Blu-Ray Review: Outlaw: Gangster VIP The Complete Collection

Not content with being the go-to label for cult and classic American and European cinema, Arrow Video have started to mine the more obscure depths of Japanese genre movies recently, in particular gangster/crime films. After releasing a shiny new disc for Seijun Suzuki’s relatively popular Branded to Kill and the full Battles Without Honour and Humanity collection, as well as a couple of vaguely known titles like Massacre Gun, they surprised everyone with a set of little-known crime dramas under the Nikkatsu Diamond Guys banner. This has now been followed up by the expansive Outlaw: Gangster VIP The Complete Collection, a series of violent Yakuza dramas, also produced by Nikkatsu and based on the writings of real life ex-gangster Goro Fujita.

Go on the IMDB and you’ll find little information on the six films in this set (although due to my review being a little late, some more might have accumulated by now). So it’s great to see a Blu-Ray/DVD label daring to venture into unknown territory like this. Of course, being genre films, there’s always a bit of a safety net and the Japanese gangster angle was what sold the set to me, but I’m glad to see films that would otherwise be lost get the treatment they deserve.

The films in the series are Gangster VIP, Gangster VIP 2, Heartless, Goro the Assassin, Black Dagger and Kill!. My thoughts on the individual films follow:

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Blu-Ray Review: Victoria

Director: Sebastian Schipper
Based on a Story by: Sebastian Schipper, Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Eike Frederik Schulz
Starring: Laia Costa, Frederick Lau, Franz Rogowski
Country: Germany
Running Time: 138 min
Year: 2015
BBFC Certificate: 15


Hype can be a dangerous thing. When you hear too much praise for a film you’re almost destined to be disappointed. Very few films can live up to the expectations mounted through countless five star reviews and personal recommendations. Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria is one film I’d read several glowing reviews for and heard friends rave about surrounding its cinematic release here in the UK. With Curzon Artificial Eye releasing the film on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, I got my hands on a screener to finally watch the film for myself and I can safely say it has lived up to my very high expectations (although I think I might have given the film 5 stars if I’d have watched it ‘cold’).

Victoria follows (quite literally) the titular character (Laia Costa), a young Spanish woman living in Berlin, as she leaves a nightclub and befriends Sonne (Frederick Lau), a ‘native’ Berliner. Blatantly flirting with her, Sonne shows her the after-club night life with his three male friends. Victoria is a fairly innocent ‘good’ girl, but these boys are wild and mischievous, breaking into cars and stealing beers. Victoria seems to enjoy joining them and embracing this ‘bad boy’ attitude, but as the crimes they’re involved in suddenly get much more serious, she realises she’s in too deep, but is forced to go along with it.

If you’ve read anything about this film I imagine you’re aware of the fact that the film is presented entirely as one long, unbroken shot. It seems to be the film’s main selling point, particularly as this is no ‘hidden’ cut job like Birdman. No digital trickery made this merely look like a one shot, real time experience. It was all done for real. Supposedly it took 3 attempts, but the crew eventually managed to keep everything working as it should for the fairly hefty running time of the film.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Firm (1989)

Director: Alan Clarke
Screenplay: Al Hunter
Starring: Gary Oldman, Lesley Manville, Philip Davis
Country: UK
Running Time: 67 min (broadcast version) 68 min (director’s cut)
Year: 1989
BBFC Certificate: 18


TV has been enjoying a new golden age over the last 10 years or so with a wealth of talent coming from and moving back to the format. There are plenty of classy, genuinely great series being produced around the world, from popular high budget HBO productions like The Sopranos and Game of Thrones, to classy British offerings like Sherlock and slick Scandinavian crime sagas like The Killing. The TV movie however, still has some stigma attached to it. The more recent big TV events have all been longer format or at least mini-series. Few one-off features have made waves recently as not many seem to get made. I think too many people are of the mind that if a film is any good, why didn’t it get released in theatres or at least get a good home release before being streamed to our regular channels at no extra cost.

In Britain though, there was once a long tradition of classy feature length television drama. Known largely at the time as ‘television plays’, series such as Armchair Theatre and Play for Today, running from the 50’s until the 80’s, would present audiences with an original one off film/play in each ‘episode’. Two time Palme d’Or winner (as of yesterday) Ken Loach made a name for himself in this format with the 1966 television play Cathy Come Home and fellow Cannes favourite Mike Leigh also made a number of plays, including Abigail’s Party. The television play format fizzled out in the mid-eighties though as series became more popular.

Between 1985 and 1994, the BBC tried to keep the flame burning though, with Screen Two and Screen One, which brought back the idea of one-off original TV features, this time shot on film. Previously, television plays tended to be studio-shot affairs, more like live plays. One of the directors contributing to this series was Alan Clarke, who had made a number of controversial TV films and a couple of theatrical features since the mid to late 60’s. He died from cancer at only 54 years old but his last production was released on Screen Two, the football hooligan drama The Firm, which courted controversy again, but has held a strong reputation over the years and is now being released in a special collector’s edition Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK by the BFI, packaged along with another of Clarke’s controversial films, the short Elephant.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Last Command

Director: Josef von Sternberg
Screenplay: John F. Goodrich, Herman J. Mankiewicz (titles)
Based on a Story by: Josef von Sternberg, Lajos Biró
Starring: Emil Jannings, Evelyn Brent, William Powell
Country: USA
Running Time: 88 min
Year: 1928
BBFC Certificate: PG


Josef von Sternberg was a major player in late silent and early sound cinema. His popularity reached its peak with the hugely successful and acclaimed Blue Angel (which I reviewed here a few years ago – http://blueprintreview.co.uk/2013/01/the-blue-angel/). However, not long after this, some of the subsequent films he made with Angel’s star Dietrich failed at the box office and he also fell out with Ernst Lubitsch, then head of production at Paramount. So he lost control over his pictures and his career soon fizzled out. A number of Sternberg’s early films have been lost, but The Last Command, one of his breakthrough hits, remains and Eureka have felt fit to add it to their Masters of Cinema series.

The Last Command opens in Hollywood in 1928 where a successful Russian director, Leo Andreyev (William Powell), is trying to cast a film he’s making about the Russian revolution. When looking through a pile of head shots he comes across the face of Sergius Alexander (Emil Jannings). This elderly gent was actually a former Russian general so is perfect for the part and, as we learn through a lengthy flashback, crossed paths with Andreyev in the past, as the director used to be a revolutionary. The flashbacks also show that a woman tied their stories together, Andreyev’s lover, Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent), who was also a revolutionary. Realising that the general was fond of her, Natalie seduced her way into his inner circle and plotted to kill him. However, the more time she spent with him, the more she sympathised with him and realised he loved his country as much as she did. So the film charts her dilemma before showing the audience what Andreyev has in store for his former enemy.

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Review: Money Monster

Director: Jodie Foster (Little Man Tate, The Beaver)
Writers: Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore, Jim Kouf
Producers: Lara Alameddine, George Clooney, Daniel Dubiecki, Grant Heslov
Starring: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O’Connell, Dominic West, Caitriona Balfe, Giancarlo Esposito
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 98 min.

 

 

My original posting of this review can be found on LetterBoxd

 


It sounds crazy given their decades of working in Hollywood as some of the biggest names in the business, but somehow Jodie Foster has never worked with George Clooney or Julia Roberts. That all changes now, but the three Oscar winners don’t all find themselves in front of the screen in Money Monster. No, while Clooney and Roberts headline the piece, Foster stays behind the scenes, making her return to the directing chair for her fourth feature. You can’t blame her for being drawn back into the position for this one, as she gets to bring audiences an exciting popcorn thrill ride set within the financial world with one hell of a ticking clock. It’s a sign of the changing of the times that 15 years ago this combination of A-list stars would have been one of the biggest events of the year, whereas now Money Monster is a sleeper bit of counter-programming for viewers seeking out a more adult alternative to the mammoth blockbusters flooding in for the summer movie season. On that front, Foster more than delivers.

Clooney plays Lee Gates, the host of a “Mad Money” type of television show that advises wannabe traders on what the best bets are to help line their pockets. Lee is a smart guy who knows what he’s talking about, but when we meet him his fame has clearly gone to his head after so many years in the spotlight, and at this point he’s more of an arrogant celebrity than anything else. In one of the opening scenes he boasts about how he hasn’t had dinner alone since the ‘90. On the receiving end of that conversation is Roberts, taking on the role of Patty Fenn, the producer of the show, a position that she doesn’t intend to occupy for long as she has taken a new job across the street and away from Lee. As these things so often go, however, her final days on the program don’t go down smoothly, as their broadcast is interrupted by Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), a blue collar worker who lost his entire savings on a bad tip from Lee and now looks to get some answers by bringing a gun into the building, as well as a bomb vest that he forces Lee to put on. So begins a nail-biting 90 minutes of suspense that moves in real time as Kyle demands to know what exactly happened.

money-monster

Figuring out the truth brings in a few other players, like Dominic West’s shady CEO and his right-hand woman played by Caitriona Balfe, but Money Monster primarily centers itself on the dynamics between those initial three. While Kyle and Lee are on camera, the unstable everyman capable of blowing the whole studio to kingdom come at any moment, Patty is in Lee’s ear, doing her best work as a producer to help him keep the situation calm by using his talents as a showman to stall Kyle and keep his mind busy. It’s a tactic similar to the one that Foster uses as a director, as she has to find ways to keep the audience entertained, despite us knowing that we aren’t going to get a resolution for 90 minutes. She manages the job incredibly well, clearly having taken some influence from her time in front of the camera starring in Spike Lee’s heist thriller Inside Man. That movie took an adult approach to making a Hollywood picture that gave us great actors and genuine excitement without having to pander for the four-quadrant appeal of your typical summer blockbuster, and Money Monster manages that same balance of taking its subject matter seriously while still having a lot of fun.

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DVD Review: Janis: Little Girl Blue

Director: Amy J. Berg
Starring: Cat Power, Janis Joplin, Karleen Bennett
Country: USA
Running Time: 103 min
Year: 2015
BBFC Certificate: 15


Janis: Little Girl Blue is a documentary which looks at the life of powerhouse ’60’s blues singer Janis Joplin, who joined the infamous ’27 club’ when she succumbed to drug and alcohol abuse in October 1970. Being a huge fan of ’60’s music from an early age, particularly Janis’ brand of blues rock, I’ve long had a great admiration for her. She had a raw, bone-rattlingly powerful voice like no other that helped revolutionise the way we thought about female vocalists. So an offer to review Janis: Little Girl Blue was not one I was going to turn down.

Charting Janis’ life from her teenage years (after a brief run through her childhood) to her death, the film runs chronologically, using letters she wrote to her family over this time as a sort of framing device. Read out by the musician Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power), these add a strong sense of poignancy to her tale, which could otherwise have easily fallen into the simple ‘lived fast died young’ bracket. Right through to the end, the letters were sweet and sadly apologetic, displaying a vulnerability not evident in her wild, passionate musical performances.

As well as using these letters to give the film emotional weight, director Amy Berg sensibly avoids using talking heads from celebrity fans (other than a couple over the credits). Instead we only hear from those who actually knew Janis – her family, friends and band members. This helps keep the film from being a fluffy ass-kissing affair and keeps the film focussed on Janis as a person rather than a mythical music icon. A wealth of personal artefacts have been made available too, including a scrap book of notes and photos on top of plenty of archive film footage.

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Hot Docs 2016 Review: Beware The Slenderman

Slenderman

If you have not heard of the Slenderman at this point, trust me that your kids have. He is a tall think man in a suit usually seen looming in the background of locations where children play or blending into a sparse forest of tall trees, that came about from unconscious desires of the internet to create its own digital folklore.

The opening minutes of Beware The Slenderman promise an experience along the lines of The Blair Witch Project meets Seven. It begs the question on whether HBO contractually mandates swanky opening titles on the various properties they develop for broadcast. The former mock-doc was made famous through savvy use of the internet in building its own mythology, and the latter was a cold thriller featuring sensationally violent murders as the mission statement of warped ideology of a mysterious John Doe.

The actual content of the documentary is far more interesting than what the credit sequence (or poster) pledges. Director Irene Taylor Brodsky goes deep into the specific case of two Wisconsin preteen girls who brutally stabbed one of their friends, nearly 20 times, and left her in the woods to die of her injuries. The victim, Peyton, (somehow) survived, and the perpetrators were were caught in short order. It is one of those stories you might have heard on the news in a couple years ago, registered the shock of it, that they did this due to belief in an internet meme, and then went on about your life. Documentaries like this one serve the place of an increasingly neutered long-form print journalism in that they allow a focused look at the context and consequences, well beyond national headlines.

Featuring extensive courtroom footage, candid interviews with the family members of the accused girls, and the online origins of the crowdsourced boogieman, Beware The Slenderman, plays like bizzaro world version of Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills, the superb West Memphis Three doc released by HBO in the 1990s (followed by two sequels). In that film, three teenage boys were convicted of committing gristly murders in Arkansas, and convicted mainly on the grounds that they listened to Metallica and read books by Aleister Crowley (coupled with unreasonable coercion by the police to confess.) The questionable idea that heavy metal music and satanic books could induce impressionable teens to murder was taken seriously to the point of putting blinders on due process.

Here in 2014, via videotaped interrogations which provide the through-line for the film, Morgan and Anissa, separated, both freely admit that their belief of an internet meme made them do it. One of the key, but unspoken messages of Beware The Slenderman is that even in a case where pop culture actually did made the girls do it, the legal system is still utterly broken when it comes to youth. Deeply disturbing to a bleeding-heart-Canadian such as myself, was fact that neither of the accused 12 year olds could have any body contact with their parents during the trial period (now in its second year) and were tried by adults by a tough-on-crime Wisconsin court. No hugs. Morgan’s mother has theories, but no answers because she has been prevented from speaking to daughter since the arrest. The girls were not given phone calls. Both fathers spend much of their on-screen interviews in tears. One gives an impassioned, but pragmatic, monologue on technology, parenting, and the punishing stress of trying to move forward with any sense of normalcy.

We have no idea what kinds of lives our children live inside their heads, and increasingly, the internet allows to magnify and participate the collective imagination, in ways that the brothers Grimm (or Metallica) could never have comprehended. Morgan’s mother thinks back to the time where her daughter had no empathic reaction to the mother die while watching Bambi. It is a powerful anecdote, but one wonders if this experiment were conducted formally on hundreds of children, if Morgan’s reaction is more common than we intuit. Perhaps from a lack of media comprehension or simply the universal built-in-narcissism of those who are so very young.

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Civil War: What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.



Okay, MCU, I quit*

The shark has been jumped, and in this case I may be the shark and Kevin Feige and his team of TV directors are the Fonz. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is the logical conclusion to – but unfortunately just the next phase of – this series of bloated, meaningless storytelling.

Following a series of disasters in both real American metropolises and fictional foreign nations, the less interesting Avengers (Thor and Hulk are elsewhere, as are the expensive big name love interests from previous films) find themselves subject to reckoning from the international community, demanding oversight to their actions, leading to a schism between those who idealistically see the negative implications and will not compromise, and those who see the path of least resistance and would like to keep a hand on the wheel.

After an hour or so of “good for basic cable but it ain’t HBO” style of drama which has earned Daredevil many fans (but man has that show also grown drab and tedious) we get the film’s centerpiece, a defining and damning moment – the big showcase battle royal – and in pro wrestling terms it is an indie spotfest that has all the weight of an arcade fighting game. For those uninitiated to the Sport of Kings, that means generic grapplers doing a lot of creative flipping with no selling (nothing hurts), no storytelling (are you working down a body part? do you have a strategy?), and no heat. And the “smart” indie fans lap it up in spite of knowing what actually makes a match any good.

Civil War has no heat. This is the movie that has divided up earth’s greatest heroes, telling us that a conflict has arisen where there is now no choice but to butt heads. And yet the process reveals no. goddamn. new. side. of. anyone. While Iron Man and Cap have their logical sides, and others have their loyalties, several others are there for no good reason at all, adding nothing to the shallow discussion, and damage their own characters in the process. Tom Holland makes a wonderful Peter Parker but a Spider-Man more eager to please new friends than do what’s right. Likewise Paul Rudd initially brings life with his fresh Ant-Man character but is quickly reduced to a bumbling fool showing none of the subtlety required in leading his own film. The time comes for battle, and there they go, and I buy their reasoning even less than Batman v Superman.

David Ehrlich summarizes the centerpiece better than I could have ever imagined when he writes:

“Watching “Civil War,” it’s easy to understand why the MCU is so hung up on the fight in New York — it’s the franchise’s only great action sequence. Joss Whedon’s visceral understanding of cinematic geometry and his symphonic flair for choreographing movement allowed that marquee set-piece to galvanize the separate threads of the Marvel Cinematic Universe into a unified whole. On the contrary, every action beat in “Civil War” is such a discrete hodgepodge of close-ups and medium shots that they might as well exist in a vacuum — at times, this feels like the first movie ever made entirely out of gifs.”

And it’s not just the action in this scene that is so clumsily shot, choreographed, and considered. What the Russo’s are interested in this big moment… is quips! This big moment, planned for years over the course of several films, is upended by a pair of red and blue underoos. This scene is the big coming out party, and more thought seems to have been invested in putting butts in seats for Homecoming than paying anything off. And the quip-slinger is the other side of the mediocre coin. His material is good for an open mic, but ain’t no HBO Special. After a series of groan-worthy one-liners where Holland and Rudd ask for autographs from their friends and adversaries, they are sent off on his merry way and proven irrelevant.

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Hot Docs 2016 Review: How To Build A Time Machine

Niosi

The famous Serenity Prayer of american theologian Reinhold Niebuhr is as follows: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Jay Cheel’s beautifully rendered How To Build A Time Machine tells the stories of two men who are on the verge of that wisdom, and in the act of telling, examines line between our boundless imagination and the rigorous nuts and bolts of acquiring the knowledge required to achieve some measure of it.

Shot over five years, the film follows former Pee Wee’s Playhouse animator Rob Niosi who has been building a replica prop of the time machine from George Pal’s 1960 film adaptation of H.G. Well’s The Time Machine. What started as a fun 3 month project has, through is own peculiar, yet charming, Sisyphean nature, has blown out to nearly a decade. This is a peak into the psyche of a stop-motion animator whose entire working day might yield only seconds of usable film. Rob’s father took him (and his brother) to see The Time Machine when he was a little boy, where they both became fascinated with the central machine. His father was instrumental in encouraging his son toward a career in animation, providing tools and encouragement and advice along the way. Implicit in Niosi’s recreation of the time machine is to recapture the pure impression he had of that perfect day at the cinema with his family.

The film juxtaposes magnificent montages of Niosi meticulously crafting each brass or mahogany part for the prop replicate together with the academics of Dr. Ronald Mallett, a physicist at the University of Connecticut whose scientific career has been a pursuit of the hard science of time travel.

Significant is the muse that drives these men, completely different relationships with their respective fathers, which gives the movie a surprising emotional resonance. If father-son stuff affects you as much as it does me, you might want to pack some tissue. Mallett lost his father to a heart attack when he was about the same age that Niosi was in rapture watching Morlocks fighting the Eloi at the movies. The core motivation of decades of complex theory and practical experimentation is the dream of the possibility to go back and warn his father of his weak heart, and the young boy, who idolized him, that would be left fatherless at such a young age. And yes, Mallett also idolized a comic book version of H.G. Well’s science fiction story which he believes put him on the circuitous path to a doctorate degree.

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