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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Blu-Ray Review: Thieves’ Highway

Director: Jules Dassin
Screenplay: A.I. Bezzerides
Starring: Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese, Lee J. Cobb, Millard Mitchell
Country: USA
Running Time: 94 min
Year: 1949
BBFC Certificate: 12

Jules Dassin directed an amazing run of film noir/crime classics between the mid-40’s and 50’s. These include Brute Force, The Naked City, Night and the City and perhaps most famous of all, Rififi. Nestled right in the middle of these hard boiled thrillers is the unusual, less well known but nevertheless equally as tough thriller Thieves’ Highway.

The film sees war veteran Nick (Richard Conte) return home from overseas with money, gifts for his family and a promise of marriage to his sweetheart Polly (Barbara Lawrence). However, he finds his trucker father has lost his legs after being swindled by an infamous dealer called Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb). Nick vows to get his father’s money back and hurt Figlia financially or otherwise. First he must get his father’s truck back though. Ed Kinney (Millard Mitchell) had promised to buy it off him, but took the truck without paying. When Nick confronts him about it, Ed offers him a chance to make some good money and possibly get back at Figlia. Ed knows the whereabouts of a huge crop of golden delicious apples and the two of them agree to drive two trucks worth to San Francisco (where Figlia operates).

Along the way, Nick’s inexperience almost costs him his life, but with Ed’s help he makes it to San Francisco where his troubles grow exponentially whilst Ed trundles behind in Nick’s father’s rusty old truck. On Nick’s back is Figlia and his goons, whilst a couple of rival truckers tail Ed to get in on the apple action. Things can’t end well and adding a twist in the tale is femme fatale Rica (Valentina Cortese), who is initially hired by Figlia to sidetrack Nick, but may or may not get swayed by his charms.

This film takes strange subject matter for a noirish thriller, fruit trading, and uses it to craft a surprisingly tough and gripping film. Every character, even Nick at times, is in it for the money and greed drives everyone to desperate and unsavoury actions. There are some impressively tense action sequences on the road, but it’s the tapestry of untrustworthy and hard to second guess characters that keep you watching. They may seem broadly drawn at times compared to today’s standards, but even the smaller roles are interesting to watch, largely because none of them seem totally on the level with each other.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Naked Prey

Director: Cornel Wilde
Screenplay: Clint Johnston, Don Peters
Starring: Cornel Wilde, Gert van den Bergh, Ken Gampu
Country: South Africa, USA
Running Time: 96 min
Year: 1965
BBFC Certificate: 12

The Naked Prey could be called a vanity project, as it’s directed and produced by as well as stars Cornel Wilde, an actor who’d been popping up in various Hollywood films over the 40’s and 50’s. After starring in the hugely successful The Greatest Show on Earth in 1952, he turned his hand to directing and from the mid-50’s onwards, made a handful of his own films (in which he also starred).

Nestling in the middle of this 20 year directorial career is The Naked Prey. It was a disastrous shoot, with Wilde reportedly hugely underprepared for shooting on location in the plains of Africa. He drove himself and his crew too hard and wasn’t able to get everything he needed to due illness and a lack of budget.

However, the film did get completed and remains Wilde’s most famous and respected work. It may not be hugely well known, but it gained a fair amount of praise on release (including an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay) and still has a bit of a following, which would explain its re-release now.

The Naked Prey tells a very simple story, reminiscent of The Most Dangerous Game although it is actually based on a true account (albeit with a location change from the American West to Africa). Wilde plays a character merely referred to as ‘man’ in the credits. He’s the head of a safari team who are guiding an unpleasant trophy hunter (Gert van den Bergh) to shoot some elephants. After this stuck up gent refuses to give a tribute to a warrior tribe, they are swiftly attacked. Three of the four white members of the group are viciously murdered, leaving only Wilde’s character. Being a fit and healthy specimen of a man, the tribe’s chief feels his death could be more of a sport, so a group of expert hunters is sent out into the plains with Wilde’s character. They fire an arrow for him to run towards and once he reaches it, they take pursuit. This all happens in the first 15 minutes or so and the rest of the film is just one long chase as Wilde’s character battles for survival under the blazing sun with the tribesmen hot on his trail.

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