DVD Review: Wolf Warrior

Director: Wu Jing (as Jacky Wu)
Starring: Wu Jing, Scott Adkins, Nan Yu
Year: 2015
Country: China
Duration: 90 min
BBFC Certificate: 15

I watched this military action movie with the guys during our latest Weekend of Trash as we’re all Scott Adkins fans as well as fans of the genre. I’d been sent a screener for it to review though, so rather than including my brief thoughts as part of my Weekend of Trash write-up I’m giving it a proper review. Plus it was better than expected so deserves more time spent over it too.

Wolf Warrior opens with an intense military face off against a drug cartel. One of the chief bad guys takes a hostage, leading to a stand off, so rogue sniper Leng Feng (Wu Jing) takes it upon himself to use a risky tactic to bring the man down. In doing so, he gets in a bit of trouble with his superiors who damn his actions, but see his talents and enrol him in the Wolf Warrior squad – the special forces of the special forces. However, the drug cartel are less generous to Feng. You see, the man he killed was the brother of their head honcho, so the villain hires a crack team of mercenaries led by Tom Cat (Scott Adkins) to get revenge. Their strike comes during a military exercise, leaving Feng and his squad surrounded by the enemy out in the wilderness.

All three of us really enjoyed this. Action packed from start to finish and gleefully over the top, it had the feel of an 80’s action movie. Within the opening 10-15 minutes you’re treated to the tense sniper standoff mentioned earlier, then a ridiculously violent attack on the troops sent to arrest the drug baron at his home. It was this sequence that really got us on board and set the tone for the film. Bringing out uzi’s and rocket launchers to take out a handful of soldiers, the bullets cloud the screen and a mixture of live and CGI squibs splatter paint it red, regularly joined by unnecessary explosions in the cars and houses around them.

Would you like to know more…?

Blu-Ray Review: Hard to be a God

Director: Aleksei German
Screenplay: Aleksei German, Svetlana Karmalita
Based on a Novel by: Arkadiy Strugatskiy, Boris Strugatskiy
Starring: Gali Abaydulov, Yuriy Ashikhmin, Remigijus Bilinskas
Country: Russia
Running Time: 177 min
Year: 2013
BBFC Certificate: 15

I‘ve not made my life easy this week. Of the four films I’ve watched to review, three of them were lengthy, surreal, mind-benders and I saved probably the toughest one to last. Hard to be a God was a project its director Aleksei German had been interested in since the 60’s when he read the book of the same name, written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (who also wrote the novel Tarkovsky adapted as Stalker). German supposedly planned to make the film in the 80’s, but was beaten to it by Peter Fleischmann, who made his own adaptation in 1989. German finally started work on his version in 2000, spending 6 years shooting it. It took a further 7 years to edit the film, with German actually dying in 2013, before completion. His son Aleksei German Jr, also a respected filmmaker, helped put the finishing touches to it (largely special effects and sound tweaks) alongside his mother Svetlana Karmalita. This epic undertaking finally hit British shores this year and I got my hands on Arrow’s impressive Blu-Ray release.

Hard to be a God is set on a planet called Arkanar, nearly identical to Earth but some 800 years behind in terms of development. Its progress is further hindered by the fact that the planet’s ruling classes have suppressed the birth of the renaissance, meaning the world is stuck in a bleak, ugly version of our middle ages. A group of scientists from Earth have landed on the planet to observe proceedings. One of these, a man named Anton, is asked to help the planet’s society progress, but without forcibly interfering with the advancement of technology or culture. He is given the identity of a nobleman named Don Rumata, who to many is considered a God. His promise of not interfering becomes difficult however as rebels and religious groups vie for control and the devious Prime Minister Don Reba tests his patience.

Would you like to know more…?

Blu-Ray Review: The Saragossa Manuscript & The Hourglass Sanatorium

Wojciech Has’ The Saragossa Manuscript is a film I’d heard of just through word of mouth from some of the writers and podcasters at Row Three. Championed by Matt Gamble, it was picked for discussion on the Movie Club Podcast back in 2010. After listening to that episode, the title had stuck in the back of my mind as something to try and watch, but at that time it wasn’t available in the UK. In passing years Mr Bongo have brought it out on DVD, but I never got around to checking it out. I’m glad I waited though, as they’re now releasing the film on Blu-Ray alongside Has’ The Hourglass Sanatorium, which holds similar esteem amongst those aware of the director, and I was lucky enough to be offered screeners of both of them to review.

The Saragossa Manuscript

Director: Wojciech Has
Screenplay: Tadeusz Kwiatkowski
Based on the Novel by: Jan Potocki
Starring: Zbigniew Cybulski, Iga Cembrzynska, Elzbieta Czyzewska
Country: Poland
Running Time: 182 min
Year: 1965
BBFC Certification: 15

After giving my standard introduction to a film, I usually launch into a summary of the plot, but you’ll have to bear with me for both these titles because it’s not so simple. 1965’s The Saragossa Manuscript opens with a military man getting abandoned by his troops. He hides out in a house where he discovers an unusual book. An enemy captain finds him there and is about to take him prisoner, but the book catches his eye too and, noting a reference to his grandfather, he sits down and the two read it together. The film then moves to the story within the book. In this, Alfonse Van Worden (the captain’s grandfather, played by Zbigniew Cybulski) is trying to find the quickest way to Madrid from a remote village in the mountains. When he ventures into an inn to find shelter, he comes across a palatial cave which houses two beautiful women. They claim to be his relative and want him to marry them both after first renouncing his faith to join theirs. He gets put under a sort of spell and finds himself caught in a loop, unable to leave the village.

When he finally does break free and begins his travels, he ends up meeting a cabalist who takes him to his home. It’s from here that the story begins to get really complicated and I’m not even going to try to summarise everything. Basically, in this second half of the film, characters keep telling new stories and the film adds a new story layer to the pile. At one point I think it became a story within a story within a story within a story within a story within a story (i.e. 6 layers deep)!

Would you like to know more…?

DVD Review: Bait

Director: Dominic Brunt
Screenplay: Paul Roundell
Starring: Victoria Smurfit, Joanne Mitchell, Jonathan Slinger, Adam Fogerty
Country: UK
Running Time: 82 min
Year: 2014
BBFC Certificate: 18

I‘ve never been hugely into horror movies. I wasn’t allowed to watch many when I was a kid and have always been a bit of a wuss when it comes to really nasty violence so have many notable gaps in my horror film experience. When I met fellow Blueprint: Review writers Justin Richards and Andrew Skeates though and we began our regular movie nights (which turned into the Weekends of Trash), my eyes were opened to a host of spooky, disturbing and down right nasty delights. Since then I’ve grown fonder of the genre, although I still rarely rush to the cinema to see the latest frighteners and my DVD/Blu-Ray collection is sparse on the horror front too.

Up until about 2 years ago, I had a fantastic way of keeping on top of the genre’s offerings; horror festivals. Each year I would try to get to at least one of them, be it Dead by Dawn in Edinburgh, Celluloid Screams in Sheffield or Justin’s own festival, Phantasmagoria. These hand picked selections weren’t always 100% to my tastes (horror is very subjective after all), but I discovered dozens of favourites. Unfortunately, after my daughter was born two years ago, I’ve struggled to find the time and money to make it to film festivals, so once again I’ve fallen behind the pack.

One of my last festival experiences was Celluloid Screams in 2012. A film that impressed me there was Before Dawn. Directed by Dominic Brunt, who’s best known in the UK as a regular actor in the soap opera Emmerdale, the film gave the zombie genre a relationship drama spin. It wasn’t perfect, but showed a lot of potential. So when I heard Brunt was releasing his follow up, Bait (a.k.a. The Taking), I was very excited. It has screened at a few festivals over the last year, but of course this didn’t help me in my current predicament. Luckily Metrodome must have been taking notice as they picked the title up for a UK release and offered me a copy to review.

Would you like to know more…?

Blu-Ray Review: Medium Cool

Director: Haskell Wexler
Screenplay: Haskell Wexler
Starring: Robert Forster, Verna Bloom, Peter Bonerz, Harold Blankenship
Country: USA
Running Time: 111 min
Year: 1969
BBFC Certificate: 18

Like my decision to take a look at The Decline of Western Civilization Collection, my agreeing to review Medium Cool was on a bit of a whim. I’d vaguely heard about it and the director sounded familiar, but I didn’t really realise its pedigree until just before watching it. I also didn’t know much about how it was made until after I’d watched it, so it’s a case of my opinion of the film becoming more positive a day after viewing.

You see, what makes Medium Cool special is that director Haskell Wexler, who is better known as a cinematographer and documentary filmmaker, combined fictional drama and actors with real life events. A few other directors had combined the ‘real’ with the ‘fake’ before this, but no one had quite done it in this extreme fashion.

The film follows news cameraman John Cassellis (Robert Forster) as he covers important cultural and political events during the turbulent late 1960’s. Cold and detached, he pays little attention to the consequences of what is going on around him. He’s only looking to get the most sensational footage he can. When he is fired after kicking up a fuss about his work being given to the FBI, he falls for Appalachian single mum Eileen (Verna Bloom), who lives in the rough side of Chicago with her son Harold (Harold Blankenship). His personal and professional life finally collide with the political turbulence around him when tragedy strikes at the riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

What makes the film’s approach particularly extreme is that, alongside taking his actors to a number of real locations and situations, Wexler actually predicted there would be civil unrest around the convention and prepared to shoot there around the time. He took his crew and actors right into the midst of the chaos and shot the pivotal final act amongst the police and protesters. Possibly the most famous scene in the film (from what I’ve heard) is where a tear gas canister is thrown towards the camera and you hear someone shout “look out Haskell it’s real!” After watching the supplementary material on the Blu-Ray it turns out the line was dubbed in afterwards, but the tear gas was real. Haskel and his crew were hit by the fumes and were in agony afterwards. It’s bold and daring filmmaking the likes of which are rarely seen.

Would you like to know more…?

Blu-Ray Review: The Decline of Western Civilisation Collection

The Decline of Western Civilization Collection sees three cult music documentaries directed by Penelope Spheeris (known largely for Wayne’s World these days) finally get a UK DVD and Blu-Ray release. I must admit, when I was offered the set to review I went for it largely on a whim. I had a vague recollection of the title being mentioned somewhere and the writeup made it sound interesting. I’m very glad I did take up the offer though as I was treated to an exceptionally good trilogy of films. In this age of blockbuster sagas being churned out by the dozen, it’s refreshing to see a set of documentaries show us how a film series should really be done.

The Decline of Western Civilization

Director: Penelope Spheeris
Screenplay: Penelope Spheeris
Starring: Alice Bag Band, Black Flag, X, Fear, Circle Jerks
Country: USA
Running Time: 100 min
Year: 1981
BBFC Certification: 18

The first of Spheeris’ documentaries, The Decline of Western Civilization, saw her explore the burgeoning hardcore punk scene of her native L.A. around 1979-80. Speaking to a number of bands such as Black Flag, X, Circle Jerks, Fear and The Germs as well as some of their fans, she gets to the heart of the lifestyle as well as the music. Speaking of which, a number of live performances run throughout proceedings, acting as an anchor to the interviews.

Spheeris adopts a ‘warts and all’ approach, throwing the viewer in without a safety net. After a brief introduction we jump straight into the mosh pit (or whatever it was called in that era). The aggressive, sweaty atmosphere is captured perfectly and it’s easy to get caught up in the energy of the performances. I’m not a huge fan of punk rock, but the film sells it very well. Yes it looks violent and dirty and the music is loud and offensive, but through the kineticism of the action on screen and some occasional subtitles revealing otherwise hidden depth to the lyrics, you can really appreciate why these people are so dedicated to the genre.

Would you like to know more…?

DVD Review: The Ang Lee Trilogy

I‘m a big fan of Ang Lee. On top of the modern classics he’s directed like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain, I also like the Oscar winning Life of Pi a lot and I’m even a supporter of his underrated comic book movie, Hulk. In particular, I’ve always been impressed by how diverse his output is. His career didn’t start that way though. His first three features form an unofficial trilogy, often known as the ‘Father Knows Best’ trilogy, due to their thematic similarity. These three low key comedy dramas were quite well regarded on release, but somehow they’ve never been available on DVD in the UK. Thankfully, Altitude Film Distribution have taken it upon themselves to rectify the situation. I set aside some time to watch these three films I’ve waited to see for a long time, to give my verdict.

Would you like to know more…?

Blu-Ray Review: Videodrome

Director: David Cronenberg
Screenplay: David Cronenberg
Starring: James Woods, Deborah Harry, Sonja Smits
Country: Canada
Running Time: 89 min
Year: 1983
BBFC Certificate: 18

David Cronenberg is a director whose work I’m not as familiar with as I’d like. I’ve seen a fair few of his films, but largely when I was a teenager, so I can’t remember much about them other than the more famous scenes. I’ve not seen a couple of his classics at all in fact and only just got around to seeing his take on The Fly last year. In terms of his later work, I keep missing most of that too. The latest of his films I’ve seen is A History of Violence, which came out ten years ago.

So I’ve been keen to delve into Cronenberg’s career properly now that I’m a more experienced film lover and Arrow answered my call by releasing a ridiculously extensive 4 disc set of Videodrome. It’s one of the films I’d not seen for about 15 years, so was on my list of titles to watch.

It’s hard to sum up the plot of Videodrome as it’s quite a surreal film, particularly in the second half, and part of the pleasure of watching it is getting caught up in its nightmarish world. The first half seems more straight forward though, tricking the audience into thinking they know what they’re signing up for.

James Woods plays Max Renn, a TV executive working for Civic-TV, a cable channel that shows seedy low-rate programmes and films. Max is getting tired of the usual softcore crap that he peddles though. He thinks audiences want harder and more extreme entertainment and thinks he’s found it when a techie associate manages to access a mysterious broadcast called Videodrome. Basically just a series of violent torture scenes, the show grabs hold of Max and won’t let him go. After he gets more obsessed with it, he starts to experience hallucinations and gets drawn ever further into a twisted, bizarre world of sex, violence and television.

Would you like to know more…?

Blu-Ray Review: Pickup on South Street

Director: Samuel Fuller
Screenplay: Samuel Fuller
Based on a Story by: Dwight Taylor
Starring: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Murvyn Vye, Richard Kiley
Country: USA
Running Time: 80 min
Year: 1953
BBFC Certificate: PG

I‘ve reviewed a few Samuel Fuller films here, one not too long ago in fact (Forty Guns) and I have a habit of feeling a little disappointed after getting excited before seeing them. That’s not the case with Pickup on South Street. This isn’t a first time watch and I think my love for the film is partly why the last couple of titles I watched let me down a little.

Pickup at South Street is a classic film noir that opens on the subway where pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) snatches the purse out of the handbag of Candy (Jean Peters). It turns out he stole more than just a few dollars though. Candy was unwittingly on her way to give a top-secret government microfilm to a Communist agent and Skip ends up with this in his stash. Helped by professional stool pigeon Moe (Thelma Ritter), Candy, the police and the Commies all end up on Skip’s doorstep, demanding the microfilm. Realising what it’s worth, he tries to shake them all down for as much cash as possible. This gets him deeper and deeper into trouble though.

I love a good film noir and this has all the key ingredients of the genre that I can’t get enough of. On top of the moody high contrast photography and seedy back street setting, you get sharp dialogue throughout. It’s real hard boiled gutter talk in this case, with a wonderful streetwise poetry to it.

Would you like to know more…?