Blu-Ray Review: Terror in a Texas Town

Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Screenplay: Dalton Trumbo (credited as Ben Perry)
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Nedrick Young, Sebastian Cabot, Carol Kelly, Victor Millan
Country: USA
Running Time: 81 min
Year: 1958
BBFC Certificate: PG

Terror in a Texas Town is a film I hadn’t heard of before to be honest, but whenever a western or film noir crops up on Blu-Ray or DVD I feel obliged to review it as I’m a fan of both genres. Well the press release for this described it as a cross between both genres, so I was even more interested than usual.

Terror in a Texas Town is a black and white B-movie western from the late 50s which sees a greedy hotel owner, McNeil (Sebastian Cabot), use brute force to drive local farmers off his land after pay-offs don’t work. Using the cruel gunman Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young) to do the legwork, McNeil’s latest target is the Swedish immigrant Sven Hansen (Ted Stanhope). Crale kills Sven, as he won’t budge, and it looks like McNeil has got what he wants, as he’s paid off the sheriff so the death won’t be investigated and Sven’s Mexican friend Mirada (Victor Millan), who witnessed the murder, is too scared to talk anyway. However, soon after, Sven’s son George (Sterling Hayden) arrives in town and claims the farm is now rightfully his, causing problems for McNeil. On top of this, he’s determined to find out who killed his father and bring him to justice. McNeil of course asks Crale to sort it out – initially without force, but after a while it looks like there’s no other way. Hansen struggles on, but he can’t get justice without the help of Mirada and the rest of the town, who are too frightened to stand up to the two tyrants, McNeil and Crale.

As that last sentence suggests, Terror in a Texas Town bears more than a passing resemblance to High Noon, which was released a few years prior to this. Like that film, Terror in a Texas Town plays out as an allegory of the anti-Communist witch hunts in America during the 50s, which is unsurprising given the writer was the famously blacklisted Dalton Trumbo (writing here under the pseudonym Ben Perry). The film’s hero and the man who has the information to bring down the villains are outsiders (George is Swedish and Mirada is Mexican), but they have to lose their fear to face them and need the support of the general public, who are also afraid to put a stop to it. This message becomes particularly clear in the final act and adds some weight to proceedings, after most of the rest of the film plays out like a typical revenge western. I’m not quite sure I see the noir aspects, although the film has a tough edge many 50s westerns don’t share.

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Blu-Ray Review: 8 1/2

Director: Federico Fellini
Screenplay: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi
Based on a Story by: Federico Fellini & Ennio Flaiano
Starring: Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimée, Claudia Cardinale, Sandra Milo
Producer: Angelo Rizzoli
Country: Italy/France
Running Time: 138 min
Year: 1963
BBFC Certificate: 15

I tend to open my reviews with my own personal approach to or expectations for a film prior to viewing it and I’ll get to that for this title. This time around I also have a very personal caveat to my thoughts though. My wife had a baby a little over a week ago so my film watching and reviewing priorities have been disturbed somewhat. I still plan to review films and keep things ticking over at Blueprint: Review, but I imagine getting around to it will become a little more difficult and my focus might be a little more fuzzy. My first attempt to ‘stay in the game’ whilst on my paternity leave was to watch my Blu-Ray screener of 8 1/2, albeit in two parts with the sound turned fairly low. Below are my thoughts on the film.

Now, I had only actually seen one film from the much loved Italian director Federico Fellini prior to 8 1/2. That was La Dolce Vita and I must admit I wasn’t the biggest fan of it. Although it contained some wonderful sequences, I struggled to engage with the rambling, freewheeling structure and felt the well-trodden theme of the superficiality of fame and the bourgeoisie wasn’t interesting enough to hold up such a lengthy running time. So I was a little worried about biting into another long and loose reel of celluloid from Fellini. Thankfully 8 1/2 clicked with me much more successfully.

The film is loosely autobiographical, following Guido (Marcello Mastroianni), a director suffering from director’s block who is staying in a luxury spa whilst pre-production frantically takes place on his next film. Queues of crew members, wannabe actresses, agents and journalists hound him constantly, demanding to know how he wishes to progress with his film and what it all means. He himself doesn’t know and Guido, along with the viewer, gets lost in a web of chaotic reality and surreal fantasy as he delves into his memory and psyche to unknot his blockage.

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Blu-Ray Review: Late Mizoguchi: Eight Films 1951-1956

After releasing dual format Blu-Ray & DVD double sets of Ugetsu Monogatari with Oyû-Sama and Sanshô Dayû with Gion Bayashi, Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label is bringing all of these films together and adding the remaining 1950’s Kenji Mizoguchi titles they had previously released on DVD. So with Uwasa No Onna, Chikamatsu Monogatari, Yôkihi and Akasen Chitai and the aforementioned titles, you get Late Mizoguchi on Blu-Ray ready for every lucky cinephile’s Christmas stocking.

Beneath the seats are reviews of the latter half of the films in the set and seeing as I’ve already posted reviews of the first Blu-Ray sets, I’ll just link back to my thoughts on those:

Ugetsu Monogatari & Oyû-Sama

Sanshô Dayû & Gion Bayashi

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DVD Review: Stories We Tell

Director: Sarah Polley
Screenplay: Sarah Polley
Starring: Michael Polley, John Buchan, Mark Polley
Producer: Anita Lee
Country: Canada
Running Time: 108 min
Year: 2012
BBFC Certificate: 12

The run of great documentaries dominating my list of films of the year continues with Sarah Polley’s excellent Stories We Tell.

Sarah Polley is probably known best as an actress, starring in films such as Go, Dawn of the Dead (the 2004 remake) and Splice as well as a long stint on US TV series Avonlea as a child. However, over the last decade she’s been quietly making quite a name for herself as a director. Although her feature debut All I Want For Christmas in 2002 came and went with little fanfare (I can’t find any information about it online), Away From Her, released in 2006, picked up some fantastic reviews. In 2011 she directed Take This Waltz which also had a number of admirers and now that Stories We Tell has been pulling in awards and plaudits on the festival circuit she is becoming a force to be reckoned with, even if her films aren’t setting the box office on fire.

Stories We Tell shows a new side to Polley’s talents, turning her hand to documentary filmmaking to create a deeply personal piece. The film takes a look at the Polley family, focussing largely on Sarah’s mother Dianne Polley. I wouldn’t like to say too much as to what exactly happens within the family, as part of the strength of the film is the way its story is told, but basically the family has secrets, some of which hadn’t been unearthed until quite recently.

The unravelling of these mysteries is masterfully controlled, told through talking heads with all available living relatives and friends relevant to the story. The appropriate soundbites are held off until just the right moment, making my note-taking during the film a mess as I tried to anticipate where things were going but failed throughout.

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Blu-Ray Review: Kuroneko

Director: Kaneto Shindô
Screenplay: Kaneto Shindô
Starring: Kichiemon Nakamura, Nobuko Otowa, Kiwako Taichi
Producer: Nichiei Shinsha
Country: Japan
Running Time: 99 min
Year: 1968
BBFC Certificate: 15

After finding international critical success with Onibaba in 1964 (which I reviewed earlier in the year), writer/director Kaneto Shindô hit a bit of a stumbling block with his next three films. Further exploring the themes of sex prevalent in Onibaba, these titles took more of a melodramatic approach to the topic and found little success critically or commercially. Perhaps due to this, Shindô moved back towards horror for his next film, Kuroneko (a.k.a. Yabu no Naka no Kuroneko, translated ‘A Black Cat in a Bamboo Grove’).

As well as the themes and genre, Kuroneko has a few similar plot elements to Onibaba. Again we concentrate on two murderous women fending for themselves in the wilderness. This time however, the women are actually evil spirits. After being raped and murdered by a group of hungry samurai and their house burned down, mother and daughter-in-law Yone (Nobuko Otowa) and Shige (Kiwako Taichi) take revenge as cat demons (a black cat licks their charred bodies, triggering the curse). They pick up unsuspecting samurai at Rajo Gate, claiming they need an escort home and, once there, invite them in. After being seduced by the youngest of the two, the samurai are attacked and their blood drunk by biting their neck. When dawn comes, all that is left are the long burnt out remains of the house and the blood-drained corpse of the murdered samurai.

During the seduction of one of the samurai, we learn that the women have been waiting for their son/husband Hachi (Kichiemon Nakamura) for three years since he went to war. He soon does return after luckily defeating a notoriously mighty warrior in a bloody battle, leading him to receive the respect and support of the local governor. This lazy and dishonourable figure orders Hachi (who now takes the name of Yabu-No-Gintoki to sound more important) to find and stop the demons that have been haunting the area. He finds them quite quickly, but recognising them as visions of his family, he can’t bring himself to kill them and rekindles his love for his wife, despite her no longer being human. This has tragic consequences for the both of them though as the film moves on.

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Blu-Ray/DVD Review: Chronicle of a Summer

Directors: Edgar Morin, Jean Rouch
Starring: Angelo, Régis Debray, Jacques, Jean-Pierre, Landry
Producer: Anatole Dauman
Country: France
Running Time: 90 min
Year: 1961
BBFC Certificate: 12

At the start of the 1960’s, whilst the French New Wave was in full swing, revolutionising the way films were made, another cinematic practise or idea was developed by Jean Rouch, known as ‘cinéma vérité’. Almost equally as influential as the styles employed by Goddard, Truffaut and the likes (in fact it influenced them too), cinéma vérité was a new way of producing documentaries. It combined improvisation and other constructed elements with traditional ‘fly on the wall’ methods to try and bring out ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ whilst making the audience aware of the presence of the camera and influence of the director.

Spearheading this movement, which was inspired by the work of Dziga Vertov (Man With a Movie Camera) and Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North), was Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin’s film Chronicle of a Summer (a.k.a. Chronique d’un été). They set out to chronicle the lives of the people of Paris over one summer in 1960. As they explain at the start of the film, they wished to see if people can truly be honest, truthful and natural while speaking in front of a camera. They begin by grabbing short interviews with people on the streets, asking the seemingly simple question of “are you happy?” As the film moves on it sets its focus on a handful of people and interviews them in depth about happiness, politics and other influences on their lives. These participants are also grouped together and discuss topics as a group on several occasions. On top of this we are presented with a couple of more clearly set-up improvised ‘performance’ sequences.

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Blu-Ray/DVD Review: Cria Cuervos

Director: Carlos Saura
Screenplay: Carlos Saura
Starring: Ana Torrent, Geraldine Chaplin, Mónica Randall, Florinda Chico
Producer: Elías Querejeta
Country: Spain
Running Time: 110 min
Year: 1976
BBFC Certificate: 12

One thing I love about writing about films and getting sent screeners to review, is discovering great films I’ve never heard of. I still have to request the titles and don’t have time to ask for all that get offered, so I tend to do a little research beforehand to pick and choose. This entails looking up a few reviews from trusted sources, so for films I don’t know much about I do develop a certain level of expectation based on the critical response to them. However this can be a help and a hindrance. Living up to hype is always difficult and some classic films may be admirable or groundbreaking but not necessarily have the same impact they once had within a film landscape that perhaps they helped shape. Once in a while I get a film like Cria Cuervos sent over though. I must admit I hadn’t heard of the film, but on looking up a couple of reviews and noticing it had been added to the Criterion Collection I figured it would be worth a watch. And it certainly was.

Cria Cuervos (translated ‘Raise Ravens’), directed by Carlos Saura, is set in Madrid in a mansion seemingly cut off from the rest of the city, despite being set in the heart of it. As the film opens we see eight-year-old Ana (Ana Torrent) creep downstairs in the middle of the night to hear her army general father die during a sexual liaison with his friend’s wife. Later we learn that Ana believes she killed him using ‘poison’ (actually baking soda) that she had promised her (also dead) mother to throw away long ago. As an orphan, Ana has to grow up with her two sisters under the care of their aunt Paulina (Mónica Randall). Ana doesn’t get on with her aunt, who is more strict and cold than her mother was, and she develops a desire to ‘kill’ her too. The only solace she gets is in her visions of her mother she conjures up in her imagination and memory.

It’s a peculiar film which is hard to pin down. A number of critics describe it as an allegorical piece hitting out against the Franco regime, of which Saura was an outspoken opponent. To me however, having little knowledge of Spanish politics and history, the film worked in other ways. In particular, as a look at life and death through the eyes of a child the film is incredibly powerful.

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Blu-Ray Review: Bakumatsu Taiyô-den

Director: Yûzô Kawashima
Screenplay: Yûzô Kawashima, Shôhei Imamura, Keiichi Tanaka
Starring: Frankie Sakai, Sachiko Hidari, Yôko Minamida
Producer: Takeshi Yamamoto
Country: Japan
Running Time: 110 min
Year: 1957
BBFC Certificate: 12

In 1951, Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon played at the Venice Film Festival and introduced not only the well-loved director to the Western World, but also Japanese cinema in general, which previously had been little seen outside of its home and neighbouring countries. Funnily enough, Kurosawa wasn’t quite as respected in Japan, in fact Rashomon’s production company Daiei and the Japanese government didn’t feel the film was the right choice to enter in to the festival as it was “not [representative enough] of the Japanese movie industry”. Kurosawa was always thought to have too much of a Western style in his home country, local tastes tended towards directors such as Ozu and Mizoguchi. With the success of Rashomon overseas however, these directors (and others) did begin to receive recognition in the West and Japanese cinema brought forth many critical favourites for audiences around the world.

One film which has still remained relatively unknown however, despite being released during the Japanese cinema boom of the 1950’s and despite being considered one of the greatest films of all time in the country itself, is Bakumatsu Taiyô-den (a.k.a. A Sun-Tribe Myth from the Bakumatsu Era or Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate). As far as I’m aware (after having a scan online), the film has never seen a release in the UK or US, other than through imports. Well fear not world-cinema aficionados, as Eureka, through their superlative home release range Masters of Cinema, are finally giving us Brits the chance to see this period comedy for ourselves.

Bakumatsu Taiyô-den is set during the last days of the Shogunate, in and around a popular brothel in the red light district. The bustling location sees home (or home away from home) to numerous characters, including Saheiji (Frankie Sakai), a grifter who gets caught out trying to swindle a free night of lavish entertainment. To pay off his debts he works for the brothel and ends up using his ‘talents’ to solve everybody’s problems, from a geisha that too freely hands out marriage agreements to a group of nationalist samurai who are looking to attack the droves of foreigners invading the city.

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Blu-Ray Review: Le Beau Serge & Les Cousins

Before I review these two French New Wave cornerstones, I must stress that Eureka aren’t packaging the two films together, they are individual releases. I’m just reviewing them in one go because of their obvious links and identical release dates. Plus I feel they complement each other very nicely.

I’ve had a turbulent relationship with French cinema and the New Wave in general. I can remember watching a handful of Truffaut films when I was a teenager because they were deemed ‘important’ and I kind of liked them, but didn’t quite understand their significance enough to love them. I was a massive Jeunet and Caro fan in the 90’s, but I was put off by the more ‘worthy’ intellectual/mature art house fare coming out of France so shunned a lot of what the country had to offer, including the New Wave which I still hadn’t quite got my head around. I became a bit of a film racist I guess.

Over the years I became more open minded though and more recently I’ve started to venture back to our friends across the channel and check out the notable films I skipped over in the past. The turbulence didn’t end though. I’ve watched a few of Godard’s films recently and admired and enjoyed aspects of them, but have still been put off by the academic nature of much of it and the lack of heart and soul to latch onto. I downright hated his Rolling Stones film, Sympathy For the Devil. I think the French idea of ‘cool’ doesn’t click with me, so some of the charm of the more stylish experiments of the New Wave are lost on me.

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Blu-Ray Review: Tess

Director: Roman Polanski
Screenplay: Gérard Brach, Roman Polanski, John Brownjohn
Based on a Novel by: Thomas Hardy
Starring: Nastassja Kinski, Peter Firth, Leigh Lawson
Producer: Claude Berri
Country: UK/France
Running Time: 172 min
Year: 1979
BBFC Certificate: 12

With all the controversy over Roman Polanski’s personal life and complicated legal issues that remain, his life and work are well discussed and debated. I’ve never got too much involved though when arguments rage on comments boards about boycotting his work and the like. I’m rarely interested in the private lives of actors or directors. Obviously what Roman Polanski did to 13 year old Samantha Geimer was reprehensible, but, without wanting to sound unconcerned by such actions, I tend to be of the mind that it’s up to the legal system to deal with that and if his films are produced and available then I’ll still watch them if they interest me. I’m not the world’s biggest Polanski fan though it must be said. Although I consider Chinatown to be amongst my favourite 10 or 15 films of all time I’ve not seen a huge amount of his work and a couple of those I have seen have been less than stellar. I really didn’t see the appeal of The Fearless Vampire Killers for instance and thought the more recent Ghost Writer/The Ghost was hugely overrated.

The memory of Chinatown and Knife in the Water (as well as what I can remember of Rosemary’s Baby) still remain though and despite Tess not being one of Polanski’s more popular films, I thought I’d give it a go.

The film is a fairly straight adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles (from what I gather – I haven’t read the book). Tess (Nastassja Kinski) is a the daughter of John Durbeyfield (John Collin), a farmer who is told by a local parson that he is descended from the illustrious d’Urberville family. In a bid to cash in on this fact, John sends Tess out to the known d’Urberville’s who live near by. She meets her ‘cousin’, Alec d’Urberville (Leigh Lawson), who is besotted by her. Although she is initially reluctant, he manages to seduce Tess as she spends time with his family, forcefully ‘winning’ her over for a short while. Tess breaks free from him though and heads back for home but not before she is impregnated with his child. The baby dies after only a few weeks and, disgraced and distressed, Tess leaves home to work on a dairy farm further afield. Here she meets Angel (Peter Firth), a reverend’s son who falls madly in love with her. She quite quickly reciprocates, but the shadow of her past weighs heavy on her soul and she worries about whether Angel will accept her as she is.

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William Friedkin’s SORCERER to be Re-released! (Finally)

The torturous road travelled by William Friedkin’s 1977 remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic Wages of Fear is both obscure and legendary. The film bombed hard upon its original release, and it was a very expensive picture. Since then ownership and rights issues have been snarled in a lot of legal confusion, while a proper aspect ratio version of the film has never been issued in any format. The only way to see this film properly is if you knew someone with a 35mm print. After Friedkin threatened to sue EVERYBODY associated with his film a short while ago, it seems that the powers that be are mounting a re-release (and BluRay) in short order after at 35 year wait.

It’s all outlined in detail, here.