Friday, May 30, 2014

Ravenous: Blu-ray review

Once upon a time the big movie studios would occasionally make a risky film - sometimes with a bunch of money, and other times with just a little bit. Either way, it was an artistic gamble, and sometimes it would pay off, and other times it wouldn’t. This never seems to happen anymore, where all such choices are made only after myriad polls, research, and analysis, rather than from the gut. These days the risky fare is showing up on TV in the forms of shows like Hannibal (as perfect an example as any for this particular review). I’ve always wanted to meet and shake the hand of the Fox exec[1] who greenlit Ravenous - a period black comedy-horror western about cannibalism, in which the central character, Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce), doesn’t even speak a complete sentence for the first half hour. 

The modestly budgeted film ($12 million) tanked something fierce upon its release in spring of ‘99. Despite opening on over a thousand screens, its B.O. take was only around $2 million. But, as many movies of quality do, Ravenous lived to see better days, and over the years amassed a pretty hardcore cult following (undoubtedly aided by the increasing popularity of its two stars, Pearce and Robert Carlyle).

In the midst of the Mexican-American War circa 1847, Boyd, having been branded a coward by General Slauson (John Spencer), is sent to Fort Spencer in the remote, wintry Sierra Nevadas, where nothing ever happens. The Fort is staffed by a motley collection of military misfits played by Jeffrey Jones, Neal McDonough, Jeremy Davies, David Arquette, and Stephen Spinella, as well as a pair of Native siblings, amusingly named George (Joseph Runningfox) and Martha (Sheila Tousey, the only female in the picture). The trend of isolated boredom is bucked by the arrival of the mysterious Mr. Colqhoun (Carlyle). Starving and near death, he tells a tale of survival involving Colonel Ives – a member of his party who resorted to cannibalizing the rest of the expedition when the food ran out.

And little more should be said about the plot to the uninitiated. Knowing much else about Ravenous would spoil its manic twists and turns. The script’s unpredictability is one of the film’s numerous strong attributes. Despite its gruesome, graphic depictions of humans dining on each other’s flesh, the film has been called by many (including yours truly) a vampire movie in disguise. There are aspects of its story that echo the relationship of Louis and Lestat in Interview with the Vampire, yet on this viewing I found myself not wanting to acknowledge the vampiric parallels – as if they might somehow take away from the uniqueness of the movie, which actually bases its extensive chowdown on the Algonquian Wendigo myth. Maybe back in ’99 we needed to make such connections and conditions in order to accept a movie that revolves around such an unsettling topic, but today we’re living in a world in which a network series like Hannibal has been granted a third season. There’s no longer any reason to romanticize or qualify Ravenous to those who aren’t in the know, for if you’ve dined on Hannibal for thirteen weeks straight, this 100-minute movie should be a walk in the park (albeit a pretty twisted park).

Behind the lens, Ravenous was directed by the late Antonia Bird, a last minute replacement after the film’s original director, Milcho Manchevski, parted ways with the production after shooting began. Bird was brought onboard at the insistence of Carlyle who’d worked with her on two previous pictures, Priest and Face. Though Priest ruffled a few feathers upon its 1994 release, and met with a fair amount of acclaim, it might still be fair to say that Ravenous will be the movie for which she’ll ultimately be most remembered. The moody cinematography was accomplished by Anthony B. Richmond, and while recent credits of his aren’t particularly impressive, he once upon a time helped give a number of Nicolas Roeg movies - such as Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth - their distinctive looks. The screenplay was the debut of Ted Griffin, who’d go on to co-create another hailed concept that failed to find an audience, the recent one-season FX TV wonder, Terriers.

But perhaps the most exceptional layer of Ravenous is its score. I’ve often heard it said that the best movie scores are the ones you don’t notice, an assertion I take great issue with. To me, the best scores are the ones that stick in your mind – hopefully along with the rest of the picture – for weeks after having experienced them. Michael Nyman had created many such scores for the films of Peter Greenaway, though perhaps his most famous score was for Jane Campion’s The Piano. Here Nyman is, curiously, paired with Damon Albarn, who is nowadays best known as the mad genius behind Gorillaz. Together (or rather apart; they allegedly made their contributions separately), Nyman and Albarn composed and created a work that stands on its own, ranging from quirky tonal sounds to full on majestic orchestrations. The now out of print Ravenous soundtrack goes for pretty big dollars these days, which itself is something of a testament to its quality. Let the menu screen of this disc spin for a while in the background, and the central theme will undoubtedly hypnotize you.

The print used for this Blu-ray had some noticeable dirt on it, but after a bit it either disappeared or, caught up in the movie and I was, I ceased to notice it. While nobody will ever accuse Ravenous of having a varied color palette, the movie looks fair here, but not stellar; inconsistent would probably be the best word to describe it. The 5.1 DTS-HD audio track fares considerably better, in all the right places.

Blu-ray Extras: The very best DVD/Blu-ray extras are often produced years after the movie itself, once the actors and/or crew have gained some perspective on the proceedings, or when there’s no longer any danger of offending co-workers or executives or what have you. This Scream Factory Blu-ray offers up a recently shot 20-minute interview with Jeffrey Jones entitled “The Ravenous Tales of Colonel Hart,” in which he, as a history buff, discusses the implications of manifest destiny as presented in the picture and candidly dishes on the firing of Manchevski and the hiring of Bird. For the Ravenous buff, this is outstanding stuff and a welcome inclusion.

The rest of the extras are, I believe, all ported over from the original DVD release. There are three, count ‘em three, commentary tracks: Bird and Albarn, Griffin and Jones, and finally Carlyle flying solo. There are also deleted scenes with optional commentary by Bird, a theatrical trailer and TV spots, and two galleries of stills detailing the costume and production design. As with many Shout/Scream discs, the artwork can be flipped over to reveal an alternate cover that matches the original Ravenous movie poster art (pictured).

[1] While I can’t find a definitive answer, it appears that the late Laura Ziskin, who headed the arm of Fox (Fox 2000) that produced Ravenous, may have been the culprit.

Portions of this review were lifted from an earlier Rued Morgue article entitled Five Great Movies You May Not Have Seen...But Should.

Screenshots were taken from Vagebond's Movie Screenshots.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Doctor Who: The Enemy of the World DVD review

When the two recovered Patrick Troughton Doctor Who serials were revealed found last year, it was easy for “The Web of Fear” to get all the attention. It is, after all, one of the best Who serials of the sixties, and that find – even with one remaining missing episode – was a landmark. Naturally, “The Enemy of the World” took a bit of a backseat to all the fabulous Yetiness, atmospheric faux London Underground, and the greatness of the Great Intelligence. “The Web of Fear” takes little more than a casual glance in its direction to be able to declare its “classic” status. By comparison, “Enemy” does not feel as instantly, recognizably perfect, and some aspects of it (the arguably tacky futuristic costuming[1], a potentially rambling narrative, and no monsters or aliens) might be off putting to some.

For this viewer, though, “The Enemy of the World” gets better and better with each successive viewing, and I’m now at the point where I’m really sort of in love with the entire affair. From the word go – with the TARDIS materializing on a beach, and the Doctor stripping down to long underwear and jumping into the ocean for a dip – the serial feels like something very special indeed, and Episode One continues with that vibe for the duration of its running time.

Victoria: “Perhaps we’ve landed in a world of madmen!”
The Doctor: “They’re human beings, if that’s what you mean, indulging their favorite pastime – trying to destroy each other!”

Mary Peach as Astrid Ferrier
Farther down the beach, a group of men spy the time travelers, and inexplicably recognize the Doctor. The trio is then chased by the men in a hovercraft, and is subsequently rescued by a blond woman in a helicopter who takes them to a safehouse, where they barely have time to catch their breath before coming under attack once again. After making yet another daring escape, the woman, Astrid Ferrier (Mary Peach, the serial’s most valuable guest player), takes the time travelers to meet Giles Kent (Bill Kerr), and the story unfolds: The Doctor is a ringer for the man poised to all but take over the world, Salamander. Giles fanatically leads a resistance movement with Astrid as his second in command. Their proposal is as seemingly simple as it is realistically complex: Will the Doctor impersonate Salamander, and aid Giles in bringing him down once and for all?

Beyond Episode Three, which has been around for ages (available in the “Lost in Time” DVD box set), my only real previous exposure to this story was the Target novelization, written by Ian Marter, which I devoured as a teenager. That was a long time and many Target novelizations ago, but my most vivid memory of that book was its thrilling sense of adventure – perhaps even more so than the average Target book. All these years later, and “Enemy” really lives up to enough of what my 14-year old imagination conjured up. It has been described by some as James Bond-like, an idea that I struggled with until maybe the third viewing, at which point it came into focus. The scope of the entire thing is global. It takes place in 2018 on an Earth that’s been divided by world government into zones, and the action occurs across several of them, including the story’s primary setting, the Australasian Zone (specifically, Australia).

Of course, the entire thing was made in the U.K., but all factors considered, the serial does a fine job of living up to all the script’s ideas, mostly through clever writing and the diversity of its characters. That perfect first episode, with its mesmerizing location shooting, gives way to a largely studio-bound subsequent five episodes that despite the odds manage to really work. It is deceptively good fare, and though it can feel sprawling and unfocused, the key to getting it, I think, is to really invest in all the characters no matter how seemingly fleeting their appearance. Not everyone is always who they seem, and nearly everyone has a significant role of some sort to play.

Astrid: “Oh, you’re a Doctor?”
The Doctor: “Not of any medical significance.”
Astrid: “A Doctor of law? Philosophy?”
The Doctor: (slyly) “Which law? Whose philosophies, eh?”

The story, as I understand it, was devised due to Patrick Troughton’s desire to stretch his talents a bit, and so here he plays both the hero and the villain (with the two characters only sharing screentime in, literally, the serial’s final moments), a gimmick that works splendidly. Salamander gets a great deal of screentime throughout, and thus the Doctor is never quite as front and center as he normally would be, giving the production a markedly different texture. Making the villain so deviously layered and central to the goings-on is nothing short of a masterstroke, and Troughton slips so wholly into the role it becomes easy to forget it’s the same man who plays the Doctor.

So he excels as this new character, and as the Doctor he’s also got unusually great material to play with. Where his performance just dazzles is in the scenes in which the Doctor is learning to imitate Salamander - not just mastering the thick, Mexican accent, but also adopting his mannerisms, and cultivating the look. Troughton’s performance within his performance (inspired by yet another performance) is a revelation, even by the already impeccably high standards one associates with Troughton’s work on this series. If it weren’t for Peter Capaldi’s casting, this serial would’ve provided the definitive answer to the question, “Who’s the greatest actor to have ever played Doctor Who?”

Jamie and Victoria at CSO Park
But as great a find as “Enemy” is for Troughton fanatics and Who fans in general, it’s also brilliant because it represents the very first work Barry Letts ever did on the series. Here he’s in the director’s chair, and his work on this thing is damn tight and frequently inventive (the editing, however, is sometimes questionable). There’s even a scene set in a park in Episode Two that features that trademark Letts CSO! Moments later, during a scene between Astrid and Denes (George Pravda), which takes place under a disused jetty (“A disused Yeti!?” – The Doctor), watch the way the light ripples off the water, and onto the characters’ faces – all practically done in studio. It’s no wonder he was offered the job of producer just a couple years later based on his immediate understanding of the fabric this serial needed to be made of. Likewise, he assembled an excellent cast - a number of them would return to the series further down the road in different parts. The greatest tragedy of the rediscovery of “The Enemy of the World” is that Barry Letts did not live to see its return to the fans, and to the tapestry of the series which he gave so much of his life to. Looking at it again after all these years, I think he’d have impressed even himself.

There’s a line of the Doctor’s in “The Enemy of the World” that’s entirely emblematic of the BBC’s trashing of all of those episodes of Doctor Who (as well as countless other hours of television) back in the seventies: “People spend all their time making nice things, and then other people come along and break them.” Thankfully, this long thought “broken” serial has been rescued and brought back to us where it belongs. Let’s keep some fingers crossed that these finds aren’t the last. 

This hallway is one of my favorite things in this serial

[1]The Discontinuity Guide – one of the more enjoyable Doctor Who reference guides ever written – takes “Enemy” to task over numerous costuming decisions. Across the board I disagree. The kinky rubber suits have aged beautifully, in a Planet of the Vampires sort of way. And Salamander’s matador getup is bold, crazy and perhaps the precise sort of thing someone who wants to rule the world might think fashionable. (Keep in mind, also, the character is from a Mexico of the future – a future where, perhaps, bullfighting has finally been outlawed, and as such the outfit is more symbolic of his ancestry.) It is irrelevant that someone in “our” world couldn’t realistically pull it off; this is Doctor Who!