Distant Voices, Still Lives

Terence Davies’ remarkable remembrance Distant Voices, Still Lives, is one bleak story, and yet its portrayal of Liverpool formative years during the ’40s and into the mid-’50s is remarkable — and, consistently moving. Davies’ look-back at a contender for eternity’s most dysfunctional family is autobiographical as well, and this is a significant source of its power.

 

 

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

MVD/Arrow;
Drama;
$39.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG-13.’
Stars Pete Postlethwaite, Freda Dowie, Angela Walsh.

There was so much critics buzz at the time (as well as subsequent awards) over Terence Davies’ remarkable remembrance Distant Voices, Still Lives in 1988 that I’m a little surprised to read it characterized by some as a film that kind of slipped under the radar. That it did with the public (or at least non-British public) was probably a given; despite pockets of relief, this is one bleak story that no small number of cheer-up narrative asides can transform into a feel-good 88 minutes. And yet its portrayal of Liverpool formative years during the ’40s and into the mid-’50s is remarkable — and, consistently moving.

This radar element is an important part of the movie’s history because when Time Out magazine initiated a poll to determine the hundred greatest British films ever, there was something of a lo-and-behold surprise: Voices finished third behind Don’t Look Now and The Third Man (no knock on Now, which I’ve always liked, but better than The Third Man? Well, that’s a brain-stumper for another day). To be sure, there isn’t anything really like Lives, unless you count the writer-director’s The Long Day Closes, which deals with an ostracized youth growing up in the same era and milieu when he is both Catholic and gay.

Lives is Davies’ look-back at a contender for eternity’s most dysfunctional family and is autobiographical as well (and heavily so), and this is a significant source of its power. Amid the abundance of bonus extras that the consistently first-rate Arrow provides here, an unusually personable filmmaker notes that many of his narrative alterations were purely financial; in real life, he came along 10th in the family, which means nine siblings, though Davies could only afford three for the screen, who stand in for the others. We see right off that this is going to be an impressionistic treatment of the past, what with the way Davies holds his camera stationary for an unusual length of time during an opening staircase scene. Add to color processing that’s somewhere between extraordinary and singular in making his images look like a moving photo album, the product of painstaking labors by the director and his designers.

A performer whose facial structure and, of course, acting ability enabled him to be cast as both amusing oddballs and irredeemable cruds, Pete Postlethwaite plays his family patriarch as the psychotic Davies says he was in real life, and this is not an ambiguous point. We see him, for instance, beating one of the girls with a either a broom or mop (and sans mercy) when she’s scrubbing the floor, an episode Davies says he was too young to witness but one the sister/victim says absolutely did happen.

A horror he did witness — though it’s not in the film because Davies concedes no viewer would ever believe it — was his mother leaping out of a window with an infant in her arms because she couldn’t take it anymore, only be saved by a chance passerby below who was directly in their trajectory. And there’s another scene where dad and kids are eating dinner when, out of he blue, he yanks the tablecloth from the table and the food and dishes go flying. Davies says this one scene stands for the countless times it happens.

Still, the movie isn’t relentless misery — and certainly brightens some with dad’s death in the early ’50s — which would be dramatically pointless, to say nothing of un-fundable. The major point here, other than the immediate story at hand, is how much movies of the day and especially pop music can help get you through dreadful times; at least some of our selective memory about the “good old days” has a lot to do with the songs that captured the time — in this case at family events (marriages are big here) and in the pubs.

The songs here are exceedingly well chosen and hardly boilerplate choices, which means they must have heavy personal meaning; one chain-rattling juxtaposition connects Ella Fitzgerald’s recording of “Taking a Chance on Love” with a family beating. Another (the previously unknown-to-me Brit pop “Finger of Suspicion”) strikes me as an almost perfect evoker of immediately pre-rock pop (sub-category: “dreamy”) from singer Dickie Valentine, who ended up being killed in a 1961 head-on collision.

Regarding the Blu-ray, Davies does the voiceover commentary and appears on a stage interview of a half-hour’s duration. There’s also featurette with art director Miki van Zwanenberg, plural essays (one is called Bittersweet Symphony, a title that pretty well describes the film itself) and three vintage BFI National Archive short subjects about Liverpool, including a 1939 one about slum clearance that makes you appreciate the Beatles all the more. These docs remind me of the backdrop to a movie I love: 1941’s early Deborah Kerr breakthrough Love on the Dole, which takes place in Greater Manchester (Salford) but deals with a not dissimilar how-do-I-get-out-of-here existence.

This is a really impressive release from what I’m starting to think of as “good old Arrow” — taken from a 4K restoration by the BFI, with Davies’ input. It cannot have been easy getting this level of specialized color just right on a home release, but I saw Distant Lives at a New York critics screening when it came out, and it replicates my memories.

Distant Voices, Still Lives

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Billy Wilder’s ‘The Apartment,’ Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The Serpent’s Egg,’ De Niro-De Palma Teamings Highlight December Disc Releases from Arrow and MVD

Films from Billy Wilder, Ingmar Bergman, Robert De Niro and Brian De Palma are among the December Blu-ray releases coming from Arrow Video and MVD Entertainment Group.

Up first on Dec. 4 is The Serpent’s Egg from director Ingmar Bergman, who teamed with Italian director Dino De Laurentiis. In this mystery, David Carradine stars as an out-of-work circus performer that gets caught up in a tangled web when he begins to ask questions about his brother’s bizarre death. Special features include audio commentary with Carradine; “Bergman’s Egg,” a newly filmed appreciation by critic and author Barry Forshaw; “Away From Home,” an archival featurette including interviews with Carradine and Liv Ullman; “German Expressionism,” an archival interview with author Marc Gervais; a stills gallery; a theatrical trailer; a reversible sleeve featuring two artwork choices; and for the first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by author Geoffrey Macnab.

Due Dec. 11 is the boxed set “De Palma & De Niro: The Early Films,” showcasing Robert De Niro on the big screen for the first time and highlighting the beginnings of his relationship with director Brian De Palma. The set includes three films from the duo — The Wedding PartyGreetings and Hi, Mom! — all of which have been newly restored. Special features include new commentary on Greetings by Glenn Kenny, author of Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor; a new appreciation of Brian De Palma and Robert De Niro’s collaborations by critic and filmmaker Howard S. Berger; a new interview with Charles Hirsch, writer-producer of Greetings and Hi, Mom!; a new interview with actor Gerrit Graham on Greetings, Hi, Mom! and his other collaborations with Brian De Palma; a new interview with actor Peter Maloney on Hi, Mom!; the Hi, Mom! theatrical trailer; newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin; a limited collector’s edition booklet featuring new writing on the films by Brad Stevens, Chris Dumas and Christina Newland; and an archive interview with De Palma and Hirsch.

The ‘80s slasher film Bloody Birthday is due Dec. 18 with a new 2K restoration. In the Ed Hunt-directed film, a trio born on the same solar eclipse develop a habit for murdering adults. Special features include a new audio commentary with Hunt; a new interview with actress Lori Lethin; “Bad Seeds and Body Counts,” a new video appreciation of Bloody Birthday and the killer kid sub-genre by film journalist Chris Alexander; a archival interview with producer Max Rosenberg; the original theatrical trailer; a reversible sleeve featuring newly commissioned artwork by Timothy Pittides; and for the first pressing only, a collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Lee Gambin.

Coming from Arrow Academy Dec. 11 is the classic comedy The Apartment, directed by Billy Wilder and starring Jack Lemmon. The film, which took home five Academy Awards including Best Picture, features a new 4K restoration from the original camera negative produced exclusively for this release. Special features include audio commentary with film producer and historian Bruce Block; “The Key to the Apartment,” a new appreciation of the film by film historian Philip Kemp; select scene commentary by Philip Kemp; “The Flawed Couple,” a new video essay by filmmaker David Cairns on the collaborations between Wilder and Lemmon; “A Letter to Castro,” a new interview with actress Hope Holiday; “The Writer Speaks: Billy Wilder,” an archival interview from the Writers Guild of America’s Oral Histories series; “Inside the Apartment,” a half-hour making-of featurette from 2007 including interviews with Shirley MacLaine, executive producer Walter Mirisch and others; “Magic Time: The Art of Jack Lemmon,” an archive profile of the actor from 2007; a theatrical trailer; and a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ignatius Fitzpatrick.

‘Gosford Park,’ ‘Gas Food Lodging’ Among November Blu-ray Releases on Tap From Arrow and MVD

Gosford Park and Gas Food Lodging are among four Blu-ray releases coming in November from Arrow Video and MVD Entertainment Group.

From Arrow Academy Nov. 13 comes Gas Food Lodging. Based on a novel by Richard Peck and directed by Allison Anders, this story of a young single mother desperately trying to find love was a hit at the 1992 Berlin International Film Festival. This newly restored release comes director approved and contains a number of special features, including “The Road to Laramie: A Look Back at Gas Food Lodging,” a new interview with Allison Anders and Josh Olson; Cinefile: Reel Women, a 1995 documentary by Chris Rodley looking at the challenges women face in the film industry and featuring interviews with Anders, Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion and Penny Marshall; a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin; and for the first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film.

Due Nov. 27 from Arrow Academy is director Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, starring Alan Bates, Kristin Scott Thomas, Bob Balaban, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren and Clive Owen. The murder-mystery features a new 2K restoration from a 4K scan approved by director of photography Andrew Dunn. Special features include audio commentary by Altman, production designer Stephen Altman and producer David Levy; audio commentary by writer-producer Julian Fellowes; new audio commentary by critics Geoff Andrew and David Thompson (author of Altman on Altman); an Introduction by Andrew; new cast and crew interviews recorded exclusively for this release; the “The Making of Gosford Park” archive featurette; the “Keeping Gosford Park Authentic” archive featurette; a Q&A Session with Altman and the cast; 15 deleted scenes with optional Altman commentary; a trailer; reversible sleeves featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin; and for the first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Sheila O’Malley and an archive interview with Altman.

Nov. 13 comes The Wizard of Gore from Herschell Gordon Lewis. In the film, Montag the Magnificent wows audiences with his macabre magic act, but before long his volunteers start to wind up dead. Is Montag a modern day wizard or just your everyday serial killer? Special features include the 1968 bonus feature How to Make a Doll; feature-length audio commentary with Lewis and Mike Vraney; “Montag Speaks,” an interview with Wizard of Gore actor Ray Sager; Stephen Thrower on The Wizard of Gore; “The Gore the Merrier,” an interview with Jeremy Kasten, director of the 2007 Wizard of Gore remake; “The Incredibly Strange Film Show,” an episode of the cult documentary series focusing on the films of Lewis; the original theatrical trailer; and a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Twins of Evil.

Due Nov. 20 is Teruo Ishii’s anthology Orgies of Edo, featuring three stories with a corrupt moral center. Politically incorrect, each tale is that of tragic heroines caught up in unspeakable violence. Special features include “The Orgies of Ishii,” an exclusive, newly filmed interview with author Patrick Maccias; the theatrical trailer; a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matt Griffin; and for the first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by author Tom Mes.