Blu-Ray Review: Odds Against Tomorrow

Director: Robert Wise
Screenplay: Abraham Polonsky (as John O. Killens), Nelson Gidding
Based on a Novel by: William P. McGivern
Starring: Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Ed Begley, Gloria Grahame, Shelley Winters, Will Kuluva
Country: USA
Running Time: 96 min
Year: 1959
BBFC Certificate: 12

Robert Wise has had a fascinating and hugely successful career. He may not be the household name some of his director contemporaries are, but if you look back at his CV, you’ll see how we cut his teeth as a sound effects editor on some classic mid-thirties films such as two Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers vehicles, The Gay Divorcee and Top Hat, as well as John Ford’s The Informer. He then moved up to the role of editor, cutting classics such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and the great Citizen Kane. After being drafted in by the studio to direct some additional sequences for Orson Welles’ butchered The Magnificent Ambersons, Wise went on to direct his own films. Starting off with B-movies, he proved his worth with classic genre films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still. Throughout his career he worked on a bizarrely diverse series of films, many of which were immensely successful, from Somebody Up There Likes Me, to West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Andromeda Strain and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It’s interesting that he’s not as highly regarded as you’d think someone with that many hits under his belt would be. He’s not a director with a clear signature style, so perhaps he’s seen more as a director-for-hire than an auteur, but it’s hard to push him aside when he made films as cherished and popular as he did.

Odds Against Tomorrow is another interesting addition to Wise’s CV. Seeing the director tackle the film noir genre, it’s also especially interesting as it tackles issues of race alongside the usual noir/heist movie tropes. Executively produced by and starring the pop-singer/actor Harry Belafonte, it’s clearly a labour of love for the star, who wanted to make something important and powerful (he was very politically active at the time, supporting the Civil Rights Movement and other humanitarian causes later in life). This makes the film a perfect addition to the BFI’s Black Star season, a selection of films celebrating the range, versatility and power of black actors.

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DVD Review: Two Women

Director: Vittorio De Sica
Screenplay: Cesare Zavattini
Based on a Novel by: Alberto Moravia
Starring: Sophia Loren, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Raf Vallone, Carlo Ninchi
Country: Italy, France
Running Time: 96 min
Year: 1960
BBFC Certificate: 15

Nouveaux Pictures and Argent Films have recently merged together to form a new distribution company in the UK, called CultFilms. According to their press release, they “will create luxury releases of quality foreign and arthouse films. Every title will be a high end, collectible product, and extras will feature one or more in-depth documentary.” This sounded exactly up my street of course, so as soon as I heard about CultFilms I asked if I could help promote their releases by reviewing them. The first films they’re bringing out are two Italian classics starring Sophia Loren; Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women, which I will review here, and Ettore Scola’s A Special Day, which I will get to at a later date.

Vittorio De Sica was a director and actor who is most famous for being one of the leading figures in the Italian neo-realist movement. Two of the films he made as part of this during the 1940’s, Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves, both won honorary Academy Awards and he went on to win another couple of Best Foreign Language Film awards later on in his career as well as being a regular fixture at Cannes. So he was certainly in favour with critics around the world.

De Sica’s 1960 film, Two Women, was another Oscar winner, taking home the Best Actress award for Sophia Loren. This was particularly special in fact, being the first time an acting Oscar had been given to a non-English language speaking part. I must admit, it’s not a film I was particularly aware of, although I’m no expert in Italian cinema. I liked Bicycle Thieves a lot though and the acclaim garnered on this later film piqued my interest.

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Toronto After Dark Review: The Lure

Mermaids are apparently popular again. Disney is currently remaking their animated hit as an expensive live-action feature, and Stephen Chow’s, The Mermaid ended up being an epic-sized cash-machine of a blockbuster in his native China. But whoa there now, here is a first feature, and one of the most confident film debuts, particularly for a style this tricky, to come along in some time. If you love weird yet meticulous filmmaking that is simultaneously both classic and fresh, then you are going to want to remember the name Agnieszka Smoczynska. Her deeply unorthodox adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson classic fairy tale, The Little Mermaid, as a Polish period musical he has given the original title Córki Dancingu, literally translated to Daughter of the Dance, for domestic release, but for the rest of the worlds as simply called, The Lure, comes with a wheelbarrow full of superlatives: shocking! sexy! subversive! sublime! entertaining! visionary! And just plain catchy.

Smoczynska takes the classic, literal, fish-out of water tale, and places it in a burlesque club in 1980s Poland. When a family of musicians (whose main gig is to play back-up for the strippers at a night-club) discover two mermaids in the water while drinking and singing on the beach, they bring them aboard as part of their act. Sort of like adopting two new children, and drop them right in to soft-core sex trade. This hardly sounds like it could be the beginning to a mainstream Hollywood film, but trust me, it kind of is. However, I doubt, if it were, there would be the scene where the owner casually examines the ‘tail-vagina’ on the one of the ‘maids and declares, ‘it is fishy, but I like it.’ Nudity and sexual hunger, both casual and intense, are rampant in The Lure, but because of Smoczynska’s acute sense of how to stage-dress, light, and shoot the film like an Blondie video on steroids, these things are not off-putting or controversial, they are part of the films sense of style and sensibility. Somewhere in Iceland, Bjork is going to see this movie, slap her forehead and say, “Shit! How did I never make this movie?!” Furthermore, if in 2016 you still need an argument for more women directors, well, here is another great one to put on the pile.

Michalina Olszanska (a major rising actress in eastern Europe, who for lack of a better explanation is a blend between Juno Temple and Kristen Stewart) and Marta Mazurek (here exquisitely channeling Sissy Spacek) play the pair of mermaids, Golden and Silver. They are, in essence, the aquatic version of twenty-something party girls looking for shits and giggles up for a quick stop in Poland before swimming onward to America. But Silver beings to fall in love with their blonde young band-mate, Mietek. She is strongly warned by her ‘sister,’ as well as another air-touring underwater creature named Triton, who looks like the Kurgan and rocks a riotous punk act in Warsaw. Unsurprisingly, Mermaids and Mermen are obviously great, charismatic singers-of-songs, and The Lure has a seemingly endless capacity for incorporating classic mer-mythology among the drama and the musical numbers. The crisis of the films (after a quick rise to fame) is that if Silver falls in truly in love, but the love is not returned, then she will cease to exist. In an honest, if not particularly wise, sacrificial gesture to earn the love of her bright young thing, she decides to remove her tail and become a human. (Wait for that set piece! It’s a serious OMG bit of genre craft!) The mermaids may want to fall in love human-style, but they are vicious, cunning, and selfish creatures when they want to be. They make no bones about it, and neither does the filmmaking.
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Toronto After Dark Review: In A Valley Of Violence

In Sergio Leone’s classic The Good The Bad And The Ugly, one of many iconic scenes involves a gunfighter sneaking up to murder Eli Wallach’s Tuco in the bath-tub. The anonymous heavy lost his arm in a shootout with Tuco in the opening scene of the film, and seeking bloody revenge, as is par for the course in so many westerns, he stops first for a smug monologue about how it took months to learn how to shoot with his other hand. As the grimy Italian blonde savours the reversal of fortune (again, a staple of this superb film) with words, Tuco turns the table because he has his pistol in the bath-tub. He blows away the smug, would-be killer through the soap suds. To the corpse, he lectures, “When you have to shoot, SHOOT. Don’t talk.” It would not surprise me in the slightest, if it was this scene alone that inspired Ti West to make In A Valley of Violence, a film that seems a full featured examination of what amounts to a throwaway 2 minutes in a 179 minute film. More recently, HBO’s Deadwood, The Coen Brothers’ True Grit remake, and the recent pair of Quentin Tarantino gunslinger film have set out to prove that excessively loquacious, but nevertheless savoury, dialogue is a wholesome part of the Western that bears at least some consideration.

Ethan Hawke plays civil war deserter Paul, who, after a Shakespearean styled prologue with a drunken Irish priest (Burn Gorman doing what he so wonderfully does) about the nature of where he finds himself, ends up nevertheless caught up in the local toxicity of a friable futureless village-slash-movie-set called Denton. He tries to keep his head down and sip his drink at the bar as the local blowhard and sadistic bully, Gilly (Generation Kill & The Wire‘s oily-but-wide-eyed James Ransome), who also the deputy and son of the town’s sheriff, picks a fight with him for no reason other than that Paul a stranger in a place that, you guessed it, don’t like no strangers.

Pestered to the point of violence, and equally important to the point of speaking (mainly to the audience) he says that he just wants to hang out with his preternaturally cute, Lassie-like, dog and make for Mexico to forget the horrors of the war. Anyone who has ever seen a western, hell anyone who has ever seen some movies, can spot what is coming a mile away. Don’t get me wrong though, the point of the film seems less about realistically defined characters or completely reinventing the wheel (West even shoots on 35mm film, although he favours 1.85:1 over cinemascope to keep things somewhat small) and more about playing with familiar tropes of the western. This auto-critique of the genre, whose often deadpan and straight-up approach to many familiar situations is sure to be abrasive to some.

Paul being forced to deal revenge to many of the denizens of Denton is without question a given in this sort of thing. As Paul reluctantly returns to town with guns a-blazin’, it is more through dialogue than gunfire that the showdown at high noon takes place. If there is a mission statement to In A Valley of Violence it is (as stated above) when to speak and when not to speak.

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Blu-Ray Review: Don’t Look Back – Criterion Collection

Director: D.A. Pennebaker
Screenplay: D.A. Pennebaker
Starring: Bob Dylan, Albert Grossman, Bob Neuwirth
Country: USA
Running Time: 96 min
Year: 1967
BBFC Certificate: 15

The phrase ‘don’t meet your heroes’ might go somewhere to explain my approach to the musicians I admire. Although I consume music to an exhaustive degree, listening to it whenever I have chance and spending far too much time reading reviews, compiling playlists and shopping for CD’s/downloads. However, I’ve never been one to read/watch many interviews with musicians. I do occasionally, but don’t make a habit of it like I do checking their latest reviews. I think I prefer to let their work do the talking as I often find if their natural personality rubs me up the wrong way it casts a shadow over my opinion of what they do.

For that reason, I’m occasionally dubious about watching documentaries about artists I love as I don’t want to spoil my enjoyment of their work. Some Kind of Monster for instance is a great documentary about Metallica, but makes them look like pricks (pardon my French) and has made me a little more hesitant over checking out their latest albums.

One film I’ve never seen until now, a good twenty years since falling in love with Bob Dylan’s work, is the most famous documentary surrounding the musician, D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back. It might simply be chance that I haven’t got around to seeing it, but I think a worry that I’d find the famously elusive artist a pretentious wanker had always loomed in the back of my mind. Thankfully The Criterion Collection is re-releasing the classic film on Blu-Ray in the UK with a phenomenal amount of extra features, so I couldn’t resist finally giving it a chance after all these years.

And thank God I did, because I loved it.

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Blu-Ray Review: Little Shop of Horrors (1986) Director’s Cut

Director: Frank Oz
Screenplay: Howard Ashman
Based on a film written by: Charles B. Griffith
Starring: Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Steve Martin, Vincent Gardenia, Bill Murray, Levi Stubbs
Country: USA
Running Time: 94 min (theatrical cut) 103 min (director’s cut)
Year: 1986
BBFC Certificate: PG

I think I’ve mentioned this in a review before, but I’m not the biggest fan of musicals. I love music and love films, but putting them together too blatantly doesn’t always work for me. I think it’s mainly the stereotypical squeaky clean Rodgers and Hammerstein style that I don’t go for though as there are a couple of musicals I truly adore. Singin’ in the Rain is one of them and another is Little Shop of Horrors. The more often I watch it, the more I come to feel it’s my favourite musical. Yet it’s a film that’s largely only ever been available to watch in a form not originally intended by its director. Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors was written and first shot with a particularly downbeat ending in line with the original short story, non-musical Roger Corman film and off-Broadway stage version. However, the bleak finale didn’t go down well with test audiences and the producers forced Oz to re-edit and reshoot the ending to be much more sugary.

Now I’ve never had a problem with the happy ending I’d seen several times previously, even though I was aware of how it originally concluded. Nevertheless, I was always intrigued to see Oz’s intended version of the film and my wish has been granted by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment who have released Little Shop of Horrors in a Premium Collection version, complete with the director’s cut, which is what I chose to watch for this review.

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VOD Review: She Who Must Burn

She Who Must Burn

The miracle of She Who Must Burn, a film perhaps most efficiently described as Red State for grown-ups, is that it offers three well worn elements – scripture quoting after committing an abhorrent act of violence (and the Ezekiel quote from Pulp Fiction, no less), the phrase “a storm is coming” and ironic use of religious hymns – in its opening minutes. And yet it manages to mine all of them for powerful new ideological and emotional spaces. It is daring to offer a promise of an ending directly in the title, but like the Paul Greengrass directed account of flight United 93, squaring an inevitability of events with the audience early on, allows the viewer to focus on what is at the heart (and on the minds) of the characters caught in a terrible drama unfolding.

The setting is a microscopic rural town, far enough and impoverished enough to render cellphones and internet absent. This is the place where people confronted each other face to face rather than social media. They talk in kitchens or on front lawns, and the telephones are made of bakelite. The tone feels cinematically timeless, and dramatic tension often derives in the conflict between apocryphal and artifice. In pictures like this, the miracle of artifice is miracle enough to tell the truth about the world. It reminded me of both Ed Gass-Donnelley’s Small Town Murder Songs and Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories. Fine company to be in, that.

Angela (Sarah Smyth, whose blonde haired and blue-eyed visage convincingly channels Naomi Watts) runs an abortion counselling service out of the home she shares with Deputy Sheriff Mac (Andrew Moxham). The local preacher, Jeremiah Baarker (co-writer Shane Twerdun) along with is his sister Rebecca (Missy Cross), her husband Caleb (Andrew Dunbar) and other members of the parish, are often picketing the ‘clinic’ because of their faith. That Mac and Angela live there out of wedlock further seems to embolden their activism-terrorism to the point of criminal trespassing. This is not in any way benign, because Jeremiah’s father is seen in the opening minutes of the film murdering an abortion doctor, and is happily sent off to prison for that crime to self-confirm his faith vs. the secular world.

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Blu-Ray Review: Diner

Director: Barry Levinson
Screenplay: Barry Levinson
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Steve Guttenberg, Kevin Bacon, Daniel Stern, Tim Daly, Paul Reiser, Ellen Barkin
Country: USA
Running Time: 110 min
Year: 1982
BBFC Certificate: 15

I tend to review screeners of interesting films I haven’t seen before here, but when I’m offered Blu-Ray special editions of old favourites it’s hard to say no. Warner Bros. have recently introduced a new Premium Collection series, exclusive to UK HMV stores, and the first batch of 10 titles include three films I’d class as particular favourites of mine, alongside several other classics. The three dear to my heart, which I’ll be reviewing over the coming weeks, include Little Shop of Horrors (1986), The Shining (the Extended Edition, not previously available in the UK) and Diner. Kicking off my reviews will be my thoughts on the latter.

Barry Levinson’s Diner follows a group of college-age friends in 1959 Baltimore as they hang out, primarily in the open-all-night Fells Point Diner. Each man is at a pivotal point in their life, be it about to get married, stuck in a marital rut already, facing impending parenthood within a strained relationship, on the verge of getting in trouble with the law or the wrong crowd, or simply not knowing what to do next with their lives as they prepare to dive headlong into adulthood.

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DVD Review: The Sacrifice

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Screenplay by: Andrei Tarkovsky
Starring: Erland Josephson, Susan Fleetwood, Allan Edwall, Guðrún Gísladóttir, Sven Wollter
Country: Sweden, UK, France
Running Time: 142 min
Year: 1986
BBFC Certificate: 12

I‘ve finally made it to the end of my Tarkovsky marathon (view all of my reviews here). I won’t say it was easy. Most of his films are rather long, slow moving and packed with philosophical ideas which largely went over my head. However, I have been consistently blown away by his talents as a director. He took command over some spectacular sequences which will be forever seared in my memory. None of the six films included in the marathon quite matched Andrei Rublev (which I’d seen previously, so didn’t request a screener to review) as my favourite Tarkovsky film. Ivan’s Childhood came close though and I thought highly of all of the films, even if a couple were tougher to get through than others.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, as I still haven’t given my thoughts on Andrei Tarkovsky’s final film, The Sacrifice (a.k.a. Offret or Sacrifice). It sees the elderly Alexander (Erland Josephson) spending time in his remote beach home with his young son, older daughter, wife, two friends and two maids. The group of them debate and bicker about various things until some shocking news is announced on the TV. Several warheads have been aimed towards Europe and the end of life on the planet (or possibly just Europe, it’s not clear) is inevitable. Alexander, his friends and family are all shocked and devastated of course, but it seems there might be one chance to save humanity and it’s in Alexander’s hands.

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