Blu-ray Review: Betty Blue

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Emphasizing a slick visual style, proponents of Cinema du Look founded a mode of film production that was a postmodern reaction to, and rejection of, the more politicised approach taken by the New Wave. Recognizing the aesthetic properties of pop videos, despite critical commentary which regarded them as disposable ephemera, this movement sought to employ a strong visual dynamic ensuring that spectacle became a determining factor in the construction of narrative forms.

A key name in the founding of this movement was Jean-Jacques Beineix. Emerging onto the cinema landscape with the 1981 film Diva Beineix dazzled audiences and critics, with a thrilling storyline about an opera enthusiast hunted by the police. Coupling a strong sense of genre awareness with inventive cinematography, the director was justly recompensed for such an audacious approach to the crime film at the César Award ceremony where the film was the winner in four separate categories including Best Debut.

After a less than successful follow up, Moon in the Gutter, Beineix was sent a copy of the novel 37°2 le matin by Phillipe Dijan ahead of its publication. Convinced that this story of a tempestuous love affair between between a mentally unstable girl and a handy man had the potential to combine his interest in crafting memorable tableaux alongside an emotionally charged storyline, the director immediately optioned the property.

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First released in 1986, Betty Blue seeped into the cannon of all time great cult films thanks to a striking, yet simple, poster which adorned many a student’s bedroom and ignited nascent interest in world cinema. A gateway film, for some, it arrived on the cultural landscape at precisely the right time. Previously, access to alternative (i.e. non Hollywood) forms of cinema was restricted to film clubs and occasional screenings at universities or film festivals but by the mid 1980s several labels had proven a previously untapped fanbase would voraciously hoover up whatever titles were made available. Releases on VHS and DVD may have sought to service Betty Blue as best as possible given the available technology but the then attainable versions tempered the film’s precisely constructed rich palate of colours knitting them into a muted version which diminished the movie . Thanks to a supreme restoration from Second Sight fans can once again bathe in the luxurious warmth of cinematographer Jean-François Robin’s deceptively simple lighting, enjoying the full range of colours (and their hidden meanings) for the first time since its initial cinema release.

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In French speaking territories the film retains the book’s title, 37°2 le matin, but due to possible confusion amongst English audiences about the precise significance of this temperature the alternative, Betty Blue, was selected based on a suggestion made by the director’s American girlfriend. Perhaps wanting the audience to become fully absorbed in Betty’s character development, Beineix successfully lobbied to cast an unknown performer in the role instead of a known actor who would undoubtedly have brought a considerable amount of baggage in terms of associations with past roles. After a screen test that delivered the precise levels of vulnerability, excitability, and sexual magnetism sought by the director the role was given to Beatrice Dalle and in playing the part she created a character which would from then on define her fictional image within the public’s imagination and be cited by the press when writing about her off-screen experiences.

Betty is a force of nature who falls in lust, then love, with handy-man Zorg (Jean-Hugues Anglade – Braquo). A tragic tale of obsession and possession ignited by a refusal to accept the here and now. Initially setting out its stall as a story about a highly sexed young couple, the story pivots upon the discovery of an unpublished manuscript and suddenly Zorg is transformed, in Betty’s eyes, into an undiscovered creative genius. Unshaken in her belief that he is wasting his talents painting run down holiday shacks in an obscure seaside resort she torches Zorg’s home and drags him away to Paris with the promise of a more fulfilling existence in Paris.

As Zorg acquaints himself with his new life he toils away first as a plumber and then at differing stages waiter and piano shop manager whilst Betty embarks on a crusade to get his novel printed. Each rejection exacerbates her underlying mental illness. Defined primarily through action, we learn relatively little about Betty’s back-story so the precise nature of her condition is open to interpretation. Initially displaying symptoms associated with manic depression, her inability to cope with bad news concerning Zorg’s manuscript decline amplifies her destructive behaviour and contributes to the, implied, development of full blown schizophrenia.

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Age has not dimmed this film’s potency, Betty Blue is even more bewitching in this enhanced edition. A movie that self consciously plays with theories about the role of the male gaze within cinema whilst celebrating vivaciousness (in front and behind the lens). Second Sight’s two disc package contains the theatrical release and more substantial director’s version alongside a specially commissioned hour long documentary featuring all the key players involved in making this exceptional film. An added bonus is Beatrice Dalle’s original screen test.

Betty Blue can be ordered from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Betty-Blue-Deluxe-Edition-Blu-Ray/dp/B00F1BKSWS/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1385527547&sr=8-1&keywords=betty+blue+blu+ray

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Betty-Blue-Deluxe-Disc-Edition/dp/B00F1BKT04/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1385527582&sr=8-3&keywords=betty+blue+dvd

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Borgen Series Three, Episodes 1 A Child of Denmark &2 The Land is Built on Law

An excellent review from the University of Sterling’s Nordic Noir discussion group.

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As Sidse mentioned at  Nordicana earlier this year Borgen 3 has a different feel to it.  After tonight’s two introductory episodes I would say it felt less political and more personal, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that changes over the course of the series.  Initially it felt a bit empty but Katrine’s haphazard torn apart private life seemed to fill that hole.  Kaspar seems to have very much taken a back seat and Torben seems to have taken some of the limelight at the TV channel.

Katrine’s emotional roller coaster twisting and turning through the roles of new mum, reporter and single woman was painful to watch.  It contrasted nicely with Birgitte’s organised smooth flowing personal life where the biggest problem was a virtual continental skype breakfast with her love interest!  It was interesting to note that her character was driven by wanting real political change rather than money…

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DVD Review: Easy Money

After several years spent working as a criminal defence lawyer Jens Lapidus penned the first volume in the Stockholm Noir trilogy. Instantly successful, the novel would end up being the fourth best selling book in Sweden during 2007. Drawing from observations gained during his career in the legal profession Lapidus moved away the school of Scandinavian crime fiction pioneered by Sjöwall and Wahlöö which focused on the investigator within a narrative that critiqued capitalist society. Concentrating on the criminal’s perspective whilst commentating on aspirational society the author steadfastly refused to demonise lawbreakers, delving deep into their backgrounds to show them as fully fleshed individuals with hopes and dreams they are revealed to be unwitting victims of an economic infrastructure that fetishizes profit .

Instantly captivated by the book’s authenticity, director Daniel Espinosa expressed an interest in adapting it but a few years would pass before a chance meeting with film producer and rights holder Fredrik Wikström allowed the project to become a reality. Hugely popular in Scandinavia the film would lead to two further sequels and an American remake is currently in pre-production.

Student JW (Joel Kinnaman – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Killing, Robocop) lives a schizophrenic life. By day he is enrolled on a business course but at night he parties with the high flying elite in exclusive bars and restaurants. Clearly living beyond his meagre means, a part time job as an occasional mini cab driver is JW’s only source of income. Enraptured by the lure of wealth and attracted to a glamorous heiress he is offered a way to finance his lifestyle by a local gang. Working alongside recently escaped convict Jorge ( Matias Varela – Arne Dahl) JW arranges a one one-off cocaine deal fully intended to use the proceeds to finance a new life but the local mafia has other ideas…

A violent thriller, it interweaves and JW and Jorge’s backgrounds before contrasting, reconciling and then once again placing their relationship in jeopardy. Despite having very little in common they are equally at risk of being discarded by the dangerous criminal fraternity which has become a surrogate family to them both. This mismatched pair may have a better chance of surviving if they betray their compatriots before being discarded and left for dead.

Combining Nordic Noir with the cynicism of the American New Wave, Easy Money creates, or recreates, an all too believable social milieu. Dripping with authenticity the film offers a view of gang culture that could only have been written by someone who deals with criminals on a daily basis.

Easy Money can be ordered from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Easy-Money-DVD-Joel-Kinnaman/dp/B00E5KTH14/ref=sr_1_1?s=dvd&ie=UTF8&qid=1384200290&sr=1-1&keywords=easy+money

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Easy-Money-Blu-ray-Joel-Kinnaman/dp/B00E5KTLL0/ref=sr_1_4?s=dvd&ie=UTF8&qid=1384200290&sr=1-4&keywords=easy+money

A trailer can be viewed here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5x2T9vNi2o

Book Review: Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simeon

Belgian writer Georges Simenon was perhaps that rarest of breeds; able to produce novels at the rate of one a month and yet maintaining literary credentials despite working within the confines of genre fiction. The precise number of works authored by Simenon is open to debate but is estimated to be in the region of 400 books under his own name and a variety of pseudonyms. Despite a prodigious output, biographical information about the author is frequently vague and contradictory. Conflicting accounts of Simeon’s life and the genesis of his most famous literary creation occur in all the main biographical texts and the twenty volume autobiography contains much which has been disputed by other sources.

Although regarded as one of the twentieth century’s most prolific writers, Simenon is largely remembered within the UK for the seventy-five novels featuring the laconic detective Inspector Jules Maigret. With a trench coat and ever-present pipe the detective frequently solved cases using intuition whilst literary counterparts (Sherlock Holmes) used precise deductive methodology. The popularity of Maigret has led to numerous film and TV adaptations including a  BBC production starring Rupert Davies which was highly praised by Simenon.

Written over a forty-one year period, the seventy-five Maigret novels have never been issued in the UK by a single publisher. Recognizing their status as modern classics Penguin have commissioned fresh translations, new cover art and will be releasing the books on a monthly basis in order of original publication.

First issued in 1931 Pietr the Latvian introduced the world to the terse detective in a case involving a hunt for an international criminal that has an audacious plan to unite Europe’s gangster fraternity. In this initial novel Simenon displayed the skills that would lead to him becoming both a bestselling author and highly regarded literary figure; an awareness of how to manipulate popular narrative forms coupled with subtle characterisations, and authentically sketched locations. A dark beginning to a franchise. The murder of Maigret’s colleague separates this book from other more cosy fare which was published at the same time and convinces the reader of the dangers Maigret must confront to solve the case.

Adroitly plotted, this is the perfect introduction to seventy-five months of regular doses of murder and pipe smoking.

Pietr the Latvian can be ordered from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0141392738/ref=s9_simh_gw_p14_d0_i1?pf_rd_m=A3P5ROKL5A1OLE&pf_rd_s=center-2&pf_rd_r=0MHW0XNAH03ACZ0AB8VW&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=430153987&pf_rd_i=468294

Book Review: Happy Birthday, Turk! by Jakob Arjouni

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At the time of his death from pancreatic cancer the seeds had already been sown for bringing Jakob Bothe’s work to a wider audience. An important figure within post war German crime fiction, Bothe wrote under the pseudonym Jakob Arjouni and had his first novel published at the relatively young age of 20. Most of the printed work centres around the private detective Kemal Kayankaya introduced in Boethe’s debut Happy Birthday Turk!. Whilst fighting the condition which ultimately took his life Bothe continued to work on a final Kayankaya novel, Brother Kemal, which has recently been published by No Exit Press alongside already planned new editions of the previous books in the series.

A self-confessed fan of Raymond Chandler, Bothe created a hero (or anti-hero) cut from the same cloth as Phillip Marlowe who was relevant to a Germany finally shaking off the shackles of post war physical and existential trauma whilst simultaneously undergoing a transformation into a modern industrious powerhouse. With Kemal Kayankaya, Bothe constructed a flawed champion who stood slightly removed from the society he was protecting and was viewed askance by locals suspicious of the migrant population helping to forge the new Germany.

In this première outing for Kayankayaa the body of Turkish worker Ahmed Hamul is found in the centre of Frankfurt’s red-light district. Hired by the widow to investigate the case, Kemal Kayankaya has to confront institutional indifference in the form of the police’s unwillingness to scrutinize the death of an immigrant. Ethnically Turkish and culturally German, Kemal feels cast drift in a land in which prejudice is ever present. A lone wolf thrust into a world of drug users and prostitutes, he’s aided by a retired policeman who knows far too much and yet reveals very little.

Mixing tropes from the American hard boiled tradition with sociological analysis of how Germany treated the migrant community in the mid 1980s Happy Birthday Turk! introduced an important voice into the cannon of European crime fiction who would continue to use the genre as a means to explore social and political changes in subsequent books.

Happy Birthday, Turk! Can be ordered from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Happy-Birthday-Turk-Kemal-Kayankaya/dp/184243781X

Blu-ray Review: The Night of the Hunter

Simon Callow’s preface to the twenty fifth anniversary edition of Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor notes with some sadness that the performer is rapidly being forgotten by a generation of viewers who perhaps due to increasingly infrequent TV screenings have yet to see and appreciate the magnificence of his craft. Even amongst acting professionals Laughton’s name does not elicit any significant levels of recognition in anyone under 40.

Whilst his multitude of screen performances await reappraisal, Laughton’s sole stab at directing has undergone a complete critical rehabilitation since its release. Treated with scorn by pundits and ignored by audiences, The Night of the Hunter’s stature has steadily grown and this once derided movie is now regarded by cinephiles as being one of the finest examples of Film Noir. Proof that The Night of the Hunter is now celebrated by the very elite which once rejected it was offered in 1992 when the film was selected by the United Sates Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.

The re-evaluation, particularly with regards cinematography, is somewhat ironic as for decades the film has been presented in an alternate aspect ratio which removed picture information and neutered a carefully constructed cinematic canvas. For the first time since its original release viewers now have the opportunity to view the movie as it was intended thanks to the release on Blu-ray of a restored edition sourced from 35mm film elements.

In 1954 Charles Laughton enjoyed his most significant Broadway success directing Henry Ford in Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. Recognizing his talent and keen for Laughton to forge a career away from acting producer Paul Gregory began actively seeking out projects which might be suitable for a debut behind the camera lens; ‘I wanted to bring Charlie into focus as a top director and have him quit performing; the performances were what was killing him; he needed to find something where he could direct one or two things a year and make all the money he needed. That was the goal I had for Charles. With me producing and him directing, and when he didn’t direct, we’d be co-producers.’ No doubt planning a multimedia empire which would conquer stage and screen, Gregory optioned a best selling novel by Davis Grubb about a murderous preacher. Inspired by the true life story of serial killer Harry Powers who placed adverts in local newspapers fully intending to slay anyone who replied and steal their money, Grubb’s novel was short-listed for the National Book Award.

Armed with development funds from United Artists, Gregory and Laughton recruited James Agee to translate Grubb’s prose into a story that would electrify movie audiences. An influential film critic and author of the screenplay for The African Queen, Agee had descended into a life dominated by alcohol abuse and would be dead within a year of the film’s release. For decades Agee’s authorship of the script has been contested, apocryphal tales have circulated of an elaborate but unfilmable draft which was rejected and replaced by one written in haste by Laughton. Agee’s contribution was further cast into doubt by unverifiable accounts of him being excluded from the set due to drunken behaviour. Additional confusion was caused by the publication of the filmed version in James Agee’s Five Film Scripts. More recent scholarship has substantially restored Agee’s reputation proving beyond all reasonable doubt that he was the author of the screenplay. In 2004 the

More recent scholarship has substantially restored Agee’s reputation proving beyond all reasonable doubt that he was the author of the screenplay. In 2004 the long lost first draft of Agee’s script was discovered and whilst being over-length it is reported to contain each scene present in the finished film and carefully delineates the precise division of acts. Surviving production memorandums suggest a far more cordial relationship with Laughton than has been previously hinted at and a greater presence by Agee throughout the film’s production. Just as Agee’s contribution has been erroneously discredited and then restored, Charles Laughton’s claim to be the sole director became a contentious issue due to statements from Robert Mitchum alleging that he was responsible for several key sequences. Arrow Films’ Blu-ray release of

Just as Agee’s contribution has been erroneously discredited and then restored, Charles Laughton’s claim to be the sole director became a contentious issue due to statements from Robert Mitchum alleging that he was responsible for several key sequences. Arrow Films’ Blu-ray release of The Night of the Hunter accords Laughton his rightful status as the film’s sole director and in doing so shatters many falsehoods which have been reported in biographies and articles over the years.

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Made towards the end of the Film Noir movement, The Night of the Hunter is a dark and twisted nightmarish view of small-town America shot through with black humour and sexual innuendo. Undeniably influenced by German Expressionism in terms of framing and the use of light, shade, and distorted perspectives alongside various techniques accrued during the course of Laughton’s experiences directing for the stage .

During pre-production Laughton (alongside Welles alumni Stanley Cortez) rejected excessive theorizing about stylistic approaches and instead screened whatever D.W.Griffiths films were available. In seeking to learn how to the rules of film grammar through studying a pioneer’s work Laughton was echoing the behaviour of Orson Welles who alongside cinematographer Gregg Toland watched John Ford’s Stagecoach a reported forty times during production of Citizen Kane. The extent to which this parallel with Welles’ own research methodology is coincidental or deliberate is unrecorded.

Set within depression era America, the film combines the tropes of Southern Gothic with themes present in the more grotesque Brothers Grimm folk tales. Ben Harper (Peter Graves) is arrested by police following a bank robbery in which two people were slain. Wishing for his children to avoid the levels of deprivation that were becoming increasingly commonplace during the 1930s Ben conceals the money with daughter Pearl’s (Sally Jane Bruce) ragdoll making her and brother John (Billy Chapin) vow to never reveal the location of the stolen stash. Whilst in prison awaiting execution Ben shares his cell with confidence artist Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) who is eager to get his hand on the on the cash. Upon release from the penitentiary Powell inveigles widow Willa Harper (Shelly Winters) into marrying him and begins a campaign of psychological and physical torture in order to find the proceeds from Ben’s robbery.

During initial conversations about the part Laughton told Mitchum ‘this character I want you to play is a diabolical shit.’ Understanding what the director wanted from him Mitchum gave what may be his most intense screen performance, constantly diabolical and ghoulish whilst a lesser actor might have given a more arch reading of the part.

Told from the perspective of two children Ben and Pearl, The Night of the Hunter‘s macabre flourishes recall Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, Robert Wiene, and Paul Wegener alonside the aforementioned D.W. Griffiths. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez had already experienced greatness working alongside Welles on The Magnificent Ambersons and would say of his time with Laughton; ‘… the most exciting experience I’ve had in the cinema was with Charles Laughton on Night of the Hunter … every day I consider something new about light, that incredible thing that can’t be described. Of the directors I’ve worked with, only two have understood it: Orson Welles and Charles Laughton.’

Dejected by the critical and commercial disappointment Laughton never again directed a feature film leaving us this solitary glimpse into the promise of genius which might have transformed the cinematic landscape. A deeply personal work informed by the director’s love of cinema (he had a teenage crush on Lillian Gish who appears in this film).

Arrow Films’ package includes an archive interview with Stanley Cortez and a feature length documentary, Charles Laughton Directs “The Night of the Hunter” which is compiled from rushes discovered by Robert Gitt. In several interviews Mitchum diminished Laughton’s contribution, claiming that the director did not get along with the child actors and handed these sequences over to other personnel but thanks to this bonus feature we can see that the reverse is in fact a more accurate account; great care was taken to coax honest performances from the children and throughout the director is in total control of the proceedings.

The Night of the Hunter can be ordered from Amazon