The Vancouver International Film Festival is back for another year and with it, our semi-regular VIFF dispatches.
For our first check-in from the festival, I’m (Letterboxd) joined by festival correspondent and friend of the podcast Mr. Bill Harris (Twitter), whom you can regularly find on The Green Screen of Death podcast. Bill is nearly 3 weeks and 2 festivals into his current run and he’s got some great coverage of the first half of the festival including insights into some of the most lauded movies of the year so far. I chime in with the occasional insight because frankly, I simply haven’t seen as many movies.
We’ll be back with another dispatch from the fest in a day or two but for now, check out our overview of the first 10 days of VIFF.
Director: Philip D’Antoni Screenplay: Albert Ruben, Alexander Jacobs Based on a Story by: Sonny Grosso Starring: Roy Scheider, Tony Lo Bianco, Victor Arnold, Ken Kercheval, Jerry Leon, Richard Lynch, Bill Hickman Country: USA Running Time: 103 min Year: 1973 BBFC Certificate: 12
I think I’ve mentioned it here before, but I’m a massive fan of a good car chase. As such, I was very excited for Baby Driver (to be reviewed at a later date) prior to its release and loved the fact that the press build up to it featured a slew of ‘best car chases ever’ lists. Eager to find more films to add to my collection, I was sad to see most lists included titles I was well aware of and had already seen. One film I saw listed that I hadn’t come across though was The Seven-Ups. Noticing its director, Philip D’Antoni, was producer on two of the best car chase movies of all time, The French Connection and Bullitt, I was even more excited about the film, so it shot straight to the top of my ‘to watch’ list. Luckily Signal One Entertainment were on hand and offered me a copy of The Seven-Ups to review on Blu-Ray. My thoughts on the film follow.
The Seven-Ups shares more than a producer and star (in Roy Scheider) with The French Connection. Both films are based on the real life work of Sonny Grosso and his team of plainclothes police officers, who helped clean up the mean streets of New York back when they really were mean. Scheider plays Buddy (clearly based on Sonny, as with his character in The French Connection), a cop who uses unorthodox methods to catch criminals. When he and his team of ‘Seven-Ups’ (a name that comes from the average prison sentence the guys they chase end up with), come across a Mafia-Don kidnapping plot, one of their number gets killed and Buddy becomes hellbent on catching the culprit.
Herschell Gordon Lewis, who died last year, was a genre film legend. Although he worked in most realms of exploitation films, from ‘nudie-cuties’ to juvenile delinquent films and even children’s films, he is best known for creating the ‘splatter’ sub-genre of horror movies. The first title of his that bludgeoned open the horror mould, was Blood Feast, which Arrow Video have released on Blu-Ray alongside another of Lewis’ 1963 features, Scum of the Earth.
Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis Screenplay: Allison Louise Downe Starring: William Kerwin, Mal Arnold, Connie Mason Country: USA Running Time: 67min Year: 1963 BBFC Certificate: 18
Blood Feast sees an Egyptian caterer, Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold), butcher up attractive young women in order to extract the ingredients required to put on an authentic Egyptian feast as had been previously ‘enjoyed’ 5000 years ago. The feast is an offering for the Egyptian goddess Ishtar, who Ramses worships. The mother of Suzette Fremont (Connie Mason) foolishly thinks the feast sounds like a great way to put on a party for her daughter, so Ramses busies himself in preparation, hacking up a handful of women in the lead up to the ‘big day’. Meanwhile, two inept cops, including Suzette’s boyfriend Pete (William Kerwin), try to figure out who’s responsible for the spate of murders around town.
Despite his reputation and my love of genre movies, I’d never actually seen a Herschell Gordon Lewis movie before now. He certainly lived up to his reputation as the “Godfather of Gore”, but his limitations as a filmmaker are also evident. Luckily I was prepared for this and I actually had a lot of fun with Blood Feast, even if I’d never call it a great film. It’s generally a case of ‘so bad it’s good’, where I enjoyed laughing at some of the daft dialogue and frequently shoddy deliveries. Writer Allison Louise Downe and Lewis know their limitations though, so never take things too seriously, with some lines knowingly ridiculous. “I was thinking about those murders. They just take the joy out of everything” was a standout for me.
Director: Bob Rafelson Screenplay: Ronald Bass Starring: Debra Winger, Theresa Russell, Sami Frey, Nicol Williamson, Dennis Hopper Country: USA Running Time: 102 min Year: 1987 BBFC Certificate: 15
The late ’80s and early ’90s saw a slew of erotic or at least sexually charged thrillers that took the idea of the film noir ‘femme fatale’ and gave her a modern, more blatantly sexualised twist. At surface value, this might seem like a forward thinking trend of giving women powerful roles instead of throwaway ‘eye-candy’ appearances, but, as film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman discuss in the commentary included on this release, the reason behind this wave of strong villainous women was likely down to the still male-dominated industry (and male-dominated business world in general) being scared of the growing power women were enjoying at the time. Back in the late ’40s and early ’50s, when film noir was born, women were more frequently entering the workplace due to the war, so men were afraid of them taking their traditional places as the breadwinners. In the ’80s, women were finally starting to attain positions of power in the business world (although things still aren’t balanced), so the fear came back.
Black Widow was part of this wave and sees Theresa Russell play the titular Black Widow, a chameleonic character (of too many names to pick one here, so I’ll stick with the title) who makes a living by seducing rich men, marrying them, then undetectably murdering them, so she can keep their fortunes to herself. She then changes her identity and moves onto the next victim. So it’s very much playing into those ’80s fears then, but writer Ronald Bass put a bit of a spin on things to prevent the film from being too blatantly a symbol for male fear, by making the protagonist a woman too. Debra Winger plays Alexandra, a Federal Investigator who is bored of her desk-bound research job and longs to be in the field, solving cases first hand. She comes across some strange deaths of wealthy men and looks into the cases to find the wife of each victim looks similar, even if on paper they are different women. She begs her boss to let her take on the case, which he lets her do, as he thinks she’s crazy. There’s no evidence of murder and the Black Widow’s hair and make-up changes make it hard to prove she’s the same woman.
When Alexandra gets close to catching the Black Widow in the act though, her next victim, William (Nicol Williamson), is found dead. Alexandra is devastated as she had a chance to tell William about her theory about his wife, so she quits her job and heads to Hawaii (the last known location of the Widow) to put an end to her reign of terror herself. To do this, she must learn to be like her nemesis and the closer she gets to the Widow, the more she discovers her own sexual powers, turning from a tomboy into a ‘true’ woman.
Director: James Cameron Screenplay: James Cameron, William Wisher Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong, Robert Patrick, Earl Boen Country: USA Running Time: 137 minutes Year: 1991 MPAA Rating: R
It wouldn’t be a stretch to rank Terminator 2 among the best-known films of the 1990’s. And now perhaps the best instalment in the much-loved franchise comes to Blu-ray.
There isn’t much that can be said about Terminator 2 that hasn’t been said many times, but just in case, here’s a short summary. The story continues from the first movie. Sarah Connor is now mother to John, who is very much alive in the future, continuing his mission to lead humanity against Skynet. Once again, Skynet sends a terminator to kill John, which, should he succeed, essentially would mean the end of the resistance. Fortunately, Arnie comes equipped with a brand new operating system and has transformed into a good guy.
The movie looks just superb in high definition. It really does appear as though it was filmed with Blu-ray in mind and is a tribute to the production’s high quality. The lone sign of the film’s age is John Connor’s ginger-mullet wearing friend, Tim.
The disc features the original 137-minute theatrical cut, as well as the 152-minute director’s cut. The added scenes provided in the latter, such as Kyle Reese’s dream sequence, improve the story without dragging it on too long – a crime of many a director’s cut.
James Cameron’s audio commentary is interesting, albeit on the quiet side. There is also a picture-in-picture option when watching the”making of” footage, in addition to a story-board running while the movie plays. The only issue with the latter is that the text isn’t large enough, making it hard to read.
The film also sounds superb, with top-notch audio transfer and Dolby 6.1, which really adds to the enjoyment of watching this classic.
While recent Terminator instalments may not have fared as well, the popularity of the franchise has never waned. The first sequel itself led to endless merchandise to keep fans happy. There has been a stream of video games released to various platforms, ranging from pinball to Game Boy, over the years. There’s even a video slot game at Bitcasino.io, where the player is asked to help John Connor withstand T-1000 and fulfil his destiny. The user can deposit and withdraw funds for free on the site through Bitcoin; another high-tech phenomenon which has recently taken the world by storm.
But, of course, fans continue to come back to watch the film itself time and again. And why wouldn’t they? Robert Patrick is still excellent as the T-1000, with his sinister style making him the perfect complement to Arnie’s original Terminator. Sarah Connor is also wonderfully portrayed by Linda Hamilton. The character, who was a waitress in the original movie, is now a foot-soldier, once again fighting the machines, with her determination to protect her child matched only by the T-1000’s relentlessness to eliminate him.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a modern classic and is a must-watch on Blu-ray. The special effects have stood the test of time, too. It comes in a nicely presented disc, with easily navigated, and great looking, menus, and extras that make it worth the purchase.
Foregrounded text continues to be a dominating aspect of movie posters these days (Since the poster for David Fincher’s The Social Network. But this poster for Cory Finley’s suburban drama, Thoroughbreds uses the two lead actresses eye-lines to create a harmony with the text. While it does feel more like a book cover than a movie poster, it is that distinction that makes it stand out just a little bit.
The annual Woody Allen joint for 2017, Wonder Wheel, is a mob story set on Coney Island in the 1950s seemingly in Technicolor. Starring Kate Winslet (in Romance & Cigarettes mode), Juno Temple, Justin Timberlake, and a very potbellied Jim Belushi. The film revolves around Ginny (Winslet), the wife of a carousel operator (Belushi), who perks up when she falls for a handsome lifeguard, Mickey (Timberlake). But when her husband’s estranged daughter (Temple) resurfaces and also sets her sights on Mickey, it begins ‘the great unraveling of Ginny. Not as baroque or kooky as Jonathan Demme’s Married To The Mob, but still it looks like Allen stepping a (wee) bit outside his comfort zone here. Once again, Amazon Studios is funding, and while the film will premiere at the New York Film Festival on October 14, it will be seeing a wider release on December 1st.
The eponymous Coney Island Ferris Wheel is no stranger to being on screen, as it is featured in The Taking of Pelham 123, Remo Williams, Angel Heart, underwater in A.I., and in the opening credits of Walter Hill’s iconic, The Warriors.
Director: Joe Dante Screenplay: John Sayles, Terence H. Winkless Based on a Novel by: Gary Brandner Starring: Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan, Christopher Stone, Belinda Balaski, Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine, Slim Pickens Country: USA Running Time: 91 min Year: 1981 BBFC Certificate: 18
Hollywood has a history of releasing two similarly themed films to fight for an audience in the same year (memorably, 1998 had a double bill of double bills with A Bug’s Life competing against Antz and Armageddon up against Deep Impact). Back in 1981 it was the battle of the werewolves, with three films released that featured the mythological creatures – An American Werewolf in London, Wolfen and The Howling. Wolfen was the most expensive of the three but bombed and is largely forgotten these days. An American Werewolf made the most money, but The Howling hit theatres first and was still fairly successful (particularly as it cost far less to make than the other two). It certainly went on to spawn the greater legacy, with its seven sequels and a remake coming soon. That said, it’s always stood in the shadow of An American Werewolf, especially since both films take a humorous approach to the subgenre. I couldn’t help but compare the two either, so my review is definitely affected by the fact that I’m a fan of John Landis’ film and have seen it quite a few times, whereas this viewing of The Howling was a first time watch.
The Howling opens with newswoman Karen White (Dee Wallace) being tailed by police as she goes to meet a possible serial killer, Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo), who is obsessed with her. The killer is shot dead whilst he tries to sexually assault Karen, who is left disturbed by the experience. It affects her marriage and work, so she is sent to a retreat called The Colony by her TV station’s resident doctor, George Waggner (Patrick Macnee), who runs it. Once there, her husband Bill (Christopher Stone) gets bitten by a wolf and starts acting strangely. Meanwhile, a couple of Karen’s colleagues, Chris (Dennis Dugan) and Terry (Belinda Balaski), investigate Eddie for a story, but find his body missing from the morgue and uncover links between him and the Colony, so Terry heads over there to warn Karen. As more werewolves crop up, it becomes difficult to say who’s in danger from who.
Director: Fritz Lang Screenplay: Dudley Nichols Based on a story by: Geoffrey Household Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Joan Bennett, George Sanders, John Carradine, Roddy McDowall Country: USA Running Time: 102 min Year: 1941 BBFC Certificate: PG
I haven’t seen a Fritz Lang film I haven’t liked, in fact I’ve flat out loved most of them, so it didn’t take much convincing for me to choose to review this Signal One re-release of his war time thriller Man Hunt. A few years into his career in the US after leaving his home country of Germany, the film is a blatant indictment of Hitler’s actions there during the early years of WWII.
The film opens in bold fashion by following our hero Captain Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) as he creeps up on a secret military compound with a sniper rifle in hand, taking aim at Hitler himself. With his first ‘shot’ we realise he hasn’t loaded the rifle, but after he loads a bullet for the second attempt, he’s seen and jumped on a fraction of a second before pulling the trigger. He’s captured, beaten and taken to Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders), who demands that Thorndike sign a confession stating he was sent by the British government to kill Hitler (which would spark war – the film is set just before WWII). Thorndike refuses, claiming he was acting alone and didn’t intend to kill the führer. He only wanted to prove he’d be able to do it, as he’s a master game hunter, so famous in his field that Quive-Smith was already aware of his name. With Thorndike’s refusal to sign the document, the Major is forced to throw him off a cliff, faking a suicide. Thorndike survives though and makes a perilous journey back to England. Even when he makes it, the Germans are hot on his trail though, intent on getting him to sign the false confession before killing him. Along the way, whilst he keeps a low profile, Thorndike enlists the help of a young cockney woman named Jerry Stokes (Joan Bennett) who takes a shine to him.
Director: Henry Hathaway Screenplay: Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer Based on a story by: Eleazar Lipsky Starring: Victor Mature, Brian Donlevy, Richard Widmark, Coleen Gray, Taylor Holmes, Karl Malden Country: USA Running Time: 99 min Year: 1947 BBFC Certificate: 12
I hit another of Signal One’s film noir re-releases this week with Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death. Hathaway is a director with quite a few classic titles to his name (True Grit, How the West Was Won, Niagara), but he’s hardly a household name. Looking through his filmography, his work is largely in typically ‘macho’ genres like westerns, war movies and film noirs. Kiss of Death falls into the latter category and came close to the end of a string of noirs he’d directed, including acclaimed titles like 13 Rue Madeleine, The Dark Corner and Call Northside 777.
Kiss of Death sees Victor Mature play Nick Bianco, a criminal that goes to prison after a jewellery store heist goes sour. He gets an offer from Assistant D.A. Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy) to avoid jail time if he squeals on his accomplices that got away, but turns it down. When he finds out his wife has committed suicide after cheating on him with one of those accomplices, leaving his two young daughters in an orphanage, he has second thoughts about the offer though. D’Angelo talks Bianco into an elaborate ploy to put the psychopathic killer Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) in jail, which he accepts, getting him put on early parole and back with his kids and new wife Nettie (Coleen Gray). Unfortunately things don’t go quite to plan though and Bianco and his family’s lives are put in danger.
Director: Matthew Vaughn Writers: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn Producers: Adam Bohling, David Reid, Matthew Vaughn Starring: Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Julianne Moore, Pedro Pascal, Hanna Alström, Colin Firth, Channing Tatum, Halle Berry, Jeff Bridges MPAA Rating: R Running time: 141 min.
The general attitude for making a sequel is “more” and Kingsman: The Golden Circle follows that straight to its demise. There’s more action, more style, more CGI, more characters, and it all drowns whatever this movie could have been, turning it into a barely tolerable assault on the senses that’s all confection and nothing more. The first Kingsman movie was a breath of fresh air, bringing a subversive tongue in cheek edge to the current glut of franchise movies that are so tired and repetitive, with each one feeling like an imitation of everything else. Of course, making a sequel to such a film creates the dilemma of how you can keep things consistent while still bringing that level of creativity to the table. Matthew Vaughn and company clearly weren’t up to the task, and their solution was apparently just to overwhelm this beast (running almost two and a half hours for god knows why) by throwing as much at the screen as they possibly could.
To be fair, The Golden Circle isn’t all bad. As far as the style and sense of humor goes, it does still feel unique among the rest of the pack of franchises out here, even if it can’t achieve the level of success in either of those departments that the first film did, particularly in the case of the comedy as a lot of the jokes in this one fall very flat. The action is still incredibly fun and inventive, although again they definitely do overdo it and nothing can compare to the incredible church fight in the film’s predecessor. Perhaps its finest asset though is the charm of leading man Taron Egerton. As is the case with the other compliments I can give the film, this does come with a caveat. A large part of the appeal of the first film was watching Egerton’s Eggsy on his Pygmalion arc from street thug to super spy, and inevitably we don’t get to enjoy any of that this time around since he starts the film off already established as a Kingsman. At the same time, it allows us to enjoy the charm of Egerton fully embracing that role from start to finish, and there’s plenty of fun there.
The counter point to that, unfortunately, is the incredibly misguided decision to bring back Colin Firth’s Harry. I won’t spoil how they justify this return in the context of the film, suffice it to say that the direction/explanation they take with it is unbelievably disappointing and retroactively damages one of the things that made the first film so great. It’s just one example of how messy and awkwardly written The Golden Circle is. Julianne Moore’s villain is completely isolated, removed from the action, and doesn’t have any interaction with the main cast until the very end for an incredibly brief period of time. It’s such a shame when you compare it to how great the first film handled Samuel L. Jackson’s memorable villain. It wouldn’t be hard to forget that Moore was even in this, and she’s the big baddie! Would you like to know more…?