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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DVD Review: Dragon (a.k.a. Wu Xia)

Director: Peter Chan
Screenplay: Joyce Chan, Oi Wah Lam
Starring: Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Wei Tang, Jimmy Wang Yu
Producers: Peter Chan, Jojo Yuet-Chun Hui
Country: Hong Kong/China
Running Time: 115 min
Year: 2011
BBFC Certificate: 15


With Jackie Chan taking fewer and fewer leading roles and Jet Li jumping in and out of retirement, it’s Donnie Yen who has become China’s biggest martial arts movie star of the last decade. He’d been in plenty of action classics at the end of the 20th century such as Once Upon a Time in China 2, Iron Monkey and Hero in 2002, but was rarely the leading man. It wasn’t until 2005’s Kill Zone (a.k.a. S.P.L.) that Yen’s star truly shone in the Hong Kong/Chinese movie landscape. Working as action director too, his speed and strength were front and centre in the fight scenes and the intensity of his performance showed that he had more to offer than playing second fiddle to Jet Li or such.

Or at least that’s what most martial arts movie fans say. I finally got around to watching Kill Zone for the first time last week and to be perfectly honest I was very disappointed after hearing all the praise. Yen’s character is criminally underdeveloped, although the fight scenes are fantastic there are very few and the drama which replaces them is clumsy, poorly delivered and melodramatic. In general, although I think Yen is an exceptional action choreographer and a decent actor, I’ve not been blown away by any of the films he’s headlined over the last ten years to be honest. Even Ip Man, which also garnered a fair amount of praise, was good but not great in my eyes. Nevertheless, I still get excited about his latest releases and here we are with Dragon (a.k.a. Wu Xia), which infuriatingly has taken two years to make it to UK shores. Thankfully my good friends over at Metrodome took up the gauntlet and are releasing it on DVD next week after a short theatrical run back in May.

Dragon sees Yen play Liu Jin-Xi, a man living a simple and peaceful life with his wife and two children, working in a paper mill to make ends meet. When a notoriously violent criminal and his accomplice come into town and Jin-Xi manages to ‘accidentally’ kill them, Detective Xu Bai-Jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) smells a rat. No ordinary man could fend off such powerful foes, so he follows Jin-Xi around for a couple of days to try and find out who he really is. As Bai-Jiu discovers more than a few skeletons in Jin-Xi’s closet, this past comes back to haunt him and the calm family man must face up to his former self.

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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: 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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DVD Review: Ozu Collection – The Gangster Films

Much like The Student Comedies collection which I reviewed last year, this continuation of the BFI’s Ozu Collection takes a look at some of the director’s early work which seems to go against the grain of what he became famous for. Often thought of as a highly ‘Japanese’ director that only made very sedate family melodramas, his early work is actually highly influenced by Hollywood films of the era and his style reflects this, with more dynamic camerawork and editing styles. Three films are included in the set, Walk Cheerfully (Hogaraka ni ayume), That Night’s Wife (Sono yo no tsuma) and Dragnet Girl (Hijosen no onna). Below I give my thoughts on all of them individually and the DVD set as a whole.

Walk Cheerfully

Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay: Tadao Ikeda
Based on a Story by: Hiroshi Shimizu
Starring: Minoru Takada, Satoko Date, Hiroko Kawasaki, Hisao Yoshitani
Country: Japan
Running Time: 92 min
Year: 1930


Walk Cheerfully follows Kenji ‘the Knife’ Koyama (Minoru Takada), the leader of a small-time gang of hoodlums. He falls in love with the sweet and innocent Yasue (Hiroko Kawasaki), but when she finds out about his life and crimes she leaves him, saying that she won’t let him back unless he has become an ‘honest person’. He tries his best to do so, but his past (and jealous ex-girlfriend in particular) makes it very difficult to do so. Luckily, his good friend and partner in crime Senko (Hisao Yoshitani) agrees to go straight too and the pair face the consequences together.

Those familiar with Ozu’s better known films from the 50’s and early 60’s will be quite surprised with this and the other films in the set. Where his more famous works have quite minimal plot, these are fairly dense considering the shorter running times. There are very few of his low angle wides either or rule-breaking, almost straight to camera close-ups. Walk Cheerfully and the other films in this set feel much more like early gangster films from Hollywood with the costumes most clearly reflecting this as well as some low key shadowy lighting and moments of violence (which never appear in the likes of Tokyo Story or Late Spring).

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DVD Review: Room 237

Director: Rodney Ascher
Starring: Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan
Producer: Tim Kirk
Country: USA
Running Time: 102 min
Year: 2012
BBFC Certificate: 15


A favourite of the festival circuit last year, Room 237 is being released on DVD in the UK so that you can analyse and dissect the film as its subjects do with The Shining. If you haven’t heard about Room 237, it’s a documentary which allows 5 people who are obsessed with Stanley Kubrick’s film version of The Shining to describe their various theories about what that film really means. They each have wild ideas about every minute detail of the film and, rather than looking at the overall narrative on display (which came from Stephen King’s book of course), the interviewees look into Kubrick’s input and how his changes and quirks make it more than the sum of its parts.

Room 237 is an odd beast. Rather than really being a film about The Shining, this is more of a look at obsession as well as perhaps a look at how people can see any films completely differently from one another, depending on the knowledge and baggage the viewer brings to a film. This is certainly not a ‘behind the scenes’ look at The Shining and the theories are that outlandish and varied that the film never seems to be claiming that any of these readings of the film are necessarily as Kubrick intended. So, I got the feeling that maybe Room 237 could have been made about fan’s thoughts of any other surreal or cult film, such as Mulholland Drive or Kubrick’s own 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The theories themselves range from bat-shit crazy (one sees it as Kubrick airing his feelings on having directed the faked TV broadcast of the moon landing) to vaguely plausible (The Shining as a metaphor for the genocide of the American Indians). Even the wilder ones have one or two almost convincing ‘clues’ though or at least the interviewees are good at explaining them. Much of what they come up with is reaching though, to put it mildly. A lot of their ‘proof’ comes from what is clearly a continuity error or a ridiculously warped view of some random object in the background (that poster clearly shows a skier, not a minotaur). However, as mentioned, the film seems more focussed on their obsession rather than the theories themselves.

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Blu-Ray Review: Fear and Desire

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay: Howard Sackler
Starring: Frank Silvera, Kenneth Harp, Paul Mazursky
Producer: Stanley Kubrick
Country: USA
Running Time: 62 min
Year: 1953
BBFC Certificate: 12


Even the greatest of artists have to start somewhere. Stanley Kubrick is often thought of as the finest and most consistent director to have ever lived, delivering a straight run of eleven films many call masterpieces (I wasn’t a fan of Eyes Wide Shut and Lolita is divisive too, but many love them). These films have been pored over and analysed for years, but his first two feature films are often ignored, especially his debut, Fear and Desire. There’s a very good reason for the lack of coverage though. When Kubrick had become a well known and prestigious director in the 60’s, he withdrew Fear and Desire from circulation, embarrassed by his first foray into the film world. In the 90’s it reemerged at a couple of special screenings in the US without Kubrick’s permission. Around that time, when it was mentioned to the director, he described Fear and Desire as a “bumbling, amateur film exercise… a completely inept oddity, boring and pretentious.” That description didn’t help it get wider interest and it has rarely been seen outside of a few festival screenings until Kino Video released it on Blu-Ray and DVD in the US late last year and Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label has now followed suit.

Fear and Desire is a brief, odd little war movie based around an unnamed conflict between unnamed countries. A group of soldiers have crashed behind enemy lines on an island and must find their way home. Along the way, the fear of being caught, the horrors of their actions and the desire towards the woman they take prisoner get too much for them, especially a young soldier (Paul Mazursky) who eventually snaps. On their journey off the island they happen across an enemy camp too and one of the soldiers (Frank Silvera) is adamant to kill its general and finally ‘achieve something’ in his life.

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Mamo #281: One Does Not Simply Mamo Into Mordor

The Lord of the Rings! Peter Jackson’s fantasy trilogy changed the face of Hollywood forever, thrusting Gollum, Weta, and New Zealand into the filmmaking forefront. With The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey mere weeks away, we take a trip in the time machine back to the project that started it all, and analyze the broad swath of impact that the One Ring has had on moviegoing.

To download this episode, use this URL: http://rowthree.com/audio/mamo/mamo281.mp3

DVD Review: Polisse

Director: Maïwenn
Screenplay: Maïwenn, Emmanuelle Bercot
Starring: Karin Viard, Joey Starr, Marina Foïs, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Maïwenn
Producer: Alain Attal
Country: France
Running Time: 127 min
Year: 2011
BBFC Certificate: 15

For a change I thought I’d open this review with a fact about this film that I found quite surprising; the gritty police drama Polisse is directed and co-written by (as well as stars) Maïwenn, who was the blue alien opera singer Diva Plavalaguna in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element. I don’t know why I found that of particular interest, but it seemed like such an odd fit I thought it was worth a mention.

Anyway…

Polisse follows the day to day workings and after hours lives of the Child Protection Unit of the Paris Police Department. A young photojournalist (Maïwenn herself) is assigned to follow the unit for several months and she (along with the audience) gets to discover the horrific acts perpetrated behind closed doors throughout the city as well as get up close and personal with one of the officers, Fred (Joey Starr), with whom she starts an affair.

Maïwenn spent time working with real police officers to inspire the film and indeed the structure and presentation is that of an observer studying their activities (embodied by her character in the film of course). We never linger on single cases – rarely getting closure on any of them, and the visual style is of a fly on the wall documentary, so everything is experienced from a distance. This prevents the extremely heavy subject matter from getting too hard to bear, but allows for a large volume of cases to be presented, creating a sense of the overwhelming horrors that the officers have to face every day. From the opening scene where one tries to question a 6 year old girl about whether or not her father has been touching her inappropriately, we know this isn’t going to be easy going.

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