Each week we take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of the home entertainment offerings, reviewing and rating the films and the special features packed onto the discs.
Release of the Week
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
The BFI have been working hard on their Masters of Cinema collection, a British equivalent to the Criterion Collection. This is their fifth and final introduction into the John Cassavetes collection which includes Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night. The story of Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara – mesmerising), a small strip-club owner who gets in too deep with some murky characters because of his consuming gambling addiction which leaves him $23,000 in the red. The mob then use this as a handle to blackmail him into murdering someone to wipe off some of his debt. It goes behind the scenes of a seemingly successful man living out the American dream when nightmarish darkness and bad deeds operate everything behind the red curtain of the stage.
There are two versions to watch: the original 134 minute 1976 version or the shortened, recut 109 minute version. Both have the same story but they’re dealt with in different ways and scenes, and even alternative takes to each other. There’s even a change in characters with the shortened version making the Mafiosi seem much more menacing and threatening on the screen when they scam a doctor for files on her patients which shows how merciless and crippling they can and want to be. These devious people are setting this character up to fail at the table for either the money or to be able to strong-arm him – and others – to do their dirty work to keep their hands clean. It’s a brilliant depiction of the muddy background that tramples the idealistic view of appearances – one which Ben Gazzara soliloquises magnificently.
Sometimes the camera technology is too behind for this film by being too dark to see the details or too dark to even register what’s on the screen, as it’s mostly at night. Other times the visuals are beautiful. There are moments when Cosmo is walking around the club, with the stage lights bright and blaring, that are simply gorgeous. Shots in the streets have bokehs in the background surrounding the characters to make it look effortlessly pretty. It’s simple visceral visuals are not dissimilar from Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Taxi Driver which was released the same year. John Cassavettes was an apparent influence which can be seen in Scorsese’s early work as well as a direct reflection in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.
Enigmatic performances are throughout, especially from Timothy Carey and Seymour Cassel as two members of the mob shaking Cosmo down, and the performance of Mr Sophistication by Meade Roberts as a self-involved performer believing he’s the best of a show in a strip club. Ben Gazzara does steal the show with his pinpoint precision performance as Cosmo Vitelli. It’s captivating, enigmatic and poignant with every look and word. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie of most definitely a must see.
There are two editions: standard and special. The standard edition is a dual format two disc collection which features commentary by Al Ruban and Peter Bogdanovich on selected scenes. You also get both cuts in an illustrated booklet with an essay by Tom Charity and pieces by Al Ruban and John Pym. The Collector’s Edition features a limited third disc as there are only 1000 copies available. It has the two previous discs mentioned before as well as a third disc featuring a short starring John Cassavettes called The Haircut (1982) by Tamar Simon Hoffs. There’s also a documentary called Anything for John (1993) by Doug Headline which is feature length running at 91 minutes. There is also an extra six-minute interview with Tamar Simon Hoffs.
Welcome to the Punch
Director Eran Creevy made a solid, promising debut with Shifty a few years back. It was a focused, tight screenplay based on Creevy’s life growing up in London that managed to be entertaining and real whilst never feeling contrived in the way that similar films have done. For his next feature, Welcome to the Punch, Creevy has decided to do a complete 180 from Shifty and make something bigger in scope and more ambitious. Whilst not at all terrible, Welcome to the Punch feels a little bit like a director trying to run before he can walk.
The film starts with driven and determined cop Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy) racing after armed robber Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong) trying to catch him in the middle of his latest job. Lewinsky catches up to Sternwood without back up and ends up shot in the knee in the process. Sometime later and Sternwood, hiding out in Iceland, is brought back when his son is killed in London after an arms deal goes bad. Sternwood comes back and Lewinsky, traumatized by his injury but no less determined, gets wind of this and he sees his chance to put Sternwood away. Whilst the two of them do their separate investigations, they are drawn closer together and uncover a larger conspiracy which will throw them both together whether they like it or not.
The advertising will have you believe that Welcome to the Punch is some sort of attempt at a British version of Michael Mann’s masterful Heat. The truth is this is much closer to the Hong Kong action films of the late 80s and early 90s and John Woo’s ‘Heroic Bloodshed’ sub-genre that he invented almost single-handedly at the time. The two central characters are interesting and driven, fully fleshed-out human beings. Mark Strong has tons of presence and is ideal for a role like this, but McAvoy is less successful. The actor is slightly miscast as a grizzled, driven cop and his relative youthfulness works against him. Nevertheless, the two characters are different enough from your typical British crime saga archetypes to remain compelling. For all of the good work that these two do, the screenplay badly lets down its female characters, with the great Andrea Riseborough being underused it an underwritten and basic role.
The action scenes really emulate the best of John Woo’s work rather than the celebrated gun battle in Heat. Creevy employs slow motion and exploding scenery, although does go too far in his homage during a tense stand-off in a low rent elderly flat. It descends into borderline parody and robs the scene of its power. Overall, Creevy does a solid job here and hats off to him for trying something different with the British crime film. The trouble is that after a certain point the script becomes predictable and by the numbers. Although it does make a relatively timely statement about guns on Britain’s streets, you can probably work out where it’s going once you learn that McAvoy and Strong’s characters will be forced to work together. Although you have never seen London filmed in quite so striking a manner and in such style, it means nothing if you don’t have the substance to back it up and this is what limits Welcome to the Punch to good rather than classic.
A Q&A with Creevy, Strong and producer Rory Aitken confirms that Eran Creevy was trying to make a British heroic bloodshed film, and he name checks the likes of John Woo and Ringo Lam. We also learn that a surprising amount of stuff was cut from the film with regards to McAvoy and Strong’s central duo, which would have pushed the film further into Heat territory. We also learn how difficult it is to get filming permission in Canary Wharf and how having Ridley Scott attached as a producer opens certain doors.
A Behind the Scenes feature reveals that the movie took two years to write and that the title comes from a pub that they came across whilst filming Shifty. There is also a trailer. For all the talk of deleted footage in the Q&A, we don’t get to see any of it and that’s a real shame as what was cut sounds fascinating.
The original Red Dawn, co-written and directed by John Milius, is a highly regarded film amongst those of a certain age. Viewed now, it is at best a teenage wish fulfilment fantasy representative of what was going on politically at the time. Things start promisingly with this long-delayed remake with a credit sequence that emphasises the tension between North Korea and the rest of the world, as well as the economic collapse. You could be forgiven for thinking that you were about to get some kind of savage satire of American political attitudes in the current climate or at least an action movie with a point. Sadly this credit sequence is as relevant as the new version of Red Dawn gets.
We meet Josh Peck who plays a unlikeable high school football star with an airhead girlfriend. He has an older brother who is a marine on shore leave from Iraq, played by Chris Hemsworth. Adrianne Palicki plays a girl who fancies him. This is all the character development you get. Suddenly, North Korea is illogically parachuting from the sky and planes are crashing into suburbia. The teens we have previously met get in trucks and cars and start running over soldiers who have just landed like all this was expected when they got up that morning. They set up camp in the woods and form a terrorist unit because Hemsworth has trained them in the first montage (we get about 50 here!). Then there are a series of explosions and gun battles for an hour and fifteen minutes and then it ends.
This could have been a savage satire like Starship Troopers for the modern age, you get hints at this in the way that North Korea very quickly has collaborators within the US and the way that youth’s actions are very similar to insurgent activity in certain real-world countries that have been invaded. First time director and former stunt co-ordinator Dan Bradley has no idea about any of this though, and his cast spout cliché ridden macho dialogue without any hint of irony. The film plays out in almost endless montage, like the action highlights of a longer and better film. If this were just a dumb action movie that would be enough but even the action is very badly staged. Horrendous acts of violence are often cuts away because the actors are supposed to be teens, and it just wouldn’t reach the widest possible audience to show the consequences of their actions. The film glorifies the firing of a gun but not the impact of the bullets.
In fitting with the quick cut and hollow nature of the film, you get interviews and making of segments which probably put together would equal about 25 minutes, but instead they are all split into 2 minute separate shorts with the same clips of the film playing over and over. There is no insight into any of the substance or the time period we live in, just young actors saying how much fun they had shooting guns and bonding with each other. The director is almost completely absent, which says a lot.
Kill for Me
Director Michael Greenspan made some minor waves in the straight to DVD market a couple of years ago with the Buried-like, Adrien Brody starrer, Wrecked. That film had a great central performance but it failed to live up to the its interesting premise. His follow-up film Kill for Me suffers from a similar lack of identity which renders it rather forgettable.
College roommates Amanda (Kate Cassidy) and Zoe (Shannon Chan-Kent) are moping around over the disappearance of their friend Natalie (Leah Gibson). Eventually, Zoe decides to re-rent Natalie’s room and this is when Hayley (Tracy Spiridakos) comes in. Hayley is weird and scarred, fleeing something awful. Nonetheless, she bonds with Amanda when she helps defend her from her increasingly dangerous stalker that keeps hanging around. The two of them begin a passionate affair that eventually tips over into murder. One good turn deserves another and so Hayley talks the shell-shocked Amanda into helping her get rid of her abusive brute of a father (Donal Logue) whom she blames for the death of her mother.
For such a silly, twisty story and a film that borders on out-and-out exploitation, the presentation of Kill for Me is very flat. There is nothing to give you a clue that you are not watching another episode of Pretty Little Liars or The Vampire Diaries, without the vampires. Kate Cassidy’s performance is also very flat, she is obviously great eye candy and her passionate scenes with Tracy Spiridakos have the desired effect. Beyond this though, Cassidy’s delivery is terribly monotone and plank like. It’s almost as if she was just turning up to be meat in another teen slasher. Luckily, Spiridakos is absolutely great as an extremely troubled young woman and she strikes a very believable note as her self-pity and lies pile up on each other. Donal Logue is equally solid as her world-weary and possibly homicidal father.
The characterisations and plot strands do keep you guessing until almost the end so the film, however, the monotone presentation even extends to the supposed action and chase scenes which never get the pulse quickening the way they should. You can see the potential was there at one point in Kill for Me but sadly the execution just leaves it never really rising above a mediocre distraction.
There is an unusually frank making-of feature where we get lots of behind the scenes shots of young actresses waiting around in the cold for the next shot to be set up. In these scenes Kate Cassidy gives wonderful performance as herself which somehow is better than her performance throughout the actual movie. It’s also one of those making-of shorts that makes you feel bad because everyone involved thinks they are making something daring and cutting edge. That’s your lot though.
The King of Pigs
Considering how much western animation work gets farmed out there, it’s surprising that South Korea doesn’t have a more thriving feature animation industry. Alas, they seem content to work on the likes of Avatar: The Last Airbender and Family Guy whilst the west takes much of the credit and never really release the features they are more than capable of producing. Sky Blue from 2003 seems to be the only feature produced in the country over the last ten years and that was something of a let-down until 2011 and the box office success of the film Leafie. Now comes The King of Pigs which has a lot in common with the recent cinematic output of the country, except this time it’s animated.
Our story begins where we meet two troubled adults. Kyung-Min has just murdered his wife. Jong-Suk is a put upon journalist humiliated by his boss and taking it out on his faithful partner who just wants to help. Kyung-Min has desperately been trying to contact Jong-Suk and now both of them at the end of their tether meet up for a drink. We learn that the two were friends in middle school and in flashback scenes we see how humiliated and terrorized they were as youngsters by the ruling class elite who picked on them mercilessly as poor kids. The two of them finally catch a break when Kim Chul, a fellow picked-on student who finally stands up to the bullies and reveals a dangerous violent streak which nonetheless makes him a hero to the two. Back in modern times the two grown adults talk about the past and how Chul was their hero, eventually revealing a tragic and shocking secret.
The King of Pigs was clearly something of a passion project for director Sang-Ho Yeun. It’s low budget and the animation is relatively simple, making it look like an especially arty episode of King of the Hill. Nonetheless, the animation isn’t really the point here. This is another in a long line of stories meant to convince you that high school, middle school or junior high or whatever they are calling it, is absolute hell. This hell can either shape you into a better, functioning member of society or ruin any chance you had at a semblance of a normal life. Making things worse here is the divide between rich and poor. It’s so great that the Ralph Lauren polo shirt wearing bullies feel justified in abusing the lower classes as severely as they do. This film is bleak and uncompromising in a way I haven’t seen for a while. The soundtrack and dialogue are often ruled by whimpering adults breaking down or people just screaming out in anger and desperation.
Despite being fairly nihilistic and difficult, The King of Pigs is a very compelling film, presenting characters that feel familiar if you went to any kind of normal high school with the expected social structure. The story hooks you in through its flashback and the heavy script feels like the kind of animation Stephen King would make if he was an animator instead of a novelist. Sang Ho-Yeun proves himself to be a very gifted storyteller and hopefully the relative success of this film will lead to bigger and better things.
Interviews with the director and actors where you discover that all the high school students were voiced by girls, and also that Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River was a big influence on the writing process. Interestingly, all the people behind the scenes acknowledge just how difficult and trying the material is, but at the same time, really want you to see the beauty behind the thing. Bizarrely, one of the extras includes a two-minute clip of the actors dubbing their lines in the studio which doesn’t give any insight into the process but is just there almost by accident. There is also a nice black and white sketch gallery as well as cast biographies. Finally there is a promo reel for the Terracotta film festival which is held at the Prince Charles Cinema in London and has me wondering why I have never attended. An adequate if unremarkable package.
Jonathan (Milo Ventimiglia) and his wife Addie are holed up in their holiday home while he finishes off his latest book. An atmosphere of melancholy pervades the place as they both recall the recent tragic death of their 3-year old son. A young woman turns up one night, saying she is being chased by masked men, who then set about laying siege to the home. As Jonathan and Addie try to get to safety they also move towards some measure of coming to terms with their recent loss. But the young woman who originally arrived at their home seems to know an awful lot about them.
Although branded as a horror film, Static is much more a mystery thriller, but with a more gentle tone and pace than that description would suggest. Early scenes dwell on slow shots of nature and close-ups of hands and faces that evoke Mallick more than anyone else and when the pace increases towards the mildly frustrating denouement there is at least a narrative and geographic cohesion and coherence to the characters efforts and movements towards escape. The gas masks worn by the assailants are simple but effectively menacing and for the most part cliche and obvious jump-scares are eschewed in favour of atmosphere, tension and mystery. Its efficient 75-minute run time is sensibly employed and if the script fails to help us engage with the protagonists as well as it might, the overall effect is still positive. Not spectacular, but a success nonetheless and worth checking out.