michael Armstrong (with an uncredited Adrian Hoven, who also produced and co-scripted) revels in the most barbarous tortures as the impotent Inquisitor punishes innocent young maidens for his own unclean desires. It’s not as interesting or powerful as Michael Reeves’ similarly themed The Witchfinder General but Mark makes its own unique mark with Lom’s strong central performance as the power mad inquisitor and solid support from Nalder and Kier. The cynical ending that deliver a dramatic punch along with the grisly nastiness. Barf bags were handed out to audiences on its initial release.

This is the first American release by Arrow, a British label that earned a reputation as the “Criterion of Cult” for its high-quality restorations and supplements, and this is a superb disc. It’s been on DVD before, most notably in a fine edition from Blue Underground, but this is remastered in HD from original film elements and features with both English and German soundtracks (it was a co-production shot in Austria). It is sharp and vivid and preserves the filmic texture and it looks superb, a marked upgrade from the previous SD release and the definitive release of the film. (Note that the grit you see in the opening credits is on the negative, thanks to sloppy optical work by the company that added the credits.) It’s the first time it’s been presented in its complete, uncut form in Britain, where the censorship of horror films is notorious, and that same edition is released stateside as well.

It features brand new commentary recorded for this release by director Michael Armstrong with moderator Calum Waddell and the new feature-length documentary “Mark of the Times,” about the “new wave” of British horror in the 1960s and 1970s (with interviews with director Michael Armstrong among others), plus the featurettes “Hallmark of the Devil” (about the American distributor of the film) and “Mark of the Devil: Now and Then” (a look at the shooting locations) and interviews with actors Udo Kier, Herbert Fux, Gaby Fuchs, Ingeborg Schöner and Herbert Lom (carried over from the earlier Blue Underground DVD) and composer Michael Holm. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is a collection of outtakes, the trailer, and an accompanying booklet.