Blu-Ray Review: From Bedrooms to Billions

Director: Anthony Caulfield, Nicola Caulfield
Writers: Anthony Caulfield, Nicola Caulfield
Starring: David Braben, Peter Molyneux, Shahid Ahmad, Nigel Alderton, Nick Alexander, Fred Gray, Geoff Crammond, Jeff Minter, Jon Hare, Matthew Smith
Producers: Anthony Caulfield, Nicola Caulfield
Country: UK
Running Time: 150 min
Year: 2014
BBFC Certificate: E

From Bedrooms to Billions is an independent documentary looking at the birth and growth of the British video games industry, funded by an Indiegogo campaign run by its producers/directors/writers, Anthony and Nicola Caulfield. Speaking to a vast number of those involved, the pair tell the story of how young geeks figuring out how to make basic games on the first home computers like the Sinclair ZX80, Spectrum and BBC B/Micro went on to build a small cottage industry out of nothing which went on to be an important driver of what is now the biggest entertainment industry in the world.

When I first saw the film advertised I thought it looked like your standard nostalgia trip, the likes of which you see filling gaps in TV schedules, but being a child of the 80’s who grew up alongside video games (although I’m a little young for the Spectrum, I came in with the Acorn Electron then the Amiga), I couldn’t resist going along for the ride. However, I quickly came to realise that this is actually an exceptionally well researched and constructed documentary which truly charts the history of the movement. It’s not a throwaway piece simply glazing over and making do with playing clips over quotes saying how great all these games were. This is especially apparent in the sheer number of contributors the directors managed to interview. The list is exhausting, taking in well known figures such as David Braben (co-creator of Elite) and Peter Molyneux (Populous, Dungeon Keeper, Theme Park, etc.) as well as those involved in video game music and art design.

It’s a fascinating story too. I was well aware of how games and consoles have developed over the last 30-odd years, but I hadn’t thought about where it all came from. The film makes you realise just how wild and avant-garde it was. When the first systems came out, there weren’t any games available. You didn’t have shops in every high street stocked to the roof with them. You had to programme your own games by typing lines and lines of code. Many of the first home games would be found in magazines that would publish the coding for them. The people who developed the industry were largely youngsters barely out of school (some still in it), who had no business knowledge, so it was a crazy mess in its infancy. It all began of course in the pre-internet days so it was truly underground at first and grew through magazines and word of mouth. The film does an excellent job of appreciating how this happened.

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Blu-Ray Review: Man of the West

Director: Anthony Mann
Screenplay: Reginald Rose
Based on a Novel by: Will C. Brown
Starring: Gary Cooper, Julie London, Lee J. Cobb, Arthur O’Connell, Jack Lord
Producer: Walter M. Mirisch
Country: USA
Running Time: 100 min
Year: 1958
BBFC Certificate: 12A


I‘ve been enjoying my own mini western renaissance over the last couple of years. I’d always held a handful of westerns in high regard, with probably my all time favourite film (Once Upon a Time in the West) being from the genre, but I hadn’t considered myself a ‘fan’ until recently. My love of Leone was possibly part of the reason, steering me away from Hollywood westerns and towards the Italian ones, most of which are woefully unavailable in the UK. However, the last few years have opened my eyes to a number of true American greats and now I can proudly call myself a fully fledged western fan.

The film which began my new love affair with the west was Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73. I adored it and was pleased that most of the rest of the director’s collaborations with James Stewart were in same the DVD box set that housed it. My run of westerns since then has taken in classics from a variety of stars and directors too and I still haven’t been disappointed (other than with one or two less respected spaghetti westerns). I’ve been gathering whatever titles I can, whenever I see any on offer, and, looking up Mann’s filmography, I also liked the sound of one of his last westerns, Man of the West. I hadn’t got around to it though, until the PR guys behind the ever trustworthy Masters of Cinema series offered me a Blu-Ray screener of their new release of the film.

Man of the West stars Hollywood legend Gary Cooper as Link Jones, who enters a bustling town to take a train to Fort Worth, where he is to hire a teacher for his much smaller town. There’s a sense that he’s not the quiet do-gooder he claims though or so the local sheriff suspects. When the train gets hijacked by bandits and Link, motor-mouthed salesman Sam Beasley (Arthur O’Connell) and attractive bar-room singer Billie Ellis (Julie London) are thrown off and left to walk to the nearest town, we learn the truth about the mysterious man. He takes his two companions to his old home, where they find the gang of bandits that includes a couple of Link’s cousins and is led by none other than his uncle, Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb). And so begins a tense power play between the ‘bad guys’ and Link, who wants to continue to go straight as he had been doing for many years, but has no choice but to play the hard man to avoid getting himself and his innocent friends killed.

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DVD Review: Life Itself

Director: Steve James
Starring: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel, Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese, Errol Morris
Producers: Garrett Basch, Steve James, Zak Piper
Country: USA
Running Time: 118 min
Year: 2014
BBFC Certificate: E


When Roger Ebert died back in 2013, the movie blogosphere was awash with tributes to one of the world’s most known and loved film critics. You may have noticed I didn’t join in, but I must admit I’m not as familiar with his work as most. I knew who he was and occasionally checked reviews on his site when linked through from the IMDB, but I wasn’t a regular reader of his blog and his famous TV show with Gene Siskel didn’t air in the UK. I tended to find his reviews reliable though and all the love sent out after his death compelled me to find out more about the man, so I was very keen to watch Life Itself, Steve James’ documentary on Roger Ebert released last year. Luckily Dogwoof have given the film a DVD release in the UK and I was sent a screener to review.

A good chunk of Life Itself is made up of the typical biography/tribute style of documentary, looking into Ebert’s past and the progression of his career. We are told about his early days as the editor of his university newspaper where he wasn’t afraid to make his views known and how he didn’t actually seek out the job of film critic at the Chicago Sun Times, it was just kind of lumped on him. Ebert spent the last 11 years of his life fighting cancer so of course this is explored in the film. A lot is said about his work and relationship with Siskel too. This side of the documentary is refreshingly frank, showing how they had more than their share of ‘creative differences’. Some wonderfully acidic outtakes are shown of the two trying to record adverts for the show and throwing vicious barbs at each other. A later clip shows some more friendly banter though, so the film eventually suggests a mutual admiration between the two critics, both of whom were taken by battles against cancer.

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DVD Review: Spring in a Small Town

Director: Fei Mu
Writer: Li Tianji
Starring: Wei Wei, Shi Yu, Li Wei, Cui Chaoming, Zhang Hongmei
Producers: Bi Jianping
Country: China
Running Time: 94 min
Year: 1948
BBFC Certificate: U


I‘ve taken a break from reviewing documentaries (over at Blueprint: Review – sorry couldn’t resist a plug) to celebrate Valentine’s Day by watching a film which takes a poignant look at honouring a dying marriage and controlling adulterous desires.

Spring in a Small Town is a highly regarded Chinese film from director Fei Mu made back in 1948, a year before the founding of the People’s Republic of China when it promptly got pushed out of the public’s eye. Luckily it got restored in the 80’s and by 2005 it was voted the greatest Chinese motion picture of all time at the 24th Hong Kong Film Awards. It’s never had a UK DVD release though until now, when the BFI have followed up a cinema run with this home entertainment version.

The film is set in the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) and tells the story of the Dai family who are living in the ruins of their once wealthy home in a small town in rural China. Liyan (Shi Yu) is the husband, stricken with an illness which may be psychological, spending his days mourning for the past. Yuwen (Wei Wei) is his wife who has lost interest in the relationship and merely plays the part. The two are stuck deep in a rut until Zhang (Li Wei), an old friend of Liyan, arrives at the house after a decade away. It’s quickly apparent that Zhang and Yuwen have a history together too and thus begins a doomed love triangle, not helped by Liyan’s young sister who lives with them and also takes a shine to Zhang.

It sounds like classic, well trodden melodrama, but this is masterfully crafted cinema that transcends its narrative cliches. Also, before I get into the craft in more detail, the post-war setting adds depth and an air of melancholy and hopelessness to proceedings. In questioning the role of women, particularly wives, in catering for their husband’s needs, toeing the line whether they want to or not, it feels ahead of its time too.

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Blu-Ray Review: Ganja & Hess

Director: Bill Gunn
Screenplay: Bill Gunn
Starring: Duane Jones, Marlene Clark, Bill Gunn
Producer: Chiz Schultz
Country: USA
Running Time: 113 min
Year: 1973
BBFC Certificate: 18


Eureka released Blacula – The Complete Collection (http://blueprintreview.co.uk/2014/10/blacula-complete-collection/) in October and not long after are releasing another African-American take on the Dracula story, Ganja & Hess. There is little else connecting the two films though as Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess is a wholly different animal than the earlier campy, badass blaxploitation film.

Producers first approached Gunn to make something that would cash in on Blacula’s success, but the director had no desire to make a cheap bit of exploitation. He had wanted to make a film about addiction though, so decided to take this idea and infuse it into a vampire story. The result is a film with much more artistic and profound ambitions than Blacula and although it came at the height of the blaxploitation boom, it didn’t really fit the mold, eschewing the flares and kung fu for experimentation and symbolism. This didn’t impress the money men of course, who swiftly handed the print to ‘film doctor’ Fima Noveck, who chopped the near 2 hour film to 78 minutes and retitled Blood Couple (along several other names as it did the runs around the world), adding previously excised exposition to make something more closely resembling the exploitation flick they’d wanted. It bombed, although the furious Gunn took his original cut to the Cannes Film Festival where it screened in the Director’s Week. It was better received there, but still the film disappeared into obscurity until more recent years when Gunn’s version was restored for modern audiences. This is what is being released here by Eureka.

Ganja & Hess sees Dr. Hess Green (Night of the Living Dead’s Duane Jones) stabbed by an ancient ceremonial dagger by his unstable assistant George Meda (Gunn himself). This makes Hess immortal but also addicted to blood. After Meda commits suicide, his wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) appears at Hess’ mansion looking for him. She falls for Hess’ charms and after they marry and Hess passes his ‘gift’ on to her, the two form an unusual, bloody relationship.

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DVD Review: Vengeance Road (aka American Muscle)

Director: Ravi Dhar
Screenplay: John Fallon
Producers: Jeffrey Giles, Michael Lurie
Starring: Nick Principe, Robin Sydney, Todd Farmer
BBFC Certificate: 18
Running time: 74 min.

 


Vengeance Road (altered from its more confusing U.S title American Muscle) lost a lot of its luster the moment our anti-hero John Falcone bangs his first broad. We’re told (on the film’s marketing) that Falcone has spent ten years in jail has now has 24 hours to claim his revenge on those who wrong him. The thing is, the film never really bothers with the semantics so if it hadn’t been for me double checking the synopsis on the IMDb, I wouldn’t have had a clue that Mr. Falcone had a set time frame. The film seemingly cares little about details.

As Vengeance Road unfolds, we are handed a unsurprising revenge movie chock full of phoney cgi blood and bullet holes and grisly meat shouldered men who all look like Stone Cold and/or Bill Goldberg. These men are covered in a golden shower of mediocre fucking and fighting that do little to tease anything out of those darker recesses that lay dormant in many a viewer’s mind. To the films credit, it only clocks in a hasty 74 minutes, however, this time could be shorter if you’re unable to deal with the screenplays flat dialogue or how these should be wrestlers spew it into the air.

There’s very little else I can say about Vengeance Road. Those who are deathly into the neo-grindhouse may find more in this than myself. However I found little in this film to recommend. I found Vengeance Road, much like the film itself found it’s scantily clad females. Disposable.

  

DVD Review: The Rover

Director: David Michôd (Animal Kingdom)
Writers: David Michôd, Joel Edgerton
Producers: David Linde, David Michôd, Liz Watts
Starring: Guy Pearce, Chan Kien, Robert Pattinson, Tek Kong Lim, Scoot McNairy
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 103 min.

 

FILM:

EXTRAS:


The Rover is a brutally grim apocalyptic thriller set 10 years after a “collapse” which ravaged Australia, possibly the world. As we enter this world, we see Australia as a sparse and deadened wasteland ravaged by the titular “event”. The collapse could possibly refer to an event that has occurred within Eric (Pearce); the protagonist of the feature. If the exterior event displays the degradation of the materials we currently take for granted, then the insular collapse inside Eric is a crumbling of character and spirit. Despite this, there is a defiance within which we don’t fully understand until the film’s final moments. The final act by Eric will frustrate, upset and maybe even hearten. However for a film goer like myself, writing this a day after viewing, it may also be difficult to forget.

The Rover is a lean cut of a film. There’s little in terms of plot to really grasp on to, and that works to its favour. Pearce’s Eric is drowning his demons in a bar before three thieves make off with his car. By chance, he captures the lead thief’s brother (Robert Patterson) and the two of them work towards finding the trio and the missing vehicle.

David Michôd’s second feature is much more of a mood piece than a solid set adventure. The film is far more interested in the brittleness of those who have lost everything, than a clear destination. An underlying tension pulses through much of the scenes. We find Pearce’s Eric already nearing the brink of being mentally shattered. The theft of his vehicle only pushes him further down the decline. The word hardened doesn’t give the man justice. Pearce again shows the type of intense performance that, we sometimes forget that he’s very good at (the last thing I saw him in was the forgettable Iron Man 3 )
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DVD Review: Giovanni’s Island

Director: Mizuho Nishikubo
Screenplay: Shigemichi Sugita, Yoshiki Sakurai , Wendee Lee
Starring: Kota Yokoyama, Junya Taniai, Polina Ilyushenko
Producers: Kaeko Sakamoto, Eric P. Sherman
Country: Japan
Running Time: 102 min
Year: 2014
BBFC Certificate: PG


Well, I complain about there not being many anime films to review these days and two come along at once. A couple of weeks after reviewing Patema Inverted I’ve sat down to watch Giovanni’s Island, still Japanese animation, but a totally different film.

Where Patema Inverted was a disorientating sci-fi adventure, Giovanni’s Island is a moving true-life inspired drama set just after World War II. Junpei (Kota Yokoyama) and Kanta (Junya Taniai) are two young brothers who live on the small island of Shikotan, off the northernmost coast of Japan. As Japan surrender on August 15, 1945, the island becomes Soviet Union territory and the Japanese residents are forced to share the island with the Soviets who come to claim the land.

The two boys are cautious of the invaders at first, until they meet Tanya (Polina Ilyushenko), a beautiful young Russian girl whose family forces them out of their homes. Junpei falls head over heels for Tanya and the two become close friends, until a series of incidents split them apart and the Japanese are sent from the island to a mainland refugee camp. From then on, tragedy continues to strike and Junpei must stay strong beyond his years as he’s forced to look after his brother. He finds strength and solace in the story his dad used to read to them, ‘Night on the Galactic Railroad’, as the two boys recreate the wonderful fantasy world within it to maintain hope amongst the adversity they must endure.

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Blu-Ray Review: I’m All Right Jack

Director: John Boulting
Screenplay: Frank Harvey, John Boulting, Alan Hackney
Based on a Novel by: Alan Hackney
Starring: Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas, Peter Sellers, Richard Attenborough, Dennis Price
Producer: Roy Boulting
Country: UK
Running Time: 105 min
Year: 1959
BBFC Certificate: U


The Boulting Brothers John and Roy worked together as producer and director (often alternating the roles from film to film) to great success in their home country, the UK. 1947’s Brighton Rock may be their most famous film nowadays, but they made a name for themselves in the 50’s and 60’s with a series of satirical comedies. Perhaps the most critically successful of these, winning two BAFTA’s, was 1959’s I’m All Right Jack. Studio Canal have deemed it worthy of a sparkly new Blu-Ray release in the UK so I thought I’d check it out to see what the fuss was about.

Stanley Windrush (Ian Carmichael) is the centrepiece of this satire of working ‘modern’ Britain, which pokes fun at the trade unions in particular. Stanley’s a naïve young chap who’s finished at Oxford and wants to make a name for himself in industry. After failing miserably to secure a job by himself, he’s approached by his uncle Bertie (Dennis Price) and his old friend Sidney (Richard Attenborough). They offer him a low end manual labour position at his uncle’s missile factory so he can go in at the bottom and work his way up. Stanley’s lack of experience and desire to work more efficiently rubs his colleagues up the wrong way though and they report him to their union shop steward Fred Kite (Peter Sellers). Believing him to be a spy sent from the bosses to work out ways of getting them to work harder for the same pay, they try to get rid of him. However, Bertie and Sidney are in fact using Stanley for a secret plan, which falls perfectly in to place when he causes a strike at the factory. When surprise fame falls upon Stanley though, the strike spreads further, even sending Fred’s wife away from her ‘duties’, and chaos threatens to bring down the entire country.

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