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: Fear Eats the Soul

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Screenplay: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Starring: Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem, Barbara Valentin, Irm Hermann
Country: West Germany
Running Time: 94 min
Year: 1974
BBFC Certificate: 15

Rainer Werner Fassbinder is a director whose name I’ve heard bandied around for a long time, but I’ve never got around to watching any of his films. Thankfully Arrow Academy are releasing a collection of 10 of his most famous features on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD (full details further down the page) so I decided to take the plunge and review one of the most well known titles in the set, Fear Eats the Soul (a.k.a. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul).

Fassbinder was an interesting character, to put it mildly. Openly bisexual at a time when that was taboo, he had a myriad of sexual relationships with his regular cast and crew and had problems with alcohol and drugs throughout his adult life which eventually killed him at the age of 37. However (or maybe fuelled by all the cocaine he took), he had a creative prolificacy like no other. To quote Wikipedia, “in a professional career that lasted less than fifteen years, he completed forty feature length films, two television film series, three short films, four video productions, twenty-four stage plays, four radio plays and thirty-six acting roles in his own and others’ films. He also worked as an actor (film and theatre), author, cameraman, composer, designer, editor, producer and theatre manager.” Quite how he managed this is baffling, but he had a skill for swiftly putting together a production, frequently of a high enough standard to gain great critical acclaim.

In fact, Fear Eats the Soul was meant as a throwaway experiment, shot in just two weeks in between the higher budget films Martha and Effi Briest. It went on to be one of his most critically successful films, winning prizes at the Cannes and Chicago Film Festivals. It tells the simple story of a 60-odd year old German woman Emmi (Brigitte Mira) who falls in love with a 40-odd year old Moroccan immigrant known as Ali (although his real name is that of the actor who portrays him, El Hedi ben Salem – Ali is just the name most Germans give to Moroccan immigrants). The couple face horrible treatment from their family, friends and colleagues due to their age and racial differences. This causes a strain on their relationship.

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DVD/Blu-Ray Review: Ran

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, Masato Ide
Based on ‘King Lear’ by: William Shakespeare
Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu
Country: Japan, France
Running Time: 160 min
Year: 1985
BBFC Certificate: 12A

There are only a very small number of directors who have a fully ‘clean’ track record in my eyes (not including newcomers or those who died young). Even filmmakers like Spielberg or Scorsese, whose films I largely adore, have the odd clunker here and there or seem to have lost their touch over time. Akira Kurosawa however has blown me away with every film of his I’ve seen. Admittedly I’m far off watching everything he’s released, so I’m sure one or two of his lesser known titles won’t have the same impact, but I’ve watched a fairly healthy 8 from his filmography and haven’t been disappointed yet.

Ran, often considered his final masterpiece, is a film I first and, until now, last saw at least 15 years ago. At the time I did like it, but I’m not sure I fully appreciated it as I can remember feeling ever so slightly disappointed. I think it was the weight of expectation behind seeing it. I’d heard great things and from stills I was expecting an epic action extravaganza, but the battle scenes only make up a relatively small portion of the running time. What also probably didn’t help is that I saw it on VHS (probably in pan & scan) as DVD’s were only just beginning to grow in popularity at the time and high definition home viewing was but a dream. So I was delighted to be offered the chance to review Studiocanal’s new 4K restoration of the film, which is coming to cinemas, Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK. It gave me a chance to revisit the film with a more mature and clearer eye.

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Blu-Ray Review: Culloden & The War Game

Peter Watkins is a British filmmaker that revolutionised the docudrama format in the 60’s when he wrote and directed two feature length BBC TV films, Culloden (a.k.a. The Battle of Culloden) and The War Game. The BFI have packaged these two films together and released them on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD. Below are my thoughts on each individual title and the features included in the set.

Culloden (a.k.a. The Battle of Culloden)

Director: Peter Watkins
Screenplay: Peter Watkins
Starring: Tony Cosgrove, Olivier Espitalier-Noel, Don Fairservice
Country: UK
Running Time: 69 min
Year: 1964
BBFC Certificate: 15

Through making Culloden, the then young Peter Watkins quickly became known as the golden boy of the BBC, even before the film was screened, as the first cut was so well received by his peers. With Culloden, he took a radical new approach to the historical documentary. Dramatically reconstructing the past was nothing new, but he did so whilst keeping the shooting style and presentation in line with modern documentary techniques. He took a subject from the distant past (the 1745 battle of Culloden, the last battle fought on British soil and last attempt to overthrow the king) and made it look as though TV cameras and documentary crew were there on the scene to capture it.

This approach gives a feeling of authenticity to the content, which is important as Watkins’ film seeks to crush the myth that the Great Britain we now know was forged on freedom and honour through glorious battle. Instead we are shown the stupidity and cowardice of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, whose incompetence and poor choice of military advisor dealt a decisive victory to his enemy, the loyalists. After the shambolic massacre of the battle, we then witness the systematic murdering, raping and pillaging of the king’s dissenters, as the loyalist troops tear their way back to England through the Highlands.

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Blu-Ray Review: Waking Life

Director: Richard Linklater
Screenplay: Richard Linklater
Starring: Wiley Wiggins, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Steven Soderbergh, Richard Linklater
Country: USA
Running Time: 101 min
Year: 2001
BBFC Certificate: 15

Released back in 2001, Waking Life saw indie darling Richard Linklater experiment with using cutting edge digital rotoscoping animation to bring his meandering, talk-heavy style of drama to new life. Rotoscoping (creating animation by tracing over film footage) had been used for years since the early days of animation, but this was the first time anyone had used digital rotoscoping to produce a full feature film. The software used was developed by Bob Sabiston, an animator and computer scientist veteran of the MIT Media Lab, who used it originally to make his award-winning short film “Snack and Drink”.

Waking Life follows an unnamed character (played by Wiley Wiggins) as he drifts through his shifting dreams. Along the way he meets a wide variety of characters who each give their differing theories and philosophies about life and consciousness. And that’s pretty much it. The film is largely just a series of monologues/lectures/discussions with our protagonist not really interacting with the speakers until the final third where the topics lean more heavily towards dreams and reality, and he asks them about his predicament of being trapped in this dream in such a lucid state.

On paper then, this is a film I should hate. I’ve talked in previous reviews about my distaste for films where characters spout philosophy and the experience becomes a lecture rather than an engaging narrative. I think I prefer philosophies to be explained visually or metaphorically (or maybe I’m just stupid), but I find it tedious to listen to an intellectual spouting theories at me. Roughly knowing what to expect from Waking Life before going in to it (this was my first watch), I was fully expecting to hate it, but I’m a big fan of some of Linklater’s work and I’m also a huge animation fan, so I thought I should give it a try.

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Blu-Ray Review: Fixed Bayonets!

Director: Samuel Fuller
Screenplay: Samuel Fuller
Suggested by a Novel by: John Brophy
Starring: Richard Basehart, Gene Evans, Michael O’Shea
Country: USA
Running Time: 92 min
Year: 1951
BBFC Certificate: PG

I‘ve slowly been amassing quite a collection of reviews of Samuel Fuller films over my time as a blogger. He’s a director whose films I’m always more than happy to watch so it doesn’t take much convincing for me to say yes to a screener. However, I’ve given three of the four of his films I’ve reviewed here just over luke-warm ratings. I’ve mentioned this before in those previous reviews, but it always comes to mind when I approach a Fuller film and it’s that Fuller’s brash, bold style, as much as I enjoy it, can lead to their messages and writing feeling a bit blunt, spoiling the overall experience. Maybe I need to be in the right mood though, because Fuller’s approach can work like gang busters. In particular, I’m a huge fan of Pickup at South Street (which I reviewed previously) and Shock Corridor. So, once again I ventured into Fuller’s world hoping for a similar reaction as I put on Eureka’s shiny new release of Fixed Bayonets!

Set during the Korean war, Fixed Bayonets! sees a platoon of American soldiers given an unenviable mission. Their regiment finds itself beaten down, trapped and forced to retreat from the area. With Korean soldiers all around them though, it’s not as simple as just walking away. The regiment’s best chance for survival is to leave a small platoon of soldiers behind to “look and sound like a regiment” so as to fool the enemy into thinking there’s still a large American presence in the snowy and mountainous terrain. Basically put in the film, they are “48 men giving 15,000 a break”.

So this ‘rear guard’ is left to defend a small valley for a couple of days whilst they are bombarded by Korean mortar and sniper attacks. Among these soldiers is Corporal Denno (Richard Basehart), an intelligent man who has worked his way up the ranks quite quickly, but still hasn’t killed a man in combat. As his handful of superiors are killed off one by one, he becomes increasingly frightened that he will have to lead the platoon himself.

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Blu-Ray Review: A Touch of Zen

Director: King Hu
Screenplay: King Hu
Based on a Story by: Songling Pu
Starring: Feng Hsu, Chun Shih, Ying Bai, Tien Peng, Roy Chiao
Country: Taiwan
Running Time: 180 min
Year: 1971
BBFC Certificate: 12

I generally pass on reviewing films I already own or have seen before (which points to free screener greed as being the key influence on my writing). However, I make exceptions now and again for firm favourites that I’d love to see on Blu-Ray or with added features. A Touch of Zen isn’t a film I’d give a full 5 stars to (as you can clearly see), but it’s a film that deserves to be seen in as high a quality format as possible and one that I was keen to revisit. I often struggle to find the time or enthusiasm to put on a three hour film, but reviewing commitments force me to put them on if I’ve requested a screener. Also, A Touch of Zen was highly talked up to me before my first viewing, so I was keen to watch it again without that level of expectation behind it.

A Touch of Zen has an unusual structure. It’s sort of split into three differing sections. The first hour is an intriguing mystery which sees the unambitious but intelligent painter Gu (Chun Shih) get caught up in some sort of conspiracy simmering between a handful of newcomers to town, Yang Hui-ching (Feng Hsu), Ouyang Nin (Tien Peng) and General Shi (Ying Bai). As we follow Gu through this period, the audience is kept in the dark for most of the first hour, but it remains gripping, aided by some supernatural elements as the old run down house which neighbours Gu’s and houses Yang is believed to be haunted.

Once Gu is let in on the secret behind these mysterious characters, about an hour in, the film opens out into an action thriller though. We discover that Yang is on the run from the Eastern Group (of which Ouyang is a chief officer), effectively the police force of the treacherous Eunuch Wei. Yang’s father has been executed for trying to speak out against Wei and the Group have been ordered to kill the rest of his family too. Hearing of this injustice, Gu agrees to help Yang and Shi, using his intellect and knowledge of the local area to help stage an ambush on the Group’s soldiers.

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Blu-Ray Review: Nikkatsu Diamond Guys

Arrow Video are planning to release a new series of budget Japanese genre movie box sets, beginning with Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol. 1. I’m feeling lazy this morning, so rather than explain the set’s title in my own words, I’ll just borrow the blurb from Arrow’s press release:

‘Nikkatsu, the oldest film studio in Japan, inaugurated a star system in the late 1950s, finding talent and contracting to their Diamond Line for a series of wild genre pictures. This collection celebrates these Diamond Guys with three classic films from directors Seijun Suzuki (Branded to Kill), Toshio Masuda (Rusty Knife) and Buichi Saito (Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril).’

The films included in the set are Voice Without a Shadow, Red Pier & The Rambling Guitarist. Below are my thoughts on the individual films.

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