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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Review: That Awkward Moment

That Awkward Moment

That Awkward Moment masquerades as a progressive romantic comedy. One that gives its male characters an ounce of genuine vulnerability, showcases their flaws, and pairs them with empowered, intelligent, and well-written women. In reality, it’s little more than the misogynistic ramblings of the narcissistic Me Generation dominating social media. While it starts cleverly enough, with just the right amount of cuteness and vulgarity to avoid nauseating predictability, it swiftly screws up. In spite of moderately entertaining performances, That Awkward Moment is little more than an insulting, poorly written mess.

We begin with poor Mikey (Michael B. Jordan) being left by his wife (Jessica Lucas). A successful doctor, he comes home to find her and their lawyer – the man she’s leaving him for. He swiftly runs into the arms of his nearest and dearest Bros, Jason (Zac Efron) and Daniel (Miles Teller). In a move for solidarity, they pledge to first and foremost get poor Mikey laid. Secondly, they make a pact to remain single for as long as it takes to find Mikey a new woman. This suits rogue bachelor Jason, and wise-ass Daniel just fine! That is, of course, until – uh oh! – they each fall for a dainty young thing with a brain.

Mikey falls back into the familiar arms of his now estranged wife. Embarrassed and afraid to tell his friends, he keeps the affair a secret. Jason quickly meets and falls for quirky author Ellie (Imogen Poots), an intelligent woman who “challenges” him. Likewise embarrassed to admit defeat, he keeps the relationship under wraps by pretending she’s just a convenient hookup. Daniel finds himself falling for his best friend and wing-woman, Chelsea (Mackenzie Davis). And, yep, you guessed it. He’s too embarrassed to tell his friends he has feelings, so he keeps the relationship a secret. Would you like to know more…?

Review: Devil’s Knot

Devil's Knot

The West Memphis Three have been the subject of several documentaries in recent years. The Paradise Lost trilogy by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky documented the trial of Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin, and their eventual release from prison. Amy J. Berg’s West of Memphis, co-produced by Echols himself and Peter Jackson, shed more light on the 1994 trial, and resulting prison sentence that lasted just over eighteen years.

All evidence that can be brought to light, has. Interviews have been conducted, evidence resubmitted, and it has all been thoroughly documented over the past twenty years. It would stand to reason that Atom Egoyan’s dramatic retelling of the trial would shed new light on the events that took place in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993. At the very least, that it might add a new perspective. Unfortunately, it does not. Would you like to know more…?

Retrospective Review: A Serious Man

A Serious Man

The Coen brothers are known for putting their leading men through hell. Predominantly pathetic anti-heroes, whether Barton Fink or The Dude, their success or failure isn’t what interests us nearly as much as the process by which they suffer. Joel and Ethan Coen have mastered the art of the failing anti-hero, while redefining the term. That their audience loves them for their nihilistic humour and defeatist plots is a true testament to their abilities as filmmakers. You go to the cinema, traditionally, to see the good guy come out on top. But what if the lead isn’t quite good? What if he’s just a sniveling, spineless worm of a man? And what if his journey brought him right back around to the start? Such is the case with A Serious Man, the second last film in TIFF Bell Lightbox’s Coen brothers retrospective, Tall Tales.

Larry Gopnik (Boardwalk Empire‘s Michael Stuhlbarg) is a good man. He’s a serious man. At least he’s trying to be.  It’s 1967 suburbia. A Midwestern physics professor on the cusp of being tenured, Larry is about to hit a rather colossal bout of bad luck. After being subtly blackmailed by a failing student who seems to think math isn’t a fundamental component of physics, he comes home to his wife, bickering children, and freeloading brother. His wife wants a divorce, his son is complaining about the television signal, his daughter is screaming to wash her hair, and his brother is draining his never-ending cyst. His racist neighbour is stepping over his property line and carting dead deer carcases across the driveway, while his blackmailing student’s father berates him about passing his son. His wife’s lover is attempting to hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” while he subtly kicks Larry out of his own home, and steals his wife. What’s worse, someone is anonymously slandering his name to the tenure review board, muddling up his chances of security.

In an attempt to find peace of mind, Larry goes to see not one, not two, but three rabbis. Each gives him a variation on the same answer, telling him befuddling stories about dentistry and the word of God all the while. “We can’t know everything,” says Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner) in an attempt to ease Larry’s worried mind. It doesn’t help. Would you like to know more…?

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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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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Cannes 2013 Review Roundup Part 2

Well, the festival is over, the prizes have been given out and we can all go home and get some sleep. For those of you that haven’t found out already, here are the main competition winners:

The Palme D’Or: Blue is the Warmest Colour (a.k.a. La Vie d’Adele – Chapitre 1 & 2) by Abdellatif Kechiche (France)
The Grand Prix: Inside Llewyn Davis by Ethan and Joel Coen (U.S.)
The Jury Prize: Like Father, Like Son (a.k.a. Soshite Chichi Ni Naru) by Kore-Eda Hirokazu (Japan)
Best Director: Amat Escalante (Mexico) for Heli
Best Screenplay: A Touch of Sin (a.k.a. Tian Zhu Ding) by Jia Zhangke (China)
Best Actor: Bruce Dern in Nebraska
Best Actress: Bérénice Bejo in The Past (a.k.a. Le Passé)
The Camera D’Or (for first feature): Ilo Ilo by Anthony Chen (Singapore)

On Sunday they replayed all of the main competition films for standard badge-holders so I managed to cram in another 5 of the ‘big’ films. I tried to catch Polanski’s Venus in Furs too, but it was full by the time I arrived. Anyway, here are my thoughts on the last handful of films I saw at Cannes in 2013. Would you like to know more…?

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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