Blu-Ray Review: Cops Vs Thugs

Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Screenplay: Kazuo Kasahara
Starring: Bunta Sugawara, Hiroki Matsukata, Tatsuo Umemiya, Mikio Narita
Country: Japan
Running Time: 101 min
Year: 1975
BBFC Certificate: 18


Reviewing Arrow Video’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity box set opened my eyes to the talents of Kinji Fukasaku beyond Battle Royale. Thankfully, the label is digging deeper into the Japanese director’s oeuvre with a handful of titles coming our way, including a set containing the New Battles Without Honour and Humanity series. Unfortunately, time constraints prevented me from being able to review that, but I did request a copy of Cops Vs Thugs to review, which is another crime thriller, made and released in between episodes of New Battles…

Cops Vs Thugs is actually based on true life crime stories researched by Kazuo Kasahara whilst he was writing the first Battles Without Honour and Humanity series. He’d heard accounts of police and yakuza becoming friends and wanted to put this idea in a film, but didn’t feel it fit into the world of the already convoluted saga he was initially creating. So, he ended up putting together a separate script, which Fukasaku would once again direct, called Cops Vs Thugs.

Set in Kurashima City in Japan in the early 60s, the film finds two yakuza gangs at loggerheads. The Kawade family are trying to build some political connections to make a lucrative business deal, but the Ohara family don’t like to see their rivals establishing a bigger stranglehold over the city than them, so use their strong connections with the police to put a stop to Kawade’s growth. Currently running the Ohara family whilst their boss is in prison, is Hirotani (Hiroki Matsukata). Fairly young and aggressive, he has no time for the political or business leanings of his enemy and has his eyes on permanent leadership over the Ohara family. He also shares a close friendship with Kuno (Bunta Sugawara), a police detective who helps him work his way up the ladder. Kuno may seem corrupt (and he is in the eyes of the law), but he believes that developing a bond with the yakuza and letting them get on with their own thing is the best way to keep the peace. His newly appointed superior disagrees though as gang warfare erupts and Kuno’s assistance with the yakuza causes more problems than its worth.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Lady From Shanghai

Director: Orson Welles
Screenplay: Orson Welles
Based on a Novel by: Sherwood King
Starring: Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane, Glenn Anders, Ted de Corsia
Country: USA
Running Time: 88 min
Year: 1947
BBFC Certificate: PG


Orson Welles blew everyone away with his ‘official’ directorial debut Citizen Kane (he made Too Much Johnson before that, but it was only originally produced to be integrated into a stage show and was never screened in cinemas until its rediscovery decades later). OK, it didn’t particularly make waves at the box office, but it was critically acclaimed and made people sit up and take notice of the precocious young director. However, Welles didn’t have much luck following that. From his follow up The Magnificent Ambersons onwards, his productions were plagued by interference from studios and he never managed to strike gold in the same way due to this. In an early review – http://blueprintreview.co.uk/2011/11/touch-of-evil/, I argued that Touch of Evil might be a better film than Citizen Kane, but I saw the ‘director’s cut’ which had been re-edited in the 90’s from the original studio released version.

The Lady From Shanghai is one of these studio tampered films, with the original cut presented to the producers coming in an hour longer than the version we have today. Welles was also particularly vocal about his dislike for the score by Heinz Roemheld (a 9-page memo he wrote detailing changes which were never made can be found in this handsome dual-format set). Nevertheless, the film is regarded as one of the better studio films he made, so a Blu-Ray re-release like this is more than welcome. I’ve seen the film once before, but couldn’t remember a lot about it so was keen to revisit it.

The Lady From Shanghai opens with Irish rogue Michael O’Hara (Welles) happening across the beautiful Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) and soon after saving her from the hands of some muggers. They share a sexually charged horse carriage ride, following which Elsa offers O’Hara a job on her yacht. He initially refuses this as he discovers she’s married, and to a criminal lawyer to boot. However, her husband Arthur (Everett Sloane) comes to see O’Hara and persuades him to take the job. O’Hara and the audience can smell something fishy, but the hard-headed Irishman decides to risk it and heads along on the couple’s cruise. Of course, he gets into a mess of trouble as Arthur and his associate George Grisby (Glenn Anders) drag him into a faked murder plot.

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Blu-Ray Review: Cul-De-Sac – Criterion Collection

Director: Roman Polanski
Screenplay: Gérard Brach, Roman Polanski
Starring: Donald Pleasence, Françoise Dorléac, Lionel Stander, Jack MacGowran
Country: UK
Running Time: 103 min
Year: 1966
BBFC Certificate: PG


I, like many film fans I imagine, have a chequered relationship with Roman Polanski. His controversial private life is something I won’t get into here, but it has tarnished his work to many over the years. I’ve never liked how he comes across in interviews either, but I don’t usually let my opinion of a filmmaker’s personality or private affairs get in the way of the quality of their work. Unfortunately though, I’ve found the quality of Polanski’s work a little hit and miss over his lengthy career. Tess for instance, which I reviewed here a while back, bored me to tears, whereas Chinatown has long sat in my list of favourite films of all time. There are plenty of Polanski films I’ve yet to watch though and because I regard one or two of his films so highly, I’m always happy to give new ones a try. Cul-De-Sac was his third full feature film in the director’s chair and it’s being re-released on Blu-Ray as part of the prestigious Criterion Collection in the UK, so an offer for review came my way and I thought I’d give it a shot.

Cul-De-Sac sees two injured gangsters (Richie – Lionel Stander and Albie – Jack MacGowran) stuck on Lindisfarne (a.k.a. Holy Island) in Northumberland when their stolen car breaks down in the middle of a road which is regularly submerged under the sea due to the shifting tides (this is indeed true to the location – I’ve been there myself). They seek refuge in a nearby mansion inhabited by the care-free couple George (Donald Pleasence) and Teresa (Françoise Dorléac). Taking advantage of the remote location and his ‘hosts’ weaknesses, Richie, the muscle of the operation, essentially takes them hostage whilst he waits for his boss to show up and sort out the mess they got themselves into after their botched heist. So begins a blackly comic fight for power as Teresa attempts to force her cowardly husband George into taking control of the situation.

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Blu-Ray Review: Cry of the City

Director: Robert Siodmak
Screenplay: Richard Murphy
Based on a Novel by: Henry Edward Helseth
Starring: Victor Mature, Richard Conte, Fred Clark, Berry Kroeger, Shelley Winters
Country: USA
Running Time: 95 min
Year: 1948
BBFC Certificate: 12


After moaning about a lack of film noir releases in the UK a couple of months ago, I’m now being spoilt by a wealth of them. I even passed on the chance to review a couple Arrow are releasing soon (largely because I already own them on DVD though). The latest noir offering to take a spin my Blu-Ray player is Richard Siodmak’s 1948 film, Cry of the City. The director was one of the many German directors who fled the country when the Nazis came into power in the mid-thirties. After living with Billy Wilder in Paris for a few years and making films there, he left for America in 1940. There he grew to become one of the most famous film noir directors during the genre’s heyday, responsible for classic titles such as The Spiral Staircase, The Killers and Criss Cross. Cry of the City wasn’t as successful as those at the time, but these days its reputation has grown, so I was keen to check it out.

Cry of the City opens to show us Martin Rome (Richard Conte) at death’s door in a hospital. As his family hold a tearful vigil by his bedside, two policemen – Candella (Victor Mature) and Collin (Fred Clark), and a lawyer – Niles (Berry Kroeger) are skulking around, wishing to speak to him before he dies. For one, he died in a shoot out with the police which ended in the death of one officer, but also Niles wants to get him to confess to a crime his client is due to go to the chair for, the DiGrazia murder. Rome manages to survive the night and is transferred to a prison hospital, where Candella and Niles continue to hassle him to get answers. Rome keeps his mouth shut, but is concerned for the safety of his innocent girlfriend, Teena (Debra Paget), so breaks out of the hospital to try and get her to safety, whilst getting to the bottom of the DiGrazia case. There’s little chance for a happy ending for Rome though as the driven Candella closes in on him and his life-threatening wounds aren’t given chance to heal on the run.

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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: Nikkatsu Diamond Guys

Arrow Video are planning to release a new series of budget Japanese genre movie box sets, beginning with Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol. 1. I’m feeling lazy this morning, so rather than explain the set’s title in my own words, I’ll just borrow the blurb from Arrow’s press release:

‘Nikkatsu, the oldest film studio in Japan, inaugurated a star system in the late 1950s, finding talent and contracting to their Diamond Line for a series of wild genre pictures. This collection celebrates these Diamond Guys with three classic films from directors Seijun Suzuki (Branded to Kill), Toshio Masuda (Rusty Knife) and Buichi Saito (Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril).’

The films included in the set are Voice Without a Shadow, Red Pier & The Rambling Guitarist. Below are my thoughts on the individual films.

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DVD Review: The Fear of 13

Director: David Sington
Starring: Sammy Silverwatch, Nick Yarris
Country: UK
Running Time: 96 min
Year: 2015
BBFC Certificate: 15


I got into the Serial podcast late in the game, just before the second season came out in December last year, so I’m a new addict to the true crime boom that has been spreading with that and some recent hit TV series. Because of this, my ears perked up when I was sent a press release for The Fear of 13 as it featured a quote from Empire magazine, stating it was “guaranteed to reel in those recently obsessed with Serial and HBO’s The Jinx”. Added to the fact that I’m a huge documentary fan in general, The Fear of 13 sounded to be the perfect fix I needed after Serial, particularly as I don’t have access to Netflix or Sky to watch anything like The Jinx or Making a Murderer.

Well, The Fear of 13 ended up being quite a different kettle of fish to Serial, but in no way did it disappoint.

The Fear of 13 opens with a statement saying that; ‘after more than 20 years on death row, convicted murderer Nick Yarris made a final petition to the Pennsylvania courts. He requested that all appeals cease and his sentence of death be carried out. He agreed to be interviewed about the decision. His story has been independently verified.’ After this text appears on screen, the rest of the film consists solely of Yarris telling his own story to the camera. And what a story.

I don’t want to say too much as the power and joy of this film is hearing this tale play out, so apologies if this review ends up being a little short. All I can say is that it’s utterly captivating. I literally found my jaw agape towards the end and I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the screen. Listening to just one man talk for an hour and a half sounds tedious, but I can’t think of a more gripping film I’ve seen in recent years.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Director: Peter Yates
Screenplay: Paul Monash
Based on a Novel by: George V. Higgins
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan, Steven Keats
Country: USA
Running Time: 102 min
Year: 1973
BBFC Certificate: 15


I love American cinema from the 70’s and I’m a fan of Peter Yates’ classic cop thriller Bulllitt, so it was a no-brainer for me to accept an offer to review Yates’ 1973 crime drama The Friends of Eddie Coyle. I must admit I hadn’t heard of the film prior to Eureka announcing their new Masters of Cinema Blu-Ray/DVD, but it sounded very much like my cup of tea and skimming online suggested that it’s highly regarded.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle tells the story of a group of criminals and a federal agent whose lives are intertwined around a low-rate crook named Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum). He’s looking at some jail time, but is advancing in years, struggling to make ends meet at home and doesn’t want to leave his wife and kids on welfare. His hope for redemption comes in selling guns to a busy group of bank robbers to keep the cash coming in, whilst shopping in his gun-runner contact Jackie Brown (Steven Keats) to convince the federal agent on his back, Dave Foley (Richard Jordan), to drop his prison sentence. Unbeknownst to Eddie though, Dillon (Peter Boyle), the bartender who set up the deal that got Eddie arrested in the first place, is also talking to Foley. So things can’t end well.

This is further proof, if it were needed, of what was great about 70’s American cinema (even if it’s from a British director). Gritty, dark and grim, it thrives on its characters rather than a particularly involving story or exciting set pieces. It was surprising for me to see such a low key drama after only knowing Yates for Bullitt, which is famous for its mind-blowingly good car chase climax. There are a handful of tense scenes in Eddie Coyle too, such as the cold and calculated bank heists and a stake out at a train station which ends in a brief flash of Yates’ car chase handling skills, but these aren’t what really make the film shine.

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Trailer: Triple 9

This little slice of nastiness from John Hillcoat (The Proposition, The Road), a director who knows his way around balancing bleak and heart, looks to be pushing the envelope of Sicario and Training Day as far as it can go.

Triple 9 has elements of the militarization of police, the war of attrition with crime and violence (severed heads abound), and everyone thrown into the blender. Props to whoever came up with the kids ‘this little piggie’ to score this trailer, because it is damn effective with the imagery on display.

The cast is beyond stacked: Woody Harrelson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Norman Reedus, Casey Affleck, Aaron Paul, Anthony Mackey, Gal Gadot, Clifton Collins Jr., and somewhere in there is Kate Winslet. All stuck in John Hillcoat’s murky grime. I cannot wait to wade into this urban warzone in February 2016.

TIFF 2015 Review: Legend

Brian Helgeland’s Legend owes more than just passing “respects” to Goodfellas. It should kneel, kiss its ring and swear to handle whatever favours are asked of it. From its use of period precise music to its narration to long take club-entering shots, Legend shoots for that Scorsese vibe and view of the intoxicating power of gangster life. It doesn’t achieve that of course (primarily due to far too many moments that are inexcusably mundane), but still manages to keep a good pace and remain mostly entertaining. And that is primarily due to two key performances: those of Tom Hardy and also Tom Hardy.

Legend covers the rise and reign of the Kray brothers – the legendary gangster twin siblings who grew up in London’s East End. As the film opens, the pair are already local celebrities who ingratiate themselves with the neighbourhood while also running protection rackets and a few nightclubs. Reggie has business sense and can put things into context, but can also suddenly “lose his temper”. As violent as he can be, it feels controlled and with purpose. His brother Ron, however, is all instinct, fight first and ask questions never. He feels that when in doubt, it’s always best to stir things up. He doesn’t easily mix in with general society, though has no issues in openly proclaiming his bisexuality even though the film takes place during the 50s-60s. He begins the film in an asylum, but is released after a little “convincing” of his doctor by Reggie. Clearly no one believes he is in his right mind due to his appetite for mayhem, but Reggie wants/needs him out – they’re brothers after all. Though Reggie wrestles with it occasionally, Ron always wins the competition for Reggie’s allegiance – a battle fought more often after Reggie marries the beautiful young Frances (Emily Browning with a fantastic supporting performance by her cheekbones). Though not necessarily looking to give up “the life”, Reggie does somewhat long to simply run his new club in the West End. It’s profitable, the rich & famous drop by and it’s a sign that they have moved towards conquering all of London and acquiring that broader respect. Of course, that doesn’t fit with Ron’s plans and he actively destroys the regular clientele when Reggie has to do a short spell in prison.

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Review: A Most Violent Year

 

There’s really not a great deal of violence in A Most Violent Year. Though set in 1981 New York City (a low period for the city marked by high crime rates), there are few visceral moments of bloodshed and brutality. What does exist is an almost constant threat of violence – around every corner and edit in the film, it feels as if some form of foul play sits in wait. The landscape of this version of New York City is bleak, crumbling and empty. The barren streets and rundown manufacturing plants aren’t exactly conducive to strolling about, but the lack of people in the background of the film gives you the feeling that they too are worried about those threats lurking in the shadows.

The real violence of the film, however, refers to the damage done to its main character’s (Abel Morales played exceedingly well by Oscar Isaac) view of the American capitalist framework and his moral approach to honest work resolving in honest returns. Morales wants to behave ethically – though he’ll take every advantage in marketing ploys, he doesn’t want to game the system or cheat his competitors. He feels he should reward those who succeed in his business (an oil company for home heating) and coach those who don’t in order to give them an opportunity to grow. Morales is a sharply dressed man with focus and drive that leads you to believe he WILL get what he wants. When he stares at you, you listen. He’s at a turning point in his business as he puts a huge down payment on a new parcel of land for expansion, but needs to come up with the rest of the capital to close the deal. He is warned up front by the old owners that they are happy to do business with him, but on their terms for their benefit. As Morales tackles problems of his trucks getting hijacked and being investigated for possible shady financial reporting, he struggles to gather up the remaining money needed to close the deal.

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