DVD Review: Cohen & Tate

Director: Eric Red
Screenplay: Eric Red
Starring: Roy Scheider, Adam Baldwin, Harley Cross
Country: USA
Running Time: 86 min
Year: 1988
BBFC Certificate: 15


Cohen & Tate was a bit of a shot in the dark viewing for me. I had a vague memory of someone (Blueprint: Review’s Justin Richards I think) mentioning the film to me in the past, which is why the press release piqued my interest, but the reviews (from the few I could find) were a bit mixed. I figured I’d give it a chance though as it sounded interesting and Arrow are generally dependable for selecting titles worth watching.

I’m happy to say I’m glad I gave it a shot, but happy isn’t the right word to describe Cohen & Tate. It’s a pitch black thriller which opens with the brutal murder of the parents of 9-year old Travis Knight (Harley Cross). He’s the only witness to a mob hit and the gangsters responsible are keen to get hold of him. So, after dispatching Travis’ parents and a couple of FBI agents keeping them all ‘safe’, two hitmen, the titular Cohen (Roy Scheider) and Tate (Adam Baldwin), take the boy on a long drive to Houston to see their employer. His future looks bleak, but Travis doesn’t give up trying to escape and, in the strained relationship between the mismatched hitmen, he sees a chance to turn them against each other to gain his freedom.

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Review: Manchester by the Sea

Director: Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Margaret)
Writer: Kenneth Lonergan
Producers: Lauren Beck, Matt Damon, Chris Moore, Kimberly Steward, Kevin J. Walsh
Starring: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 137 min.

 

 

My original posting of this review can be found on LetterBoxd

 


2016 doesn’t deserve a film as good as Manchester By The Sea. To say that Kenneth Lonergan’s latest is the best film of his career may not seem like it means much, given that it’s only his third feature in 16 years after You Can Count on Me and the notoriously delayed Margaret. However, considering the fact that those two films are near masterpieces, giving Manchester By The Sea that qualification means that it ranks among the best of the century so far, and quite easily stands as the best film I’ve seen this year with only a month left to go for the unlucky contenders looking to unseat it. It’s unfortunate that we’ve gotten so few Lonergan films over the course of such a long time, especially when you can’t turn around without another superhero extravaganza smacking you in the face, but if it takes this long for him to consistently deliver at this level of quality, then it is damn sure worth the wait. Manchester By The Sea takes the ideas and the skills that he’s been honing in his craft over his first two features and fine tunes them to create something devastating, beguiling, incredibly intimate, and emotionally raw.

Centered on janitor Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), who returns to his hometown that gives the film its title after the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), Lonergan’s film is as honest an exploration of grief as we’ve seen in the movies, examining both the immediate after effect of a devastating loss, as well as the ripples that continue to live on with us years after the fact, as the present day storyline is cut in with flashbacks to explain why Lee has shut himself off from the world to such a degree. Lonergan uses a brilliant and unconventional structure to dole out these fragments of the past in a way that feels almost poetic, like the waves of the sea splashing up against the present day as Lee struggles to face all of these old memories and suffers the guilt and self-destructive anger that he’s tried so hard to bury inside by running away all these years. Against his knowledge, Joe has named him the guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), forcing Lee to stick around longer than he had planned to try to figure out what to do with the boy, but it’s only a matter of time before the weight of this trauma crashes into him and finally knocks him over.

Led by an absolute powerhouse performance from the understated, incomparable Casey Affleck, there are scenes in Manchester By The Sea as devastating, grueling, almost impossible to watch through sheer heartache as any I’ve seen in recent years, and yet at the same time Lonergan knows that life is never a monotonous experience. Even in the most tragic of times, where it feels like all of our pain is insurmountable, there are moments of genuine humor, of awkwardness, of sheer unencumbered humanity that pop up to cut through the tension. The world doesn’t stop being the world just because we’re suffering, and so rarely has a filmmaker been able to capture this concept in such a genuine, organic way as this. Manchester By The Sea is an utterly wrenching watch at times, particularly in one standout scene featuring a performance from the great Michelle Williams (who is such a welcome sight to see back on our screens this year) that just tears the house down, but what’s most surprising is how hilarious it can be as well. Lonergan has such an acute finger on the pulse of humanity, all of its highs and lows and everything in between, and Manchester By The Sea is the most fully realized display of his powers to date.
 
 

Blu-Ray Review: Napoleon (1927)

Director: Abel Gance
Screenplay: Abel Gance
Starring: Albert Dieudonné, Vladimir Roudenko, Edmond Van Daël
Country: France
Running Time: 332 min
Year: 1927
BBFC Certificate: PG


Abel Gance’s Napoleon is a late silent feature that is famed for being a masterpiece of cinematic invention, but it has endured a troubled history. You should look it up to get the full story (or watch the well stocked set of features included with the Blu-Ray/DVD), but basically, although Gance had high hopes for his epic film (9 and a half hours long in its fullest form), planning on it being the first part of a 6 film series, it performed poorly on its initial release and pretty much disappeared for many years. In the 50’s and 60’s some reels were found and released, but it wasn’t until the late 70’s, when film historian Kevin Brownlow presented a restored version, that interest was reignited. He’d bought a couple of reels of Napoleon as a boy and had been obsessed with it ever since. His work didn’t stop in 1979 either, he’s continued to work to reconstruct the film as fully as possible and now we are finally presented with (probably) the most complete version of the film we’re ever likely to see. The BFI have screened this at festivals and special screenings over the last few years and now it is finally being made available on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK.

As you might imagine, the film is a biopic of the French military and political leader Napoleon Bonaparte. Being originally intended as part of a six part series though, the film focuses solely on his early years, beginning with Napoleon as a boy, leading a large scale snowball fight and being bullied for his stony countenance. It follows his movement up the ranks in the military and politics during the birth of the French Revolution, up until he is put in charge of the French army of Italy and advances towards taking the country for the French.

I mentioned Napoleon’s reputation as a cinematic masterpiece and this is largely down to the extraordinary volume of groundbreaking techniques Gance throws into the mix. Multiple exposures are used for various effects, including creating a split screen kaleidoscopic look a few times. There’s some wildly kinetic camera movement aided by a substantial number of handheld shots, which were little used at the time. There’s some stunning editing on display too, from rapid cutting techniques, thrillingly fast paced action scenes & some striking use of intercutting. The best example of the latter sees political upheaval cutting with Napoleon on a small boat in a mighty storm (which utilises a French flag as a sail).

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Blu-Ray Review: The Hired Hand

Director: Peter Fonda
Screenplay: Alan Sharp
Starring: Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Verna Bloom
Country: USA
Running Time: 90 min
Year: 1971
BBFC Certificate: 15


Any regular readers will know I’m a big western fan and may or may not know I’ve got a soft spot for 70’s American cinema too. So when I was asked if I’d like to review Peter Fonda’s 1971 western The Hired Hand I didn’t have to think twice, even though I’d never heard of the film before being handed the press release.

In the film, Harry (Fonda himself), his friend Arch (Warren Oates) and a young man are cowboys roaming from town to town. Upon reaching a dead end town, his associates decide to move on to the California coast, but Harry, fed up of the nomad life, decides to head back home to his estranged wife and child. Arch, who’s been travelling with Harry for several years, at first decides to let his friend go alone, but when their young companion is ‘accidentally’ killed by a man named McVey (Severn Darden), he decides to go with him. Once there, Harry’s wife Hannah (Verna Bloom) isn’t too happy to see him though. It’s been many years and she’d assumed he was dead and told their daughter as much. Harry talks her into letting him stay as a hired hand on the farm though, with a hope of reconciliation over time. When he finds out Hannah has been sleeping with the hired help whilst he’s been away though, the relationship becomes even more strained. This and the spectre of the cowboy life hanging over Harry, not helped by Arch’s presence, cause a slow and uncertain path to rebuilding his family.

As this brief synopsis shows, The Hired Hand isn’t your typical western. It’s one of the revisionist or anti-westerns that began to emerge in the 60’s. They sought to steer away from the stereotypes of the classic westerns and deconstruct the myths of the wild west. The Hired Hand shows the cowboy lifestyle to be an unglamorously dangerous, lonely and miserable existence; with poor food, little comfort at night and far too much time spent unwelcome in tiny, middle of nowhere towns. Harry’s young companion for instance, who is full of enthusiasm for his travels to the coast, comes to a grisly, unromantic end for little to no reason (though we never quite find out the truth behind it).

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Blu-Ray Review: Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams – Criterion Collection

Director: Akira Kurosawa, Ishirô Honda (uncredited)
Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Akira Terao, Mitsuko Baishô, Toshie Negishi, Martin Scorsese
Country: USA, Japan
Running Time: 119 min
Year: 1990
BBFC Certificate: PG


I‘m not a huge fan of anthology films. This is partly down to the fact that they can be a mixed bag, with some great short films mixed with some not-so-great ones. It’s also because I’ve never been all that interested in short films in general. Animated films are the exception to this – I love a good animated short, which might explain why Memories (1995) is probably my favourite anthology. For whatever reason though, I rarely get excited about short live action films so I’m equally unenthused when presented with a few of them in the package of a feature film.

However, when I came across Dreams, an anthology film directed by Akira Kurosawa (although IMDB claims Godzilla’s director Ishirô Honda lended a hand) I was instantly interested. I’ve mentioned in previous reviews how Kurosawa is the director I’ve found most consistent in terms of quality. I’d seen 8 of his films prior to Dreams and loved them all, so if I see Kurosawa has directed any genre of film or subject matter, no matter how unappealing it may be to me, I’m always going to be more than willing to give it a shot.

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Review: Nocturnal Animals

For the engaged cinephile, right from the opening credit sequence of Nocturnal Animals, you will know you are in good hands. Hyper-glossy and daringly un-commercial in the same breath, it puts some fine Lynchian bonafides on the table early. Then the camera pulls back from this tone-setting overture to reveal that these seemingly context free images (which will remain unspoilt by me, but might prevent the film from playing in a multiplex near you) are very much present, and in fact are part of the gala launch of a Los Angeles art gallery.

The curator and architect of the exhibit (but, tellingly, not the artist) is Susan, played by Amy Adams in heavy make-up, and chunky jewelry. The deep lighting makes her red hair stand out like smoldering coals in the dark. Forget for the moment director Tom Ford’s penchant for enhancing surfaces, Adams delivers an understated inner-performance entirely with her eyes and posture. Mere seconds on screen and you can immediately deduce she is unhappy with the not only the exhibit but with her many if not most of her life choices.

Later that evening, Susan is abandoned to stew in her own juices by her husband (Armie Hammer) who is the kind of high-stakes businessman that is required for a cross-continental flight upon a moments notice. Nocturnal Animals is a film about we process our thoughts when alone, versus reacting in the company of others.

It is also a master-class in ‘show-don’t-tell’ filmmaking. A brief domestic conversation, prior to her husbands exit from the film, is practical and efficient. We learn that their glass and concrete mansion and designer lifestyle is on the verge of bankruptcy, but again, the body language and framing suggest that money, in and of itself, is the least of their problems, matrimonially.

The very same evening, Susan receives a package in the mail from her previous husband, whom she has not spoken to in nearly two decades. The manuscript of his soon-to-be published novel is included with a personal note thanking her for the inspiration (and life experience) provided finally write something significant. The book shares the name of the film, but the film is adapted from Austin Wright’s 1993 novel, “Tony and Susan.”

Tony is the name of the character in the book that Susan reads, a man whose family is threatened and jeopardized on a lonely West Texas highway by a gang of good ol’ boys led by an extraordinary effective, and completely unrecognizable Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who has come a distance from Kick-Ass and wins the Tom Hardy award for chameleon-like disappearance into a part.

It is exceptional that Ford has made a film about a woman that spends the bulk of the runtime sitting on her couch (or bed, or in the bath) reading a book, into one of the most compellingly ‘lean-in’ films of the year. Half of the film is devoted to the novel, which is anchored by a Zodiac or Nightcrawler calibre performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, and a scene-stealing Michael Shannon as a cancer stricken Texas Sheriff who is endearingly funny, and yet, simultaneously scared the absolute shit out of me. The remainder is split equally between Susan’s languorous present, and flashbacks to her optimistic courtship with her first husband and youthful writer, Edward; also played by Gyllenhaal.

The cross-cutting and transitional matching shots (note a certain red couch, for instance) provide an invigorating road-map to what the movie is actually about. The editing in this film, the fimmaking in general, is among the best films of the year. And, it is in a genre, the psychological thriller, that is so radically absent, presently, that make this is a breath – a gale? perhaps a tempest – of gloomy air.

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Blu-Ray Review: Kes

Director: Ken Loach
Screenplay: Barry Hines, Ken Loach, Tony Garnett
Based on a Novel by: Barry Hines
Starring: David Bradley, Brian Glover, Freddie Fletcher
Country: UK
Running Time: 106 min
Year: 1969
BBFC Certificate: PG


Ken Loach is one of the most respected British directors of all time. He just won his second Palme d’Or for I, Daniel Blake and has enjoyed critical success throughout his career, beginning in 1966 with his groundbreaking TV film Cathy to Come Home. However, I’ve never been his biggest fan. I haven’t seen a huge number of his films, but I haven’t had a great track record with them so I tend to give them a miss. I found his first Palme d’Or winner The Wind Who Shakes the Barley quite forgettable and overrated, and a couple of others, Looking For Eric and Route Irish, were downright poor. I find the political messages can take over his films, making them feel terribly heavy handed. Plus there was a time when Britain made far too many Ken Loach style ‘grim up north’ political kitchen sink dramas for my liking, and I think I blamed him for their popularity when I was a budding film fan, longing for British films to break out of stereotypes.

However, my introduction to Loach was Kes, which I first watched as a teenager and loved. I haven’t seen it for a good decade or two though, so when I was offered a copy of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema re-release of the film to review I was worried my shaky recent run-ins with Loach were a sign that I just don’t have a taste for his films.

I needn’t have worried.

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Blu-Ray Review: Twilight’s Last Gleaming

Director: Robert Aldrich
Screenplay: Ronald M. Cohen, Edward Huebsch
Based on a Novel by: Walter Wager
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Charles Durning, Paul Winfield, Richard Widmark, Burt Young, Gerald S. O’Loughlin, Roscoe Lee Browne, Melvyn Douglas, Joseph Cotten
Country: USA, West Germany
Running Time: 144 min
Year: 1977
BBFC Certificate: 15


I loved the last Robert Aldrich film I reviewed, The Flight of the Phoenix, and I’m a fan of some of his other classics, such as Kiss Me Deadly and The Dirty Dozen, so it didn’t take much to convince me to review one of his last films, 1977’s Twilight’s Last Gleaming. It wasn’t particularly successful when originally released and has hardly grown to be a classic, but it has picked up favour along the way, enough at least for Eureka to add it to their Masters of Cinema roster.

Twilight’s Last Gleaming is a thriller which sees a former USAF general, Lawrence Dell (Burt Lancaster), head a team of escaped convicts on a mission to take control of a nuclear silo housing 9 warheads. They quickly succeed (helped by Dell’s inside knowledge) and put America to ransom, making an unusual demand. On top of the standard large amount of cash and flight out of the country, Dell wants the president to release eye-opening information about America’s involvement in the Vietnam war to the general public. He feels the people must know what happened and will press the ‘big red button’ if they aren’t told. Unfortunately, the President (Charles Durning), or at least his staff, aren’t happy about releasing the incriminating document as it will likely cause utter chaos. Nuclear armageddon is hardly an improvement on this though, so the President is stuck between a rock and a hard place, particularly since he is as horrified by the revelations as the public might be, due to not being in power during the war. As time ticks away and several tactics are attempted to talk Dell and his team out of it or physically stop them, we draw ever closer to a climax that can’t possibly end well.

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Blu-Ray Review: Body Double

Director: Brian De Palma
Screenplay: Robert J. Avrech, Brian De Palma
Starring: Craig Wasson, Melanie Griffith, Gregg Henry, Deborah Shelton
Country: USA
Running Time: 114 min
Year: 1984
BBFC Certificate: 18


With the recent documentary De Palma and labels like Arrow re-releasing some of the director’s earlier work on Blu-Ray over the past few years, it seems like there’s a lot of love for Brian De Palma going around. The films he made since the turn of the millennium haven’t exactly set the world on fire, but he made enough great thrillers and cult classics in his heyday that it would be foolish to dismiss him. I must admit there are far too many of his films that I’ve not seen, but I’m a big fan of some of his most well known titles, such as Carrie and The Untouchables (although I haven’t seen the latter for a long time). So I was particularly interested in reviewing Powerhouse Films’ new Dual Format release of Body Double, aided by the fact the film had been recommended to me by a fellow film blogger.

Body Double sees the not-particularly-successful actor Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) come home early from set one day (after a panic attack due to claustrophobia) to find his wife having sex with another man. He’s devastated of course, but the incident also causes a practical problem in that he has nowhere to stay (the house was in her name). An actor acquaintance Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry) takes pity on him and lets him house-sit a luxury apartment he was watching for another friend. The apartment is first rate, but Sam shows Jake something that makes it extra-special – it has the perfect view (with the assistance of a telescope) into a neighbouring apartment housing Gloria (Deborah Shelton), an incredibly attractive young woman who performs a semi-naked erotic dance at the same time every night.

Jake soon becomes obsessed with Gloria and when he spots a suspicious looking character also spying on her and a late night visitor abusing her, he follows Gloria to make sure she’s safe, as well as to find an explanation for her unusual behaviour and unpleasant company. To give too much away following this would be spoiling the fun, but the film takes some drastic twists and turns through its just-under two-hour running time.

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