Blu-Ray Review: Spione

Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou
Based on a Novel by: Thea von Harbou
Starring: Willy Fritsch, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Gerda Maurus, Fritz Rasp, Louis Ralph, Lupu Pick
Producer: Erich Pommer
Country: Germany
Running Time: 150 min
Year: 1928
BBFC Certificate: PG


I‘ve had an excellent track record with Fritz Lang films (you can read my glowing review of Des Testament des Dr. Mabuse here). Admittedly, I’ve only seen a few, but each one has impressed me greatly. Metropolis introduced me to the wonders of silent cinema back when I was a teenager, M showed me that serial killer films were already in fine form back in the 30’s and, more recently, Des Testament des Dr. Mabuse proved that blockbuster sequels could be masterpieces. Eureka released Lang’s follow up to Metropolis, Spione (a.k.a. Spies), on DVD as part of their Masters of Cinema series back in 2005. I’d been very close to buying it in the past as it sounded like something I’d very much enjoy, but I’m glad I never took the plunge as now Eureka have upgraded the release as a dual format Blu-Ray and DVD set. I requested a review copy to see if it could match up to the other Lang films I’d seen and I’m pleased to report that it certainly did.

Spione is a spy thriller (if the English title didn’t make that obvious) with a labyrinthine plot. I won’t go into too much detail so as not to spoil things, but basically a spy ring headed by the evil Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is causing chaos at the government’s secret service. Important documents have been stolen, dignitaries have been assassinated and double agents are springing up all over the place. Next on Haghi’s list of crimes is to get his hands on a peace treaty to be signed between Japan and the UK, in the hope that he can use it to trigger another world war. The only man that can stop him is agent 326 (Willy Fritsch). Haghi is always one step ahead though and sends the cunning Russian spy Sonya (Gerda Maurus) to seduce him and lead him down a dark path. A spanner is put in the works however when Sonya and 326 fall in love.

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DVD Review: Ida

Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Writers: Pawel Pawlikowski, Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Starring: Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik
Producers: Eric Abraham, Piotr Dzieciol, Ewa Puszczynska
Country: Poland/Denmark/France/UK
Running Time: 81 min
Year: 2013
BBFC Certificate: 12


Although born in Poland, Pawel Pawlikowski began his career making documentaries for British television, then made a name for himself directing a couple of highly regarded British films, Last Resort in 2000 and My Summer of Love in 2004. For his fifth feature, Ida, he chose to head back home to co-write and direct a film in Poland which delves into the country’s dark and turbulent past.

Ida is a drama set in the 1960’s which follows 18-year old Anna on a journey of self-discovery. An orphan who has lived in a convent for as long as she can remember, she is preparing to take her vows to become a nun and is advised to speak to her one known relative, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), before making this huge decision. Wanda opens Anna’s eyes to the truth of her past, revealing that she is in fact called Ida and her Jewish parents were killed during the Nazi occupation. Following this discovery, Anna/Ida travels with Wanda to try to find her parents’ bodies and finally lay them to rest. Along the way, Wanda, a bitter yet modern woman, tries to break out Anna’s repressed desires. Wanda herself is filled with pain though and the journey they take may cleanse her soul too.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Thief of Bagdad

Director: Raoul Walsh
Screenplay: Lotta Woods, Douglas Fairbanks, Achmed Abdullah (uncredited), James T. O’Donohoe (uncredited)
Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Julanne Johnston, Snitz Edwards, Sôjin Kamiyama, Anna May Wong
Producer: Douglas Fairbanks
Country: USA
Running Time: 149 min
Year: 1924
BBFC Certificate: U


Douglas Fairbanks and his wife Mary Pickford were thought of as the king and queen of Hollywood back in the 1920’s. As well as finding great success as two of the earliest true movie stars (Pickford in particular is often thought as one of the very first), they set up United Artists (UA) alongside Charlie Chaplin and D. W. Griffith in a bid to have more control over film production, away from the powerful commercial studios. Through UA they were able to create the films they wanted, hiring the best collaborators available to make the finest films they could. Indeed, UA were responsible for many of the most famous films of the era and beyond. The company in fact still produces films now, although they’ve been a bit thin on the ground during the last few years and the company is now in the hands of MGM.

Anyway, I won’t delve into the complicated history of UA, but with this pivotal move, Fairbanks showed he was clearly more than just an actor. He was passionate about film and would go to great lengths to produce work which met his high standards. A lot of his work, as with a disturbingly large number of films from the silent era, has been lost or forgotten. Even his most famous films such as Robin Hood, The Black Pirate and The Mark of Zorro haven’t been given a decent upgrade to modern home video formats (in the UK at least), only showing up on ropey independent releases from companies that have capitalised on their public domain status and plonked any old print onto a disc. Possibly Fairbanks’ most critically successful film (it didn’t totally win over audiences at the time), The Thief of Bagdad has finally been given the release it deserves in the UK though, with Eureka releasing it on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD as part of their prestigious Masters of Cinema series. I must admit, largely due to the poor distribution of his work in this country, I’ve never seen a Douglas Fairbanks film before, so I was very excited about checking this one out.

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Blu-Ray Review: Spirited Away

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Screenplay: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki (Japanese version) or Daveigh Chase, Jason Marsden, Suzanne Pleshette (English version)
Producer: Toshio Suzuki
Country: Japan
Running Time: 126 min
Year: 2001
BBFC Certificate: PG


I remember being incredibly excited when Spirited Away was released in the UK. I’d discovered the wonders of Hayao Miyazaki’s work a year or two before it was released. I was getting into anime at the time and picked up a copy of Princess Mononoke on DVD and instantly fell in love. I needed to see more, but only that and The Castle of Cagliostro were available. So I’m ashamed to say I bought most of the director’s early work on pirated Chinese DVD’s (don’t judge me – I didn’t have a choice). I loved every title, as well as the other couple of Studio Ghibli films packaged with them (they came as 2 on 1 sets) and Miyazaki became my favourite director. There are plenty of directors I love, but Miyazaki is one of the few, if not the only one that has a perfect scoresheet for me. So, with Spirited Away getting enough mainstream critical praise and awards to grant it a nationwide release, I was incredibly happy to hear I’d be able to watch Miyazaki’s latest on the big screen instead of a ropily subtitled DVD imported from Asia.

When I did go and see it I thought it was great of course. However, after all the hype I’d created for myself, not to mention the insanely positive reviews it was getting, I never ranked it quite as highly as Miyazaki’s three ‘epic adventure’ titles, Princess Mononoke, Laputa: Castle in the Sky and my all time favourite, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Maybe it was because I was still relatively young (21) and yearned for more action and a grander scale or maybe it was just the fact that his previous films, which in my mind were equally as good if not occasionally better, weren’t gaining the attention that Spirited Away was getting. For whatever reason, even though I thought the film was brilliant, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was a little overrated.

And a couple of weeks ago, 11 years on (the film was released in 2003 in the UK), I was offered the chance to review the blu-ray release of the film. God knows why it’s taken so long to bring Spirited Away to high definition in this country, but I was delighted to be one of the first people to get my hands on the disc. It also gave me the chance to re-evaluate the film after not having seen it for around 7 or 8 years.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Killing Fields

Director: Roland Joffé
Screenplay: Bruce Robinson
Starring: Sam Waterston, Haing S. Ngor, John Malkovich, Julian Sands
Producer: Lord David Puttnam
Country: UK
Running Time: 142 min
Year: 1984
BBFC Certificate: 15


The Killing Fields is a classic British film which I’ve avoided for a long time. I’ve had it on DVD for years, but an ‘issue’ war film which looked weighty, worthy and bleak didn’t always appeal when I’d flick through my collection for something to watch. When a shiny new 30th Anniversary blu-ray was offered to me I finally gave in though and decided to give it a whirl.

The ‘issue’ under scrutiny in The Killing Fields is the Cambodian civil war and the atrocities dished out by the Khmer Rouge during their infamous ‘year zero’ cleansing campaign as well as looking at the poor handling of the situation by the American military. However, the film’s plot doesn’t spend too much time delving into the political machinations, it’s more a tale of friendship, loyalty and survival set amongst the carnage of civil war and ethnic cleansing. Based on a true story, The Killing Fields follows the relationship between Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston), a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the New York Times, and his Cambodian aide Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor). Pran, being well educated, is a prime target for the Khmer Rouge and chooses to stay with Sydney early on in the film when he has a chance to leave the country so, later on whilst his American friend is evacuated, he is sent to one of the notorious ‘re-education camps’ where he is savagely treated by his captors.

I find that epic, award winning war films can often be overrated, especially over time as their presentation becomes more dated. However, The Killing Fields has stood the test of time rather well and remains a powerful experience 30 years on. A lot of this is due to the fact that it is unflinching in its depiction of the horrors of war, more so than a lot of other films of that genre and era. It’s a bloody, dirty, often chaotic film which throws you into the madness of what was happening and rarely lets you take a breath. A portion of the third quarter which sees Pran, Sydney and his fellow journalists held at the French Embassy is the only time the film really calms down, but wisely this time is used to develop the friendship between the lead characters as well as to deliver the most tense film developing scene I’ve come across.

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Blu-Ray Review: Youth of the Beast

Director: Seijun Suzuki
Screenplay: Ichirô Ikeda, Tadaaki Yamazaki
Based on a Novel by: Haruhiko Ôyabu
Starring: Jô Shishido, Misako Watanabe, Tamio Kawaji
Producer: Keinosuke Kubo
Country: Japan
Running Time: 92 min
Year: 1963
BBFC Certificate: 15


I‘ve been aware of Seijun Suzuki in the Japanese cult cinema landscape for some time. I’ve seen his two most famous classics, Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill, but I haven’t ventured beyond those yet, which is a bit mad seeing as I enjoyed both quite a lot and he’s directed over 50 films so far. His career has been an unusual one though which resulted in (supposedly) quite a hit and miss collection and his story is possibly more well known than his films have actually been seen.

In the mid-50’s, the Japanese entertainment company Nikkatsu started producing films again after a hiatus which began during WWII and, in a bid to keep productions fresh and exciting, they hired a number of young assistant directors from other studios, promising to promote them quickly to full director status, which was unheard of in the traditional Japanese studio system back in those days. Among those directors were Shōhei Imamura and Seijun Suzuki. Whereas Imamura started making his unique glimpses of the underbelly of society pretty much straight away, Suzuki found himself churning out cookie-cutter releases for the studio by the dozen, largely yakuza/gangster pictures. By all accounts, most of the 20-odd films he directed in his first 7 years or so at the studio weren’t particularly memorable. However, growing tired of this workmanlike practise and getting jealous of the freedom allowed to his peer Imamura, he finally tore off his shackles and made what is considered his breakthrough film with Youth of the Beast in 1963. It didn’t make much of a mark at the time, but in retrospect, it paved the way for his most highly regarded period which culminated in Branded to Kill which may have got him fired from Nikkatsu, whose head thought it was “incomprehensible”, but cemented his name in the pantheon of cult classic cinema.

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Blu-Ray Review: Blacula – The Complete Collection

I‘ve got too many review screeners piled up for October and November as well as several work and home life barriers to put together any special seasonal Halloween features, but I got sent one Blu-Ray release to review which fits into the spooky milieu at least, Blacula – The Complete Collection.

The blaxploitation genre came about at the turn of the 1970’s when Hollywood producers discovered there was a lot of money to be made out of films featuring, created by and/or aimed at African Americans. At the the tail end of the 60’s, the Civil Rights Movement had given African Americans equality in America (legally speaking – unfortunately racism continues to rear its ugly head so it’s difficult to claim full equality, even now) and they were riding high on this fact. People liked to see African American heroes kicking ass and giving it to “the man” and the Hollywood bigwigs saw this and jumped on it.

The first and in fact most blaxploitation films tended towards the action and thriller genres, set on “the streets” with bad ass heroes taking down drug dealers, pimps and corrupt cops. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Shaft and Superfly were the early groundbreakers of this style, but soon the producers branched out to fuse the hip blaxploitation template with other popular film genres. Thus came Blacula. The title makes it clear what intention the filmmakers had: with Hammer making Dracula making popular again back in 1966, why not use this to create a blaxploitation/horror hybrid?

The film was a reasonable success on its release in 1972, so much so that it spawned a sequel, Scream Blacula Scream and Eureka are releasing both films on one Blu-Ray in the UK, just before Halloween. I ventured into a dark room to see how well they hold up today.

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DVD Review: Two Days, One Night

Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Writers: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Pili Groyne
Producers: Denis Freyd, Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Country: Belgium
Running Time: 99 min
Year: 2014
BBFC Certificate: 15


(maybe add half a star if you’re not familiar with the Dardenne brothers’ previous work)


I had the pleasure to review The Dardennes Collection back in 2012, which consisted of 6 of the brothers’ most famous films, including their latest from that year, The Kid With the Bike. I hadn’t seen any of their work previously so I received a crash course in their brand of no frills yet perfectly balanced filmmaking and fell in love with it. I may not have given every title top marks, but they were of such a high standard I found myself being quite harsh on the slightly less mind-blowing films in the set even though I adored the collection as a whole. So understandably my expectations were very high for Two Days, One Night, the Dardennes brothers’ latest film, especially since it’s been picking up universal praise amongst critics, many of whom are calling it their best work.

Like most of their other films, the story here is quite simple, in fact this could probably be their most sparse narrative. Basically, Sandra (Marion Cotillard), a young mother with a history of depression, is told that her work colleagues have opted to take a €1,000 bonus rather than keep her on as an employee. Feeling the staff had been pressured into making this decision, Sandra manages to talk her boss into running another vote and she has just the weekend to convince her colleagues one by one that they should give up the money to let her keep her job.

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Blu-Ray Review: Le jour se lève

Director: Marcel Carné
Screenplay: Jacques Viot & Jacques Prévert
Starring: Jean Gabin, Jacqueline Laurent, Arletty, Jules Berry
Producer: Jean-Pierre Frogerais
Country: France
Running Time: 91 min
Year: 1939
BBFC Certificate: PG


The best thing about being sent screeners of old classics to review is that it can open your eyes to films which you’ve not heard of as well as those that have passed you by. My most recent discovery, Le jour se lève (a.k.a. Daybreak), falls into the latter and appears to be fairly unknown or at least unseen by critics and film buffs in general, despite its director Marcel Carné enjoying decades of success with Les Enfants du paradis. Supposedly Le jour se lève was very well received on release and has been considered the equal to, if not better than, Renoir’s La Règle du jeu which was released in the same year. You only have to look at Sight and Sound’s highly regarded Top Ten Greatest Films of All Time Poll, run every decade, to see how their paths have since veered. In the first poll in 1952, Le jour se lève was placed at joint 7th, higher than La Règle du jeu at joint 10th. As the decades went on though, Renoir’s classic jumped to number 3 and has never left the top 4 since. Carné’s film, on the other hand, dropped out straight away in the 60’s and has never returned. It wasn’t even in the top 50 of the 2012 poll. Part of the reason may be because the film was almost lost in the late 1940’s, when RKO acquired the rights to the film so that they could remake it and sought to buy up and destroy every copy available. It re-appeared in the 50’s though. The critics of Cahiers du cinéma, who would come to make up the French New Wave movement, are known to have dismissed Carné, claiming his writing collaborator Jacques Prévert was the real genius behind his work, so perhaps they were to blame. Whatever the reason, Le jour se lève has become a distant memory in cinema’s history books.
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