Review: Unbranded

Director: Phillip Baribeau
Starring: Ben Masters, Jonny Fitzsimons, Thomas Glover, Ben Thamer
Country: USA
Running Time: 106 min
Year: 2015
BBFC Certificate: 15

As regular readers (if I have any) will know, I’ve been developing a great love of Westerns over the last few years. I’m interested in everything cowboy related at the moment and being a big documentary fan too I was chomping at the bit (pun intended) when I heard Dogwoof were releasing Unbranded, a film that looked to combine those interests.

OK, so it isn’t about cowboys as such and doesn’t examine the traditional ‘Wild West’ period, but Phillip Baribeau’s documentary certainly has the spirit of the American frontier embedded in its soul.

Unbranded charts the expedition of four young men (led by Ben Masters) who set out to prove the worth of American wild horses (a.k.a. mustangs) by taking thirteen of them on a long and treacherous journey from Mexico to Canada. Covering a whopping 3,000 miles, their path takes them over rugged and perilous terrain, testing the abilities of and relationships between the men and their animals.

The film also looks at the issues caused by the mustang population in the US. The free-roaming horses and burros of the United States are managed and protected by the government, but, partly because of their protection, their numbers are growing rapidly and they are damaging the environment around them. This has caused a passionate debate from different sides of the argument as to what should be done. The film presents these in amongst the trials and tribulations of Masters and his team.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Reflecting Skin

Director: Philip Ridley
Screenplay: Philip Ridley
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Lindsay Duncan, Jeremy Cooper
Country: UK/Canada
Running Time: 96 min
Year: 1990
BBFC Certificate: 15

Releases like these are what make me sad to see the ‘convenience food’ streaming model taking over the home entertainment market. If you’ve already glanced at my fairly low rating for this film, please ignore it for a second, because although I wasn’t a big fan of The Reflecting Skin, the story of its new re-release makes me very happy.

The film was originally released in 1990 and had a decent run on the festival circuit, premiering at Cannes. However, it struggled to find distribution, particularly on home video and vanished without a trace. 25 years later and interest in the film online has eventually prompted it to be properly remastered ready to be screened at a couple of festivals and get released here in the UK in a well compiled special edition steelbook Blu-Ray. Maybe I’m just being a grumpy old man who can’t give up his VHS and DVD collection, but I get the feeling that the ‘everything I want, whenever I want’ form of home entertainment these days means less care is going to be made to resurrect lost gems or treat classics with the respect they deserve. Some have predicted that the Blu-Ray format might live on purely through boutique labels releasing cult classics like these and special editions of old favourites. One can only hope, but I do worry about the future of film preservation.

Anyway, (possibly unfounded) rant aside. What did I think about Philip Ridley’s The Reflecting Skin now that it’s finally been brought into our homes, looking and sounding like it originally intended? Well, I was torn and frustrated to be honest.

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Blu-Ray Review: Closely Observed Trains

Director: Jirí Menzel
Screenplay: Bohumil Hrabal, Jirí Menzel
Based on a Novel by: Bohumil Hrabal
Starring: Václav Neckár, Josef Somr, Vlastimil Brodský
Country: Czechoslovakia
Running Time: 93 min
Year: 1966
BBFC Certificate: 15

I‘m rather late to the party in checking out the films of the Czech New Wave, with my introduction being Milos Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball only last month. I liked that film quite a lot as my 4.5 rating will attest, so I was delighted to hear that Arrow were following that release up with Jirí Menzel’s Oscar winning Closely Observed Trains (a.k.a. Closely Watched Trains or, in it’s native country, Ostře sledované vlaky), one of the most well loved films of the movement.

Closely Observed Trains is set on a small rural train station in German-occupied Czechoslovakia. Young Miloš Hrma (Václav Neckár), our main protagonist, has just become a station guard and is fixed on living up to his family reputation of being a lazy shirker. In his words, the job will allow him to “do nothing except stand around on the platform with a signal disc while they (the people) spend their lives working themselves to the bone”. His colleagues seem to embody this description with Hubicka (Josef Somr) spending his time seducing anything in a skirt, particularly the more than forthcoming telegraphist Zdenka (Jitka Zelenohorská). Their stationmaster Max (Vladimír Valenta) takes his job more seriously, yearning to be promoted to station inspector, but in actuality spends most of his time tending to his pigeons and jealously damning Hubicka’s actions.

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Blu-Ray Review: Requiescant

Director: Carlo Lizzani
Screenplay: Lucio Battistrada, Andrew Baxter, Adriano Bolzoni, Denis Greene, Edward Williams
Starring: Lou Castel, Mark Damon, Pier Paolo Pasolini
Country: Italy, West Germany
Running Time: 107 min
Year: 1967
BBFC Certificate: 15

After re-releasing the ‘baguette western’ Cemetery Without Crosses, Arrow Video head back to Italy to bring us a true spaghetti western in the form of Requiescant. This is no cookie cutter entry to the genre though. Director Carlo Lizzani delivers a fairly serious film with more meat to chew on than most of its contemporaries.

Requiescant opens with the brutal massacre of a group of Mexicans at the hands of Confederate soldiers, led by the aristocratic officer George Bellow Ferguson. Tricked into a deal before their deaths, the Mexicans’ land is snatched by Ferguson and over the years he comes to rule the area, known as San Antonio. A small boy survives the massacre though and is found by a travelling preacher, who brings him up as his own son. The boy grows up to be a young man known as Requiescant, who ends up in San Antonio as he looks for his stepsister Princy who has run away in search of a more sinful life. She finds it in that town and ends up the property of Ferguson’s right hand man, Dean Light.

When Requiescant finds Princy, Dean is of course none-too-keen to give up his woman and doesn’t take kindly to the young dark skinned man (no one knows he’s Mexican to begin with). When Ferguson gets involved he surprisingly gives Princy her freedom, as he feels women are harmful to his best man. The landowner also takes a shine to Requiescant, believing he can use his freakishly good marksmanship abilities to his advantage. When these abilities seem to overshadow his own, Ferguson gets jealous though so, along with Dean’s anger, San Antonio doesn’t seem to be such a nice place for Requiescant and his sister to stay. As the body count grows and the truth of Requiescant’s heritage is revealed, the waters are further muddied by stirrings of revolution amongst the downtrodden Mexicans, pushed on by a mysterious group led by Father Juan (played by the controversial director Pier Paolo Pasolini).

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DVD Review: The Fallen Idol

Director: Carol Reed
Screenplay: Graham Greene, Lesley Storm, William Templeton
Based on a Short Story by: Graham Greene
Starring: Bobby/Robert Henrey, Ralph Richardson, Michèle Morgan, Sonia Dresdel
Country: UK
Running Time: 92 min
Year: 1948
BBFC Certificate: PG

In my review of Odd Man Out back in 2012, I talked about how Carol Reed’s The Third Man had long been one of my all time favourite films, yet I hadn’t ventured further into the director’s back catalogue until then. Well it’s taken me three years to build on my addition of Odd Man Out to the checklist, but Studiocanal helped me out by offering up a screener of their new re-release of Reed’s The Fallen Idol from 1948. So, was it worth the wait and does it match up to The Third Man?

Well it’s probably unfair to compare it too closely to The Third Man as I did (too frequently) in my Odd Man Out review. Although also written by Graham Greene (and based on his short story), The Fallen Idol is quite a different film. It can still be classed as a mystery thriller, with a death being central to the plot and a murder investigation surrounding this. However, the audience always knows this was an accident and the film concerns itself chiefly with the lies being told and whether or not anyone will come clean about them.

Let me backtrack a bit though to explain the plot. The Fallen Idol is set in the French embassy in London, where the ambassador’s son Phillipe (Bobby, now Robert Henrey) lives. With his father very busy and his mother having been away for a long time (I missed why), Phillipe is looked after by the butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson), and his wife (Sonia Dresdel). He idolises Mr. Baines, who is always very kind to the boy and regales him with made-up stories of his heroic adventures in Africa.

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Blu-Ray Review: Dragon Inn

Director: King Hu
Screenplay: King Hu
Starring: Lingfeng Shangguan, Chun Shih, Ying Bai
Country: Taiwan
Running Time: 111 min
Year: 1967
BBFC Certificate: 12

Releases like this are like manna from heaven to me. I’m an ardent follower of the Masters of Cinema series as my reviews will attest, as well as classic cinema in general. However, I’m also a huge martial arts movie fan, so when a film crosses the usually distinct boundaries between esteemed classic and action movie, I jump for joy. Needless to say, I snapped up the opportunity to review King Hu’s wuxia classic Dragon Inn (a.k.a. Dragon Gate Inn) as soon as it was offered.

King Hu was responsible for a handful of the most influential and revered martial arts films of all time. After the hugely popular Come Drink With Me, made for the famous Shaw Brothers studios, he helped set up a new studio in Taiwan called Union Film Company. His first film under this banner was Dragon Inn and this was followed up a couple of years later with A Touch of Zen. These three titles helped define martial arts movies in the East for decades to come. Hu’s influence can still clearly be seen in modern examples of the genre, such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, so it was no surprise to me to discover that 1967’s Dragon Inn still holds up very well today.

Dragon Inn opens with some narration explaining that the tyrannical first eunuch of the Emperor of China has framed and condemned the Minister of Defence (an opponent to his rule) to death and sent his family into exile. Fearing a vengeful attack, the eunuch sends his secret police to assassinate the banished family members on their way out of the country. The ambush is to take place at the titular Dragon Inn, which lies close to the border. However, as they wait, a couple more parties join them at the inn and the waters get ever more murky, leading to much treachery and numerous fight scenes.

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Blu-Ray Review: Seconds

Director: John Frankenheimer
Screenplay: Lewis John Carlino
Based on a novel by: David Ely
Starring: Rock Hudson, Salome Jens, John Randolph
Country: USA
Running Time: 106 min
Year: 1966
BBFC Certificate: 15

In my review of The Train earlier this year, I talked of my appreciation of John Frankenheimer and belief that he doesn’t quite get the respect he deserves. Back in the early 60’s he could do no wrong though. He had a run of four critical and commercial successes with Birdman of Alcatraz,The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May and The Train. This was followed up by the spiritual successor to the middle two titles, Seconds, creating an unofficial ‘paranoia trilogy’. A dark, unusual and quite challenging film, it wasn’t nearly as successful as Frankenheimer’s previous work, which may explain why its follow up was the more spectacular crowd-pleaser (and his first film in colour), Grand Prix. Over time, Seconds has been better appreciated though and Eureka have deemed it worthy of addition to their superlative Masters of Cinema series. I got hold of a copy to see how it stands up today.

Seconds finds the middle aged banker Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) unhappy with his life. A mysterious phone call from his supposedly dead friend Charlie (Murray Hamilton) offers a chance for improvement though. Charlie leads Arthur towards a shady organisation who promise their customers a fresh start by faking their deaths and setting them up with a new and sought-after lifestyle, with a new face to go with it (achieved through extreme plastic surgery). Although unsure of the procedure at first, Arthur is talked (or pretty much bullied) into it. He becomes Antiochus Wilson, a West Coast artist with the face of Rock Hudson. At first this new identity seems idyllic, bringing romance in the form of the free spirited Nora Marcus (Salome Jens) who helps loosen up the uptight former banker. However, as time goes on, Arthur/Antiochus finds that all is not as it seems and he learns to appreciate the true value of life so wants to re-assume his original identity. The question is, will the organisation allow it?

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Blu-Ray Review: Song of the Sea

Director: Tomm Moore
Screenplay: William Collins
Based on a Story by: Tomm Moore
Starring: David Rawle, Brendan Gleeson, Lisa Hannigan, Fionnula Flanagan, Lucy O’Connell
Country: Ireland, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg, France
Running Time: 93 min
Year: 2014
BBFC Certificate: PG

Even though Song of the Sea, Tomm Moore’s follow up to The Secret of Kells, got nominated for ‘Best Animated Feature’ at the last Academy Awards ceremony (Kells also got a nomination back in 2010), it wasn’t released in the UK until July of this year. Being a big fan of animated films and having liked Kells quite a bit, I’ve been desperate to catch Song of the Sea after its surprise Oscar nod. It didn’t play for long in my local cinema though, so I missed it, which meant I was incredibly grateful to be offered a chance to review the UK Blu-Ray release recently.

Like a number of classic animated films, Song of the Seaopens with tragedy. Ben (voiced by David Rawle) is left heartbroken by the death of his mother, who dies giving birth to his sister Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell). Because of this, Ben is quite hostile to his little sister, who still hasn’t spoken by her 6th birthday. Their father Conor (Brendan Gleeson) is a shell of a man after the tragedy and the three live a quiet, over-protective existence in a lighthouse on a lonely island. The children’s stubborn old grandma (Fionnula Flanagan) arrives one day, who believes the island is no place for youngsters to grow up and, after a close call when Saoirse is found washed up on the beach, she takes the kids to live with her in the local town.

Ben will have none of this though and runs away to make his way back home. Saoirse secretly escapes too, so he’s forced to have her tag along. There’s more to Saoirse than meets the eye though. In her nighttime escapade in the sea she discovered that she’s actually half selkie, a magical creature that can turn into a seal. By unlocking her powers, she awakens numerous spirits around the area and the two children become embroiled in a mystical quest to free a number of fairy creatures who have been turned to stone by the witch Macha (also voiced by Fionnula Flanagan).

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Blu-Ray Review: Rashomon

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa
Based on Two Stories by: Ryûnosuke Akutagawa
Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Machiko Kyô, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura
Country: Japan
Running Time: 88 min
Year: 1950
BBFC Certificate: 12

Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon is a hugely important and influential film. It wasn’t the director’s first by a long stretch (he’d made 11 prior to this according to the IMDB), but it was the film that introduced Kurosawa to the West after it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival (and went on to win the Oscar for best foreign language film). Not only did this award bring the director to prominence around the world, it was the first time a Japanese film had been internationally recognised. So it opened the eyes of the West to the wonders of other great directors such as Ozu and Mizoguchi, as well as providing a new market to the nation’s cinematic output for decades to come.

So much has been written and talked about Rashomon that I don’t want to ramble on too much about it. I’m just going to talk about how it stands up today and why you should watch it if you haven’t already.

If the latter is the case, you’ll need filling in on what the film is about first. Rashomon sees a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) recount to a passing commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) what they saw and heard at a trial for the rape of a woman (Machiko Kyō) and murder of her samurai husband (Masayuki Mori) supposedly at the hands of the bandit Tajōmaru (Toshiro Mifune). The two bystanders seem especially troubled by the affair, but not only by the severity of the crime, but by the fact that none of the testimonies match up. We are told the story of what happened by Tajōmaru, the wife, the husband (via a medium) and finally the woodcutter himself who eventually comes clean about witnessing the crime. None of these stories are quite the same, so some, if not all, of those involved must be lying.

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