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The Weekend Western: A Bullet for the General May 19, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Westerns , 3 comments

This is an overtly political spaghetti western from Damiano Damiani and, with its anti-American intervention message, it’s still very relevant today. The story deals with an American who falls in with a group of Mexican bandits in order to get close to a revolutionary General, and forms a mutual friendship with their leader, El Chucho.

The film is a feast for the eyes as well as the brain, with Antonio Secchi’s cinematography making the most of the Spanish locations, but it’s the script by Salvatore Laurani and Franco Solinas that puts this among the best of the Italian westerns. The characters are well rounded and develop over the course of the film, there’s plenty of humour to balance the action, and it builds to an impressively restrained yet emotionally powerful climax.

Gian Maria Volontè, a familiar face to anyone who’s seen A Fistful of Dollars or For a Few Dollars More, plays El Chucho. The character develops from a loud, greedy and somewhat obnoxious killer into a fledgling revolutionary, a true man of the people and Volontè brilliantly portrays that transformation, turning in a performance that is far more complex than your standard western, be it Italian or American.

By contrast, Lou Castel, as the American Tate, is restrained and emotionless. It’s a performace that may not be to everyone’s taste but for me it served as a nice counterpoint to Volontè, American reserve paired with Latin fire. Tate isn’t explored anywhere near as much as Chucho, his motivation is money, but his chalk-and-cheese friendship with the bandit adds some colour to the character.

Also making an impression is Klaus Kinski as Chucho’s brother, El Santo, a crazy religious fanatic who believes his brother is selflessly aiding the revolutionaries. Kinski has a face that’s worth a thousand words and Damiani makes the most of it, Santo is the only truly selfless character in the film.

Luis Enríquez Bacalov is credited with the score but Ennio Morricone receives a supervisor credit and the spaghetti maestro certainly left his mark on the finished film. Morricone often wrote music he didn’t receive full credit for (due to contractual issues) and it wouldn’t surprise me if this was such a case.

Damiano Damiani’s film is up there with those of the Sergio’s (Leone, Corbucci and Sollima) and it’s a shame he didn’t make more westerns, only making one more (and that almost ten years later) the comedy A Genius, Two Partners and A Dupe. If your only experience of Italian westerns is through Clint Eastwood then you should give this a try, it’ll show you that there’s far more to them than you probably realised.

Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting: The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge May 18, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Action, Martial Arts , add a comment

This third outing for Sonny Chiba’s Takuma Tsurugi comes as something of a letdown. Gone are the insanely gory deaths of the first two films, replaced by a lot of ridiculous leaping about. The fight scenes feel watered down too, with director Teruo Ishii more intent of finding interesting angels to shoot from than actually making the fights exciting.

Shigehiro Ozawa, who directed the first two films, seemed to take great delight in making Tsurugi a character who was hard to like, but Ishii wants to turn him into some kind of Japanese James Bond, rather than the cold blooded mercenary we’ve come to know. He even gives us a totally bizarre bad guy who dresses like a Mexican bandit and fires laser beams.

A sad end to what had been an enjoyable series.

The Friday Night Fright: The House of Whipcord May 17, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Horror , add a comment

This sleazy little film was a lot more enjoyable than I was expecting. Director Pete Walker generates a fair amount of tension early on, and populates the film with some entertainingly bonkers characters, plus plenty of naked female flesh.

When the appropriately named Mark E. Desade picks up a young French model, Ann-Marie (played, with a surprisingly decent French accent, by Penny Irving) he soon displays a perchance for the perverse but it’s only when takes her home to meet his mum and dad that things really get interesting. Dad’s a demented old judge and mum’s a sadistic ex-prison warden and they’ve set up there own correctional facility for wayward young ladies, where even the simplest crime results in the ultimate penalty. The prison is staffed by a pair of matrons, one a butch older woman with lesbian tendencies, the other getting her pleasure from torturing the inmates.

It’s more thoughtful than you might think though, David McGillivray’s script portraying the would-be defenders of morality as the real perverts. Most of the torture isn’t explicitly shown and while early on some of the nudity is pure titillation, there’s little to get you excited once the story moves to the prison (unless of course you’re as twisted as the people who run it). It also displays a ruthless efficiency with its characters, leaving you wondering if anyone will survive to see the credits.

Comic Tales: Superman IV - The Quest for Peace May 16, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Action, Science Fiction, Comic Book , 3 comments

Christopher Reeve’s reign as The Man of Steel comes to a rather ignominious end with this, his fourth outing. Not that Reeve is bad, in fact he clearly still had a lot of affection for the character, and the basic idea is a good one - Superman taking on an almost godlike role in order to save mankind from itself – it’s the execution that lets it down.

Sidney J. Furie was once a director with talent, producing, amongst others, The Ipcress File, here though he displays none of the flare he once showed. The Quest for Peace is the work of a talentless hack, the Superhero equivalent of Plan 9 from Outer Space but without that films charm. Superman decides to rid the world of nuclear weapons and the world governments (and I mean ALL of them) say “gee thanks Mr Superman, without you to throw the nasty bombs into the sun we’d never have thought of getting rid of them”.

Rather than pit Superman against the world’s leaders, the filmmakers give us, once again, Gene Hackman as comedy villain, Lex Luthor. The problem is he’s just not funny anymore. Batman, Spider-Man, and The X-Men all get new villains in each new outing but it’s like Superman has only got one bad guy. Someone should really buy the producers of the Superman films some comics, after all Bryan Singer continued this preoccupation with the bald headed master of menace in Superman Returns.

Luthor isn’t the only villain though, but the less said about  Nuclear Man the better. Played by Yorkshireman Mark Pillow (with voice provided by Hackman) he looks like he’d be more at home in Spinal Tap. He does provided the funniest scene in the film though, flying off into space with Mariel Hemingway. Even little kids know there’s no air in space but apparently Hollywood filmmakers don’t.

It’s little wonder the franchise stalled for almost twenty years after this travesty, with Superman finding success on the small screen in the intervening years with Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and Smallville. Maybe Last Son of Krypton isn’t cut-out for the bog screen.

Watching the Detectives: Ryoko Shinohara is Natsumi Yukihira in Unfair – The Movie May 15, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Thriller , add a comment

This spin off film from a Japanese TV series suffers on two counts, firstly it’s trying to be Die Hard in a hospital but hasn’t got nearly enough action to keep the audiences attention, and secondly it relies too heavily on viewers having seen the original series, something most western audience’s won’t have done as the DVD release lacked English subtitles (makes you wonder why they bothered putting them on this really).

Picking up (I’m guessing) where the series left off, we find police officer Natsumi Yukihira visiting here daughter in hospital. It seems the kid was a victim of a car bombing, with Yukihira the intended target. It’s not long before the hospital is taken over by a mask wearing band of villains, who not only kidnap the a high ranking police official who’s receiving treatment at the hospital but also get there hands on some Anthrax that’s stored there. Why is Anthrax stored in a hospital? Simply because the plot requires it. Likewise there is only enough vaccine to cure one person because Yukihira’s daughter becomes infected and to much vaccine wouldn’t be dramatic enough. So it’s Yukihira Vs a gang of heavily armed terrorists, which may sound exciting (if derivative) but really isn’t. Yukihira isn’t much of an action hero, she only takes out a couple of the bad guys, with the bulk of the action (and there isn’t much) falling to fellow officer Yuji Kokubo.

The film never manages to make you feel there’s any real danger; you know Yukihira will save her daughter and that the terrorists will be stopped from releasing the Anthrax. There’s much character interplay that needs prior knowledge of the characters to understand, so maybe if you’re acquainted with the series this would be a better film but I doubt it. None of the cast are particularly memorable (the kid, Mion Mukaichi, gives the best performance) the direction lacks any flair and the soundtrack features a Japanese pop song that’s guaranteed to make you heave.

Literally Speaking: Winter People May 14, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Drama , 3 comments

I’m a bit of a Kurt Russell fan, in fact I get a bit of ribbing by family members over how big a Kurt fan I am. That’s not to say I think he’s the greatest actor to walk the earth, far from it, but he is consistently entertaining. In fact he’s been entertaining me since his Disney days (Now You See Him, Now You Don’t) and I have fond memories of his one season wonder western series The Quest (anyone else remember that?). He’s one of those actors, and there aren’t that many, who can be equally convincing as a regular guy (Unlawful Entry, Breakdown) and a tough as nails, cold hearted killer (Escape from New York). Plus he starred in one of my all-time favourite films, John Carpenter’s The Thing.

One thing Mr Russell can’t do though is make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Winter People feels like one of those Hallmark Channel TV movies, set in the ‘30s it features rugged environments that somehow still manage to look like greetings card pictures and beautiful people made up to look like they work outdoors, who look just that – like beautiful people made up to look like that work outdoors.

Russell plays Wayland Jackson, a widower who sets out for pastures new with his young daughter. When their van gets stuck crossing a river the pair set of on foot is search of help, what they find is single mom Collie Wright, played by Kelly McGillis. As you’ve probably guessed the pair fall in love and Russell helps mend the rift between her and members of her family caused by her getting knocked up out of wedlock and refusing to reveal the father’s name. Ultimately he also brings an end to the feud between the Wright’s and another local family, the Campbell’s.

It’s all very predictable and frankly pretty dull. Ted Kotcheff, the man who gave us First Blood, directs seemingly without much enthusiasm for the film. Russell gives us one of his everyman turns as Jackson, a clockmaker by profession, and he’s good, the problem is he never really does very much. McGillis does a decent Carolina accent but she’s a little to old for the spirited country girl part. It’s nice to see Lloyd Bridges though, even if all he’s playing is a fairly stereotypical patriarch.

This is a minor entry on Kurt Russell’s resume, and one of Kelly McGillis’ last stops on the road to direct-to-video hell. Worth seeking out only if you’re a very big fan of either star or maybe if you enjoyed John Ehle’s source novel.

I Spy: The Constant Gardener May 13, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Thriller , 1 comment so far

In the modern world big business has as much to hide as governments, and Fernando Meirelles’ film of spy story supremo John le Carré’s novel is an espionage story where the villains are no longer foreign nations but rather money hungry corporations. At its heart though The Constant Gardener isn’t a spy movie at all, it’s a love story with a political message.

Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz have great onscreen chemistry, which helps the film no end as there’s little time to build up their relationship, one minute they’re having sex after Fiennes delivers a dull lecture the next they’re off to Africa as man and wife. Fiennes’ dull diplomat and Weisz’s left wing activist seem an unlikely couple but the actors make it work and without that bond the film would fall flat, as Fiennes’ love is what propels the story forward as he searches for the truth behind his wife’s death (that’s not a huge spoiler, we learn early on the she’s dead with their relationship shown in flashback).

As Fiennes digs deeper he not only discovers a web of political and industrial corruption but also his wife’s ideals, something he’d never really understood before. The film interlinks this love story with an exploration of the current way of life of the African people and then dresses them both up in the garb of a thriller – clandestine meetings, fake identities, and even a car chase come into play but this isn’t a thriller that plays by the rules, there’s no action packed climax, with the final confrontation between Fiennes and his wife’s killers takes place off screen.

Fernando Meirelles really impressed me with City of God and his direction here is even more assured than in his breakthrough film. The film has a documentary feel to it that adds to the realism, there’s a lot of hand held camera work but it’s more than that, the crowd scenes don’t have the rehearsed feel  you usually get in movies, instead it’s like the actors have been dropped into the real world with those around them oblivious to the fact they’re in a film, and that adds to the authenticity of their performances.

South and Central America has produced some intelligent and adventurous directors of late and Fernando Meirelles ranks at the top of that list. Here he turns what could have been just a standard thriller into so much more. He gets terrific performances from Fiennes and Weisz as well as good supporting turns from Bill Nighy as a corrupt politician and particularly Gerard McSorley as Sir Kenneth ‘Kenny’ Curtiss, the foul mouthed industrialist who’s company is at the heart of the scandal.

Comic Tales: Death Note – The Last Name April 25, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Thriller, Fantasy, Comic Book , add a comment

This sequel to the original Death Note picks up directly where the first film left off, no real surprise as the films were made at the same time, and has the same strengths and weaknesses as that film. The plot gets ever more intricate, as do the machinations of Light Yagami when he tries to keep the fact that he’s the vigilante Kira a secret.

As with the first film, it’s the plot’s twists and turns that keep you hooked, with the Gods of Death lacking substance as both CGI creations and as characters. They merely serve as catalysts to pit Light and “L” against each other. This time a couple of different characters get their hands on the Death Note book (or books, as there is a second one featured this time) but as they are both manipulated by Light we don’t really get to see how someone with a lesser sense of “justice” would handle it.

The final resolution is well handled, you’re never quite sure if Light will get away with his scheme or if “L”, who always seems to know, or at least suspect, more than he lets on will come out on top.

There is plenty of the mythology of the Death Note and the Gods of Death still to be explored, with one follow up already having been made. L: Change the World focuses on the enigmatic sleuth with a sugar habit and, with Hideo Nakata, of Ring and Dark Water fame, taking over the director’s chair it could well top both the original and this and should almost certainly be more visually inventive as well. I’m looking forward to seeing Ken’ichi Matsuyama again, his portrayal of “L” is the best thing about the Death Note films and he’s someone I’ll be keeping an eye out for in the future.

Watching the Detectives: William Powell and Myrna Loy are Nick and Nora Charles in Shadow of the Thin Man April 24, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Comedy, Thriller , add a comment

This is my favourite of the series so far, with William Powell as Nick Charles not only having to get to the bottom of the usual murder mystery but also deal with the demands of fatherhood. The opening few minutes set the tone for the film, with the laughs coming thick and fast as Nick and Nick Jr. go for a walk in the park before the elder Charles mystically hears the siren song of a cocktail shaker in his wife’s hands, the mystical element arising because she’s way out of earshot in their penthouse apartment.

This time it’s a crooked betting racket that Nick and Nora uncover but it really is incidental, what’s important is the repartee between the characters, particularly that of the pickled detective and his spouse.  There’s a timeless quality to the humour that makes it as fresh and funny today as it was in the forties.

But the real star of the show is of course is Asta the dog, having started the series uncredited he’s now got his name in larger type than his two legged co-stars.

Literally Speaking: The ODESSA File April 23, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Thriller , add a comment

Frederick Forsyth’s onscreen blurb at the start of the film tells the viewer that the film (of his novel) is based on real events but how closely the film mirrors the facts isn’t really important, it could be complete fiction and it would still be gripping thriller.

When freelance journalist Peter Miller is given the diary of a recently deceased survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, he, somewhat out of character, becomes obsessed with tracking down the camp’s commanding officer, Eduard Roschmann. Why the mercenary Miller is so affected by the journal is kept secret until the films climactic confrontation with Roschmann, but along the way he becomes involved with Israeli Intelligence, goes undercover to infiltrate ODESSA (the organisation formed by former SS officers) and has to contend with an ODESSA assassin and Derek Jacobi’s German accent.

That probably makes the film sound more action packed than it is, as it’s really quite a talky thriller; there are no car chases, no shootouts, and no explosions. It builds tension from the situation, when Miller is grilled by one of the ODESSA leaders we know his life hangs in the balance and all it will take is one mistake to give him away. Even when Miller is beaten after attending a rally of war veterans it takes place off screen.

Future Doctor Who companion, Mary Tamm, plays Miller’s exotic dancer girlfriend and adds a bit of glamour to the dreary Berlin locations while Derek Jacobi plays an ODESSA forger who’s also a bit of a mummy’s boy but it’s Jon Voight’s film, at least until that final confrontation.

As Miller, Voight not only does a decent German accent but also convinces as an obsessed journalist, even if the viewer isn’t privy to the reason for his obsession. He makes Miller’s jeopardy real and without that the film wouldn’t work, certainly not as a thriller at any rate. When he finally gets to confront Maximilian Schell as Roschmann, the scene plays out almost like the final act in a play, just two actors in a room throwing words at each other and it works all the better for that almost stagey feel. Schell puts a human face on evil, with Roschmann, only previously seen in flashback, now a balding, overweight old man clinging to a past when, as he puts it, “We ruled the world”.

Ronald Neame’s direction is pretty faceless, the film lacking a true visual style. A more gifted director would have been able to make a little more of the story and the Berlin locations but Neame does a serviceable job and does get good performances out of his actors.

One credit that did surprise me, which I didn’t remember noticing the first time I watched the film many years ago, was that of West End maestro and current lord of Saturday teatime TV, Andrew Lloyd Webber. I wasn’t aware Webber has actually scored any films, and he hasn’t done many, just this and Gunshoe (a film I really must get around to watching). He’s not bad, although at times the music seems to peter out when it’s just getting started.

Ex-Nazi’s were a favourite cinematic bad guy in the ‘70s, almost like they were making the most of them before they became too old to be a threat. The ODESSA File isn’t as good a film as Marathon Man, and its not as much fun as The Boys from Brazil but it is a good solid thriller.

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