Friday, 28 September 2012

Lady Snowblood Blu-ray review

Director: Toshiya Fujita 

Starring: Meiko Kaji, Toshio Kurosawa, Noburo Nakaya, Yoshiko Nakada, Kaoru Kusuda

Synopsis: Born in a prison as her dying mother lay next to her, Yuki Kashima a.k.a Lady Snowblood knew of life’s hardships from gasping her very first breath. She grows up with vengeance on her mind – determined to avenge her mother’s rape, incarceration and death by finding the three surviving criminals that were behind it all.

It’s inescapable to mention Lady Snowblood without referencing Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films so let’s get it out of the way quick: Kill Bill has clearly been inspired by the structure, many motifs, and style of Lady Snowblood. Whilst watching the Japanese 1973 masterpiece you are constantly reminded of the duplicated scenes in Tarantino’s fourth film, but it should not be looked at negatively; what the facsimile proves is how important this film is and how influential it has become. Seeing it now in glorious 1080p Blu-ray further promotes the spectacular nature of the classic and deservedly grants it a second life.

Whereas an old DVD would still allow you to watch Lady Snowblood in the comfort of your own home the visuals of it may not have seemed as portentous as they should be. With the Blu-ray restoration the opportunity to immerse yourself in the tense, sanguine revenge film has never been so inviting. The film appears brand new and with Masaki Tamura’s elegant cinematography and Osamu Inoue’s taut editing it could even be mistaken for a contemporary release.

There is plenty that Lady Snowblood offers to award its re-release – it’s majestic, malicious and magical in its storytelling. Soon Taken 2 will adorn the multiplexes but for a search-and-avenge movie you should save your money for Fujita’s immortal film coming to Blu-ray. Stories of revenge are a dime a dozen but only the most special get remembered and rewarded over time – this concretely appeals to that notion and the narrative is enthralling. As the story crosses to and fro from Lady Snowblood’s birth, youthful training, and her adult life tracking and killing her mother’s tormentors, the pace never slows nor does exposition or character introduction sour the dynamism. By the end you are left wondering why films of this sub-genre are not made as expertly as this all the time.

Registering the best features of this film for analysis, one cannot overlook Meiko Kaji as the eponymous heroine. She greatly achieves carrying the film all by herself and elevates the film above and beyond the expectations of this type of movie. The close-ups of Kaji capture a wealth of emotions, even it’s seen in the light movement of the eyebrows or the piercing stare of her brown eyes. The acting from the supporting cast and the fabulous lead is never corny or camp (especially taking into account the 70’s flavour) and there is something noteworthy about a genre-piece pushing past the boundaries of mindless entertainment toward an acclaimed portrayal of life, death and vengeance.

Overall, the Blu-ray re-release will be a fantastic surprise to those who are so-far unaware of the film (it exceeds any expectation that one may garner from just reading the synopsis) and an exciting treat for previous fans. It is an exceptional thrill-ride of a film and one that should grace every film fan’s Blu-ray collection.


Special Features: Basic advertising material including trailers and an 11-minute interview with Japanese cinema expert, Jasper Sharp. Sharp’s short but educational history of the film and Japanese cinema of Lady Snowblood’s kind is worth a watch after the movie (at 11 minutes it’s not too demanding). Some artwork, collector’s booklet and original stills are included in the packaging for additional insight into the style and legacy of the film.

Features: ***

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on Flickering Myth.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Raiders of the Lost Ark IMAX review

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliot, Ronald Lacey

Synopsis: Professor Indiana Jones (Ford) may seem like an ordinary Joe teaching his university class, but under the combed hair and reading glass lies the soul and spirit of an adventurer. After being recruited to help with a matter of national security, Indy must embark on a mission to find the Ark of the Covenant before the malicious Nazis wreak havoc with the powerful antiquity.

It seems fantastically coincidental that as Raiders of the Lost Ark graces the screen for the first time in 31 years (and resurrected in incredible IMAX ratio) Lawrence of Arabia similarly gets an additional release and restoration. Lean’s epic and Spielberg’s iconic masterpiece only share some similarities but they both currently advertising the magnum opus of film-making.

For a decade seemingly shrouded in remakes, reboots and formulaic comedy/action/romantic romps, the idea to bring back ‘The Man in the Hat’ seems perfectly apt. The story of an archeology professor who moonlights as “how does one say it... obtainer of rare antiquities”, who is eventually embroiled in the occult objectives of the Nazi party has little to no pertinence today, but it isn’t the social commentary we seek – rather the basic and best example of adventure entertainment. Adorning local IMAXs for the next few weeks is the memorable score, quotable quips and in-frame action of Indy’s first expedition; nothing could be more welcomed amongst the humdrum of contemporary cinema.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the greatest films of its chosen genre; with nods to inspirations such as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the old morning serials and the Bond franchise, Spielberg and his band of writers aim to be every bit as great as their influences. In many ways it betters them and the opening alone makes the sardonic snake-hater seem like the token adventurer. Ford’s ruggedly handsome face – clean shaven or grizzly – is a captivating screen presence and seeing him the size of four double-decker buses capitalises on his movie star iconography and Indy’s enduring legacy. Furthermore, seeing Karen Allen glorified far beyond the capabilities of make-up and lighting with IMAX’s dimension, purports the notion that she really has the charm, cuteness and candid nature of a true movie star. If IMAX seems like a cheap marketing ploy, Raiders’ restoration demolishes that idea.

Themes of history and preservation that are embroidered into the film’s narrative (and the series in general) act as constant reminders of its classic nature. Not only can you feel part of history whilst watching the new IMAX restoration, you can also remind yourself of the famed moments and hugely quotable script. IMAX is advertised as an immersive experience and with a film like Raiders, that ideology is truly recognised.

The meticulous work gone into touching up the print and sound is, quite simply, stunning. It is not as if the years have been extremely harsh to the original reels but the IMAX print looks and feels brand new. The colour and sound are perhaps the most stand out aspects of the restoration and Williams score in particular is all the more grandiose and elevating. Never has Indy felt so real and interactive. Spielberg’s long shots of Egyptian deserts or ocean horizons stretch so wide on an IMAX screen that you almost feel you are there. Images so clear enveloped with a reworked sound mix (mono to stereo conversions) are faultless.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is the only episode of the quadrilogy being awarded the IMAX treatment and with a dishearteningly limited run. It means that your chance to engross yourself in the hazardous jungles and tombs, the scorching deserts and the electrifying finale is exclusive. When renowned and adored old films are given a second life on the silver screen they should not go ignored and for a film as special as this, the opportunity should not be missed. Even if Indy has been hardened by “the years” the film about him has not suffered any issues and “the mileage” is deservedly immeasurable.

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on Blogomatic3000

Monday, 17 September 2012

Untouchable review

Writers/Directors: Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano

Synopsis: A rich tetraplegic, Philippe (Cluzet), employs a young man called Driss (Sy) from the Parisian ghetto as his personal aid. The two disparate personalities soon blend tremendously and they each gain new perspectives on life.

There is a improvised scene in Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams discusses his wife’s nervous bowels with his therapy patient, the titular character played by Matt Damon. In this ten-minute sequence there erupts between both actors laughter so genuine and infectious that it has the audience in hysterics as well. For an isolated incident in a rather hard-hitting drama, Good Will Hunting is not the paramount example of this “infectious” laughter. Thirteen years later comes Untouchable: a film that is a great example and one that includes not one laugh-out-loud moment but many, and one based on a slightly less dramatic but equally inspiring story.

Harvey Weinstein bought the rights to Untouchable meaning that its chances at Oscar glory are rather good. Furthermore, with his huge endorsement the film will fortunately reach more audiences. With a film so charming as this there is also hope that word-of-mouth will additionally elevate its profile - it is more than deserving of it. It is not always a frolicsome film that highlights the joy of friendship; it also highlights an array of social issues. With it being a true account of a wealthy tetraplegic who employs a ghetto-dwelling youth as his aid, there may be concern over it being a taut melodrama.  At times in the film tragedy does prevail over good-humour yet, overall, it likes to remain jovial. It does not shy away from the more important matters of social class and issues of discrimination. Paris is a capital like many others, at times struggling with the conflicting social classes; writers/directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano constantly reminds the audience that stories like Driss’ are so meaningful due to those social afflictions.

All the essential parts of a masterful film are pieced together elegantly for the Untouchable but they would mean nothing without the aid of the two leads.  Perhaps it is an examination of humanity or the rowdy, yet innocent, exuberance of Omar Sy’s Driss that strikes a chord with audiences. Maybe it is the grins and grimaces of François Cluzet’s Phillippe that are portrayed all-too-naturally, always gaining empathy from the viewer. Most probably, it is the combination of the disparate double act that evokes appreciation of the film. As you sit watching Sy and Cluzet play off one another you begin to think of life outside the film where the two must have become great friends. It is a sign of great casting when the chemistry between actors emanates throughout the film (think of Pitt and Norton in Fight Club or Redford and Newman in Butch Cassidy and The Sting) – it fuels the movie in a different way than the directing, editing or soundtrack.

The education Phillipe gains from spending time in Driss becomes the audience’s education too; Driss sees the world in a different way due to his background, but his refreshing assessment of it inspires both Phillipe and the viewer. As the film finishes you are left with a feeling of enormous gratitude – you have laughed, cried and learnt from Driss and Phillipe’s tale. It is an emotionally invigorating feel-good film that appeals to the humanist in all of us. Perhaps the only downside to the film is the fact that it ends; much like spending an evening with some of your funniest and charismatic friends, you never want the night to end and Untouchable carries that same sentiment. 

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on Flickering Myth.

Looper Review

Director: Rian Johnson

Synopsis: In the year 2044 a highly lucrative crime organisation has hired a group of assassins to carry out the murders of dozens of people through the very illegal form of time travel. Once the victim is sent back through time to 2044 a ‘Looper’ like Joe (Gordon-Levitt) puts a bullet through them and incinerates them, completely obliterating them from the present and the future. As the Looper jobs become increasingly illicit the future employees start 'closing the loops’ by sending the assassin's future self back to be killed. This is what happens for Joe but once his older self (Willis) escapes, its up to Joe to kill him and stop criminal king-pin (Daniels) from executing them both.

Hollywood occasionally departs from formula and allows new and exciting talent to come forth and entertain. Usually when this happens a great gift is given to the cinematic sphere, and directors like Duncan Jones, Gareth Edwards and Rian Johnson are proof of it. The latter has now directed three feature length films (and two fantastic Breaking Bad episodes) and the third will undoubtedly bring him to the attention of millions. Looper is bold, breathtaking and bloody – quite simply, pure entertainment.

Johnson’s impetus for making Looper never included the issue of box-office gross and it is wonderfully refreshing to see a film made purely on artistic merits. Johnson is an artist in every sense of the word and exemplifies the claim made by Orson Welles that “a film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet”. This is true of the Brick and Brothers Bloom director and Looper sees his knack for storytelling and visualisations grow ever stronger. The time-travel narrative is never an easy one to tackle and whilst Johnson’s efforts aren't always golden (his exposition of the subject within the film i.e. “let’s not talk about time travel” can sometimes seem lazy), his way of presenting it leads to a terrific story. As the director has noted in many press junkets for the film, the time travel essence is more of a device that paves the way for a more interesting series of events (much like The Terminator). He has made a film that will be enjoyed by many and through countless revisits and, whether or not it fairs well at the box office, it will become a cult classic.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Rian Johnson have noted on several occasions, a Nolan-esque influence on Looper. They are not referring to explicit influences on story, character or visuals but, instead, the incentive to create a smart blockbuster. As complex as a film like Inception is, Looper has not shown any dilution in that form of storytelling since Christopher Nolan’s 2010 epic was released. Looper is as taut and intelligent as any sci-fi worth its salt. It is also a science fiction painted with a rich aesthetic that demands more than one viewing (a sure-fire way of making it a beloved movie). The only issue with the detail of the piece is that there is never enough time to absorb it all and even with a 118 minute running time; Looper’s biggest downfall is its duration.

The brilliance of the film lies mostly within the first 45 minutes where the lives of Loopers are explored and we are shown a vibrant and curious landscape. Were it not for a relatively small budget this atmosphere could be detailed zealously but unfortunately we see only snippets of the environment that the Loopers and criminals run around in. The desire to see more of how Loopers get into the profession or how the execution is planned can only be found in the first act, and not to the extent you may wish for. The first act that gives us an introduction to Joe’s line of work and the world he inhabits is so engaging that it warrants its own separate movie. Johnson isn’t particularly interested in that aspect and we are given a plot-line relating to Joe’s future self returning to the present, escaping and jeopardising lives and timelines. The cat and mouse chase between Joe, his older self and Jeff Daniels’ cronies, mounts the tension but the enthrallment felt does diminish slightly. There are a few moments in between the opening section and the grand finale that are wondrous (including a Heat-style diner discussion between Willis and Gordon-Levitt, and two terrific performances from Emily Blunt and newcomer Pierce Gagnon) but nothing captures the viewer’s attention like the unlawful land of the extensive prologue. As much as Emily Blunt and Pierce Gagnon steal some scenes, one may find more interest in the characters of Paul Dano and Garret Dillahunt who have sinfully short shares in the film’s narrative. There is more under the surface of Looper and one is always itching to take a look at it, often with regrettable inability.

Whatever the screen time of each character, a clear sense of motivation, personality and life is given to every single inhabitant of the Looper world. At the forefront is the charismatic Joseph Gordon-Levitt sporting an unfamiliar face. The image of Rick Deckard, Marty McFly or Neo can never lose their iconography and chances are Gordon-Levitt’s prosthetic pastiche of Bruce Willis’ face will endure. The make-up job does not always complement the young actor and it becomes quite distracting in certain moments, but it never completely overshadows his performance. He is an actor renowned for eclectic experiments with roles and genres; Looper was written just for him and he embraces that honour with great finesse. Casting has always been an additional strong suit of Johnson’s and not only having his friend take on the lead role, he recruits some of the best talent in the business. Older Joe, played with intensity and skill by Bruce Willis could, on paper, seem like a troubling feat – how would a Hollywood A-lister not outshine a younger talent? This concern is never apparent and, if anything, it is Gordon-Levitt who is the object of the viewer’s desires. Giving the film some warmth is needed for a cool thriller and Looper’s mid-section does nothing but award that.  The farm house scenes with Gagnon and Blunt are where the film’s humanity really shines through, both actors adding to the string of accomplished acting.

There are a few flaws in the narrative (but give the writer/director his due, time travel does lend itself easily to telling tales) but the sheer bravado of the entire film makes you overlook most problems. The vision is quite extraordinary and Steve Yedlin’s cinematographer is impressively reminiscent of Darius Khondji’s Seven photography or the dazzling displays in Blade Runner or L. A.Confidential. At the heart of Looper’s look is the noir atmosphere (especially the more interesting first half) and the maturity of this approach is so refreshing. The only downfall of the film is the production companies’ low budgeting that leaves Looper from becoming the grand masterpiece it should be.


By Piers McCarthy. A version of this was posted on Live For Films

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Liberal Arts review

Director: Josh Radnor

Synopsis: Jessie (Radnor) returns to his old college for his old professor’s retirement party and it’s during that weekend that he meets a student, Zibby (Olson). The two hit it off right away but the 16 year age difference poses a problem to their growing relationship.

Elizabeth Olson’s Zibby deems Josh Radnor’s Jesse a “snob” in one scene of Liberal Arts – a point of criticism that could be exercised in discussion of Radnor’s second writing and directorial feature. Radnor paints a picture of love, life and learning with copious amounts of brainy references, yet even with some ostentatious scripting the film feels wonderfully refreshing. Many may leave Liberal Arts complaining of its pretentiousness and pseudo-intellectual musings but these should not be taken as negative aspects of the filmmaking. On the contrary, Radnor is writing with smarts and sensibilities seldom seen in recent cinema. Only a few romantic comedies stand the test of time or win over the harshest of critics and they do this by revising the genre or adding a sense of humanity to it. I’m thinking of such examples as Manhattan, Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally, Before Sunrise/Sunset and (500) Days of Summer, with Liberal Arts judiciously getting its place among them.

Having made his first cinematic effort with Happythankyoumoreplease, Radnor seems to improving on both scripting and directing. Liberal Arts not only feels mature and well-thought out, it is also acted with beautiful charisma and feeling. It is no wonder that two of Radnor’s favourite films include Before Sunrise and Before Sunset; his own angle on the dialogue between two people falling for one another is as sharp and poignant as Richard Linklater’s. The way Radnor also presents himself in the film – an incredibly down-to-earth romantic philosopher – is not so different to Ethan Hawke, each actor able to win audience’s hearts. As a friend of Jesse’s wonders, “I’m not sure why I like this guy so much?” the retort is perfectly apt: “It’s because he’s likeable”. Likeable indeed; Radnor is simply too kind of person on and off screen to make you bored or disapproving of what he has to say.

Joining Radnor on his journey of love’s inquest is the brilliant Elizabeth Olson - who is understandably becoming recognised as a new star. She has the enchanting eyes of Grace Kelly and the wholesome, girl-next-door qualities of a young Michelle Pfeiffer that gives her a radiant presence. She lends herself effortlessly to the role of 19-year-old college student, Zibby, who could be the apple of many men’s eye. The chemistry between Radnor and Olsen is so palpable, giving the film a naturalistic edge. This authenticity is not only confined to the two leads but spreads out to the splendid supporting cast that includes Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, John Magaro and Zac Efron. All of the supporting roles have been written with loving care so that the scenes not embracing Zippy and Jessie’s romance entertain just as equally. The supports also get at least one scene devoted to them and Radnor makes sure they don’t miss their chance to shine; Efron and Janney, especially, get hilarious scenes crafted for their characters so much so that their absence can be displeasingly felt.

Liberal Arts is quite simply a delight. It should not be classed as a formulaic “rom-com”; it is instead a “romantic comedy” - an advanced example of the genre. Radnor has used his fame and fortune from How I Met Your Mother very wisely – making films that could entertain a huge audience. Chances are this film will not be enjoyed all round due to its intellect – it poses troubling issues and relates to the arts perhaps too frequently for universal appeal. The masses that want a stale rom-com can wait a week and get their wish, for those who want more from a romantic comedy will certainly find it in this.

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on Flickering Myth.