Blu-Ray Review: Man Hunt

Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Dudley Nichols
Based on a story by: Geoffrey Household
Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Joan Bennett, George Sanders, John Carradine, Roddy McDowall
Country: USA
Running Time: 102 min
Year: 1941
BBFC Certificate: PG

I haven’t seen a Fritz Lang film I haven’t liked, in fact I’ve flat out loved most of them, so it didn’t take much convincing for me to choose to review this Signal One re-release of his war time thriller Man Hunt. A few years into his career in the US after leaving his home country of Germany, the film is a blatant indictment of Hitler’s actions there during the early years of WWII.

The film opens in bold fashion by following our hero Captain Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) as he creeps up on a secret military compound with a sniper rifle in hand, taking aim at Hitler himself. With his first ‘shot’ we realise he hasn’t loaded the rifle, but after he loads a bullet for the second attempt, he’s seen and jumped on a fraction of a second before pulling the trigger. He’s captured, beaten and taken to Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders), who demands that Thorndike sign a confession stating he was sent by the British government to kill Hitler (which would spark war – the film is set just before WWII). Thorndike refuses, claiming he was acting alone and didn’t intend to kill the führer. He only wanted to prove he’d be able to do it, as he’s a master game hunter, so famous in his field that Quive-Smith was already aware of his name. With Thorndike’s refusal to sign the document, the Major is forced to throw him off a cliff, faking a suicide. Thorndike survives though and makes a perilous journey back to England. Even when he makes it, the Germans are hot on his trail though, intent on getting him to sign the false confession before killing him. Along the way, whilst he keeps a low profile, Thorndike enlists the help of a young cockney woman named Jerry Stokes (Joan Bennett) who takes a shine to him.

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Blu-Ray Review: Westfront 1918 & Kameradschaft

War films are a genre I’m always a little wary of. On one hand, some of the best examples rank among my favourite films of all time (I’d put Apocalypse Now in my top 5 for instance). On the other hand, they’re a type of film that can really bother me if they’re flawed. I tend to think I’m a generally positive critic. I rarely give very low scores or write venomous reviews, but when I do, it’s often for a war film that’s rubbed me up the wrong way. I think this is because they’re usually based on actual events, so when a hackneyed genre cliché, insensitive patriotism, or some hammy acting crops up, it stands out as feeling ‘fake’, glossing over some complex, important and/or often horrific events. I feel the same about biopics and any other ‘based on a true story’ films too. When I’m reminded I’m watching a film merely ‘based’ on reality, it takes me out of the experience and can feel disrespectful to those involved in what’s being portrayed. In films I know are pure fiction I can turn a blind eye to cinematic cliches more easily.

So I’ve always got my guard up when watching war films or anything based on reality, but I decided to take a chance with this double set of GW Pabst films, the war movie Westfront 1918 and the film he made a year later, based around a mining disaster, Kameradschaft. Pabst is a director whose work I hadn’t delved into yet and Eureka’s Master of Cinema label never releases anything not worth watching, so I left my reservations at the door and took two journeys into the past.

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Friday One Sheet: Planet Of The Apes

No point in beating around the bush on this. The third Planet of the Apes in the ongoing rebooted franchise is going to war, and blood red large typeset text declares it like a European newspaper on Sept.1, 1939. Couple that with a handsome wintry image (climate change is apparently another problem for San Francisco, on top of highly motivated intelligent Simian warriors) and you’ve got a pretty solid tease for a pretty solid franchise.

It is a also a nice throwback to the original 1960s films which prominently had the apes on horseback with rifles.

DVD Review: Two Women

Director: Vittorio De Sica
Screenplay: Cesare Zavattini
Based on a Novel by: Alberto Moravia
Starring: Sophia Loren, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Raf Vallone, Carlo Ninchi
Country: Italy, France
Running Time: 96 min
Year: 1960
BBFC Certificate: 15

Nouveaux Pictures and Argent Films have recently merged together to form a new distribution company in the UK, called CultFilms. According to their press release, they “will create luxury releases of quality foreign and arthouse films. Every title will be a high end, collectible product, and extras will feature one or more in-depth documentary.” This sounded exactly up my street of course, so as soon as I heard about CultFilms I asked if I could help promote their releases by reviewing them. The first films they’re bringing out are two Italian classics starring Sophia Loren; Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women, which I will review here, and Ettore Scola’s A Special Day, which I will get to at a later date.

Vittorio De Sica was a director and actor who is most famous for being one of the leading figures in the Italian neo-realist movement. Two of the films he made as part of this during the 1940’s, Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves, both won honorary Academy Awards and he went on to win another couple of Best Foreign Language Film awards later on in his career as well as being a regular fixture at Cannes. So he was certainly in favour with critics around the world.

De Sica’s 1960 film, Two Women, was another Oscar winner, taking home the Best Actress award for Sophia Loren. This was particularly special in fact, being the first time an acting Oscar had been given to a non-English language speaking part. I must admit, it’s not a film I was particularly aware of, although I’m no expert in Italian cinema. I liked Bicycle Thieves a lot though and the acclaim garnered on this later film piqued my interest.

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Blu-Ray Review: Paths of Glory

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham, Jim Thompson
Based on a Novel by: Humphrey Cobb
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou
Country: USA
Running Time: 88 min
Year: 1957
BBFC Certificate: PG

Stanley Kubrick is considered one of the greatest directors of all time, but most discussions and plaudits these days tend to focus on his mid to late work. 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining for instance are regularly hailed as pinnacles of the sci-fi and horror genres respectively, as well as cropping up on general lists of the greatest films of all time, and rightly so, but I feel not enough attention is given to his 50’s output. His little-seen first feature, Fear and Desire (which I reviewed a few years ago) is no masterpiece and Kubrick was openly embarrassed about it once he grew more successful. His follow up, the film noir Killer’s Kiss, is a bit clunky, but shows promise in a couple of great set-pieces. However, after these shaky first steps, Kubrick knocked it out of the park with two incredibly sharp and assured films, The Killing and Paths of Glory. Neither made much of a commercial splash on release, but they gained enough critical acclaim for Kubrick to get attached to the big budget Spartacus, which was the beginning of the director’s rise to becoming a household name. These two late 50’s titles are well reviewed, but I don’t tend to see them crop up on as many ‘best of’ lists and neither have been packaged with the big Kubrick box sets that have been released (although this is a rights issue more than favouritism). Well, in early 2015, Arrow gave us a great Blu-Ray package containing The Killing alongside Killer’s Kiss and now Eureka have turned their attention towards Paths of Glory, delivering the wonderful Blu-Ray release it deserves.

Paths of Glory is based on a true story, set on the front line in France during World War I. A troop of soldiers are ordered to take a German position known as ‘the anthill’. It’s pretty much a suicide mission, which General Mireau (George Macready) is aware of, but his superior, General Georges Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), insists and dangles the carrot of a promotion if he carries it out. Mireau gives the order to the regiment’s Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), who is even more reluctant, but has no choice in the matter. When the day of the attack comes, the first wave out of the trenches takes heavy casualties and the second refuse to go over the top, so the mission is abandoned. Mireau is furious about this and orders each of the three companies involved to pick one soldier to be executed to make an example of the regiment. Dax is furious about this and, being an esteemed criminal defence lawyer before the war, he requests to defend the three soldiers in the court martial.

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Blu-Ray Review: Overlord – Criterion Collection

Director: Stuart Cooper
Screenplay: Stuart Cooper, Christopher Hudson
Starring: Brian Stirner, Davyd Harries, Nicholas Ball
Country: UK
Running Time: 83 min
Year: 1975
BBFC Certificate: 15

I must admit I’d never heard of Overlord before receiving a press release about its Blu-Ray release as part of the Criterion Collection in the UK. Generally only the crème de la crème gets selected for the collection (other than the odd exception – Armageddon?!) and the fact that it was shot by regular Kubrick DOP John Alcott piqued my interest, so I decided to give it a whirl and review a copy.

Overlord follows a young man, Tom (Brian Stirner), as he’s drafted into the British army during World War II. We follow him through basic training and the agonising wait to be deployed into battle. He’s convinced he’s going to be killed during this time, so a sense of impending doom builds up to him being sent to the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. During the wait he befriends some of his fellow comrades and falls in love with a young woman, Janie (Julie Neesam) at a local dance.

It may sound like your typical war movie, but Overlord is refreshingly different from your usual flag waving or ‘horrors of war’ affairs. One major aspect of its production and presentation that marks it out from the rest is the fact that a large proportion of the film is made up of archive footage, shot during the war. The film isn’t a documentary though, it’s a fictional account of a soldier’s life during the war, but through the footage supplied by the Imperial War Museum (culled from a phenomenal amount of material) and by basing Tom’s experiences on those described in letters written by real front line soldiers, the film is infused with a powerful naturalism.

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Trailer: Papa: Hemmingway in Cuba

I think it was Andy Warhol who said, in the future, everyone will play Ernest Hemmingway in a movie. After yesterday’s trailer for Genius, here we have a trailer for Papa: Hemmingway in Cuba. Giovanni Ribisi (always a pleasure to watch) plays a young reporter whose earnest letter to his literary idol wins him an invite to the great man’s tropical paradise just as Fidel Castro’s leftist guerrillas are sweeping into the cities. Ernest Hemingway was at that moment in the 1950s Cuba’s most famous fisherman. Here Hemmingway is played in full ‘Old Man And The Sea’ mode by TV and character actor, Adrian Sparks.

The film looks to be a pretty straight Hollywood style telling of that moment in time, but because it is an indie flick, it is told without too much fuss or muss; rather with a lot of testosterone, cantanker and some fighting and fishing. Hemmingway might have scoffed at the whole thing, or he might have liked it. The trailer is below.

Blu-Ray Review: Fixed Bayonets!

Director: Samuel Fuller
Screenplay: Samuel Fuller
Suggested by a Novel by: John Brophy
Starring: Richard Basehart, Gene Evans, Michael O’Shea
Country: USA
Running Time: 92 min
Year: 1951
BBFC Certificate: PG

I‘ve slowly been amassing quite a collection of reviews of Samuel Fuller films over my time as a blogger. He’s a director whose films I’m always more than happy to watch so it doesn’t take much convincing for me to say yes to a screener. However, I’ve given three of the four of his films I’ve reviewed here just over luke-warm ratings. I’ve mentioned this before in those previous reviews, but it always comes to mind when I approach a Fuller film and it’s that Fuller’s brash, bold style, as much as I enjoy it, can lead to their messages and writing feeling a bit blunt, spoiling the overall experience. Maybe I need to be in the right mood though, because Fuller’s approach can work like gang busters. In particular, I’m a huge fan of Pickup at South Street (which I reviewed previously) and Shock Corridor. So, once again I ventured into Fuller’s world hoping for a similar reaction as I put on Eureka’s shiny new release of Fixed Bayonets!

Set during the Korean war, Fixed Bayonets! sees a platoon of American soldiers given an unenviable mission. Their regiment finds itself beaten down, trapped and forced to retreat from the area. With Korean soldiers all around them though, it’s not as simple as just walking away. The regiment’s best chance for survival is to leave a small platoon of soldiers behind to “look and sound like a regiment” so as to fool the enemy into thinking there’s still a large American presence in the snowy and mountainous terrain. Basically put in the film, they are “48 men giving 15,000 a break”.

So this ‘rear guard’ is left to defend a small valley for a couple of days whilst they are bombarded by Korean mortar and sniper attacks. Among these soldiers is Corporal Denno (Richard Basehart), an intelligent man who has worked his way up the ranks quite quickly, but still hasn’t killed a man in combat. As his handful of superiors are killed off one by one, he becomes increasingly frightened that he will have to lead the platoon himself.

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Blu-Ray Review: Closely Observed Trains

Director: Jirí Menzel
Screenplay: Bohumil Hrabal, Jirí Menzel
Based on a Novel by: Bohumil Hrabal
Starring: Václav Neckár, Josef Somr, Vlastimil Brodský
Country: Czechoslovakia
Running Time: 93 min
Year: 1966
BBFC Certificate: 15

I‘m rather late to the party in checking out the films of the Czech New Wave, with my introduction being Milos Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball only last month. I liked that film quite a lot as my 4.5 rating will attest, so I was delighted to hear that Arrow were following that release up with Jirí Menzel’s Oscar winning Closely Observed Trains (a.k.a. Closely Watched Trains or, in it’s native country, Ostře sledované vlaky), one of the most well loved films of the movement.

Closely Observed Trains is set on a small rural train station in German-occupied Czechoslovakia. Young Miloš Hrma (Václav Neckár), our main protagonist, has just become a station guard and is fixed on living up to his family reputation of being a lazy shirker. In his words, the job will allow him to “do nothing except stand around on the platform with a signal disc while they (the people) spend their lives working themselves to the bone”. His colleagues seem to embody this description with Hubicka (Josef Somr) spending his time seducing anything in a skirt, particularly the more than forthcoming telegraphist Zdenka (Jitka Zelenohorská). Their stationmaster Max (Vladimír Valenta) takes his job more seriously, yearning to be promoted to station inspector, but in actuality spends most of his time tending to his pigeons and jealously damning Hubicka’s actions.

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Review: Beasts of No Nation

A big screen movie made by streaming media behemoth Netflix, for click and view streaming, Cary Fukunaga’s beautifully brutal war story, Beasts of No Nation feels too large and too difficult a watch to warrant a casual click on a stay-at-home Friday night. But this is where we are in terms of movie-going in 2015, and forgive me if this seems a vulgar comparison, not unlike the political landscape in the anonymous African country where, “nothing is ever for sure, and everything is always changing.”

Beasts of No Nation is a grand experience on a heartbreaking subject matter, told at a pace that easily turns from relentless tension to quiet introspection, featuring child soldiers and rebel militias that are indistinguishable from the corrupt government. If I heard right, Nigeria is mentioned once, presumably because that is where the author of the novel on which the story is based, Uzodinma Iweala, hails from. The movie is never clear on this, but clearly wants to be a universal story about the misery of endless, senseless (and probably petty) warfare on the Dark Continent – particularly from the point of view of a child.

As evidenced in the many establishing shots in the first season of True Detective, Fukunaga has an eye for long-shot tableaux, and here the green jungle stands out against the rusty soil peppered with children carrying sporting camouflage and Kalashnikovs. Presumably the land’s vermilion hue is due to all the blood spilt in conflict without end. The film has no problem erupting the red stuff, mostly by the hands of these children; the most harrowing are two children taking a machete to the skull of a panicked civil engineer, his hands in the air of surrender. There is blood on the camera in this scene, literally.

That it was not always so, however, is the greatest trick pulled on the audience. The first twenty minutes of Beasts of No Nation are set in a poor but bustling town on the edge of the war. Children have the frame of a television set that they are carrying around, trying to sell as an ‘imagination TV’ where, once they set it down on a table, they proceed to rapid fire act out various ‘channels’ for the onlookers: dance programs, kung-fu movies, and so forth. There is no school (it burned down) and lots of idle hands, but the feeling is of freedom rather than poverty. The tone is all singing and dancing and innocent joy. We meet Agu and his family. Agu’s mother chides their behavior, “if you do not know what to do, ask God for the answer.”

This, right before she is put on a crowded and expensive vehicle (conflict-surge pricing of which Uber has got absolutely nothing on) to get out of the area before things get bad. God is not listening. She will not be seen again as the war descends on the town in the form of armoured gun trucks and death squads. In the chaos, it is not entirely clear if anyone survives beyond Agu. He witnesses the brutal murder of his entire family circle before fleeing into the jungle alone. It is here that he is quickly swallowed up by what will be his next family unit.

At this point in his career, it is not like British actor Idris Elba needs a coming out party. This, more or less, happened a decade ago, playing an educated Baltimore drug pusher in HBO’s The Wire. And despite having a couple of Ridley Scott movies under his belt, several jaunts through the Marvel Comic Universe, four seasons with his own UK TV show Luther, a Nelson Mandela biopic, a Guillermo del Toro Kaiju flick, and has been the subject of an on again off again campaign to make him the next James Bond, Beasts of No Nation still feels like we are just getting to see what kind of star-making performances the man is capable of.

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Review: Good Kill

“Keep compartmentalizing” is a piece of advice from a commanding officer to his ace pilot. This is darkly humourous, intelligent screenwriting because these drone-piloting soldiers spend 12 hours a day literally inside a box, albeit an air-conditioned one filled to the brim with technology, with fresh coffee available if needs be.

A day of drone warfare fought, the service men and women leave the base and go home to BBQ with their family and drink beer in the nearby Las Vegas suburb, a pebble-lawned stretch of cookie cutter banality not far away from the dazzling gratuitousness of The Strip. Things go from grim but necessary to deeply disturbing slowly but inevitably, and often didactically, in Good Kill.

The film focuses on Major Tom Egan (Ethan Hawke), a former F-16 pilot and a veteran of many tours. He is now ‘grounded’ in the tiny box on wheels enacting a play-station war; one of low risk of physical harm (barring carpal tunnel syndrome) on which he compensates by making the damage 100% psychological. Egan’s icy disposition and years of experience make him one of the current top performers in piloting drones.

Hawke’s performance is miles apart from his life-long work with Richard Linklater, not to mention as different as possible from the testosterone meathead cinema-depictions of fighter pilots in thrill oriented blockbusters like Top Gun and its numerous copy cats. Egan ignores the gung-ho nature of the two tech support co-workers, the young guys that keep the communications to the remotely piloted aircraft humming along. Egan is quietly respectful of the competence of his equally young female co-pilot (Zoë Kravitz) while carrying out any order from his commanding officer (Bruce Greenwood, who gets all the good lines and let’s face it, is a national goddamn treasure).

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