Blu-Ray Review: Carnival of Souls – Criterion Collection

Director: Herk Harvey
Screenplay: John Clifford
Starring: Candace Hilligoss, Frances Feist, Sidney Berger, Art Ellison, Stan Levitt
Country: USA
Running Time: 78 min
Year: 1962
BBFC Certificate: 12


Once in a while, a film that was initially deemed a failure finds a new lease of life several years later, becoming what is often referred to as a cult classic. One such film was the 1962 horror Carnival of Souls, which was originally released as a double bill with The Devil’s Messenger, to little fanfare. Over time the film found its fanbase though, leading to a re-release in 1989 which helped cement its cult-status. What’s particularly sad about this very long road to recognition though was that the director Herk Harvey and writer John Clifford never made any other feature films, as they were retired by the time people’s love for Carnival of Souls finally appeared (and they have since passed away). The pair worked for Centron Corporation, an industrial film company that made corporate and public information films. They made Carnival of Souls in their holidays, then went back to their day jobs at Centron, which is a real shame as it’s a fantastic film and I’d have loved to have seen what else they could do.

Carnival of Souls opens with a car full of young women, including Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), getting into a road race with a car full of young men. What starts as a bit of fun ends in tragedy when the girls’ car careens off the side of a bridge into the river below. The car can’t be found, but hours later Mary appears from the river, dazed but physically healthy. She’s so traumatized by the event, she feels she has to leave town to escape the memory of what happened. So she heads off to Utah to be a church organist. On the way, she drives past a strange abandoned pavilion on the Great Salt Lake and finds herself strangely drawn to it. It triggers visions of a strange, pale-faced man though who keeps appearing and drawing ever closer. As no one else seems to see him, she begins to question her sanity. Being a strong-willed woman, she feels the need to face the problem head on.

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Blu-Ray Review: Certain Women – Criterion Collection

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Screenplay: Kelly Reichardt
Based on short stories by: Maile Meloy
Starring: Lily Gladstone, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Jared Harris, James Le Gros
Country: USA
Running Time: 107 min
Year: 2016
BBFC Certificate: 12


Kelly Reichardt enjoys much acclaim for her films among mainstream critics, but she can be an acquired taste among bloggers and general audiences. You only have to compare the quotes and ratings from critics reviewing her work to her IMDb or Amazon star ratings to see there’s a bit of a gulf between intellectual appreciation and public opinion. Being what I’d consider part of the ‘slow cinema’ movement (which isn’t clearly defined, but includes similar films that are low on plot and action), her work isn’t particularly exciting or as attention-grabbing as more digestible auteurs making films in the 21st Century. Knowing this, I don’t rush to watch Reichardt’s films as I worry I’ll be in for a tedious slog, not helped by some less than enthusiastic opinions of her films I’ve heard expressed by a couple of friends. I did see Meek’s Cutoff a couple of years ago though and was very impressed, so my apprehension has dampened somewhat since then and strong reviews lead me to accept an offer of reviewing her latest film, Certain Women. Whilst I’m happy to watch the film now though, I’m still rather apprehensive about critiquing it. I consider myself quite a ‘nuts and bolts’ reviewer, who likes to list clear elements of the film that work or don’t work rather than waffle on about what a filmmaker is trying to ‘say’. So I find slow, quiet, thoughtful films like this difficult to analyse in my usual fashion. I’ll give it my best shot though.

Certain Women takes several short stories by Maile Meloy and uses them to create three only very loosely connected narratives, which are presented one by one through the bulk of the film, before revisiting them all briefly in the finale. The first story features Laura Dern as Laura, a lawyer troubled by a client (Jared Harris) that won’t accept the fact he doesn’t have a case. He seems to have a fondness for Laura too and won’t leave her alone, asking for her help when he cracks and takes someone hostage at gunpoint.

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Blu-Ray Review: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World – Criterion Collection

Director: Stanley Kramer
Screenplay: William Rose, Tania Rose
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Ethel Merman, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, Dick Shawn, Phil Silvers, Terry-Thomas, Jonathan Winters, Edie Adams, Dorothy Provine
Country: USA
Running Time: 163 min – theatrical cut, 197 min – road-show version
Year: 1963
BBFC Certificate: 12


Back in the 1960s, Hollywood was struggling. Television, which had grown in popularity during the 50s, had become commonplace in homes around America and the quality of programming was increasing. Due largely to this, audience numbers for films were falling and studios were struggling to find success with their tried and tested production line techniques. In a bid to draw people back to theatres, studios turned to making films on an epic scale, with widescreen photography being employed more regularly (as TV was still in academy ratio back then of course) and budgets escalating on blockbuster pictures. One unusual example of this ‘bigger is better’ mentality at the time was Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Most Hollywood epics back then were grand period dramas, such as Ben Hur, Cleopatra and How the West Was Won. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World however, was a modern comedy, a genre generally kept cheap, short and snappy, yet it cost $9.4 million dollars (quite a lot at the time) and runs at a bum-numbing 163 minutes (or 197 minutes in its roadshow version before hitting theatres and even longer supposedly in its original form). Featuring an endless slew of famous TV and film comedians and a huge amount of on-screen carnage, the film is the very definition of Hollywood excess. It proved a successful formula though and the film made a decent amount of money and has gone on to be a favourite comedy to many. I hadn’t actually seen the film before, so Criterion’s decision to release the film in the UK on Blu-Ray as part of their prestigious collection was more than welcome and I snapped up a screener straight away.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World opens (after a lengthy ‘overture’) with a car crashing in the winding hills of Palm Springs, California. A group of five motorists (Sid Caesar, Jonathan Winters, Mickey Rooney, Buddy Hackett and Milton Berle) pull over to help the driver, ex-convict “Smiler” Grogan (Jimmy Durante), who stays alive just long enough to tell them he’s buried $350,000 in Santa Rosita State Park near the Mexican border under a big W. The five men and the family some of them are travelling with at first pretend to think the story they heard was nonsense, but none of them can resist the lure of all that money and thus begins an epic chase to be the first to travel down south and take the money for themselves.

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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 Fisher King – Criterion Collection

Director: Terry Gilliam
Screenplay: Richard LaGravenese
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Robin Williams, Mercedes Ruehl, Amanda Plummer
Country: USA
Running Time: 137 min
Year: 1991
BBFC Certificate: 15


The Fisher King is a film I thought I’d seen before, but wasn’t sure. After watching it again for this review I found myself remembering several moments, but I’m still not sure I’d seen it from start to finish. Regardless, I’m glad I definitely got through it all last week as I thought it was great.

The Fisher King centres around Jack (Jeff Bridges), a self-centred and cruel ‘shock-jock’ DJ whose career is on a high as he’s set to take the lead role in a TV sitcom. However, when he gives some insensitive advice to a listener, causing the man to gun down several people in a restaurant, his world comes crashing down and he retreats into a depression. One night, when he’s drunk and feeling particularly low, he decides to commit suicide, but before he attempts to do so, a couple of young thugs attack him. He’s saved by a group of homeless people led by Parry (Robin Williams), a particularly unhinged man who thinks he’s a knight on a quest to recover the Holy Grail, which he believes is kept in a ‘castle’ in New York. Jack tries to get away from Parry as quickly as he can at first, but learns that Parry’s wife was shot and killed in front of his eyes, during the massacre caused by Jack’s poor on-air advice. This shocking incident is what caused Parry’s current mental state, so Jack feels responsible and wants to help the man somehow. Initially he tries to solve the problem with money, but Parry doesn’t care about that and it doesn’t make Jack feel any better about the situation either, so he sets about trying to make a better life for Parry in other ways, which in turn he hopes will improve his own mental stability. The primary goal is to set Parry up with the woman he’s fallen in love with from afar, the mousey, socially awkward and clumsy Lydia (Amanda Plummer).

Terry Gilliam is a director who has famously had problems getting films made (or at least released) the way he wants them, or in some cases even made at all. He’d had particularly bad luck with the two films he made prior to The Fisher King, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. These were both quite ambitious projects, involving a lot of special effects and elaborate production design, which might explain why The Fisher King was more grounded in reality on a relatively more intimate scale. It seems to have been a relatively smooth production and post-production process for Gilliam too. That’s not to say the film plays against the director’s usual style though. Gilliam visualises Parry’s Arthurian fantasies, most notably the Red Knight, his nemesis. This frightening creation, always on horseback, covered in red flowing material and breathing fire, represents Parry’s inner demons and is used highly effectively, particularly in a key scene towards the end which also features some shocking flashbacks of the restaurant massacre where Parry’s wife was killed.

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Blu-Ray Review: Diabolique – Criterion Collection

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Screenplay: René Masson, Frédéric Grendel, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jérôme Géronimi
Based on a Novel by: Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac
Starring: Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot, Paul Meurisse, Charles Vanel
Country: France
Running Time: 117 min
Year: 1955
BBFC Certificate: 12


Diabolique seems an odd film for Criterion to choose to release in the UK as part of their collection of exquisite Blu-Ray re-releases of classic films. That’s not to say Diabolique doesn’t deserve to be part of the Criterion Collection. It’s a highly respected film from an equally respected director. However, another boutique Blu-Ray label, Arrow Academy, turned their hand to it only three years ago (albeit under the film’s alternative title, Les Diaboliques). I haven’t actually watched that release, so can’t compare, but knowing Arrow’s reputation, it’s probably equally as well remastered and seems to have a couple of equally as decent special features included. Nevertheless, it’s a film worthy of attention and I’d not seen it for a few years, so I didn’t hesitate to request a copy to review for you all here.

In Diabolique, Christina (Véra Clouzot) and Nicole (Simone Signoret) are an unlikely pair who plot to kill Christina’s husband, a cruel headmaster named Michel (Paul Meurisse). They’re an odd couple because Nicole was Michel’s mistress and Christina is perfectly aware of this. The twisted Michel makes no secret of it and this, on top of his constant belittling and humiliation of Christina, drive the women to the drastic measure of committing murder. Their plan, driven largely by the cold and calculated Nicole, seems to go relatively smoothly until Michel’s body goes missing. As Christina’s fear of being caught builds on top of her mounting guilt, her sanity and already weak heart are tested to their limits.

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Blu-Ray Review: 12 Angry Men – Criterion Collection

Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenplay: Reginald Rose
Based on a Story by: Reginald Rose
Starring: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsam
Country: USA
Running Time: 96 min
Year: 1957
BBFC Certificate: PG


12 Angry Men has long been a favourite of mine, so you must forgive my review if it gets too gushing. It’s a popular classic, so much has already been written about it and I can’t compete with the more intellectual or eloquent writers out there. As such, I’ll try to keep this write-up brief. I imagine most people interested in classic cinema will have already seen the film, so you should probably just skip to the section in bold at the end to see how Criterion’s Blu-Ray release stacks up. Suffice to say, it’s excellent and easily replaces my bare-bones DVD copy.

For those of you not aware of the film, the setup of 12 Angry Men is a rather simple one. 12 jurors are assigned to a seemingly cut and dry murder case, where an eighteen year old hispanic boy is thought to have murdered his father. The film starts after the case has been put forward and the jurors are asked to deliberate over the evidence and decide whether or not the boy is guilty. It’s clearly iterated that if there is any reasonable doubt that he didn’t do it, the boy must be deemed not guilty. If he is found guilty, he will be sentenced to death.

The 12 men enter the jury room on a hot summer’s day and soon take a vote. 11 of them are quick to declare the boy guilty, but one man (Henry Fonda) isn’t so sure. He isn’t confident of the boy’s innocence necessarily, but wants the reluctant men to at least discuss it and not rush into sending the boy to die. The decision must be unanimous, so the 12 men break down all the facts of the case and argue the ins and outs, which slowly begins to turn the decision around.

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Blu-Ray Review: Tampopo – Criterion Collection

Director: Jûzô Itami
Screenplay: Jûzô Itami
Starring: Tsutomu Yamazaki, Nobuko Miyamoto, Ken Watanabe, Kôji Yakusho, Rikiya Yasuoka
Country: Japan
Running Time: 114 min
Year: 1985
BBFC Certificate: 15


I didn’t quite know what to expect going into Tampopo. I’d heard mention of it, always in a positive sense, so I was keen to see it. I was aware that it was a film about food too, but other than that I hadn’t a clue what I was in for when I put this fantastic new Criterion Blu-Ray into my player. I’m glad I didn’t know much either as this glorious offbeat film blew me away.

The core of the film sees truckers Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and Gun (Ken Watanabe) head into a ramen shop late one rainy night. They are unimpressed by the ramen, but Goro is fascinated by the attractive and determined owner Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto). So when she asks Goro to help improve her cooking and bring new life to the shop she inherited from her dead husband, he accepts. He can’t do it alone though, as he’s no expert, so enlists the help of Gun and several other quirky characters he knows and meets in the city.

Alongside this story, the film oftens heads off on various tangents as the camera follows characters walking past our main protagonists. These lead to short scenes/skits surrounding people’s love of food, how it plays a part in their lives and unusual aspects of food etiquette. These are generally led by fresh new characters, but the mysterious Man in the White Suit (Kôji Yakusho), a gangster type with a sexual fetish for food, reappears several times.

In fact, this character opens the film. He and his food-sex loving mistress (Fukumi Kuroda) enter a cinema, followed by an entourage who lay out a gourmet feast. The man then talks directly to us, the audience, about eating during a film and his annoyance at those making too much noise, before waxing lyrical about the ‘short film’ you see in your dying moments.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Life Of Oharu – Criterion Collection

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Screenplay: Kenji Mizoguchi, Yoshikata Yoda
Based on a Novel by: Saikaku Ihara
Starring: Kinuyo Tanaka, Tsukie Matsuura, Ichirô Sugai, Toshirō Mifune
Country: Japan
Running Time: 137 min
Year: 1952
BBFC Certificate: PG


I‘ve covered most of Kenji Mizoguchi 1950’s films here in my review of Eureka’s outstanding ‘Late Mizoguchi’ box set. However, frustratingly absent from that otherwise exceptional set was one of the director’s most well respected films, 1952’s The Life of Oharu. Out of print on DVD for a while, it’s been fairly hard to come by without paying a hefty price tag. Luckily The Criterion Collection have come to our rescue and released the film on Blu-Ray in the UK (and the US I believe), so I was keen to finally check it out.

Like most of Mizoguchi’s work, The Life of Oharu centres around a female protagonist (the titular Oharu, beautifully played by Kinuyo Tanaka) who is hard done by the men around her. The film opens to show her as an ageing prostitute, struggling to attract any customers on a cold night in 17th/18th Century Japan. Sheltering in a temple filled with statues of Buddha, one reminds her of a man from her past and she reminisces about how she ended up in this position.

We learn that she was once a noble woman, but her love for a lowly page, Katsunosuke (played by Toshirō Mifune, a fact I somehow didn’t clock until writing this review), causes her and her family to be banished from the court and Katsunosuke executed. From here on out, Oharu is knocked further and further down the social strata as she is used and abused by those in power.

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Blu-Ray Review: Lone Wolf and Cub – Criterion Collection

Directors: Kenji Misumi, Buichi Saitô (Baby Cart in Peril), Yoshiyuki Kuroda (White Heaven in Hell)
Screenplays: Kazuo Koike, Tsutomu Nakamura (Baby Cart in the Land of Demons and White Heaven in Hell)
Based on a Manga Series by: Kazuo Koike, Goseki Kojima
Starring: Tomisaburo Wakayama, Akihiro Tomikawa, Minoru Ôki, Tatsuo Endô, Tokio Oki, Keiko Fujita
Country: Japan
Running Time: 83, 81, 89, 81, 89, 83 min
Years: 1972-74
BBFC Certificate: 18


Being a lover of Japanese cinema, particularly period samurai movies, as well as being a lover of genre films in general, the Lone Wolf and Cub series is one I’m very familiar with. Saying that, I’d previously only seen the first two instalments before now. So there was never any doubt in my mind about taking the Criterion Collection up on their offer of a set of screeners to review their lavish set of all 6 films. These are as follows; Sword Of Vengeance, Baby Cart At The River Styx, Baby Cart To Hades, Baby Cart In Peril, Baby Cart In The Land Of Demons and White Heaven In Hell. Also included is Shogun Assassin, a 1980 film made up of all the sex and violence from the first two films with dodgy dubbing and a voiceover to tie them together into something suitable for the midnight movie crowd.

Now, when reviewing box sets I tend to review each title separately, but here I’ve decided to do one long write-up for the whole collection. Maybe I’m just being lazy, but I feel the films are so consistent in terms of cast and crew, as well as quality, there isn’t a great need to separate each film from one another. I also think I’d find it hard to differentiate all of the films after chain watching all six over a couple of weeks. Without wanting to kick off my review with a criticism when I love the set so much, the stories do get a little ‘samey’.

Speaking of stories, the first film, Sword Of Vengeance, sets everything up for the rest of the series through a series of flashbacks. Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is the Shogun Executioner during turbulent times in Japan. He is ordered to execute countless lords for the sake of the Shogunate. In the opening scene we even see him decapitating a young child lord. Despite his disturbing profession, Itto is a good, honest man though, with a wife, Azami (Keiko Fujita), and child, Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa). One night, after Azami confesses that she worries Itto’s work has cursed him and their family, she is murdered by members of the Yagyu clan, led by Retsudo, who also tries to frame Itto for treason as he is hell bent on the Yagyu taking the role of Shogun Executioner. Itto manages to escape death, but is forced to exile, roaming Japan as an assassin for hire, on the “demon road to hell” on a path of vengeance. He is not alone though. Before he leaves, he gives his toddler son a choice. He lays out a sword and a ball for him to crawl towards. The sword symbolises joining him on this journey to a life of murder and vengeance and the ball represents a journey to heaven to be with his mother. Of course, Daigoro chooses the sword and the two set off to wander the lands.

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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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