Blu-Ray Review: L’Avventura – Criterion Collection

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Screenplay: Michelangelo Antonioni, Elio Bartolini, Tonino Guerra
Starring: Gabriele Ferzetti, Monica Vitti, Lea Massari
Country: Italy, France
Running Time: 143 min
Year: 1960
BBFC Certificate: PG


Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 film L’Avventura is one of the most highly regarded films of all time. It’s one of the few titles to have been in Sight and Sound’s prestigious top ten greatest films list three times – second in 1962, only two years after it’s release, fifth in 1972 and seventh in 1982. It still stands in the longer most current list at #21 in the critics list and #30 in the director’s poll. However, it didn’t get off to the best of starts. Premiering at Cannes, the first screening was met with boos and jeers from the audience. However, the critics loved it and the film ended up winning the Jury Prize. Following its worldwide release soon after, the film became hugely popular too and helped revolutionise art house cinema across the globe.

Now I’ve never seen L’Avventura, but I’ve been aware of its reputation so it’s been on my radar for a while. Needless to say I jumped at the chance of reviewing this new Blu-Ray re-release as part of the prestigious Criterion Collection. The question is, will I side with the critics or the audience at Cannes?

L’Avventura sees a group of wealthy Italian socialites head off on a yachting trip together. One of the group, Anna (Lea Massari), is having doubts about her relationship with Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti). She’s had a month alone and this trip is supposed to be their reunion, but she’s not convinced she wants to be with him anymore. Part way through the trip, on visiting a small island where the two have an argument, Anna goes missing. The group are all distressed at first, but most give up caring quite soon. Her friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) and Sandro remain troubled by what happened though and set out to try and find her. After a while however, the two grow closer together and form a relationship as they gradually forget their friend.

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Blu-Ray Review: Outlaw: Gangster VIP The Complete Collection

Not content with being the go-to label for cult and classic American and European cinema, Arrow Video have started to mine the more obscure depths of Japanese genre movies recently, in particular gangster/crime films. After releasing a shiny new disc for Seijun Suzuki’s relatively popular Branded to Kill and the full Battles Without Honour and Humanity collection, as well as a couple of vaguely known titles like Massacre Gun, they surprised everyone with a set of little-known crime dramas under the Nikkatsu Diamond Guys banner. This has now been followed up by the expansive Outlaw: Gangster VIP The Complete Collection, a series of violent Yakuza dramas, also produced by Nikkatsu and based on the writings of real life ex-gangster Goro Fujita.

Go on the IMDB and you’ll find little information on the six films in this set (although due to my review being a little late, some more might have accumulated by now). So it’s great to see a Blu-Ray/DVD label daring to venture into unknown territory like this. Of course, being genre films, there’s always a bit of a safety net and the Japanese gangster angle was what sold the set to me, but I’m glad to see films that would otherwise be lost get the treatment they deserve.

The films in the series are Gangster VIP, Gangster VIP 2, Heartless, Goro the Assassin, Black Dagger and Kill!. My thoughts on the individual films follow:

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Blu-Ray Review: Victoria

Director: Sebastian Schipper
Based on a Story by: Sebastian Schipper, Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Eike Frederik Schulz
Starring: Laia Costa, Frederick Lau, Franz Rogowski
Country: Germany
Running Time: 138 min
Year: 2015
BBFC Certificate: 15


Hype can be a dangerous thing. When you hear too much praise for a film you’re almost destined to be disappointed. Very few films can live up to the expectations mounted through countless five star reviews and personal recommendations. Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria is one film I’d read several glowing reviews for and heard friends rave about surrounding its cinematic release here in the UK. With Curzon Artificial Eye releasing the film on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, I got my hands on a screener to finally watch the film for myself and I can safely say it has lived up to my very high expectations (although I think I might have given the film 5 stars if I’d have watched it ‘cold’).

Victoria follows (quite literally) the titular character (Laia Costa), a young Spanish woman living in Berlin, as she leaves a nightclub and befriends Sonne (Frederick Lau), a ‘native’ Berliner. Blatantly flirting with her, Sonne shows her the after-club night life with his three male friends. Victoria is a fairly innocent ‘good’ girl, but these boys are wild and mischievous, breaking into cars and stealing beers. Victoria seems to enjoy joining them and embracing this ‘bad boy’ attitude, but as the crimes they’re involved in suddenly get much more serious, she realises she’s in too deep, but is forced to go along with it.

If you’ve read anything about this film I imagine you’re aware of the fact that the film is presented entirely as one long, unbroken shot. It seems to be the film’s main selling point, particularly as this is no ‘hidden’ cut job like Birdman. No digital trickery made this merely look like a one shot, real time experience. It was all done for real. Supposedly it took 3 attempts, but the crew eventually managed to keep everything working as it should for the fairly hefty running time of the film.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Firm (1989)

Director: Alan Clarke
Screenplay: Al Hunter
Starring: Gary Oldman, Lesley Manville, Philip Davis
Country: UK
Running Time: 67 min (broadcast version) 68 min (director’s cut)
Year: 1989
BBFC Certificate: 18


TV has been enjoying a new golden age over the last 10 years or so with a wealth of talent coming from and moving back to the format. There are plenty of classy, genuinely great series being produced around the world, from popular high budget HBO productions like The Sopranos and Game of Thrones, to classy British offerings like Sherlock and slick Scandinavian crime sagas like The Killing. The TV movie however, still has some stigma attached to it. The more recent big TV events have all been longer format or at least mini-series. Few one-off features have made waves recently as not many seem to get made. I think too many people are of the mind that if a film is any good, why didn’t it get released in theatres or at least get a good home release before being streamed to our regular channels at no extra cost.

In Britain though, there was once a long tradition of classy feature length television drama. Known largely at the time as ‘television plays’, series such as Armchair Theatre and Play for Today, running from the 50’s until the 80’s, would present audiences with an original one off film/play in each ‘episode’. Two time Palme d’Or winner (as of yesterday) Ken Loach made a name for himself in this format with the 1966 television play Cathy Come Home and fellow Cannes favourite Mike Leigh also made a number of plays, including Abigail’s Party. The television play format fizzled out in the mid-eighties though as series became more popular.

Between 1985 and 1994, the BBC tried to keep the flame burning though, with Screen Two and Screen One, which brought back the idea of one-off original TV features, this time shot on film. Previously, television plays tended to be studio-shot affairs, more like live plays. One of the directors contributing to this series was Alan Clarke, who had made a number of controversial TV films and a couple of theatrical features since the mid to late 60’s. He died from cancer at only 54 years old but his last production was released on Screen Two, the football hooligan drama The Firm, which courted controversy again, but has held a strong reputation over the years and is now being released in a special collector’s edition Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK by the BFI, packaged along with another of Clarke’s controversial films, the short Elephant.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Last Command

Director: Josef von Sternberg
Screenplay: John F. Goodrich, Herman J. Mankiewicz (titles)
Based on a Story by: Josef von Sternberg, Lajos Biró
Starring: Emil Jannings, Evelyn Brent, William Powell
Country: USA
Running Time: 88 min
Year: 1928
BBFC Certificate: PG


Josef von Sternberg was a major player in late silent and early sound cinema. His popularity reached its peak with the hugely successful and acclaimed Blue Angel (which I reviewed here a few years ago – http://blueprintreview.co.uk/2013/01/the-blue-angel/). However, not long after this, some of the subsequent films he made with Angel’s star Dietrich failed at the box office and he also fell out with Ernst Lubitsch, then head of production at Paramount. So he lost control over his pictures and his career soon fizzled out. A number of Sternberg’s early films have been lost, but The Last Command, one of his breakthrough hits, remains and Eureka have felt fit to add it to their Masters of Cinema series.

The Last Command opens in Hollywood in 1928 where a successful Russian director, Leo Andreyev (William Powell), is trying to cast a film he’s making about the Russian revolution. When looking through a pile of head shots he comes across the face of Sergius Alexander (Emil Jannings). This elderly gent was actually a former Russian general so is perfect for the part and, as we learn through a lengthy flashback, crossed paths with Andreyev in the past, as the director used to be a revolutionary. The flashbacks also show that a woman tied their stories together, Andreyev’s lover, Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent), who was also a revolutionary. Realising that the general was fond of her, Natalie seduced her way into his inner circle and plotted to kill him. However, the more time she spent with him, the more she sympathised with him and realised he loved his country as much as she did. So the film charts her dilemma before showing the audience what Andreyev has in store for his former enemy.

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DVD Review: Janis: Little Girl Blue

Director: Amy J. Berg
Starring: Cat Power, Janis Joplin, Karleen Bennett
Country: USA
Running Time: 103 min
Year: 2015
BBFC Certificate: 15


Janis: Little Girl Blue is a documentary which looks at the life of powerhouse ’60’s blues singer Janis Joplin, who joined the infamous ’27 club’ when she succumbed to drug and alcohol abuse in October 1970. Being a huge fan of ’60’s music from an early age, particularly Janis’ brand of blues rock, I’ve long had a great admiration for her. She had a raw, bone-rattlingly powerful voice like no other that helped revolutionise the way we thought about female vocalists. So an offer to review Janis: Little Girl Blue was not one I was going to turn down.

Charting Janis’ life from her teenage years (after a brief run through her childhood) to her death, the film runs chronologically, using letters she wrote to her family over this time as a sort of framing device. Read out by the musician Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power), these add a strong sense of poignancy to her tale, which could otherwise have easily fallen into the simple ‘lived fast died young’ bracket. Right through to the end, the letters were sweet and sadly apologetic, displaying a vulnerability not evident in her wild, passionate musical performances.

As well as using these letters to give the film emotional weight, director Amy Berg sensibly avoids using talking heads from celebrity fans (other than a couple over the credits). Instead we only hear from those who actually knew Janis – her family, friends and band members. This helps keep the film from being a fluffy ass-kissing affair and keeps the film focussed on Janis as a person rather than a mythical music icon. A wealth of personal artefacts have been made available too, including a scrap book of notes and photos on top of plenty of archive film footage.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Ninth Configuration

Director: William Peter Blatty
Screenplay: William Peter Blatty
Based on a Novel by: William Peter Blatty
Starring: Stacy Keach, Scott Wilson, Jason Miller, Ed Flanders, Robert Loggia, Tom Atkins, William Peter Blatty
Country: USA
Running Time: 118 min
Year: 1980
BBFC Certificate: 15


William Peter Blatty is best known for writing the novel and screenplay for the hugely successful horror film, The Exorcist, but it’s not well known that prior to that he made his name writing comedies such as A Shot in the Dark (co-written with Blake Edwards). To follow up The Exorcist however, Blatty went in a bizarre new direction, taking cues from both sides of his career. He took a book called Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane he’d written in 1966, wrote a new version called The Ninth Configuration, released as a novel in 1978, and then turned that into a screenplay which would become his directorial debut, released in 1980.

The Ninth Configuration is an unusual film that sees military psychologist Col. Vincent Kane (Stacy Keach) sent to a remote mansion where a group of mentally ill and AWOL soldiers are being kept under observation. Supposedly the army couldn’t fathom why so many of its men were returning home from Vietnam with mental health problems and wanted to see if they were faking or not and what could be done about it in either case.

Once there, Kane finds the patients more troubled than he imagined and, following an interesting theory about Hamlet from one of the patients, he decides to indulge their strange requests and fantasies. One patient in particular catches his interest during this time, astronaut Capt. Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson). He completely snapped just before being due to pilot a rocket to the moon and now questions the existence of God in amongst his wild behaviour. Kane is determined to prove the existence of God to Cutshaw by giving a true example of self-sacrifice to help others, but in doing so, he starts to crack himself.

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Blu-Ray Review: Man With a Movie Camera (and other works by Dziga Vertov)

Man With a Movie Camera, the silent Soviet documentary from director Dziga Vertov, has an incredible reputation. Not only did the prestigious British publication Sight and Sound proclaim it the greatest documentary ever made in a poll of filmmakers and critics, but in the last of their once-a-decade polls to select the out and out greatest films of all time, it appeared at number 8. I’ve seen it before and have it on DVD, but when Eureka announced it as the latest addition to their Masters of Cinema series on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD, packaged with four other films by Vertov, I felt it was time to revisit it.

The films included with the set alongside Man With a Movie Camera are Kino-Eye (1924), Kino-Pravda #21 (1925), Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (1931) and Three Songs About Lenin (1934). Below are my thoughts on the individual films.

Man With a Movie Camera

Director: Dziga Vertov
Screenplay: Dziga Vertov
Starring: Mikhail Kaufman
Country: Soviet Union
Running Time: 68 min
Year: 1929


I actually watched the films in the set in chronological order, but thought I’d start my review by looking at the tentpole title. After busily producing at least 45 short and feature length documentaries from 1918 (according to the IMDB), Vertov’s final silent film, Man With a Movie Camera, took many of the techniques and ideas he’d been developing for over ten years and put them into a boldly experimental look at a ‘day-in-the-life’ of four cities in the Soviet Union. Also looking at the role of the camera at the time, the film is a showcase of cinematic techniques as well as a celebration of city life.

Well, I imagine some of you are thinking, ‘an experimental silent Soviet documentary from the 20’s? No thanks, I’ll stick with the latest Marvel release. I’ll maybe whack it on if I fancy a nap on the sofa’. I can appreciate this opinion. On paper, Man With a Movie Camera sounds incredibly dull. However, it’s one of the most thrilling films you’ll ever see. Vertov pulls out all the stops to bombard us with a multitude of camera and post-production tricks, from super-imposing a man setting up a camera on top of a seemingly huge second camera in the film’s opening shot, to the wildly fast-cutting crescendo of visuals that draws it all to a close. Most of the effects haven’t dated much either. Yes, the superimposition is obvious compared to modern standards, but it’s not that bad and effects such as some slow motion footage of sportsmen are as smooth as any modern techniques. There’s even some stop motion animation used to great effect.

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Blu-Ray Review: Grey Gardens

Director: David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer
Starring: Edith Bouvier Beale, Edith ‘Little Edie’ Bouvier Beale, Brooks Hyers, Jerry Torre
Country: USA
Running Time: 94 min
Year: 1975
BBFC Certificate: 12


Well, I’m gleefully happy to be able to say this and I never thought I’d see the day (particularly now that physical media is struggling to stay relevant), but the world renowned home entertainment distributors The Criterion Collection are going to be releasing titles in the UK. The first wave is upon us this April and I have been offered the initial releases up for review. The eclectic titles to become available over the next couple of weeks are Grey Gardens (1975), Macbeth (1971), It Happened One Night (1934), Speedy (1928), Tootsie (1982) and Only Angels Have Wings (1939). Now I was very tempted to review every single one of them, but family and other review commitments forced me to take just one, so I went for the highly acclaimed Maysles brothers documentary Grey Gardens, as it’s a classic title I’ve never seen and I do love a good documentary, as regular readers will know.

Anyway, enough gushing over the exciting news and on to the film at hand.

Grey Gardens is a ‘fly on the wall’ look at the lives of mother and daughter Big and Little Edie Beale, two former members of high society and cousins of Jackie Onassis, who at the time of filming were living in relative poverty in the remains of their derelict mansion in East Hampton, New York. We observe their empty lives as they shuffle around, endlessly bickering and reminiscing about the days when they had wealth and their lives showed promise.

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