Blu-Ray Review: The Life Of Oharu – Criterion Collection

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Screenplay: Kenji Mizoguchi, Yoshikata Yoda
Based on a Novel by: Saikaku Ihara
Starring: Kinuyo Tanaka, Tsukie Matsuura, Ichirô Sugai, Toshirō Mifune
Country: Japan
Running Time: 137 min
Year: 1952
BBFC Certificate: PG


I‘ve covered most of Kenji Mizoguchi 1950’s films here in my review of Eureka’s outstanding ‘Late Mizoguchi’ box set. However, frustratingly absent from that otherwise exceptional set was one of the director’s most well respected films, 1952’s The Life of Oharu. Out of print on DVD for a while, it’s been fairly hard to come by without paying a hefty price tag. Luckily The Criterion Collection have come to our rescue and released the film on Blu-Ray in the UK (and the US I believe), so I was keen to finally check it out.

Like most of Mizoguchi’s work, The Life of Oharu centres around a female protagonist (the titular Oharu, beautifully played by Kinuyo Tanaka) who is hard done by the men around her. The film opens to show her as an ageing prostitute, struggling to attract any customers on a cold night in 17th/18th Century Japan. Sheltering in a temple filled with statues of Buddha, one reminds her of a man from her past and she reminisces about how she ended up in this position.

We learn that she was once a noble woman, but her love for a lowly page, Katsunosuke (played by Toshirō Mifune, a fact I somehow didn’t clock until writing this review), causes her and her family to be banished from the court and Katsunosuke executed. From here on out, Oharu is knocked further and further down the social strata as she is used and abused by those in power.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Lady From Shanghai

Director: Orson Welles
Screenplay: Orson Welles
Based on a Novel by: Sherwood King
Starring: Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane, Glenn Anders, Ted de Corsia
Country: USA
Running Time: 88 min
Year: 1947
BBFC Certificate: PG


Orson Welles blew everyone away with his ‘official’ directorial debut Citizen Kane (he made Too Much Johnson before that, but it was only originally produced to be integrated into a stage show and was never screened in cinemas until its rediscovery decades later). OK, it didn’t particularly make waves at the box office, but it was critically acclaimed and made people sit up and take notice of the precocious young director. However, Welles didn’t have much luck following that. From his follow up The Magnificent Ambersons onwards, his productions were plagued by interference from studios and he never managed to strike gold in the same way due to this. In an early review – http://blueprintreview.co.uk/2011/11/touch-of-evil/, I argued that Touch of Evil might be a better film than Citizen Kane, but I saw the ‘director’s cut’ which had been re-edited in the 90’s from the original studio released version.

The Lady From Shanghai is one of these studio tampered films, with the original cut presented to the producers coming in an hour longer than the version we have today. Welles was also particularly vocal about his dislike for the score by Heinz Roemheld (a 9-page memo he wrote detailing changes which were never made can be found in this handsome dual-format set). Nevertheless, the film is regarded as one of the better studio films he made, so a Blu-Ray re-release like this is more than welcome. I’ve seen the film once before, but couldn’t remember a lot about it so was keen to revisit it.

The Lady From Shanghai opens with Irish rogue Michael O’Hara (Welles) happening across the beautiful Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) and soon after saving her from the hands of some muggers. They share a sexually charged horse carriage ride, following which Elsa offers O’Hara a job on her yacht. He initially refuses this as he discovers she’s married, and to a criminal lawyer to boot. However, her husband Arthur (Everett Sloane) comes to see O’Hara and persuades him to take the job. O’Hara and the audience can smell something fishy, but the hard-headed Irishman decides to risk it and heads along on the couple’s cruise. Of course, he gets into a mess of trouble as Arthur and his associate George Grisby (Glenn Anders) drag him into a faked murder plot.

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Blu-Ray Review: Brotherhood of Blades

Director: Yang Lu
Screenplay: Yang Lu, Chen Shu
Starring: Chen Chang, Shih-Chieh Chin, Dong-xue Li, Shi Shi Liu, Yuan Nie, Qianyuan Wang
Country: China
Running Time: 112 min
Year: 2014
BBFC Certificate: 15


Decent new martial arts films from China or Hong Kong have been getting thin on the ground of late after the boom they enjoyed in the early 2000’s. That’s why I got very excited when the recent Call of Heroes ended up meeting my high expectations. Hot on its heels (in terms of a UK release date at least) is Brotherhood of Blades. Directed by Yang Lu, a newcomer to action movies, and featuring none of the big martial arts stars, I was nonetheless excited to check it out, as word of mouth was good and the marketing made it look impressive.

Brotherhood of Blades is set in late Ming Dynasty China and follows three friends, Shen Lian (Chen Chang), Lu Jianxing (Qianyuan Wang) and Jin Yichuan (Dong-xue Li), who are skilled members of the Imperial Assassins. All three of them are struggling with personal problems which could be solved with a large amount of money. Well, luckily for Shen Lian, when the three assassins are assigned with the mission of killing Wei Zhongxian (Shih-Chieh Chin), Shen is offered the chance of taking bags full of gold away with him in return for faking Wei’s death. When he takes up the offer however, he makes life incredibly difficult and dangerous for himself and his two friends as their honesty is put into question and they realise they’re being used as pawns in a much larger game.

This film didn’t impress me quite as much as Call of Heroes did unfortunately, but it’s still a solid entry to the wuxia genre. It’s handsomely presented – lit and shot beautifully with some lavish period production design.

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Blu-Ray Review: Swiss Army Man

Director: ‘The Daniels’ – Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert
Screenplay: Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
Starring: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Country: USA, Sweden
Running Time: 97 min
Year: 2016
BBFC Certificate: 15


Swiss Army Man is a film that rode in on a wave of hype after several festival screenings, but I feel it’s hype that both helped and hindered it. Becoming known as ‘the farting corpse movie’, or variations of that, helped give the film a great amount of publicity, but I think many might have dismissed it due to this over-simplified description. Sounding like an even lower brow version of Weekend at Bernies, the film can’t have appealed to the more ‘sophisticated’ cinephiles out there. But, having now watched the film, I’d say they’re missing out on something truly special.

Swiss Army Man opens showing Hank (Paul Dano) stranded on a desert island, preparing to kill himself as he’s given up hope of rescue. However, just as he’s about to do it, he spots a dead body (Daniel Radcliffe), washed up on the shore. This is no ordinary body either. It’s rather flatulent, which initially merely distracts Hank from his suicide attempt. When the farts get more powerful though, Hank realises this ‘wind’ can be harnessed more effectively and uses the corpse as a jet-ski to reach a neighbouring lush island which is littered with rubbish, suggesting it may be inhabited.

Once on the island, Hank struggles to find any more signs of civilization, but develops a great bond with the corpse (named Manny), who miraculously comes alive (if not mobile) after a while. Manny has no memories of his life before though and has many questions about the world around him. This prompts Hank to teach him, using the limited resources around them, whilst simultaneously altering his view of his own miserable existence. In particular, the two of them discuss the subject of love, as they tackle how to approach the elusive girl on the bus, Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who seems to be a part of one or both of their memories.

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Blu-Ray Review: Fat City

Director: John Huston
Screenplay: Leonard Gardner
Based on a Novel by: Leonard Gardner
Starring: Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges, Susan Tyrrell, Candy Clark, Nicholas Colasanto
Country: USA
Running Time: 96 min
Year: 1972
BBFC Certificate: 15


The late John Huston had an unusual career. Making his directorial debut with a cast iron classic, The Maltese Falcon, followed by a handful of other masterpieces, award winners and commercial hits, he then hit the doldrums for a while, making a couple of gems among the rough, but struggling to stay relevant as the 60’s rolled on. 1972’s Fat City was a bit of a comeback though, critically at least, leading to a pretty solid end to his career and life (we can forget about Annie). It’s been rather forgotten over time, but the critical love for Fat City remained enough to prompt this fine re-release package by the up-and-coming UK label, Indicator. Before I dig into Fat City I must take a minute to applaud Powerhouse Films for digging out so many lesser known gems, bravely picking some less than obvious titles to launch the first few months of their Indicator label. They pull out all the stops for special features too. Adding to the wonderful Blu-Rays released by Eureka, Arrow and The Criterion Collection, I’m truly spoilt for classic and cult re-releases these days.

Anyway, back to Fat City. Tully (Stacy Keach) is a former boxer who had a chance to make it big, but fell apart due to personal problems (he blames a woman and his manager, but as the film goes on we realise he’s got a drinking problem). When heading back to the gym in an attempt to get back into the sport, he comes across young Ernie (Jeff Bridges) training there for a bit of fun. Seeing potential in the 18 year old, Tully recommends Ernie speak to his ex-manager Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto – better known to me as Coach from Cheers). The film then charts, largely separately, Tully’s attempts to get back in the ring whilst battling personal demons and Ernie’s development as a boxer in the rough ‘skid row’ of Stockton, California. As both struggle to find the level of success Tully in particular dreams about, their lives intertwine with two women – Tully’s with alcoholic Oma (Susan Tyrrell) and Ernie’s with teenager Faye (Candy Clark).

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Blu-Ray Review: The Big Heat

Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Sydney Boehm
Based on a Newspaper Serial by: William P. McGivern
Starring: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Jocelyn Brando, Lee Marvin, Alexander Scourby, Jeanette Nolan
Country: USA
Running Time: 90 min
Year: 1953
BBFC Certificate: 15


I almost didn’t take up the offer from Powerhouse to review The Big Heat as I figured I already had the film on DVD, so could watch it in my own time. However, being a fan of film noir and director Fritz Lang, it’s a film I’ve been keen to see for a while, so I figured this would force me to finally get it watched. And thank God I did, because The Big Heat is even better than I had hoped.

Based on a Saturday Evening Post serial (very closely according to the commentary included here), The Big Heat opens with the suicide of Tom Duncan, a man we soon learn is a police officer. His wife Bertha (Jeanette Nolan) comes down the stairs after hearing the fatal gunshot, but rather than collapse in shock or distress, she takes a look at his suicide note and heads to the telephone. She doesn’t ring the police or hospital though, she rings crime lord Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) to tell him what happened.

Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is given the case and is all set to sign it off as a straightforward suicide, before he is told by Duncan’s mistress Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green) that it certainly wasn’t. This piques Bannion’s interest, but he isn’t fully sold on Chapman’s theory until she ends up dead. When he digs deeper, his cosy family life is attacked and the case becomes a mission for revenge more than a need to solve the mystery.

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Blu-Ray Review: Lone Wolf and Cub – Criterion Collection

Directors: Kenji Misumi, Buichi Saitô (Baby Cart in Peril), Yoshiyuki Kuroda (White Heaven in Hell)
Screenplays: Kazuo Koike, Tsutomu Nakamura (Baby Cart in the Land of Demons and White Heaven in Hell)
Based on a Manga Series by: Kazuo Koike, Goseki Kojima
Starring: Tomisaburo Wakayama, Akihiro Tomikawa, Minoru Ôki, Tatsuo Endô, Tokio Oki, Keiko Fujita
Country: Japan
Running Time: 83, 81, 89, 81, 89, 83 min
Years: 1972-74
BBFC Certificate: 18


Being a lover of Japanese cinema, particularly period samurai movies, as well as being a lover of genre films in general, the Lone Wolf and Cub series is one I’m very familiar with. Saying that, I’d previously only seen the first two instalments before now. So there was never any doubt in my mind about taking the Criterion Collection up on their offer of a set of screeners to review their lavish set of all 6 films. These are as follows; Sword Of Vengeance, Baby Cart At The River Styx, Baby Cart To Hades, Baby Cart In Peril, Baby Cart In The Land Of Demons and White Heaven In Hell. Also included is Shogun Assassin, a 1980 film made up of all the sex and violence from the first two films with dodgy dubbing and a voiceover to tie them together into something suitable for the midnight movie crowd.

Now, when reviewing box sets I tend to review each title separately, but here I’ve decided to do one long write-up for the whole collection. Maybe I’m just being lazy, but I feel the films are so consistent in terms of cast and crew, as well as quality, there isn’t a great need to separate each film from one another. I also think I’d find it hard to differentiate all of the films after chain watching all six over a couple of weeks. Without wanting to kick off my review with a criticism when I love the set so much, the stories do get a little ‘samey’.

Speaking of stories, the first film, Sword Of Vengeance, sets everything up for the rest of the series through a series of flashbacks. Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is the Shogun Executioner during turbulent times in Japan. He is ordered to execute countless lords for the sake of the Shogunate. In the opening scene we even see him decapitating a young child lord. Despite his disturbing profession, Itto is a good, honest man though, with a wife, Azami (Keiko Fujita), and child, Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa). One night, after Azami confesses that she worries Itto’s work has cursed him and their family, she is murdered by members of the Yagyu clan, led by Retsudo, who also tries to frame Itto for treason as he is hell bent on the Yagyu taking the role of Shogun Executioner. Itto manages to escape death, but is forced to exile, roaming Japan as an assassin for hire, on the “demon road to hell” on a path of vengeance. He is not alone though. Before he leaves, he gives his toddler son a choice. He lays out a sword and a ball for him to crawl towards. The sword symbolises joining him on this journey to a life of murder and vengeance and the ball represents a journey to heaven to be with his mother. Of course, Daigoro chooses the sword and the two set off to wander the lands.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Creeping Garden

Directors: Tim Grabham, Jasper Sharp
Starring: Mark Pagnell, Heather Barnett, Bryn Dentinger
Country: UK
Running Time: 84 min
Year: 2014
BBFC Certificate: E


Although they’re both documentaries, I couldn’t have picked a more different film than The Creeping Garden to follow up Gleeson to watch and review. Where the latter was a moving, very human film made up from raw, home movie style footage, The Creeping Garden is an unusual, cerebral and stylish affair. As such it was a bit of a shock to the system, and I still haven’t quite settled my thoughts on it in my mind. I’ll give it a go here though as I write my review.

Co-directed by Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp (who I’ve met a couple of times through a festival I help organise), The Creeping Garden is a documentary that explores the study of plasmodial slime mould. It sounds like an unusual and dull subject for a feature length documentary, but although I’d agree that it’s unusual, there’s more to slime moulds than you might imagine. Although they look like and were originally classified as fungi, they are in fact organisms which can move, eat and have a surprising level of intelligence for their appearance.

The film interviews and looks at the work of a number of scientists, amateur enthusiasts, musicians and artists who all deal with or take inspiration from slime moulds. As such, the film is almost about them as much as it is about slime moulds. A little like Room 237, part of the hook of the film is how unusual the work is from this incredibly niche group of people and how deeply they delve into it. The studies here are less crackpot than those of Room 237 though of course, so the filmmakers are in no way poking fun at or exploiting the strange habits of these slime mould experts. In fact Grabham and Sharp seem as interested and obsessed as they are, as the camera thrives on shots of the organisms.

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Blu-Ray Review: Bunny Lake is Missing

Director: Otto Preminger
Screenplay: John Mortimer, Penelope Mortimer, Ira Levin (uncredited)
Based on a Novel by: Marryam Modell
Starring: Keir Dullea, Carol Lynley, Laurence Olivier, Noël Coward, Martita Hunt
Country: UK
Running Time: 107 min
Year: 1965
BBFC Certificate: 12


As a lover of classic cinema, I’m ashamed and a little surprised to say that this is the first Otto Preminger film I’ve ever seen. He has several classic titles to his name. Anatomy of a Murder, Laura and The Man With a Golden Arm are the three most famous, but all have somehow passed me by (although I own two of them on DVD, so I’ll hopefully get to them at some point). Bunny Lake is Missing wasn’t quite as successful or universally acclaimed as those, but it’s a bit of a cult favourite with some and as such I’ve heard its name bandied around here and there, so it didn’t take much to talk me into reviewing it.

The title neatly explains the setup, although there’s a little more to the story than that. Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) has just moved to England from America and we see her head to collect her daughter Bunny from her first day of nursery school, but she’s not there. As Ann desperately tries to find her, enlisting the help of her protective brother Steven (Keir Dullea) and police Superintendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier), we begin to doubt whether the child ever existed in the first place. With Ann and her daughter only arriving in the country a day or two previously, along with the nursery being a chaotic madhouse with a worn out newly appointed headteacher struggling to keep on top of things, there’s little evidence that Bunny isn’t just a figment of Ann’s imagination.

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