Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Picnic at Hanging Rock: The Criterion Blu-ray / DVD Combo review

Back when I first saw 1975’s Picnic at Hanging Rock in the mid ‘90s, we didn’t have the internet. And the Criterion laserdisc I owned (one of the very last Criterion laserdisc releases) was bare bones, so beyond the film itself, there was no information on it. If memory serves me correctly, for some time I believed it to be based on a true story, and the movie’s opening intro, coupled with its mission to not answer its central mystery, might lead anyone to believe that it is. It just seemed like a highly artistic interpretation of real events. And it still does today, though via this brand new Criterion edition, decked with numerous bells and whistles, it’s easier to discover the truth, which is that Picnic at Hanging Rock was based on a fictitious novel by a lady named Joan Lindsay – a paperback copy of which is included in this set.

Hanging Rock - from a distance
The story at first revolves around a girl’s school in Victoria, Australia, in 1900, and the students’ St. Valentine’s Day outing to the imposing volcanic monument, Hanging Rock (which is a very real place). Upon arrival, quiet weirdness abounds, and after several lazy, dreamlike hours, three of the girls and one of the teachers have gone missing. The second half of the film studies the effects the disappearances have on not only the school, but also the nearby town and its variety of residents. It is, after all, a small town at the turn of the century where people do not just disappear.

Mrs. Appleyard passive-aggressively terrorizes Sara
The movie is crammed with ideas, thoughts, and feelings, expressed through an intricate, restrained drawing of its numerous characters, with the repression of the time period leading to people unable to properly communicate their fears, hopes, and desires. Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts), the severe, imposing school headmistress, takes out her frustrations on the awkward student, Sara (Margaret Nelson), while the much younger and more vibrant Mademoiselle de Poitiers (Helen Morse) is wracked with guilt over her inaction the day of the picnic. The befuddled Sgt. Bumpher (Wyn Roberts), who leads the investigation and search party to find the missing, continually finds himself at a loss for words (his position, coupled with his resemblance to Graham Chapman, leads to a frequent expectation for him to finally break out with an “All right! All right! All right!”).

Michael and Albert spy the schoolgirls headed for the rock
The privileged young English boy Michael Fitzhubert (Dominic Guard, who, for my Whovian brethren, played Olvir in “Terminus”) is haunted by the disappearances more than anyone else, and he makes it his mission to find out what happened, regardless of the potential cost to his own well being. By contrast, his blue collar Aussie acquaintance, Albert (a young John Jarratt, the bad guy of Wolf Creek), is haunted by his own past, and has closer ties to the school than he could ever know. Not every struggle in Hanging Rock is caused by the mystery, yet they often appear to be reflected in it.

Anne-Louise Lambert as Miranda
What is perhaps most absorbing about Hanging Rock is not the characters we spend time with throughout the entire film, but rather the missing girls, led by the luminescent Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert), and their intellectual math instructor, Miss Greta McCraw (Vivean Gray) – all of whom cast a potent spell in the 40 or so minutes of screentime they have. Lambert is a cinematic angel, and her visage haunts the movie long after she’s gone, just as it does the viewer after the credits roll. But these days Gray’s McCraw is my favorite. The steely, calculating teacher, enlightened with a knowledge of the world that Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson would appreciate, appears to be living out of time and place. McCraw hypnotizes, not least because the movie dishes even less on her disappearance than the others. The film strongly suggests that the rock awakens something primal and perhaps even sexual in these women – something they were unable to tap into or unleash in the society they had grown up a part of, but that the rock opened, and they found inviting.

Mlle. de Poitiers (l) and Miss McCraw (r)
Yet those assertions are more my interpretation than anything else. Picnic at Hanging Rock should mean something different for each viewer. It’s that kind of movie, and the open-ended narrative is the lack of punctuation on an unfinished sentence. It’s an exercise in mood and sound (the music ranges from classical works to Zamfir’s pan flute to evocative original compositions), and most certainly stunning cinematography by Russell Boyd. Though it was not director Peter Weir’s debut film, it was the one that introduced his considerable talents to the world. Weir has since gone on to helm some truly incredible films over the course of his long career, though there’s not a one of them I wouldn’t put up against Hanging Rock just to demonstrate how strong the movie really is.

Lastly, keep an eye out for a very young Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom, Silver Linings Playbook), who receives theatrical billing much higher on the marquee than her character - an amorous maid working at the school – demands. Off the cuff: Anyone else often find themselves playing games of “Is that Jacki Weaver or Sally Struthers?”


Blu-ray/DVD Extras: Picnic at Hanging Rock arrives in a dual format combo single Blu-ray/ two DVD set, which is a recent Criterion experiment that apparently, as of last Friday’s announcement, will be halted come September. Bit of a shame, really. I can see how DVD consumers would have issues with the price increase, but Blu-ray enthusiasts that “didn’t like making room for DVDs they didn’t want” just smacks of the oft-ridiculed first world problems. As a Blu-ray freak, I am always happy to get a free DVD with my purchase, Criterion or not, so I didn’t even really have time to warm up to this new presentation before it was dispensed with. In any case, the movie looks jaw-droppingly gorgeous and the 5.1 surround track more than gets the job done. Weir uses both pictures and sound to weave his tapestry, and both are surely tighter here than on any previous Region A/1 release. 

At the top of this piece I mentioned the Criterion laserdisc. It was followed by a bare bones DVD edition in 1999, and now, 15 years later, we have this hulking combo set that includes the paperback novel. Seriously, when the package arrived, I thought there were two movies enclosed. After all this time, Criterion rectifies those previous meager presentations with a host of lovingly prepared goodies.

Extras kick off with a 10-minute introduction by film scholar David Thomson, which is followed by an enlightening 25-minute interview with Weir - a welcome inclusion, as he meditates and dishes on all things Hanging. Likewise, “Everything Begins and Ends” is a 30-minute doc featuring interviews with producers Hal and Jim McElroy, exec producer Patricia Lovell, DP Russell Boyd, and cast members Anne-Louise Lambert and Helen Morse. At first glance it would be easy to take this disc to task for not featuring a commentary track, but between the Weir interview and the doc, there’s really no need for one as plenty of ground is covered, and Hanging Rock is not the kind of movie that viewers should be walked through scene by scene anyway. 

Additionally, there’s a theatrical trailer, and 26-minute period doc from ’75 entitled “A Recollection…Hanging Rock 1900,” much of which is shot at Hanging Rock, including further interviews with Joan Lindsay, Dominic Guard, Weir, and others. Lastly, on the video side of things, there’s a 50-minute black and white short film called Homesdale. It was this movie that led exec producer Lovell to hire Weir to helm Hanging Rock, though why that is remains yet another mystery, as the tone, feel and subject matter of the short isn’t much like the feature film. Even Weir seems puzzled by the fact in the interview piece. (Frankly, Homesdale is such an oddball piece, its weirdness makes Hanging Rock seem pretty straightforward by comparison – perhaps therein lies the answer.) 

In addition to the Lindsay paperback, this edition includes a beautiful 28-page inner booklet, laced with stills from the movie, and featuring a new essay by author Megan Abbott entitled “What We See and What We Seem,” as well as an excerpted piece from a 1996 book on Weir, by Marek Haltof, entitled “Peter Weir and the Australian New Wave Cinema.”

All screengrabs in this piece were taken from the DVD.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Live and Let Die

Pimpmobiles. Alligators. A trip through Harlem. Voodoo. Cigars. Blaxploitation. George Martin. Bourbon and water. Tarot Cards. Snakes. The City of New Orleans. Paul McCartney and Wings.

“That’s just as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs.” – 007 in Goldfinger

Somebody’s out to prove Roger Moore ain’t your daddy’s James Bond.

On the calendar, 007 entered the ‘70s with Sean Connery’s last official entry, Diamonds are Forever, but it wasn’t until two years later in 1973 that the shift of the decade really affected cinema’s most popular secret agent.

The Plot: Three MI6 agents are killed – one each in New York, New Orleans, and the fictitious Caribbean island of San Monique. M (Bernard Lee) assigns Bond (Moore) to the case. He follows the trail of bodies, only to discover an elaborate heroin producing, smuggling and selling operation, masterminded by the ruthless San Monique dictator Kananga (Yaphet Kotto), who operates under heavy makeup stateside as Mr. Big, where the goods are dispersed through a chain of soul food restaurant/bars called Fillet of Soul. But faux voodoo and mysticism surround Bond from the word go, as does the hypnotic spell cast over him by Kananga’s delicately beautiful reader of cards and seer of visions, Solitaire (Jane Seymour).

The Girls: Nabbing the role of lead Bond girl must seem exciting for an unknown actress, but as has been proven repeatedly, it rarely leads to a big time career. Seymour is one of a handful of actresses to buck that trend and with good reason: Solitaire ranks high on the list of Bond’s classiest ladies, and her story is arguably the heart of the picture. The character isn’t necessarily written with a huge amount of depth, yet that very simplicity makes her complex. In a movie full of charlatanistic voodoo, she stands out as the lone figure possessing the psychic ability to see into the future. Additionally, she differs from the Bond girl flock by sporting ornate, body-covering costumes that contrast with the oft-expected “Bond girl in a bikini” mold. And she’s a virgin, until James enters her, um, life.

Read the rest by clicking here and visiting Bullz-Eye.

Monday, June 09, 2014

An Adventure in Space and Time: Blu-ray / DVD review

There is no reason why anyone should ever have made a movie about William Hartnell. From today’s vantage point he was a relatively obscure actor who, up until the end of his career, was best known for playing drill sergeants and thugs in a variety of English pictures and series that are hardly even talked about today. Before the winter of 1963, perhaps his closest brushes with true fame included working with Peter Sellers in a couple of his early pictures (The Mouse That Roared and Heavens Above!), and a sizable role in the Lindsay Anderson-directed Richard Harris vehicle This Sporting Life

But everything would soon change for Hartnell, when that last picture, released in January of ‘63, brought him to the attention of up and coming BBC TV producer Verity Lambert, who was searching for a lead actor for a new science fiction series she was helming. He was cast, and 50 years later we have this TV movie, An Adventure in Space and Time, which tells the story of the most exciting – and tragic – stretch of his career.

Though Hartnell is central to the goings-on, the movie, of course, really traces the birth of Doctor Who. Yet when I met director Terry McDonough (Breaking Bad) at a BBC America event last summer, he told me point blank that the theme of the movie was “No one’s irreplaceable,” a sentiment that, it could be argued, has practically become anthemic for the Doctor Who brand over the years. The moment a new actor is cast in the central role, people immediately begin bombarding him with the question, “How long do you intend to stay?” The thrill of meeting a new Doctor is a powerful force indeed. The idea has bled over into other franchises and media as well. In the worlds of comic book and science fiction/fantasy movies and series especially, it’s now the norm. Don’t care for Ben Affleck as Batman? Don’t worry, in a few years there will be another one that you might like better.

But few concepts have been able to make that transitional process as part and parcel of their ongoing storyline as Doctor Who has, which is only one of the many things that makes it the unique creature that it’s become. Adventure sketches the origins of that uniqueness, and gives viewers a behind the scenes peek into a process that for many is as much a mystery as the Time Lord himself. And for those of us who are familiar with the nuts and bolts of the genesis of Doctor Who? The movie must surely be a dream come true. I’m enamored enough with it I can easily see it becoming a yearly ritual.

Brian Cox as Sydney Newman
If success has many fathers, An Adventure in Space and Time suggests that Who had no less than a half a dozen. To whom should ultimate credit for the series be given? Perhaps Sydney Newman, the brash Canadian BBC TV exec who initially came up with the basic idea? Or Lambert, the determined young producer that took Newman’s ideas and turned them into ratings gold? What about Ron Grainer, who wrote the iconic theme tune, or, even more so, Delia Derbyshire, who pulled a Lambert with Grainer’s composition? Would Lambert have been able to make any of it happen without the equally wet behind the ears director Waris Hussein, who brought all of the elements  together in that mesmerizing first episode? Can anyone ever discount Terry Nation’s creation of the Daleks, which ensured the success of the series (and that’s to say nothing of Ray Cusick’s iconic Dalek design)? And surely Hartnell played an enormous part in making Doctor Who such a massive success. He believed in the power of the series and stuck with it - despite his ailing health and the toll the rigorous production schedule was taking on him - even after Lambert, Hussein, and all of his co-stars had moved on. 

The very best television is the result of a magical alchemy, and the whole of Doctor Who may be the most perfect example of that in the history of the medium. The series may have ultimately become the epic, ongoing story of one Time Lord, but as has been proven time and again over the last 50 years, the concept stretches way beyond any one person, and it seemingly, as Peter Capaldi said last year, “belongs to all of us.”

Sacha Dhawan and Jessica Raine
But Adventure is squarely focused on that first core group of people, and the struggles they went through while laying all that groundwork. Initially, the movie belongs to Lambert (Jessica Raine of Call the Midwife and Who’s own “Hide”), and her ongoing efforts to get the series off the ground. Hired by Newman (a pitch perfect Brian Cox, who brings equal parts of humor and menace to the proceedings) to expand on his raw concept, she immediately finds herself talked down to by the more experienced men surrounding her. As the first female producer (who’s also Jewish) working at the BBC, the job clearly won’t be a simple one, and she runs into sexist attitudes right and left. She soon finds a kindred spirit in Hussein (Sacha Dhawan), the first Indian director (who’s also gay) at the BBC, and the movie credits their collective, bold ingenuity as the truest spark behind the concept. The debate has raged harder than ever in recent years as to whether or not the Doctor should be played by a woman. Doctor Who doesn’t need a woman in the central role. What it needs is another female showrunner, and it’s nothing short of preposterous that a woman was the first, yet there hasn’t been one since.

David Bradley as William Hartnell
As the movie moves forward, its emphasis subtly changes from Lambert’s struggles to those of the show’s leading man, brought to cantankerous life by David Bradley (who’s getting more high profile work in his 70s than at any other point in his career, and deservedly so). What is probably Adventure’s boldest stroke is its depiction of Hartnell as an extremely difficult and often unlikeable man - bold not because he wasn’t either of those things, but because by most counts he was, and the movie doesn’t aim to whitewash such facts. But the movie also shows the effect that Doctor Who had on Hartnell - how it softened him as a person, and gave him a renewed sense of self. In the end, Hartnell wins the viewer’s sympathy as his memory takes a sharp decline due to arteriosclerosis, and he is gently let go from the greatest job of his career. Bradley may not sound like Hartnell, and he’s roughly 15 years older than Hartnell was at this time of his life, yet he remains ideal casting, as he forms a movie version of Hartnell that is nigh impossible to shake once the credits roll. This is precisely the type of performance an Emmy nomination is made of.

The movie itself feels designed to appeal to non-Who fans as well as the fanatics (though for the fanatic, it is crammed wall to wall with Easter Eggs of all shapes and sizes, lending it a serious multiple viewings factor). On this most recent viewing I was struck by the film’s similarities to Mad Men (and no doubt, the BBC’s own The Hour). It fetishizes the 60s in a similar fashion to the AMC series, and its attention to detail feels cut from the same cloth. (The cigarette smoking is off the charts.) Further, the movie tackles some of the same themes as the early seasons of Mad Men. If you know a Mad Men fan going through withdrawals, you might just want to sit them down for this one. 

If there’s anything to take Adventure to task for, it’s that it falls prey to some of the same sort of compositing issues that nearly every biopic ever made seems to suffer from. So if this manner of scripting is part and parcel of the biopic format, can we really hold it against the movie? Does Adventure need to tell the story of the birth of Who and rewrite the biopic as well? Probably not. Indeed, I’d be nitpicking what’s likely the greatest, most efficient script of Mark Gatiss’s career. He’s apparently been trying to get this picture off the ground since at least the show’s 40th anniversary (if not before that), so he’s had plenty of time to hone the vision.

An Adventure in Space and Time was the underdog presentation of Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary. Here in the States it was quietly nestled into the Friday night schedule with considerably less fanfare than its bigger brother, “The Day of the Doctor.” But it is an equally important story and one that I am so charmed by that I now want to see behind the scenes movies made of some of the other eras of the series, as well. The Colin Baker movie would blow people away.

DVD/Blu-ray Extras: We are very lucky here in the States to have this killer, three disc release of An Adventure in Space and Time. (At the time of writing, the movie has not been released on Blu-ray in the U.K.) This set includes one Blu-ray and one DVD which both feature identical programming, and then a second DVD with an entire classic series serial and some other swank extras.

Aside from the feature presentation, the Adventure Blu-ray and DVD each have several short featurettes and goodies. “William Hartnell: The Original” (5:16) is a brief examination of the man himself, including interviews with some of those who worked with and knew him, as well as a few bits of that amazing, recently discovered interview with Hartnell that was featured in its entirety on last year’s “The Tenth Planet” DVD. There is a “making-of” (11:24) hosted by Carole Ann Ford. “Reconstructions” (6:34) are scenes of classic Doctor Who that were recreated for use in the movie (some are in black and white, and some are in color). These are so perfect in production and execution one wishes that Bradley and company could be used to remake all the missing episodes. “The Title Sequence” (1:24) feels rather pointless as it is simply the movie’s credits sequence played again. Finally there are two short deleted scenes that total 1:33, the best one of which features Delia Derbyshire working on the theme tune.

The third disc here is a repressing of the first disc of the previously released “The Beginning” DVD box set. It features the entire four-part “An Unearthly Child” serial, as well as the original pilot episode that Sydney Newman so memorably loathes in Adventure. The pilot is frequently technically awful, yet the material manages to remain engaging. Watching it, it’s easy to see why Newman’s reaction to it might’ve been precisely as shown in the film: “I should fire both of you, but instead I want you to do it one more time” (bit of paraphrasing there). I remain amazed that with all of the episodes of Doctor Who that remain missing, not only do we have all of “Child,” but that this pilot is still around, too! Beyond the five episodes, the disc also carries over all of its original extras, which include four very funny comedy sketches, starring a host of familiar faces, which total around 15 minutes or so, a title sequence music video (2:36), a photo gallery (6:03), and commentary tracks for “An Unearthly Child” Episodes One (Gary Russell moderating Verity Lambert, William Russell and Carole Ann Ford) and Four (Russell moderating Russell, Ford and Waris Hussein), as well as one for the pilot episode (with Gary Russell moderating Lambert and Hussein).