Monthly Archives: July 2010

Putting a new spin(-off) on favourite films

Head to the cinema this weekend and you’ll be able to catch the movie adaptation of 1980s TV show The A-Team, the latest series to make it from the small screen to the silver, albeit taking longer than most to get there.

But what about all those TV series which started out life as films?

Quite what makes a TV spin-off a success depends on your criteria. Should it have the original actors in the same roles as in the film? Does the plot need to stay pretty much identical so as to make the viewer feel at home? Or do the best TV versions do their own thing, only using the film as a jumping off point?

Here in the UK there’s not a huge amount of this sort of thing, but one oddity is 1950’s The Blue Lamp, starring Jack Warner as PC George Dixon and Dirk Bogarde as a young criminal. At the end of the film Dixon was shot dead, only for the character to reappear on BBC TV in 1955’s Dixon of Dock Green: Warner would play the character for a further 21 years.

One of the most successful TV shows to originate as a film is M*A*S*H, which ran from 1972 (Robert Altman’s film was released two years earlier) until 1983, its final episode pulling in a staggering 106 million viewers, making it the most watched TV episode in US history.

Joss Whedon’s film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, starring Kristy Swanson as the blonde heroine, could hardly be called a blockbuster, its release in 1992 vanishing without trace. It returned five years later as a retooled TV series and became a global sensation.

The list goes on, with Alien Nation, Terminator, Friday Night Lights, Weird Science, Planet of the Apes,  The Crow, Clueless, Highlander, Stargate and even Tremors receiving the TV remake treatment.

In Edinburgh, fans of Shane Meadows’ 2006 film This is England should look out for a TV version, This is England ’86, later this year on Channel Four. Star Thomas Turgoose returns, along with many of the original cast, and the Filmhouse will be screening episode one on Friday 27 August, meaning you can watch the TV spin-off of a film back on the cinema screen where it all began.

DVD Round-up, 28 July 2010: Late Spring, Early Summer and Tokyo Story

Often overlooked by those looking for a quick fix of Japanese filmmaking in favour of the more widely known and imitated Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu’s status as one of the countries most important directors has grown, leading to the British Film Institute to set out on a mission to release the majority of his films on Blu-ray and DVD, starting with Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953).

Unofficially dubbed the ‘Noriko trilogy’ thanks to the appearance of actress Setsuko Hara in each film as a character named Noriko, the three pictures all have one more thing in common: family.  

Late Spring sees a currently single Noriko gradually pushed towards the realisation that she should perhaps move out of the family home and away from her father, Shukichi Somiya (Chisyu Ryu), when he plants the seed in her mind and begins to do some matchmaking.

Unofficial sequel Early Summer once more focuses on Noriko, this time complete with (a different) father and mother, actor Chisyu Ryu now playing her brother, Koichi. 

Noriko is once more to be married off, this time more for the benefit of her family than herself, with a series of events leading to her deciding to marry a man her parents are less than delighted about.

The final film, Tokyo Story, sees Noriko as a widow whose parents, including a returning Chisyu Ryu as ageing father Mr Hirayama, arrive in Tokyo to meet their children, only to find they are too busy to spend any time with them. 

The parents’ acceptance of the situation is made worse when Mrs Hirayama suffers a health scare while being pushed from pillar to post trying to accommodate her offspring.

To summarise these films in just a paragraph each is to do them a disservice, Ozu’s ability to create well rounded characters and believable family situations in a short space of time testament to his skills. 

Yes, there’s a touch of soap opera to the goings-on of these people, even a dash of sitcom at times as misunderstandings cause problems for Noriko and her various fathers, but there’s much more just beneath the surface.

Scenes of people kneeling at dinner tables and interacting in various areas of the house may not sound exciting, but there’s a feeling that these are real people, or at least close approximations of Japanese families living just a few short years after the Second World War and still coming to terms with changes in society and the increasing independence of women.

Quite whether Ozu agrees with the change of the status quo is up to the viewer to decide.

This isn’t to say that these films aren’t slow and hardly the stuff of modern blockbusters, but if you’re willing and able to set aside a few hours to immerse yourself in 1950s Japan and put yourself in the hands of a director who deserves attention from a wider audience, then this trilogy is worth picking up.

Adding to the appeal of these releases is the decision to release them in dual format editions, both Blu-ray and DVD, future-proofing them for anyone thinking of upgrading to hi-def. Due to the archive nature of the films, the picture quality is as good as it is likely to get on these discs.

Also tucked away on the sets are additional, lesser-known, Ozu films released for the first time in the UK, as well as informative booklets. My review discs didn’t contain the extra films, but these are a welcome addition.

DVD Round-up 20 July 2010: The Karate Kid I & II, Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff

With a big budget remake of The Karate Kid just around the corner, this time starring Will Smith’s son, Jaden, in the title role, now seems as good a time as any to revisit the saga of 1984’s original and its first sequel as they arrive on Blu-ray from Momentum.

Moving with his mother from New Jersey to Los Angeles, Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) starts school and falls for Ali (Elizabeth Shue), incurring the wrath of her ex- boyfriend Johnny (William Zabka) who decides to take his revenge on the new arrival using a violent form of karate taught to him by Sensei, John Kreese (Martin Kove).

With the help of local karate expert Mr Miyagi (Pat Morita), Daniel begins a course of intensive training which will see him learn a set of skills not taught at the local karate school…at least not the way Miyagi does. The scene is set for a battle between Daniel and Johnny as our hero fights for both success and the respect of his peers.

For anyone who hasn’t seen the film in a number of years, and who perhaps remembers action as a key element of the story, be prepared for something of a shock. Karate may be what the film was sold on, but this is basically a coming-of-age/teen romance tale given a new spin, the odd training montage fight sequence never as important as the interaction between Daniel and father figure Miyagi or Daniel and Ali.

In fact, for much of the film Miyagi manages to halt reprisals from Johnny and his gang, leaving the two hour running time to be a more measured affair that doesn’t rush to the inevitable end fight sequence. As such it’s a step-up from many of its rivals, Macchio and Morita giving hugely enjoyable performances that deserve repeat viewing.

The same can’t really be said about the sequel, The Karate Kid II, which dispenses with both Daniel’s love interest and mother in the opening 15 minutes, leaving the lads to go on a jaunt back to Miyagi’s home in Japan where he can be with his sick father. 

Conflict is introduced as soon as the pair land on Japanese soil, with a cartoonish villain introduced to stir things up for the once proud teacher.

While it’s nice to see Daniel and Miyagi back, there’s a feeling that it’s all just a bit pointless, little depth given to either character, though the latter is given his own love interest to keep him busy. Thankfully none of this taints the first film, but it is a warning to the makers of the new movie to watch out for redundant sequels if it’s a success.

The Blu-ray transfers on both films are fine, though nothing outstanding, with the main extras awarded to the first film, with a commentary from Macchio and Morita adding some depth to the film’s production and a number of featurettes discussing the genesis of the script and the making of the film.

On the subject of 1980’s movies, what links Karate Kid’s Martin Kove with Oscar-winning British director Jack Cardiff, whose life and career is celebrated in new documentary Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (Optimum)? Rather bizarrely, as well as being cinematographer on recognised classics such as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, Cardiff also worked on 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II, starring Kove as Ericson.

If that fascinating fact isn’t enough to convince you to pick up Craig McCall’s documentary on DVD, then perhaps the knowledge that the history of Mr Cardiff is effectively the history of cinema as we know it, or at the very least the visual style of cinema, should be. 

Starting out in cinema as a child actor in the 1920s, Cardiff ended up behind the cameras in the 1930s where he was subsequently selected by US executives to be the first camera operator in the UK to learn how to shoot in Technicolor. 

Within a few years Cardiff was working with Powell and Pressburger on films such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. 

The documentary’s numerous talking heads – Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall and Martin Scorsese are just some of those on hand to pay tribute to Cardiff – are punctuated with a series of clips from many of Jack’s films which help put his work into perspective. 

For lovers of cinema this is a fascinating insight into both the work of a hugely talented man and of the workings of cinema itself, in particular an aspect of the industry which is increasingly under threat thanks to the move towards digital trickery.

Finally a word of warning: there’s a good chance that watching this film will lead at least some viewers to head to their nearest online DVD store to buy copies of the classics shown straight after, so watch those debit cards…

Extras include an interview with Craig McCall, clips from Cardiff’s behind-the-scenes movies and portraits of his leading ladies drawn on the sets of his films.

Remember the best of British and win DVDs from the BFI Flipside

What do a group of Glaswegian lads trying to steal sinks, David Jason as a not-very-deadly assassin, Michael Winner directing Lucy the Elephant, Googie Withers meeting an escaped prisoner and Jim Davidson as a flamboyant singer have in common?

They were all suggested by readers in response to my plea last week for suggestions for ‘forgotten’ British film that should be seen in our cinemas once again. And what brilliant suggestions they were…

Over on Twitter, @brendonconnelly recommended Bill Forsyth’s That Sinking Feeling (1980), the director’s first film which I discussed here last year when the badly dubbed DVD was released: I’d happily pay to see a proper print of this at the cinema. Brendon also advised people look out for the work of English director Pen Tennyson

@ewan_james mentioned 1985’s Glasgow-based Heavenly Pursuits and 1980’s Deathwatch, technically a French film but much of it was filmed in Glasgow. @FilmFan1971 recommended 1970’s The Deep End and 1971’s John Mackenzie-directed thriller, Unman, Wittering and Zigo.

The Odd Job from 1978, starring a pre-Del Boy David Jason as a hit man hired by Monty Python’s Graham Chapman to kill him, was mentioned by @El_Duderino81, who also recommended 1959’s Beat Girl starring a young Oliver Reed and Christopher Lee, and 1972’s Sitting Target, again starring Reed.

Actor David Morrissey (@davemorrissey64) tweeted to say that 1947’s gritty It Always Rains on Sunday, featuring Googie Withers as a housewife whose ex-lover escapes from prison to interrupt her otherwise joyless life, is worth checking out. 

Elsewhere, @Great_Silence left a message on the blog to say that he reckoned Michael Winner’s 1969 comedy adventure, Hannibal Brooks, was worthy of reappraisal (“Although it’s shot on location in Switzerland, Winner and Reed deliver a classic British WWII caper”)@orangewarrior plumped for Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom from 1960 and @MrMonoboy suggested Terry Gilliam’s Jaberwocky from 1977. 

One of the most interesting suggestions came from @LaurenceBoyce who told me about 2005’s Colour Me Kubrick, starring John Malkovich as a man impersonating director Stanley Kubrick and co-starring Honor Blackman, Marc Warren and Jim Davidson as a “low-rent Liberace with an Elvis gleam in his eye.” For some reason this was never released in the UK, either in cinemas or on video/DVD.

Laurence also mentioned a few other films that I wasn’t aware of:

“The Nine Live of Tomas Katz (Ben Hopkins, 1999). It premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and was a brilliant piece of digital cinema: it finally got a release on DVD a few years ago but it never got the recognition it deserved as a truly innovative British film.

“Ben’s first film Simon Magus, starring Ian Holm and Rutger Hauer, was also a rather excellent fable that has been forgotten. This Filthy Earth, directed by Andrew Kotting and with a script by Kotting and Sean Lock was also another excellent work that never got any recognition, though the BFI thankfully released it on DVD a little while ago.

“There was also a brilliantly twisted film called Chunky Monkey, with David Threlfall as a serial killer which played like an unhinged version of Abigail’s Party. It had a great ensemble cast as well.”

What does all this tell us? For me, it says there’s a raft of little remembered British films that aren’t shown on TV very often and can’t be bought on DVD, but that deserve to be given an airing. I’d like to see Edinburgh cinemas take a chance on some of these, and I’ll be passing all your suggestions on to them with the hope they can squeeze some into their schedules.

Until then, keep an eye on local listings to see what rarities are on near you. 

Thanks to the BFI, we have copies of four British films that have recently released on DVD/Blu-ray on the BFI Flipside Strand, plus a specially made documentary from movie expert Kim Newman, to give away: The Pleasure Girls (1965), The Party’s Over (1963), Privilege (1967), Permissive (1970) or Kim Newman’s Guide to the Flipside of British Cinema.

To win one of the above titles, simply email your name, age and address, with the word BFI in the subject line, to – entries to be received by midnight, Sunday 11 July. Usual Johnston Press rules apply. Editor’s decision is final.

Whatever happened to Freddie Starr?

Did you know that impressionist Freddie Starr appeared in perhaps the grittiest British crime thriller ever made? That The X-Factor was parodied over 40 years ago in a controversial satire starring Manfred Mann’s Peter Jones? Or that a classic Ken Russell film can’t be bought on DVD anywhere in the world?

These were just some of the facts learned during this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival as a season of ‘forgotten’ films were screened to packed audiences in the city. Dubbed After the Wave, due to most of the films having been released after the 1960s British New Wave, this was a rare chance to watch titles which have either never been brought out on video or DVD or which have been dismissed by critics as unimportant.

I’d never heard of 1977’s The Squeeze from director Michael Apted, a violent thriller starring Stacy Keach as drink-sodden PI Jim Naboth, alongside Freddie Starr as his sidekick, Teddy, but now I want everyone to watch it, dubious treatment of lead actress Carol White and all.

Peter Watkins’ Privilege from 1967 is already out on DVD but was meant to be seen on the silver screen, its powerful message that you shouldn’t believe everything you see on TV still potent in this Simon Cowell-infused society.

We also had Edinburgh-born director John Mackenzie’s Made (1972), Patrick McGoohan in The Hard Way (1979), Stephen Frears’ Gumshoe and Ken Russell’s overlooked (and unavailable to buy) masterpiece, Savage Messiah (1972), the latter two introduced by their directors.

It became clear watching these pictures that Britain’s cinema history is much more than the standard set of films we’re frequently told are classics, and that for every Get Carter or Long Good Friday there’s a less well remembered Freddie Starr film hiding in the shadows. Shouldn’t we be given the chance to revisit our celluloid past even if DVDs aren’t possible?

It’s interesting to note that London’s BFI cinema hosts regular screenings such as the above under their Flipside banner, and they’re so popular that a DVD range is now available. But what about Scotland? Could one of Edinburgh’s cinemas, most likely the Filmhouse or Cameo, step in to show such titles?

Which forgotten, or little seen, British films would you like to see at a cinema near you? Let me know in the comments below or over on Twitter and I’ll print the best suggestions in the paper next week.

DVD Round-up, 1 July 2010: Cult Spaghetti Westerns, Cargo, The War Lord, Profound Desires of the Gods

Taking their inspiration from more traditional US Western films, Spaghetti Westerns (so-called, if the name doesn’t give the game away, because they were filmed in Italy) began in earnest the early 1960s, though there were Westerns filmed in the country as far back as the silent era.

Though Clint Eastwood’s legendary Man With No Name trilogy has overshadowed much of Italy’s output, this new Cult Spaghetti Westerns set from Argent Films looks to raise awareness of some other titles which deserve reappraisal, namely 1966’s Django and A Bullet for the General alongside 1976’s Keoma.

The plots are suitably torrid in each: Django sees the title character, played by Franco Nero, appear in a small town dragging a coffin containing a Gatling gun, where he finds himself at the centre of a war between Mexicans and racist white men; Bullet is set during the Mexican Revolution and follows El Chuncho (GianMaria Volonte) as he tries to buy weapons to aide General Elias; Keoma features Franco Nero again, this time as a man returning to his hometown only to discover it has been commandeered by an evil gang. Keoma decides to take on the bad guys with all the strength he can muster.
Made with energy and passion, all three films are superb examples of the genre, where heroes are brave and baddies will stop at nothing to get their way. There’s no Hollywood sheen here, just plenty of mud and bullets and a certainty that anything can happen to anyone at any time. Django may be a cult favourite, and its hero is iconic, but it’s Bullet for the General which is standout here: director Damiano Damiani has crafted a complex story which looks and feels real.

Also in this impressive set are a trio of introductions from director Alex Cox in the style of his old Moviedrome series, alongside interviews with Nero, Damiani and Keoma director Enzo G Castellari as well as trailers.

We move from the old frontier to the final frontier with Cargo (Optimum), a Swiss science fiction flick from 2009 which is set in the year 2267, when the Earth has been abandoned as the presence of humanity finally destroys the ecological balance.

Luckily there is hope in the shape of a paradise planet, Rhea, which is the destination of Dr Laura Portmann (Anna-Katherine Schwabroh) who plans to head there to be with her sister…if she can first complete an eight year deep space mission aboard a cargo ship.

When she wakes up to carry out a tour of duty on the ship, she becomes convinced there’s someone else with her, causing her to reawaken her colleagues so they can search for whoever, or whatever, has stowed away with them…

Looking far more expensive than its undoubtedly meagre budget suggests it should, with high quality CGI depicting the ship’s exterior and a dark and dank interior taking focus away from the sets, Cargo is a creepy little thriller with impressive performances from Schwabroh and Martin Rapold as Samuel Decker (a Blade Runner reference?).

Though the music is frequently overbearing, trying too hard to tell you how tense it is rather than letting the director show you, it’s still a fresh take on the ‘spaceship-under-siege’ genre that has been done many times before.

Medieval England is the setting for Eureka’s release of 1965’s The War Lord, starring a pre-Planet of the Apes knight called Chrysagon who decides to conquer a Normandy castle and the nearby town, his subsequent decisions attracting the ire of the locals.

While the film’s morals may be suspect – Chrysagon demands the right to sleep with brides-to-be the night before their wedding and his men seem happy to help him – and the plot isn’t the most exciting, there’s still a strong performance from Heston and a handful of action sequences which reward the viewer’s attention.

The War Lord looks impressive, with the widescreen version on this disc looking suitably epic in scale. This is also the first time the film has been released in the UK on VHS or DVD, so it’s something of a “new” film for fans of Heston.

Finally, perhaps the most interesting title this week is Eureka’s Blu-ray-only release of Profound Desires of the Gods, a 1968 Japanese “super-production” which took 18-months to make but which remains largely forgotten in the annuls of the countries cinematic history.

The film takes viewers to Kurage Island, a place where the Futori family have brought shame upon themselves thanks to a tendency for in-breeding – the daughter is having relations with her brother – while an engineer has arrived from Tokyo to oversee the implementation of a new well for the islanders.

To explain this nearly three hour long film succinctly would be difficult, but thrown into the mix are a number of odd (and very funny) sequences, a focus on the wildlife of the island, and a look at what it is that makes us tick.

The fact that it was almost forgotten in its home country for many years, and that this is the only hi-def version of the film to be released anywhere in the world, means that this is an important release and its a fascinating exploration of a forgotten culture that might take some getting in to but which deserves to be discovered by a wider audience.