DVD Review: Life Itself

Director: Steve James
Starring: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel, Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese, Errol Morris
Producers: Garrett Basch, Steve James, Zak Piper
Country: USA
Running Time: 118 min
Year: 2014
BBFC Certificate: E


When Roger Ebert died back in 2013, the movie blogosphere was awash with tributes to one of the world’s most known and loved film critics. You may have noticed I didn’t join in, but I must admit I’m not as familiar with his work as most. I knew who he was and occasionally checked reviews on his site when linked through from the IMDB, but I wasn’t a regular reader of his blog and his famous TV show with Gene Siskel didn’t air in the UK. I tended to find his reviews reliable though and all the love sent out after his death compelled me to find out more about the man, so I was very keen to watch Life Itself, Steve James’ documentary on Roger Ebert released last year. Luckily Dogwoof have given the film a DVD release in the UK and I was sent a screener to review.

A good chunk of Life Itself is made up of the typical biography/tribute style of documentary, looking into Ebert’s past and the progression of his career. We are told about his early days as the editor of his university newspaper where he wasn’t afraid to make his views known and how he didn’t actually seek out the job of film critic at the Chicago Sun Times, it was just kind of lumped on him. Ebert spent the last 11 years of his life fighting cancer so of course this is explored in the film. A lot is said about his work and relationship with Siskel too. This side of the documentary is refreshingly frank, showing how they had more than their share of ‘creative differences’. Some wonderfully acidic outtakes are shown of the two trying to record adverts for the show and throwing vicious barbs at each other. A later clip shows some more friendly banter though, so the film eventually suggests a mutual admiration between the two critics, both of whom were taken by battles against cancer.

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DVD Review: Spring in a Small Town

Director: Fei Mu
Writer: Li Tianji
Starring: Wei Wei, Shi Yu, Li Wei, Cui Chaoming, Zhang Hongmei
Producers: Bi Jianping
Country: China
Running Time: 94 min
Year: 1948
BBFC Certificate: U


I‘ve taken a break from reviewing documentaries (over at Blueprint: Review – sorry couldn’t resist a plug) to celebrate Valentine’s Day by watching a film which takes a poignant look at honouring a dying marriage and controlling adulterous desires.

Spring in a Small Town is a highly regarded Chinese film from director Fei Mu made back in 1948, a year before the founding of the People’s Republic of China when it promptly got pushed out of the public’s eye. Luckily it got restored in the 80’s and by 2005 it was voted the greatest Chinese motion picture of all time at the 24th Hong Kong Film Awards. It’s never had a UK DVD release though until now, when the BFI have followed up a cinema run with this home entertainment version.

The film is set in the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) and tells the story of the Dai family who are living in the ruins of their once wealthy home in a small town in rural China. Liyan (Shi Yu) is the husband, stricken with an illness which may be psychological, spending his days mourning for the past. Yuwen (Wei Wei) is his wife who has lost interest in the relationship and merely plays the part. The two are stuck deep in a rut until Zhang (Li Wei), an old friend of Liyan, arrives at the house after a decade away. It’s quickly apparent that Zhang and Yuwen have a history together too and thus begins a doomed love triangle, not helped by Liyan’s young sister who lives with them and also takes a shine to Zhang.

It sounds like classic, well trodden melodrama, but this is masterfully crafted cinema that transcends its narrative cliches. Also, before I get into the craft in more detail, the post-war setting adds depth and an air of melancholy and hopelessness to proceedings. In questioning the role of women, particularly wives, in catering for their husband’s needs, toeing the line whether they want to or not, it feels ahead of its time too.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

Director: Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan, Alexander Korda (uncredited), Zoltan Korda (uncredited), William Cameron Menzies (uncredited)
Screenplay: Miles Malleson, Lajos Biró, Miklós Rózsa
Starring: Conrad Veidt, Sabu, June Duprez, John Justin, Rex Ingram
Producer: Alexander Korda
Country: UK
Running Time: 106 min
Year: 1940
BBFC Certificate: U


Just a couple of months ago I reviewed Douglas Fairbanks’ 1924 version of The Thief of Bagdad, which blew me away. It was the most spectacular silent movie I’d ever seen which was as fun as it was awe inspiring. Having heard good things about Alexander Korda’s 1940 version, I was keen to compare the two films, so jumped at the chance of reviewing Network’s new Blu-Ray release of the film. Because of this, my review will largely be matching the later film against the earlier one, so forgive me if you’re more interested in how it stands alone, but I saw the first so recently it’s difficult not to compare and contrast.

In terms of plot, although a number of core aspects and some key scenes are the same (coming from stories from the Arabian Nights), much of what and how it happens is quite different. The big change is in basically splitting the thief character from the 1924 film into two. The titular thief in Korda’s version is young Abu (Sabu), who pinches food to survive as well as to cause mischief, but the love story driving things forward is instead given to Ahmad (John Justin). Ahmad is the rightful king of Bagdad, but the evil Jaffar (Conrad Veidt) tricks him into being captured as a thief and throws him in jail. Here he meets Abu who also got arrested and sentenced to death. The two escape together and set off for a life of adventure. However, not long into this new life, Ahmad sets eyes on the Princess of Basra and instantly falls in love. This begins a quest to win her hand (he wins her heart straight away), which is made very difficult as Jaffar is also besotted with the princess and has the magical power and resources to keep Ahmad at bay. Thus begins an adventure which involves a mechanical flying horse, a giant genie and Abu being turned into a dog.

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Weekend of Trash XV

We tried to squeeze one more video weekend into 2014, but ill health and busy schedules prevented it happening. So instead we kicked off 2015 with the 15th (recorded) Weekend of Trash (previous write-ups can be found in the category archive).

So as usual, here are the reviews of everything we watched over a weekend of sleaze, violence and downright nonsense. The reviews are only brief (I’m not about to start writing notes whilst watching movies featuring time travelling dinosaurs) and ratings are largely based on entertainment value rather than quality, so take them with a pinch of salt. I’ve included clips and trailers when possible too.

* Apologies for the crap image above – my phone camera didn’t like the lighting in the room so it came out a funny colour.

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Blu-Ray Review: Ganja & Hess

Director: Bill Gunn
Screenplay: Bill Gunn
Starring: Duane Jones, Marlene Clark, Bill Gunn
Producer: Chiz Schultz
Country: USA
Running Time: 113 min
Year: 1973
BBFC Certificate: 18


Eureka released Blacula – The Complete Collection (http://blueprintreview.co.uk/2014/10/blacula-complete-collection/) in October and not long after are releasing another African-American take on the Dracula story, Ganja & Hess. There is little else connecting the two films though as Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess is a wholly different animal than the earlier campy, badass blaxploitation film.

Producers first approached Gunn to make something that would cash in on Blacula’s success, but the director had no desire to make a cheap bit of exploitation. He had wanted to make a film about addiction though, so decided to take this idea and infuse it into a vampire story. The result is a film with much more artistic and profound ambitions than Blacula and although it came at the height of the blaxploitation boom, it didn’t really fit the mold, eschewing the flares and kung fu for experimentation and symbolism. This didn’t impress the money men of course, who swiftly handed the print to ‘film doctor’ Fima Noveck, who chopped the near 2 hour film to 78 minutes and retitled Blood Couple (along several other names as it did the runs around the world), adding previously excised exposition to make something more closely resembling the exploitation flick they’d wanted. It bombed, although the furious Gunn took his original cut to the Cannes Film Festival where it screened in the Director’s Week. It was better received there, but still the film disappeared into obscurity until more recent years when Gunn’s version was restored for modern audiences. This is what is being released here by Eureka.

Ganja & Hess sees Dr. Hess Green (Night of the Living Dead’s Duane Jones) stabbed by an ancient ceremonial dagger by his unstable assistant George Meda (Gunn himself). This makes Hess immortal but also addicted to blood. After Meda commits suicide, his wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) appears at Hess’ mansion looking for him. She falls for Hess’ charms and after they marry and Hess passes his ‘gift’ on to her, the two form an unusual, bloody relationship.

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Blu-Ray Review: Young and Innocent

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Charles Bennett, Edwin Greenwood, Anthony Armstrong, Gerald Savory
Based on a Novel by: Josephine Tey
Starring: Nova Pilbeam, Derrick De Marney, Percy Marmont, Edward Rigby
Producer: Edward Black
Country: UK
Running Time: 83 min
Year: 1937
BBFC Certificate: U


I‘ve always been a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock, I even wrote my University dissertation on his collaborations with composer Bernard Herrmann, but there are still a number of gaps in his filmography that I need to fill. I’ve seen pretty much all of his most famous work, particularly his phenomenal run of films through the 50’s and 60’s, but there are a number of his early British films that I haven’t seen. This period in his career doesn’t always get the love and attention that it deserves. Granted, many of these older titles haven’t aged as well as classics like Rear Window or North by Northwest, but there is much to admire and enjoy in his early work. The 39 Steps remains one of my favourite Hitchcock films for instance and I was surprised by how much I liked what he himself considered his true directorial debut, The Lodger when I was sent it to review a couple of years ago.

This brings me to Young and Innocent (a.k.a. The Girl Was Young), a film which I hadn’t seen before now, even though I had a DVD copy on my shelf gathering dust over several years (this happens far too often than I care to admit – shopping addiction is a dangerous thing). Coming in 1937, this, his 22nd feature film as sole director, is actually almost mid-career for Hitchcock in terms of volume, although he’d only been directing features for little over a decade. Taking the ‘wrong man’ mistaken identity formula he’d had great success with on The 39 Steps, Young and Innocent sees Derrick De Marney star as Robert Tisdall, a young man accused of murdering an actress whose body washes up on a beach. He’s innocent of course and escapes from the law to prove it because they won’t listen to him. Along the way he enlists the help of a police constable’s daughter, Erica (Nova Pilbeam), who believes his story and falls for his charms.

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DVD Review: Giovanni’s Island

Director: Mizuho Nishikubo
Screenplay: Shigemichi Sugita, Yoshiki Sakurai , Wendee Lee
Starring: Kota Yokoyama, Junya Taniai, Polina Ilyushenko
Producers: Kaeko Sakamoto, Eric P. Sherman
Country: Japan
Running Time: 102 min
Year: 2014
BBFC Certificate: PG


Well, I complain about there not being many anime films to review these days and two come along at once. A couple of weeks after reviewing Patema Inverted I’ve sat down to watch Giovanni’s Island, still Japanese animation, but a totally different film.

Where Patema Inverted was a disorientating sci-fi adventure, Giovanni’s Island is a moving true-life inspired drama set just after World War II. Junpei (Kota Yokoyama) and Kanta (Junya Taniai) are two young brothers who live on the small island of Shikotan, off the northernmost coast of Japan. As Japan surrender on August 15, 1945, the island becomes Soviet Union territory and the Japanese residents are forced to share the island with the Soviets who come to claim the land.

The two boys are cautious of the invaders at first, until they meet Tanya (Polina Ilyushenko), a beautiful young Russian girl whose family forces them out of their homes. Junpei falls head over heels for Tanya and the two become close friends, until a series of incidents split them apart and the Japanese are sent from the island to a mainland refugee camp. From then on, tragedy continues to strike and Junpei must stay strong beyond his years as he’s forced to look after his brother. He finds strength and solace in the story his dad used to read to them, ‘Night on the Galactic Railroad’, as the two boys recreate the wonderful fantasy world within it to maintain hope amongst the adversity they must endure.

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Blu-Ray Review: I’m All Right Jack

Director: John Boulting
Screenplay: Frank Harvey, John Boulting, Alan Hackney
Based on a Novel by: Alan Hackney
Starring: Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas, Peter Sellers, Richard Attenborough, Dennis Price
Producer: Roy Boulting
Country: UK
Running Time: 105 min
Year: 1959
BBFC Certificate: U


The Boulting Brothers John and Roy worked together as producer and director (often alternating the roles from film to film) to great success in their home country, the UK. 1947’s Brighton Rock may be their most famous film nowadays, but they made a name for themselves in the 50’s and 60’s with a series of satirical comedies. Perhaps the most critically successful of these, winning two BAFTA’s, was 1959’s I’m All Right Jack. Studio Canal have deemed it worthy of a sparkly new Blu-Ray release in the UK so I thought I’d check it out to see what the fuss was about.

Stanley Windrush (Ian Carmichael) is the centrepiece of this satire of working ‘modern’ Britain, which pokes fun at the trade unions in particular. Stanley’s a naïve young chap who’s finished at Oxford and wants to make a name for himself in industry. After failing miserably to secure a job by himself, he’s approached by his uncle Bertie (Dennis Price) and his old friend Sidney (Richard Attenborough). They offer him a low end manual labour position at his uncle’s missile factory so he can go in at the bottom and work his way up. Stanley’s lack of experience and desire to work more efficiently rubs his colleagues up the wrong way though and they report him to their union shop steward Fred Kite (Peter Sellers). Believing him to be a spy sent from the bosses to work out ways of getting them to work harder for the same pay, they try to get rid of him. However, Bertie and Sidney are in fact using Stanley for a secret plan, which falls perfectly in to place when he causes a strike at the factory. When surprise fame falls upon Stanley though, the strike spreads further, even sending Fred’s wife away from her ‘duties’, and chaos threatens to bring down the entire country.

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Blu-Ray Review: Two for the Road

Director: Stanley Donen
Screenplay: Frederic Raphael
Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Albert Finney, Eleanor Bron, William Daniels
Producer: Stanley Donen
Country: UK
Running Time: 111 min
Year: 1967
BBFC Certificate: PG


With a library as strong as theirs, I have a trust in Eureka’s Masters of Cinema collection where I will happily watch pretty much any of the films they release. This trust has paid dividends and I’ve discovered numerous films over the years that I wouldn’t normally have given a second glance but turn out to be amazing. What pleases one might not please another though and every release can’t always blow me away. Stanley Dolan’s Two For the Road is one such a film. I hadn’t heard of it before, but with a decent cast, celebrated director and the Masters of Cinema seal of approval I gave it a shot. It wasn’t a total misfire, but the film wasn’t one of the revelations I hope I’ll find each time I put a disc from the prestigious label in my player.

Before I explain why the film wasn’t for me, let me tell you more about it. Two For the Road opens with an unhappily married couple, Mark (Albert Finney) and Joanna (Audrey Hepburn), travelling through Central Europe from England. As they ponder whether or not they should give up and get a divorce, we are taken back to three previous journeys in the same area they shared at different stages of their relationship. By jumping between the four stories, we see the ins and outs and the ups and downs of love and marriage.

Like the characters in the film, I had a rocky journey with this one. I really struggled with the first half, finding it very slow and unengaging. However, as the film moved on it grew on me and I got more engaged in the latter half. Also, when I went back to watch the film with the commentary, I found myself better appreciating the earlier portions of the film.

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