Blu-Ray Review: Nikkatsu Diamond Guys

Arrow Video are planning to release a new series of budget Japanese genre movie box sets, beginning with Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol. 1. I’m feeling lazy this morning, so rather than explain the set’s title in my own words, I’ll just borrow the blurb from Arrow’s press release:

‘Nikkatsu, the oldest film studio in Japan, inaugurated a star system in the late 1950s, finding talent and contracting to their Diamond Line for a series of wild genre pictures. This collection celebrates these Diamond Guys with three classic films from directors Seijun Suzuki (Branded to Kill), Toshio Masuda (Rusty Knife) and Buichi Saito (Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril).’

The films included in the set are Voice Without a Shadow, Red Pier & The Rambling Guitarist. Below are my thoughts on the individual films.

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Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Director: Burr Steers (17 Again, Charlie St. Cloud)
Novel: Jane Austen (kinda), Seth Grahame-Smith (kinda)
Producers: Marc Butan, Sean McKittrick, Brian Oliver, Natalie Portman, Annette Savitch, Allison Shearmur, Tyler Thompson
Starring: Lily James, Sam Riley, Bella Heathcote, Ellie Bamber, Millie Brady, Suki Waterhouse, Charles Dance, Lena Headey, Matt Smith
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 108 min.

 


I don’t understand the appeal of Seth Grahame-Smith’s “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” As a fan of Austen, I could never quite figure out why anyone would feel the need to mix the literary classic with the zombie apocalypse. If the goal was simply to turn Lizzie Bennet into a more independent woman, then Grahame-Smith missed the point of Austen’s novel. But alas, I digress.

I had no interest in the book and just as little in the upcoming adaptation. And then the trailer happened. For a moment, I allowed myself a modicum of excitement: this might actually work!

It doesn’t.

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Review: Hail, Caesar!

“Squint! Squint at the grandeur!” so the film director can be heard offscreen during a series of dailies, which unspool in a Hollywood Studio screening room midway through Hail, Caesar! If the Coen Brothers did not definitively poke their finger in the eye of the crass factory of dreams that is tinsel town in Barton Fink, they take another look, albeit a more broader and effervescent one, at the foibles of making pictures in the late 1940s. Considering they use the same fictional studio, Capitol Pictures (“Where the writer is king!”) one might think of their latest as the loosest of sequels to that 1991 Cannes winning film. More interestingly, Hail, Caesar! is a playfully spiteful grab-bag of in-jokes in old Hollywood and the own eclectic filmography.

Josh Brolin is Eddie Mannix, Capitol Pictures’ executive producer, problem solver, and media fixer, a character loosely based on the real man of the same name, who served the same function for MGM (and was thought to be complicit in the death of the original on-screen Superman, George Reeves.) The Coen’s give us an exceptionally busy 27 hours in the life of Mannix, the span of time between two Catholic confessions, where the devoutly converted catholic obsesses over the minutiae of his marriage and personal life, while compartmentalizing, and fully omitting, the myriad of sins of his profession.

A job that entails supervising four movies being shot on the studio lot, all plagued by problems in their own unique ways. The sword-and-sandals, ‘Jesus Picture’ star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, sillier than ever – an injoke reminiscent of Steve Buscemi’s ever decreasing mortal remains in the Coenography) is missing, and the gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton, both underused), the sailor tap-dancing musical has an alarming case of closeted gayness (and a wonderful cameo from the Highlander frenchman, Christopher Lambert), the Busby Berkeley mermaid picture has a star (Scarlett Johannson, in a glorious Noo Yawk accent) and whose fish tail is getting more ill-fitting by the hour due to a pregnancy scandal about to break, and a Euro-flavoured drawing-room melodrama has been saddled with an aw-shucks singing cowboy leading man (Alden Ehrenreich in a breakout performance) who is far, far out of his depth.

Mannix navigates this shifting sea of apocalyptic problems (at one point, a mushroom cloud is presented on screen in the manner of The Hudsucker Proxies‘ Hula-Hoop), strung together by the Coens with their penchant for noir-ish plots, with an almost savant-like talent that is the antithesis of both the Dude, Jeff Bridges’ boozy and drugged flailing in The Big Lebowski, or Billy Bob Throton’s Ed Crane, the quietly ambitious Barber in The Man Who Wasn’t There. Whitlock’s kidnapping is abetted by both by a spiked drink and a dry cleaning truck, so they are clearly nodding to both, while demonstrating there are so many orthogonal directions to take neo-noir that the surface has only been scratched in the past 75 years.

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Review: Jane Got a Gun

jane-posterDirector: Gavin O’Connor (Pride & Glory, Miracle)
Screenplay: Brian Duffield, Anthony Tambakis, Joel Edgerton
Producers: Zack Schiller, Scott Steindorff, Terry Dougas, Aleen Keshishian, Scott LaStaiti, Natalie Portman
Starring: Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Ewan McGregor, Rodrigo Santoro, Noah Emmerich, Boyd Holbrook
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 98 min.

 

 

My original posting of this review can be found on LetterBoxd

 


Jane Got a Gun is a film whose troubled production was so studiously documented in the press that its actual release at this point feels like nothing more than an afterthought. Between the firing of original director Lynne Ramsay after she failed to show up to the first day of shooting (promptly being replaced by Warrior director Gavin O’Connor), the rotating door of stars that saw Michael Fassbender, Jude Law and Bradley Cooper all sign on for roles and then drop out (not to mention Joel Edgerton switching from one role to another), and the bankruptcy of studio Relativity, it seemed like this little western that could was never going to see the light of day. Finally, it arrives in theaters in the doldrums of January, a clear sign that new studio The Weinstein Company didn’t really have much interest in giving it a proper push to the masses. Jane Got a Gun went from hot topic in Hollywood to a limp noodle, where its fifteen minutes of fame expired long before it was actually released a whopping three years after that notorious first day of filming. The irony behind all of this is that, were it not for the internet age allowing us such a detailed level of knowledge into the behind the scenes drama of every film, you would have had no idea that things weren’t business as usual in the making of the project, given the relatively ordinary result.

Usually when a film is plagued by as much production trouble as Jane Got a Gun, the result falls into one of two categories. On the one extreme, you get the kind of cinematic masterpiece that is Apocalypse Now, an indication that the madness behind the scenes was all part of the method to bring about something bold and original in a way we’ve never seen done before. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s something like last year’s attempted reboot Fantastic Four, where the trouble is pasted all over the final product, an inconsistent mess that puts a stain on the canon of everyone involved. Jane Got a Gun strangely doesn’t fall into either camp, instead existing more as the kind of mid-level genre picture that you’ve seen plenty of times before. If it weren’t for all the talk about what went into the making of the movie, you’d likely forget about it not too long after you finished watching. Which isn’t to say that it’s a bad film, because it’s far from that, just that it’s not a particularly noteworthy one, in either a positive or negative way. Gavin O’Connor came on board in the eleventh hour and brought his workmanlike grit and professionalism to help save this film from falling off the rails, putting together a perfectly acceptable picture that won’t be a blemish on anyone’s record, but won’t stand out either.

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DVD Review: The Fear of 13

Director: David Sington
Starring: Sammy Silverwatch, Nick Yarris
Country: UK
Running Time: 96 min
Year: 2015
BBFC Certificate: 15


I got into the Serial podcast late in the game, just before the second season came out in December last year, so I’m a new addict to the true crime boom that has been spreading with that and some recent hit TV series. Because of this, my ears perked up when I was sent a press release for The Fear of 13 as it featured a quote from Empire magazine, stating it was “guaranteed to reel in those recently obsessed with Serial and HBO’s The Jinx”. Added to the fact that I’m a huge documentary fan in general, The Fear of 13 sounded to be the perfect fix I needed after Serial, particularly as I don’t have access to Netflix or Sky to watch anything like The Jinx or Making a Murderer.

Well, The Fear of 13 ended up being quite a different kettle of fish to Serial, but in no way did it disappoint.

The Fear of 13 opens with a statement saying that; ‘after more than 20 years on death row, convicted murderer Nick Yarris made a final petition to the Pennsylvania courts. He requested that all appeals cease and his sentence of death be carried out. He agreed to be interviewed about the decision. His story has been independently verified.’ After this text appears on screen, the rest of the film consists solely of Yarris telling his own story to the camera. And what a story.

I don’t want to say too much as the power and joy of this film is hearing this tale play out, so apologies if this review ends up being a little short. All I can say is that it’s utterly captivating. I literally found my jaw agape towards the end and I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the screen. Listening to just one man talk for an hour and a half sounds tedious, but I can’t think of a more gripping film I’ve seen in recent years.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Director: Peter Yates
Screenplay: Paul Monash
Based on a Novel by: George V. Higgins
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan, Steven Keats
Country: USA
Running Time: 102 min
Year: 1973
BBFC Certificate: 15


I love American cinema from the 70’s and I’m a fan of Peter Yates’ classic cop thriller Bulllitt, so it was a no-brainer for me to accept an offer to review Yates’ 1973 crime drama The Friends of Eddie Coyle. I must admit I hadn’t heard of the film prior to Eureka announcing their new Masters of Cinema Blu-Ray/DVD, but it sounded very much like my cup of tea and skimming online suggested that it’s highly regarded.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle tells the story of a group of criminals and a federal agent whose lives are intertwined around a low-rate crook named Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum). He’s looking at some jail time, but is advancing in years, struggling to make ends meet at home and doesn’t want to leave his wife and kids on welfare. His hope for redemption comes in selling guns to a busy group of bank robbers to keep the cash coming in, whilst shopping in his gun-runner contact Jackie Brown (Steven Keats) to convince the federal agent on his back, Dave Foley (Richard Jordan), to drop his prison sentence. Unbeknownst to Eddie though, Dillon (Peter Boyle), the bartender who set up the deal that got Eddie arrested in the first place, is also talking to Foley. So things can’t end well.

This is further proof, if it were needed, of what was great about 70’s American cinema (even if it’s from a British director). Gritty, dark and grim, it thrives on its characters rather than a particularly involving story or exciting set pieces. It was surprising for me to see such a low key drama after only knowing Yates for Bullitt, which is famous for its mind-blowingly good car chase climax. There are a handful of tense scenes in Eddie Coyle too, such as the cold and calculated bank heists and a stake out at a train station which ends in a brief flash of Yates’ car chase handling skills, but these aren’t what really make the film shine.

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Blu-Ray Review: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Director: Russ Meyer
Screenplay: Roger Ebert
Based on a Story by: Roger Ebert, Russ Meyer
Starring: Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, Marcia McBroom, John Lazar, Michael Blodgett
Country: USA
Running Time: 109 min
Year: 1970
BBFC Certificate: 18


Russ Meyer is an unusual character in the history of American cinema. His first feature film as a director (after working as a combat cameraman in WWII) was The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959). Widely acknowledged as the first commercially viable American ‘skin flick’ (or softcore porn as the films are more commonly known these days), it grossed more than $1,500,000 in the US at the time of its release from a budget of a mere $24,000. This success spurred Meyer on to make a name for himself as the ‘king of the skin flicks’, producing dozens of successful exploitation films that always featured incredibly buxom female stars, even when his films started to mix in other genres and become wild action-packed romps.

What’s interesting and unusual about Meyer is that, despite his reputation for making what were pretty much porn films, he actually became respected as a filmmaker in many circles. One of the key reasons for this was that he showed all the traits of being a true auteur. He worked as director, producer, screenwriter, cinematographer and film editor on many of his films, giving him a huge amount of control over the end product. His films had a recognisable style because of this. As well as the large-breasted stars, his films had a punchy editing style and bold, well composed cinematography. He made exploitation movies that actually looked good and were well put together, unlike many of the ‘skin flicks’ that would follow in his wake.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls represents an unusual point in Meyers career though. After Easy Rider, which was cheaply produced by a bunch of young ‘hippies’, became a huge unexpected success for Columbia Pictures, the other studios wanted in on the action. A number of the companies believed that giving money to young directors, fresh out of film school, would produce exciting counter-culture movies that the nation’s youth would flock to see (which is what kick-started the 70’s New Hollywood movement). 20th Century Fox’s plan though was to give a large budget to an already successful indie director with a reputation for making commercially successful genre films for very little money. The director they chose was Russ Meyer and the film he made was Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Ninja Trilogy

I thoroughly enjoyed watching the Cannon Films documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films in the middle of last year and despite the fact that the film doesn’t treat the production company’s output with much respect, there were a few titles that caught my interest. First and foremost was their Ninja Trilogy, a tenuously linked collection of bonkers action movies featuring ninjas. I may spend much of my time reviewing world cinema classics and the like, but I’ll always have a place in my heart for a good ninja flick, so I was over the moon when I heard the wonderful people over at Eureka were releasing the entire set on Blu-Ray. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined this would happen, so there was nothing that could stop me jumping at the chance to review a set of screeners for it.

The films included in the trilogy are Enter The Ninja, Revenge Of The Ninja & Ninja III: The Domination. Below are my thoughts on the individual films.

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Blu-Ray Review: Hiroshima Mon Amour

Director: Alain Resnais
Screenplay: Marguerite Duras
Starring: Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada, Stella Dassas
Country: France, Japan
Running Time: 90 min
Year: 1959
BBFC Certificate: 12


My hit and miss relationship with French cinema (particularly the New Wave) has left a lot of gaps in my knowledge of the country’s filmic output. One of the major titles that had passed me by, which is often cited as one of the greatest films of all time (it just missed out of the top 10 in Sight and Sound’s greatest films lists in ’62 and ’72), is Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour. Given its reputation I didn’t hesitate to request a screener when one was offered, but my occasional dislike of the French style made me approach the film with caution.

Hiroshima Mon Amour is quite sparse in terms of up front narrative. An unnamed (although IMDB calls her Elle) French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) is having an affair with a Japanese architect (Lui on IMDB, played by Eiji Okada) whilst shooting an anti-war film in Hiroshima. Her time there is limited, but Lui is desperate for her to stay and the two spend the day or so they have together discussing the war and delving into Riva’s tragic past of lost love and the ensuing mental suffering. We visit these memories through brief flashbacks throughout the film.

I was a bit torn in my feelings about this. The first 15 minutes are made up of a montage of footage of Hiroshima around the time of the bombing and the present day (late ’50’s) whilst the two leads muse about the war. Elle describes things she’s seen and Lui keeps saying that she’s “seen nothing”. This is the sort of poetically philosophical dialogue that has turned me off many French films in the past, so the film didn’t set off on the right foot for me. However, I found Resnais’ shots of Hiroshima (some of the footage in this sequence is stock from the war) particularly striking which kept me on board and the subject matter interested me (I’ve always found the idea of nuclear weapons terrifying and don’t feel the bombing of Hiroshima is discussed enough in the West).

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