Blu-Ray Review: Spione

Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou
Based on a Novel by: Thea von Harbou
Starring: Willy Fritsch, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Gerda Maurus, Fritz Rasp, Louis Ralph, Lupu Pick
Producer: Erich Pommer
Country: Germany
Running Time: 150 min
Year: 1928
BBFC Certificate: PG

I‘ve had an excellent track record with Fritz Lang films (you can read my glowing review of Des Testament des Dr. Mabuse here). Admittedly, I’ve only seen a few, but each one has impressed me greatly. Metropolis introduced me to the wonders of silent cinema back when I was a teenager, M showed me that serial killer films were already in fine form back in the 30’s and, more recently, Des Testament des Dr. Mabuse proved that blockbuster sequels could be masterpieces. Eureka released Lang’s follow up to Metropolis, Spione (a.k.a. Spies), on DVD as part of their Masters of Cinema series back in 2005. I’d been very close to buying it in the past as it sounded like something I’d very much enjoy, but I’m glad I never took the plunge as now Eureka have upgraded the release as a dual format Blu-Ray and DVD set. I requested a review copy to see if it could match up to the other Lang films I’d seen and I’m pleased to report that it certainly did.

Spione is a spy thriller (if the English title didn’t make that obvious) with a labyrinthine plot. I won’t go into too much detail so as not to spoil things, but basically a spy ring headed by the evil Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is causing chaos at the government’s secret service. Important documents have been stolen, dignitaries have been assassinated and double agents are springing up all over the place. Next on Haghi’s list of crimes is to get his hands on a peace treaty to be signed between Japan and the UK, in the hope that he can use it to trigger another world war. The only man that can stop him is agent 326 (Willy Fritsch). Haghi is always one step ahead though and sends the cunning Russian spy Sonya (Gerda Maurus) to seduce him and lead him down a dark path. A spanner is put in the works however when Sonya and 326 fall in love.

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DVD Review: Ida

Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Writers: Pawel Pawlikowski, Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Starring: Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik
Producers: Eric Abraham, Piotr Dzieciol, Ewa Puszczynska
Country: Poland/Denmark/France/UK
Running Time: 81 min
Year: 2013
BBFC Certificate: 12

Although born in Poland, Pawel Pawlikowski began his career making documentaries for British television, then made a name for himself directing a couple of highly regarded British films, Last Resort in 2000 and My Summer of Love in 2004. For his fifth feature, Ida, he chose to head back home to co-write and direct a film in Poland which delves into the country’s dark and turbulent past.

Ida is a drama set in the 1960’s which follows 18-year old Anna on a journey of self-discovery. An orphan who has lived in a convent for as long as she can remember, she is preparing to take her vows to become a nun and is advised to speak to her one known relative, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), before making this huge decision. Wanda opens Anna’s eyes to the truth of her past, revealing that she is in fact called Ida and her Jewish parents were killed during the Nazi occupation. Following this discovery, Anna/Ida travels with Wanda to try to find her parents’ bodies and finally lay them to rest. Along the way, Wanda, a bitter yet modern woman, tries to break out Anna’s repressed desires. Wanda herself is filled with pain though and the journey they take may cleanse her soul too.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Thief of Bagdad

Director: Raoul Walsh
Screenplay: Lotta Woods, Douglas Fairbanks, Achmed Abdullah (uncredited), James T. O’Donohoe (uncredited)
Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Julanne Johnston, Snitz Edwards, Sôjin Kamiyama, Anna May Wong
Producer: Douglas Fairbanks
Country: USA
Running Time: 149 min
Year: 1924
BBFC Certificate: U

Douglas Fairbanks and his wife Mary Pickford were thought of as the king and queen of Hollywood back in the 1920’s. As well as finding great success as two of the earliest true movie stars (Pickford in particular is often thought as one of the very first), they set up United Artists (UA) alongside Charlie Chaplin and D. W. Griffith in a bid to have more control over film production, away from the powerful commercial studios. Through UA they were able to create the films they wanted, hiring the best collaborators available to make the finest films they could. Indeed, UA were responsible for many of the most famous films of the era and beyond. The company in fact still produces films now, although they’ve been a bit thin on the ground during the last few years and the company is now in the hands of MGM.

Anyway, I won’t delve into the complicated history of UA, but with this pivotal move, Fairbanks showed he was clearly more than just an actor. He was passionate about film and would go to great lengths to produce work which met his high standards. A lot of his work, as with a disturbingly large number of films from the silent era, has been lost or forgotten. Even his most famous films such as Robin Hood, The Black Pirate and The Mark of Zorro haven’t been given a decent upgrade to modern home video formats (in the UK at least), only showing up on ropey independent releases from companies that have capitalised on their public domain status and plonked any old print onto a disc. Possibly Fairbanks’ most critically successful film (it didn’t totally win over audiences at the time), The Thief of Bagdad has finally been given the release it deserves in the UK though, with Eureka releasing it on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD as part of their prestigious Masters of Cinema series. I must admit, largely due to the poor distribution of his work in this country, I’ve never seen a Douglas Fairbanks film before, so I was very excited about checking this one out.

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Blu-ray Review: Breaking the Waves

Director: Lars Von Trier (other_films_by_director)
Writers: Lars Von Trier, Peter Asmussen
Producers: Peter Aalbæk Jensen, Vibeke Windeløv
Starring: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgård, Katrin Cartlidge, Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 159 min.


As polarizing as Lars von Trier can be, I feel to dismiss him as a film fan is somewhat ignorant. Films such as The Idiots (1998) provoke some of the most explicit reactions from critics and yet after watching, they are difficult to fully ignore. He is a filmmaker whose direction of his cast members has placed great strain (see Dancer in the Dark) and yet draws some of their most captivating performances due to his methods. His themes and obsessions are clear and present in nearly every film of his, and yet his use of form insures that none of his films ever look or feel the same. We are nearly always unsure what we will get from the man.

Breaking the Waves is Von Trier’s first entry of his golden heart trilogy. Each film deals with what Von Trier considers “Good women overwhelmed in a bad world”. Set in the Scottish Highlands in the early 1970’s, the film focuses on Bess; a naïve and religious woman who has decided to marry Jan; an atheist oil rigger. The marriage sparks tension between the village locals, but their happiness is clearly evident, especially in the carnal area. Their bliss is short lived however, as Jan becomes immobilized in a work accident.

Unable to perform sexually and mentally affected by the incident, Jan asks Bess to sleep with other men and inform him about the details. Bess, who believes she has a direct connection with God, reluctantly accepts as she believes that in doing this, Jan will get better.

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Some Thoughts on the Worldview of Interstellar


Before reading below, it should be noted: THERE BE *SPOILERS* HERE, TOP TO BOTTOM.

One of my favourite quotations from recent science fiction cinema comes from Steven Soderbergh’s shockingly underrated 2002 remake of Solaris. When discussing how mentally equipped mankind is for stellar discovery, the mission-leader, Dr. Gibarian opines, “We don’t want other worlds, we want mirrors.” To be specific however, it was the ghost of Gibarian, or perhaps even a construct from an Alien intelligence projected from the mind of psychologist Kris Kelvin. Maybe it was just a dream. It’s complicated, but you get the idea. We go out into space to learn more about ourselves, finding new life and civilizations is just something that might happen along the way.

In the case of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, we not only want mirrors, we also want old-time agriculture, book-shelves of dead-tree textbooks, battered and well loved pick-up trucks, baseball, and presumably, 35mm analogue film. In other words, apple-pie Americana with minimal materialism or digital devices. The only thing missing in the film’s love of all things twentieth century are the churches; in a way they too show up incorporated heavily into Hans Zimmer’s score. Co-incidentally enough, if the bombastic score were absent the epic organ-chime moments, it would very much resemble the subtle, driven work in Cliff Martinez’s score for, of all things, Solaris. Mirrors, indeed.

There is a bit of classic political head-butting in dusty small town America when former NASA pilot turned farmer, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) goes into his kids’ school for parent-teacher interviews. In what is perhaps the films best scene, the principle and school teacher inform Cooper that the administration has ranked every 15-year old student’s future career path by a computer algorithm, a nanny state decision which must be abided. To add insult to injury, these governmental stewards charged with educating the youth are also moon-landing deniers and take umbrage to Coop’s daughter bringing ‘outdated textbooks’ into the classroom. Cooper, being the more come-what-may kind of cowboy (“alright, alright, alright kids, flat tire be damned, lets harvest and repurpose that old Indian solar wardrone!”) who likes manual-transmission, Morse code, and flying by the seat of his pants. The shackling of the future, and of history for that matter, to the lowest level of ambition, merely surviving, or as he puts it, staring down at the dirt, instead of looking up at the stars, gets his dander up. He’s a believer in technology, optimism, and problem-solving around a fast-ticking clock, in a world which has no interest in engineers or ideas. He funnels this frustration into his relationship with his bright and willful daughter. When the school administrators are looking to him to discipline his daughter, he tells them he is taking her to a ball game, and giving her popcorn and soda-pop. (She gets a suspension from formal schooling his insolence and goes on to eventually save the world. Take that liberals!)

In the mean time, the United States is experiencing a second Great Depression and Dust-Bowl scenario. We don’t know what is happening anywhere else in this inward-looking film (heck, we don’t even know what year it is!) Presumably, either America’s climate change denial, or its preemptive strike foreign policies, possibly even over-subsidizing corn-production to the point of mono-culture, has brought the whole ecosystem to the brink and the human population is merely a fraction of the 7 Billion souls at the beginning of the 21st century. Environmental blight ecological collapse is diminishing remaining oxygen supply to the point where there is only enough time and food for a few more generations. That is the scenario and it is grim, possibly man-made, and quite likely, irreversible.

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The Highs and Lows of Toronto After Dark 2014

Sixteen days ago, the Toronto After Dark Film Festival drew to a close with a resounding gasp. The Babadook ended the genre-themed film festival with outstanding strength, uniting many in the belief that this was one of the festivals strongest years to date. While that may be true, it simply isn’t quite good enough. This year, the festival had some truly standout films that blew audiences away. At the same time, the festival lows were shocking to say the least.

Toronto After Dark Film Festival - HouseboundOpening the festival with a laugh and a shriek was the New Zealand flick Housebound. This was, without a doubt, one of the most well-balanced horror comedies in years. Beautifully written, this Kiwi production takes dry wit and simple scares to new highs. Unpredictable, Housebound zigs when you think it’ll zag, taking you to places just adjacent to where you expected to go. The tension is palpable, yet beautifully broken with a well-timed and flawlessly crafted laugh. This is the redeemer of horror comedies, in line with the perfect balance of films like Shaun of the Dead. It’s a simple recipe expertly crafted, and was the perfect film to open the 9th annual Toronto After Dark Film Festival. Would you like to know more…?

Blu-Ray Review: Spirited Away

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Screenplay: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki (Japanese version) or Daveigh Chase, Jason Marsden, Suzanne Pleshette (English version)
Producer: Toshio Suzuki
Country: Japan
Running Time: 126 min
Year: 2001
BBFC Certificate: PG

I remember being incredibly excited when Spirited Away was released in the UK. I’d discovered the wonders of Hayao Miyazaki’s work a year or two before it was released. I was getting into anime at the time and picked up a copy of Princess Mononoke on DVD and instantly fell in love. I needed to see more, but only that and The Castle of Cagliostro were available. So I’m ashamed to say I bought most of the director’s early work on pirated Chinese DVD’s (don’t judge me – I didn’t have a choice). I loved every title, as well as the other couple of Studio Ghibli films packaged with them (they came as 2 on 1 sets) and Miyazaki became my favourite director. There are plenty of directors I love, but Miyazaki is one of the few, if not the only one that has a perfect scoresheet for me. So, with Spirited Away getting enough mainstream critical praise and awards to grant it a nationwide release, I was incredibly happy to hear I’d be able to watch Miyazaki’s latest on the big screen instead of a ropily subtitled DVD imported from Asia.

When I did go and see it I thought it was great of course. However, after all the hype I’d created for myself, not to mention the insanely positive reviews it was getting, I never ranked it quite as highly as Miyazaki’s three ‘epic adventure’ titles, Princess Mononoke, Laputa: Castle in the Sky and my all time favourite, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Maybe it was because I was still relatively young (21) and yearned for more action and a grander scale or maybe it was just the fact that his previous films, which in my mind were equally as good if not occasionally better, weren’t gaining the attention that Spirited Away was getting. For whatever reason, even though I thought the film was brilliant, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was a little overrated.

And a couple of weeks ago, 11 years on (the film was released in 2003 in the UK), I was offered the chance to review the blu-ray release of the film. God knows why it’s taken so long to bring Spirited Away to high definition in this country, but I was delighted to be one of the first people to get my hands on the disc. It also gave me the chance to re-evaluate the film after not having seen it for around 7 or 8 years.

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Review: Big Hero 6

Directors: Don Hall, Chris Williams
Screenplay: Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson, Jordan Roberts
Comic: Duncan Rouleau, Steven T. Seagle
Starring [voices]: Scott Adsit, Ryan Potter, Daniel Henney, T.J. Miller, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans Jr., Genesis Rodriguez, James Cromwell, Alan Tudyk, Maya Rudolph
MPAA Rating: PG
Running time: 108 min


This review is brought to Row Three courtesy of Joseph Belanger of Black Sheep Reviews


In Big Hero 6, a group of unexpected and unlikely characters come together to combine their powers and fight for justice in the world. Wait. Haven’t I seen this movie already in some variation or another already this year? (Guardians of the Galaxy?) I’m sure I’ve at least seen something similar to this in recent history. (The Avengers? Any X-Men movie?) Sure every one of these types of misfit superhero films adds its own distinct spin to the lore, and BIG HERO 6 does as well, but after a while, you can plot out the simple journey of reluctance to acceptance in these films without even trying. At times, it felt to me like Big Hero 6, the first Disney film pulled from the archives of the Marvel universe it has direct access to anytime it wants, wasn’t really trying.

You know the specific journey I’m talking about, don’t you? The one where a group of individuals all have to come to separate realizations about how they are great on their own but even greater as a group? Big Hero 6 doesn’t quite follow the same path to get to that same place but not because of anything groundbreaking. Rather, the reason here is that there are only two members of the Big Hero 6 worth paying any attention to. The rest of the gang are a distinctly diverse bunch, two girls, two boys, mixed races; all but one are scientists and each of them is reasonably awkward, socially speaking. Go figure; there are super smart people who can’t really hack it with other people who aren’t as smart. It’s practically “The Big Bang Theory” for kids. It’s not that I wanted an origin story for each of them, but they aren’t the least bit interesting, which makes a great deal of Big Hero 6 feel like filler.
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Review: Before I Go to Sleep

Director: Rowan Joffe
Novel: S.J. Watson
Screenplay: Rowan Joffe
Producers: Mark Gill, Avi Lerner, Liza Marshall, Matthew O’Toole
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 92 min.



My original posting of this review can be found HERE


Anterograde amnesia is one of those occurrences that pops up so often in films that you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s not as rare as it actually is in real life. From instances as varied as Guy Pearce in Memento, Drew Barrymore in 50 First Dates and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in The Lookout, we’ve had several looks into the lives of those suffering from this ailment which causes the loss of ability to create new memories. It’s not hard to understand the appeal in centering your film around a character whose lives are upended with this particular disability. After all, what better way to immediately get the audience in the perspective of your leading character than by having them experiencing things for the very first time simultaneously? It’s an instant hook that can pull the viewer in and excite them in trying to unravel the mystery of the character’s life right alongside those on the screen.

In Before I Go To Sleep, Christine Lucas (played by Nicole Kidman) awakens every morning as a 40-year-old woman with no recollection of anything in her life from her early twenties onward. There’s an unfamiliar man (Colin Firth) beside her who explains that he’s her husband Ben and she is suffering this as a result of a car accident ten years ago. Ben seems like a sweet man; someone who has been beside her this whole time and does his best to ease her into the strange, frightening experience of waking up in a life and body she has no awareness of. The first of Before I Go To Sleep‘s many twists comes almost instantly, as once Ben leaves for work Christine receives a phone call from a man named Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong), a neurologist who informs her that he’s been treating her without Ben’s knowledge and calls her every morning to remind her to find a camera hidden inside her wardrobe. They’ve been using it as a way to keep track of the memories she obtains each day and she discovers that Ben isn’t being as forthright as he seems.
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