Blu-Ray Review: The Deadly Affair

Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenplay: Paul Dehn
Based on a Novel by: John le Carré
Starring: James Mason, Maximilian Schell, Simone Signoret, Harriet Andersson, Harry Andrews
Country: UK
Running Time: 107 min
Year: 1966
BBFC Certificate: 12


Indicator are a fairly new label who are doing a wonderful job of giving some little known or largely forgotten films a new lease of life, particularly ones that have things going for them that seem to betray their obscurity. With The Deadly Affair, which I hadn’t heard of previously, you get numerous selling points in the talents behind the film. Directed by Sidney Lumet, based on a novel by John le Carré and starring luminaries like James Mason, Maximilian Schell, Simone Signoret and Harriet Andersson, watching the film was a mouth-watering prospect and I was more than a little surprised that it isn’t better known. It was rather well received on its release, but unfortunately the reviews didn’t translate into ticket sales, possibly due to the glut of spy thrillers around at the time, riding in the wake of the Bond franchise’s success.

The Deadly Affair is based on famed spy-novelist (and actual MI6 employee) John le Carré’s first novel, ‘Call for the Dead’. The novel’s protagonist is none other than George Smiley, a character featuring in many of le Carré’s most famous books (including The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Smiley’s People and his latest novel, A Legacy of Spies). Funnily enough though, back in the mid-60s Smiley wasn’t the near household name he is now, so in this film adaptation his name was changed to Charles Dobbs (played by James Mason).

The film opens with Government security officer Dobbs meeting Foreign Office civil servant Samuel Fennan (Robert Flemyng) about an anonymous tip that had been received, claiming that Fennan had been, and may still be, a practising Communist. This doesn’t seem to bother Fennan, as it was a long time in the past and Dobbs put his mind at ease about the situation. However, Dobbs receives a call early the next morning to say that Fennan committed suicide and a note he made out prior to this claimed he couldn’t live with the situation. Most seem to accept this as a clear cut case, but Dobbs refuses to believe that Fennan took his own life after the fairly relaxed conversation they’d had the day before. So he decides to investigate, even though he is forced to step down from his position due to the situation. Running alongside this, Dobbs also struggles with his relationship with his wife (Harriet Andersson) as he can no longer stand by and let her openly cheat on him as he had for the last year or two.

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Review: Good Time


 

“Don’t be confused, it is just going to make it worse for me.”

This might be the line that best sums up Good Time, a high stress ultra-stylized sprint through the nether regions and institutions of New York City at night. The picture is shot in gloriously frenetic close-ups imbued with a unique pulse. A rhythm that builds its own kind of character-based mood. Kaleidoscopic colours, and film grain rendered via capture on analogue stock, hold up magnificently even when projected digitally. But sit close to the screen at your own risk.

With the exception of the opening and closing scenes, and a brief breather when two characters sit down on the couch and watch a few minutes of COPS on television, things are brilliantly dense in the handling of urgent and fucked up situations. There are layers upon layers (physically echoed in the wardrobe of the lead character) of things happening at any given moment in the frame. And these are happening at speed. Characters talk (and shout) over top of one another, and yet the exquisite sound design and superbly executed camera work never leave the audience behind.

The soul of the picture is the knotty relationship between two brothers. Constantine ‘Connie’ Nikas is wholly inhabited by Robert Pattinson; a performance brimming with surprises. Pattinson’s recent run of work has demonstrated many talents that have been set free after the actor was freed from the mopey shackles of the Twilight franchise.

Connie is a gifted and clever criminal, at in an improvisational sense, at the street level. With his bipolar girlfriend (a terrifyingly wonderful Jennifer Jason Leigh) or his special needs brother, he finds himself surrounded by people who simply cannot keep up with his penchant for being in the moment. His brother Nick is somewhere on the spectrum, mostly deaf, and clearly requires an empathy and structured environment that Connie in incapable of ever providing.

Nick, played wonderfully by Ben Safdie, one of the two directors, is introduced in extreme close-up (naturally) in the quiet opening minutes of the film. He is in the office of a social worker who is trying to provide said empathy and structure at the request of his grandmother, who has had it with her grandsons petty criminal activities.

Minutes into the assessment he is forcibly dragged from the corner office by Connie to participate in an ill advised bank robbery to finance a trip and possibly a life out of poverty in Queens. At this point Daniel Lopatin’s (Oneohtrix Point Never) propulsive score kicks in and the chaotic energy of the film really never lets up.

Good Time is the ultimate pop-arthouse show-don’t-tell drama cum thrill ride. Fifty years ago, nobody would be able to follow a movie with so much going on at the same time. Our media processing sensibilities have arrived to this moment when the Safdie Brothers are wrestling editing and film-grammar to the ground – building upon moments from their previous picture, Heaven Knows What). They do so for our viewing pleasure without ever leaving our hearts or minds behind.

Using a combination of actors and real cops, prison guards and even gangsters, Good Time ratchets up the stress over (more or less) an all night odyssey of bad choices. In the tradition of After Hours (or Tchoupitoulas or Night On Earth) the bulk of film takes place over a short span of time, where anything can and will happen. Indeed when you put Jennifer Jason Leigh and Pattinson in a scene sparks o’ crazy fly off the screen. There is a scene in a bail bond office that is destined to be studied for years for its sheer chutzpah and craft.

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Blu-Ray Review: A Day in the Death of Joe Egg

Director: Peter Medak
Screenplay: Peter Nichols
Based on a Play by: Peter Nichols
Starring: Alan Bates, Janet Suzman, Peter Bowles, Sheila Gish, Joan Hickson
Country: UK
Running Time: 106 min
Year: 1972
BBFC Certificate: 15


The latest under-seen curiosity to be given a new lease of life by Indicator is A Day in the Life of Joe Egg. Based on a play by Peter Nichols, which in turn is based on his own life experiences, it charts a day in the life of a married couple, Bri (Alan Bates) and Sheila (Janet Suzman), who care for their daughter Jo, who is almost completely brain-dead (for want of a more scientific or PC description). Being unable to speak or voluntarily move for herself, the couple have to do everything for her, with no return of love. As such, it’s a tough life they lead, and the only way they get through it is to use humour. They create a personality for Jo and speak for her, as well as make blackly comic jokes about their situation throughout the day.

However, Bri has had enough. He’s reached the conclusion that all this work they put in to look after Jo is for nothing and she should be put away somewhere for professional care, or possibly just be allowed to die. Sheila however, hasn’t given up hope that Jo’s abilities may improve by some miracle and refuses to cast her away just to make their lives more comfortable.

It was and, to be honest, still is bold subject matter for a film. There aren’t many films that deal with care for someone with that level of physical/mental illness and particularly not in such an honest and blackly comic fashion. Most Hollywood films that deal with illness or disability use it to offer messages of hope or merely to wring tears out of an audience, but this is no feel good film or weepie. Instead it’s brutally frank about the subject matter. You can tell that the writer, Nichols, had lived in that situation himself (his daughter was brain-dead and they looked after her until she died aged 11) as someone who hadn’t would never be able to tackle the topic in the same way.

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Blu-Ray Review: Le Trou

Director: Jacques Becker
Screenplay: Jacques Becker, José Giovanni, Jean Aurel
Based on a Novel by: José Giovanni
Starring: André Bervil, Jean Keraudy, Michel Constantin, Raymond Meunier, Marc Michel
Country: France, Italy
Running Time: 132 min
Year: 1960
BBFC Certificate: 12


Jacques Becker is a director whose name seems to have passed me by, until I received a press release about the forthcoming re-release of a handful of his films. I almost forwarded the press release straight on to the rest of the site’s writers, but I had a quick look on IMDb and realised how well received his work has been, particularly the four Studiocanal are putting out on Blu-Ray and DVD – Edward and Caroline, Casque D’Or, Touchez Pas Au Grisbi and Le Trou. So I picked one to review that sounded most my cup of tea, (Le Trou – a.k.a. The Night Watch) and let some of my associates handle the rest.

Le Trou is based on the true account of a prison break from La Santé Prison in France in 1947 and adapted from a novel (called ‘The Break’) about the incident written by an inmate of the prison, José Giovanni. Claude Gaspard (Marc Michel) is transferred to a new cell in the prison, joining four other men, Jo Cassine (Michel Constantin), Roland Darban (Jean Keraudy), Manu Borelli (Philippe Leroy), Vossellin/Monseigneur (Raymond Meunier). They seem a little hesitant about Gaspard’s appearance at first, but once they warm to him, they decide to tell him about their intended jail break and get him involved in it. From then on, we observe the work done by the inmates to dig their way out of the prison, whilst trying to keep it a secret from the guards. There are also some worries about how trustworthy Gaspard is, as some unexpected twists arrive later on.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Saga of Anatahan

Director: Josef von Sternberg
Screenplay: Josef von Sternberg
Based on a Novel by: Younghill Kang, Michiro Maruyama
Starring: Akemi Negishi, Tadashi Suganuma, Kisaburo Sawamura, Shôji Nakayama
Country: Japan
Running Time: 92 min
Year: 1953
BBFC Certificate: 15


The Saga of Anatahan is a bit of a curiosity. It was written and directed by Josef von Sternberg, who was a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood in the 20s and 30s, particularly after the success of his German feature, The Blue Angel. The Saga of Anatahan was his penultimate film and saw the well-travelled director head to Japan to produce a film based on a true story that happened in the country after WWII.

It tells of a group of Japanese seamen who are shipwrecked on the remote island of Anatahan, during the war. There they come across what they assume are man and wife, Kusakabe (Tadashi Suganuma) and Keiko (Akemi Negishi). Being the only woman on the island, the men soon lust after her and over the course of the seven years the group live on the island, they fight and eventually kill for her affections. During this time, they also receive messages stating that the war is over, the Japanese have lost and an American ship will come to pick them up. The proud seamen refuse to believe this though, dismissing it as enemy propaganda, and decide to stay put.

The story isn’t so unusual then as other accounts have been made of people trapped on desert islands and the like. What makes this a curiosity is partly why Sternberg decided to make this film in Japan in the first place (it’s shot on a studio, so he could have done it in his home of California), but more so in the fact that he decided to have all the cast speak their native Japanese, without subtitles. To keep the film from getting confusing, Sternberg narrates the film himself, making for a very strange and unique experience.

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Blu-Ray Review: A Brighter Summer Day – Criterion Collection

Director: Edward Yang
Screenplay: Hung Hung, Mingtang Lai, Alex Yang, Edward Yang
Starring: Chen Chang, Lisa Yang, Kuo-Chu Chang
Country: Taiwan
Running Time: 237 min
Year: 1991
BBFC Certificate: 15


It seems like this week was a week of epics for me. After enjoying three hours of Italian peasants in The Tree of Wooden Clogs, I felt I was primed for four hours of Taiwanese drama in Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, which is finally being released here in the UK, by the Criterion Collection. The director’s work, like most of the films of the New Taiwanese Cinema movement, is woefully unavailable on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK, so this release is hugely welcome. Due to this lack of access, I’ve yet to see an Edward Yang film, despite hearing great things, so I got a comfy chair and settled down to watch possibly the longest film I’ve ever seen (I actually watched it in two chunks, but both on the same day at least!)

A Brighter Summer Day is very loosely based on a real life incident in Taiwan in the early 1960s, when a young teenager (named Si’r in the film and played by Chen Chang) murdered a girl who reportedly turned down his advances (named Ming and played by Lisa Yang). Edward Yang isn’t concerned with recreating this incident too accurately though, he instead uses it as the inspiration for a complex tale of youth gangs, popular in the country due to the political uncertainty of the time and the infiltration of American pop culture which celebrated teenage rebellion.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Tree of Wooden Clogs

Director: Ermanno Olmi
Screenplay: Ermanno Olmi
Starring: Luigi Ornaghi, Francesca Moriggi, Omar Brignoli
Country: Italy
Running Time: 187 min
Year: 1978
BBFC Certificate: 12


The Tree of Wooden Clogs, a film often described as plotless, running a little over three hours and following the lives of peasants in Italy during the end of the 19th Century, doesn’t sound particularly appealing on the surface. I must admit I had second thoughts about requesting a screener due to this, but strong reviews talked me into it and I’m glad they did, as The Tree of Wooden Clogs proved to be a wonderful film that I enjoyed watching far more than I expected.

The film is set in 1898 and follows the lives of five peasant families living together in one farmstead in the Bergamo region of northern Italy. They work hard tending the land for their landlord who owns most of what they have. Using non-actors from the region, writer/director Ermanno Olmi creates a detailed and naturalistic observation of the lives of these people. I wouldn’t call the film entirely plotless though as some have suggested. In observing life on the farmstead, we are presented with several family dramas that play out during the course of the film. One important thread which is introduced in the film’s opening and plays a part in the climactic scenes, sees the young son of one family accepted into school due to a perceived high level of intelligence. Going to school was rare for peasant families in these days and the boy’s parents don’t seem keen on the idea due to the expense and what the neighbours would think. However, their local priest recommends it, so they send him 6km every weekday to the nearest school house. This has consequences further down the line that I won’t spoil here.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Handmaiden

Director: Chan-wook Park
Screenplay by: Seo-kyeong Jeong, Chan-wook Park
Based on a Novel by: Sarah Waters
Starring: Tae-ri Kim, Min-hee Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo, Jin-woong Jo
Country: South Korea
Running Time: 146 min (also available in an extended version)
Year: 2016
BBFC Certificate: 18


Chan-wook Park is a director who can do no wrong in my eyes. I’ve loved all of his films, even his divisive English language debut Stoker (although I haven’t seen his earlier pre-Vengeance Trilogy films or I’m a Cyborg). So, like many world cinema fans, I was excited to see what The Handmaiden, his return to South Korea, had in store, and I wasn’t disappointed.

The Handmaiden is based on the novel ‘Fingersmith’, by Welsh writer Sarah Waters, but with a change of setting from Victorian era Britain to Korea under Japanese colonial rule. Sookee (Tae-ri Kim) is hired as the new handmaiden to a Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), who lives with her ageing uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo), a cruel man who wants his hands on his niece’s fortune. Sookee however, has actually been hired by a swindler, posing as Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha), who plans to have the handmaiden help him woo Hideko so he can marry her, then declare her insane and keep her money for himself. Sookee’s part in the plan becomes complicated however, when she falls in love and forms a sexual relationship with Hideko. The plot thickens further as the film goes on, but I wouldn’t want to spoil anything.

Like Stoker, The Handmaiden is a sexually charged, big, brash erotic thriller that may not necessarily be subtle or original, but enthrals nonetheless. As is to be expected from Chan-wook Park, the film is meticulously well made, and this is why it works so successfully, despite potentially trashy source material (no offence to the original novel, but I’ve seen plenty of these twist-laden, sex-filled thrillers before). The film looks ravishing, shot artfully and filled with lavish, yet imposing production design that creates the darkly beautiful prison Hideko is trapped in (her uncle’s house, that she is rarely allowed to leave).

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Blu-Ray Review: Der müde Tod (a.k.a. Destiny)

Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou
Starring: Lil Dagover, Walter Janssen, Bernhard Goetzke, Max Adalbert
Country: Germany
Running Time: 98 min
Year: 1921
BBFC Certificate: PG


I‘ve been slowly working my way through Fritz Lang’s filmography and I’ve yet to be disappointed by his work. He crafted some of cinema’s most thrilling, inventive and forward thinking films during his 41 years behind the camera in both Germany and the US (where he moved in the mid-30s due to his anti-Nazi beliefs). So when Eureka announced they were releasing one of the director’s early successes, Der müde Tod (translated as The Weary Death, but otherwise known as Destiny), as part of their Masters of Cinema collection, I was keen to see how it stood up against his later, more famous films.

Der müde Tod sees Death (Bernhard Goetzke) come to make his home in a small German town. As well as building a great wall with no windows or doors around his property by the graveyard, he seems to follow a young couple (Lil Dagover and Walter Janssen) who are engaged to be married. As you might suspect, he’s there to collect a soul and the young man soon disappears. The woman, distraught, seeks out Death and pleads with him to spare her fiancée. Weary of his tough job, the shadowy figure offers the woman a deal. If she can prevent the deaths of just one of three nearly spent lives he presents to her (all part of tragic romances), she can have her wish.

In dealing with three separate stories, on top of the main framing narrative, Der müde Tod works like D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, made a few years prior, telling a few similarly themed tales to make a universal message (this time about fate). Here they’re not intercut though, the ‘extra’ stories merely play out back to back in the middle of the film.

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Film Review: Elite Force: Operation Mekong

Director: Dante Lam
Screenplay: Kang Kei Chu, Dante Lam, Siu Kwan Lau, Eric Lin, Wai Ching Tam
Starring: Eddie Peng, Hanyu Zhang, Carl Ng, Ken Lo, Jonathan Wu, Pawarith Monkolpisit
Country: China, Hong Kong
Running Time: 123 min
Year: 2016
BBFC Certificate: 15


Only yesterday, in my review of Westfront 1918 and Kameradschaft, I wrote about my love it or hate it relationship with war or true life stories on film, and what do you know, another one that touches on both comes along a day later.

Elite Force: Operation Mekong (a.k.a. Operation Mekong or to use its original Chinese title, Mei Gong he xing dong), is not a war story as such, but it sees an elite task force battle against a drug baron with so much force it feels like one. It’s based on the actual ‘Mekong River massacre’, which happened in 2011, and the ensuing anti-drug operation that followed. In the tragic event, two merchant ships were attacked on the Mekong River on the borders of Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand, in the Golden Triangle area (a place synonymous with the drugs trade), and the 13 Chinese crew members were murdered. In the film, the crew members are initially suspected of being involved in drug smuggling after 900,000 meth pills are found on the scene. However, an informer tells them otherwise and when the merchants’ bodies are found and they look to have been executed, a special Chinese task force is deployed to investigate and arrest the drug baron suspected of ordering the massacre, Naw Khar (Pawarith Monkolpisit).

This is one of those cases I discussed yesterday when it very much feels like the grim reality of the actual events have been amped up and glossed over to make an exciting piece of entertainment, rather than a sensitive or intelligent examination of them. However, I was fully prepared for this after reading a few reviews and knowing the film was being marketed as a balls to the wall action film. As such, I tried to ignore any issues of authenticity or sensitivity and sat down to enjoy some explosive violence, the likes of which Hollywood rarely delivers anymore but Asia has been dishing out for decades.

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Blu-Ray Review: The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.

Director: Roy Rowland
Screenplay: Dr. Seuss, Allan Scott
Starring: Tommy Rettig, Peter Lind Hayes, Hans Conried, Mary Healy
Country: USA
Running Time: 89 min
Year: 1953
BBFC Certificate: U


I read a couple of bedtime stories to my kids every night and there’s nothing worse than a dull or insipid children’s book (particularly when you’re begged to read the same ones repeatedly), so I do my best to try and find books we can all enjoy. My go to author is Dr. Seuss (or, to use his real name, Theodor Seuss Geisel). His rhyming prose, complete with wacky made up words is a joy to read out loud and his illustrations are wonderfully unusual and imaginative. His work has had a troubled history on the big screen though. There are some classic animated adaptations (largely shorts), but very few live action ones. In fact only one was made before his death in 1991, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T., released back in 1953 when he wasn’t yet a household name. There might only be one because the special effects weren’t advanced enough before the turn of the millennium to capture Seuss’ wild imagination, but it might be largely down to the fact that Dr. T. was a huge commercial failure. It didn’t get much critical love at the time either and Seuss called the film a “debaculous fiasco”, omitting any mention of it in his official biography. So you get the feeling he didn’t let anyone make any live action features after it was released.

Over the years though, Dr. T. has been embraced as a bit of a cult classic and has since been seen in higher regard. As such, our friends at Powerhouse Films have seen fit to re-release the film on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD through their Indicator label. Being a big Dr. Seuss fan, I couldn’t resist requesting a copy to see whether or not it deserved this second life after being so cruelly rejected on its initial release.

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