Review: Orson Welles Centenary Releases

To celebrate what would have been Orson Welles’ 100th birthday, Mr Bongo Films are releasing a collection of much sought after and rare films from the acclaimed director, including a brand new restored 50th Anniversary Edition of Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight. I was lucky enough to get my hands on screeners for three of the films in their lineup. I must admit I’d only actually seen three of Welles’ films prior to this week; Citizen Kane (of course), The Lady From Shanghai and Touch of Evil. I love all three (Shanghai to a lesser extent), so I was keen to dig further into his filmography. Below are my thoughts on the films I was sent.

Too Much Johnson

Director: Orson Welles
Screenplay: Orson Welles
Based on a Play by: William Gillette
Starring: Joseph Cotten, Virginia Nicolson, Edgar Barrier
Country: USA
Running Time: 66 min
Year: 1938
BBFC Certification: U

I was always under the impression that Citizen Kane was Orson Welles’ debut feature, but three years earlier back in 1938 he’d directed Too Much Johnson. This was meant to be integrated with Welles’ stage production of the play of the same name, by William Gillette. The venue didn’t have any projection facilities though, so the film was never screened. It was believed to be lost for decades after a fire in Welles’ home in 1971, but a work print was rediscovered back in 2008 and has now reached British homes through this DVD release.

Too Much Johnson is a silent comedy in which Augustus Billings (Joseph Cotten) is caught in bed with another man’s wife. He escapes out the window before the husband Leon Dathis (Edgar Barrier) gets his hands on him, but this sets the scene for an epic chase across the city and eventually all the way to Cuba.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Happiness of the Katakuris

Director: Takashi Miike
Screenplay: Kikumi Yamagishi
Based on a Film by: Kim Jee-woon
Starring: Kenji Sawada, Keiko Matsuzaka, Shinji Takeda
Country: Japan
Running Time: 113 min
Year: 2001
BBFC Certificate: 18

There was a wave of fairly successful Asian films which reached the West in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. One of the directors that rose to prominence during this time was Takashi Miike. The title of his that caught the world’s attention, after churning out largely direct to video fare, was Audition. A slow drama that suddenly turns into gut churning horror in the final act, the film was a critical success and it helped boost the popularity of J-horror, which had reached Western shores with Ringu (a.k.a. The Ring). Miike didn’t sit back and rest on his laurels though. One of the most prolific recent directors I’ve ever come across, he continued (and continues) to churn out film after film. He’ll be 55 this year and he has 98 directing credits to his name from his debut in 1991 (that’s an average of around 4 films a year!) according to the IMDB.

2001 was a big year for the director. Eight of his films were released that year and four of them made it to the UK that I’m aware of and received a mixture of acclaim and notoriety. This really cemented his reputation as a fearless master of extreme cinema with the unbelievably violent Ichi the Killer, the seriously f*cked up Visitor Q, Yakuza drama The Agitator and the comedy horror musical The Happiness of the Katakuris.

The latter title is being re-released on Blu-Ray & DVD in the UK by the ever dependable Arrow Video label. Although I was rather smitten by the wave of Asian cinema released in the early 2000’s when I was a student, I never got around to watching The Happiness of the Katakuris, so I was keen to see what the fuss was about.

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Blu-Ray Review: Forty Guns

Director: Samuel Fuller
Screenplay: Samuel Fuller
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Dean Jagger, Gene Barry, Robert Dix, John Ericson
Country: USA
Running Time: 80 min
Year: 1957
BBFC Certificate: PG

As regular readers will know, I’ve been enjoying working my way through the classic westerns over the last couple of years. Eureka added Anthony Mann’s Man of the West (my review can be found here) to their Masters of Cinema lineup not too long ago and I was delighted to hear that they were mining the genre once again by releasing Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns this month.

Forty Guns stars the great Barbara Stanwyck as Jessica Drummond, a wealthy landowner in Arizona. She’s a powerful woman who has control over the ‘forty guns’ of the title, a band of riders who help her maintain her dominant position over the area alongside her ability to pay off anyone she needs. When ex-hired gun Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) and his two brothers ride into town and put a stop to her brother Brockie’s (John Ericson) drunken bullying, Jessica begins to lose her tight grip. This isn’t helped by the fact that she falls in love with Griff. Brockie isn’t about to let the Bonnells get away with what they did though and Jessica becomes torn between both sides whilst Griff’s life is put in danger.

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Blu-Ray Review: Milano Calibro 9 (a.k.a. Caliber 9)

Director: Fernando Di Leo
Screenplay: Fernando Di Leo
Based on a Novel by: Giorgio Scerbanenco
Starring: Gastone Moschin, Barbara Bouchet, Mario Adorf, Philippe Leroy
Country: Italy
Running Time: 102 min
Year: 1972
BBFC Certificate: 18

The Italians spawned a number of subgenres that have remained popular amongst lovers of cult and genre cinema. I love a good spaghetti western myself and I’ve been starting to work my way through more giallos recently. One Italian subgenre I wasn’t particularly aware of until watching Arrow’s new release of Fernando Di Leo’s Milano Calibro 9 (a.k.a. Caliber 9) though is the poliziotteschi. This is a form of crime and action film that came from Italy in the late 60’s and 70’s, cashing in on the success of tough American cop thrillers like Bullitt, Dirty Harry and The French Connection. Although Di Leo’s film wasn’t the first in the subgenre, it was a critical and commercial success and helped boost the popularity of the poliziotteschi and the director. I’d heard of Milano Calibro 9 through a podcast and I’ve been keen to see it ever since, so I was very happy to hear Arrow Video got their hands on the title.

The film opens with a classic money/drugs exchange which goes wrong, resulting in some gangsters being out of pocket by $300,000. They quickly take their anger out on all those who could have done it, in a spectacularly violent fashion. They find nothing, although they didn’t quite get to everyone. Ugo Piazza (Gastone Moschin) was sent to prison shortly after the deal. Mobster nutcase Rocco (Mario Adorf) is waiting for him as soon as he sets foot outside the prison gates, and harasses him for the money. Ugo claims he doesn’t have it, but Rocco tells him that he has to pay the money back to his boss The Americano (Lionel Stander) or there will be devastating consequences. The police believe Ugo has the money too and also give him a hard time. Ugo does his best to keep both sides at bay, enlisting the help of his former gangster ‘family’ Chino (Philippe Leroy) and his Don. As expected, things don’t quite go to plan though and the bodies begin to pile up.

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Blu-Ray Review: Society

Director: Brian Yuzna
Screenplay: Rick Fry, Woody Keith
Starring: Billy Warlock, Devin DeVasquez, Evan Richards
Country: USA
Running Time: 99 min
Year: 1989
BBFC Certificate: 18

After producing Stuart Gordon’s first few films (Re-Animator, From Beyond and Dolls) and having trouble retaining control over their script for what would become Honey I Shrunk the Kids (yes the pair behind Re-Animator wrote the story to this family favourite!), Brian Yuzna decided to direct his own film. A script he’d been sent, combined with some of his own ideas as to what he wanted to make, resulted in the controversial cult classic Society.

It’s a film about Bill (Billy Warlock) who, like most teenagers, feels he doesn’t fit with the rest of his family. His wealthy socialite parents care for nothing but social status and have a disturbingly ‘close’ relationship with his sister (although Bill’s intentions towards her veer in this direction too). When a classmate presents him with some shocking evidence as to what really happens at one of the upper class ‘coming out’ parties, Bill begins to think that his fears are more than just the usual adolescent rebellion. After doing some digging himself, Bill finds himself more and more worried as to the nature of not just his family, but the whole of the upper classes around him. When he gate crashes one of their soirees, he finally learns the disturbing truth.

I’d heard so much about Society before watching it this week, that it was strange to finally see it. It’s a film that’s notorious for its shocking finale which must have absolutely fried people’s minds on release and sent them running for a sick-bag. Unfortunately I’d seen so many images and clips and read a fair few reviews of the film over the years that I knew pretty much exactly what was going to happen. Because of this I felt like I spent most of the film just preparing for the climax.

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DVD Review: Falcon Rising

Director: Ernie Barbarash
Screenplay: Y.T. Parazi
Starring: Michael Jai White, Neal McDonough, Laila Ali
Country: USA
Running Time: 96 min
Year: 2014
BBFC Certificate: 15

The release of The Expendables and its sequels helped give direct to video action movies a bit of a popularity boost over the last few years. This seemed to be a double edged sword though in my opinion. It rejuvenated the careers of a couple of nigh on forgotten action heroes like Dolph Lundgren and helped keep Schwarzenegger and Stallone still relevant as on-screen ass-kickers. However, in dragging out the careers of these men now in their late 50’s and 60’s (Stallone will be 70 next year!), I feel as though some deserving new action stars are being held back. One of these is Scott Adkins, whose film Ninja: Shadow of a Tear I reviewed a while back and enjoyed a lot. He was in the second Expendables film, which likely helped his career, but he’s still not quite risen to top billing in any notable successes or theatrical releases (although the days of cheesy action movies playing in theatres has pretty much been and gone).

The second (not necessarily meant in that order) DTV star I always feel deserves more recognition is Michael Jai White. He had top billing in Spawn back in 1997, but the film hardly set fire to the box office and he spent most of the film in OTT make-up, so his face never became a part of the public consciousness. In 2006 he received acclaim in action movie circles with a starring role in Undisputed 2 (alongside Adkins) and this helped give his career a boost. Since then he had a small role in The Dark Knight and made a few great DTV gems like Blood and Bone and the wonderful blaxploitation spoof, Black Dynamite (which White co-wrote).

Action aficionados might know him then, but once again he hasn’t starred in a big commercial success yet. Hoping to change this and create a whole series of action vehicles for White is Falcon Rising.

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Blu-Ray Review: Paper Moon

Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Screenplay: Alvin Sargent
Based on a Book by: Joe David Brown
Starring: Ryan O’Neal, Tatum O’Neal, Madeline Kahn
Country: USA
Running Time: 102 min
Year: 1973
BBFC Certificate: PG

Peter Bogdanovich had a remarkable start to his directorial career. After training as an actor in the 50’s, working as a film programmer for MOMA and a film journalist, he eventually turned his hand to directing with the well received Targets, produced by Roger Corman. We’ll ignore Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women (when Bogdanovich worked under the pseudonym Derek Thomas) and say that the next three films he made were all critical and/or commercial successes. In 1971, The Last Picture Show (which I shamefully have yet to see) wowed everyone and the following year he made the hit comedy What’s Up, Doc? starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal, then in 1973 he released the Oscar-winning Paper Moon. Bogdanovich was box office gold and a darling with the critics (although Paper Moon had a few detractors), but from then on his career made one of the most spectacular nose dives in cinema history. Everything since has been mediocre or a curiosity at best and it’s hard to see how that happened. From the extra features included with this new re-release of Paper Moon it doesn’t sound like Bogdanovich had a hard time and the success shouldn’t have harmed him, but for whatever reason, he never regained his momentum.

Rather than lamenting the director’s decline though, let’s celebrate one of his cast iron classics.

Paper Moon sees low rent con man Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal) saddled with a newly orphaned girl, Addie Loggins (Tatum O’Neal), who may or may not be his daughter. He is to send the girl to her aunt in Missouri, but after the sharp 9 year old cottons on to Moses’ scam which earned him $200 from the death of her mother, Addie demands he repays the money to her. Having spent it already, Moses is forced to tow her along whilst he swindles the money out of local widowers through his bible salesman shtick.

Addie isn’t as dumb and innocent as you’d think of a girl her age though and it soon becomes clear that she can teach Moses a thing or two about grifting. So the two become a con double act, robbing the American public (who are suffering from the effects of the Great Depression) along their trip across the state. As well as improving his less honourable skills, Addie gradually helps Moses become a slightly more responsible and honest man too, which leads to a final dilemma as to what to do with the young girl.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Train

Director: John Frankenheimer, Arthur Penn (uncredited)
Screenplay: Franklin Coen, Frank Davis
Based on a book by: Rose Valland
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau
Country: France/Italy/USA
Running Time: 140 min
Year: 1964
BBFC Certificate: PG

A fairly underrated director, John Frankenheimer has been behind a number of classic movies, such as The Manchurian Candidate, Birdman of Alcatraz and Seven Days in May as well as some thrillers and action movies that are underrated themselves, such as Ronin and 52 Pick-Up. He was one of the few directors to get on with the notoriously difficult Burt Lancaster and the two of them made five largely well received films together. The Train was one of these, although Arthur Penn was the original director before Lancaster (supposedly) fired him.

Frankenheimer promptly changed the film to better suit his sensibilities (or perhaps to better give Lancaster a much needed hit). Whereas Penn’s film was set to be a more thought provoking look at the willingness of the French to risk their lives for art, Frankenheimer dampened the focus on art to instead produce a rip-roaring action film which occasionally stopped for breath to examine the price of war and the sacrifices made. Whether or not this was for the best we will never know, but we’re sure as hell left with a bloody good film.

The Train is based on a true story set in occupied France in 1944, where a German Colonel (Paul Schofield) loads a train full of priceless art from a Parisian museum to send over to Germany. He and everyone else at the time knows that the end of the war is coming and France will soon be handed back to the French, so this is his last chance for the Germans to keep the valuable items for themselves. The museum curator can’t let this happen though so calls on the Resistance to help. A handful of members work at the station housing the train, including station master Labiche (Lancaster), so they’re asked to take this task on. Initially Labiche turns down the job, but circumstances gradually sway him to put his and his fellow soldiers’ lives on the line to keep what belongs to the French in France.

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Blu-Ray Review: Retaliation

Director: Yasuharu Hasebe
Screenplay: Yoshihiro Ishimatsu, Keiji Kubota
Starring: Akira Kobayashi, Jô Shishido, Hideaki Nitani
Country: Japan
Running Time: 94 min
Year: 1968
BBFC Certificate: 18

Hot on the heals of releasing Yasuharu Hasebe’s Massacre Gun on Blu-Ray last month (which I also reviewed), Arrow Video have polished up the director’s follow up, another violent gangster thriller, Retaliation. I enjoyed the previous film a lot, but couldn’t help comparing it to the superior work I’d seen from Seijun Suzuki. This time around is a similar story, although I was comparing it to Massacre Gun more than anything else.

Retaliation sees gang member Jiro (Akira Kobayashi) come out of prison after serving 8 years for killing a member of a rival gang. As soon as he sets foot outside the gates he’s approached by Hino (Jô Shishido), who vows to kill him to avenge the death of his brother (which was the cause of his incarceration). This first attempt is thwarted by his girlfriend, but Hino is still hellbent on carrying out his actions.

When Jiro gets home to his Godfather, he discovers that his once powerful gang has all but disbanded. The Don of another gang, the Hazama family, has been supporting his ageing leader though. The once rival Don offers Jiro a job, to gain control of Takagawa City for his family. In doing so, he would be able to run it as he likes. Seeing this as a way to make his own family name relevant again, Jiro accepts the offer and proceeds to play two rival gangs off against each other. Once rid of them he hopes to go legit and run a construction company in the area. However, as is often the case in these gang warfare films, nothing quite goes to plan and the bodies pile up and loyalties are tested.

In amongst all of this, Hino is forced to side with Jiro by his employers, but he vows to carry through his vengeance once the job is done. The two become closer as things go on though, so what will happen by the end?

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