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The Weekend Western: Blueberry September 30, 2007

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

A French western very loosely based on Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud’s classic comic character, with Vincent Cassel in the titular role, that fails to work as a traditional western or much else either. The story is slim – Mike Blueberry’s prostitute girlfriend is killed in a confrontation with head villain (Michael Madsen) injured he makes his way into the desert, stays with the Indians for a bit and then becomes a Marshal of a small town before inevitably crossing paths with Madsen again for the films denouement.

This simple story isn’t a problem in itself, many a classic western has had an equally minimal plot, the real problem is that not much happens, with the film avoiding the usual genre staples like shootouts and fistfights. What the film does have going for it, at least early on before it devolves into a mess of hallucinogenic CGI for the typically unorthodox final confrontation between Blueberry and Madsen, is some awe inspiring cinematography. The West here looks as majestic as a Ford movie, the difference being Ford could hang a story on those visuals.

As well as Cassel and Madsen the film also features Juliette Lewis as a love interest for Cassel, with her dad Geoffrey Lewis appropriately enough playing her father. Colm Meaney, sporting a fake looking beard and equally fake accent, and a wheelchair bound Ernest Borgnine play deputies, while Eddie Izzard turns up as a German searching for Indian treasure and gives Meaney a run for his money in the crap accent competition. You’d think Cassal would be in the running too but given that he’s supposed to be a Louisiana Cajun he doesn’t do too bad, even if he never totally convinces.

If the film had stuck closer to the source material it would have made a better and more coherent film but it would have been a more traditional western and that obviously wasn’t what the filmmakers were trying to achieve. Just what they were trying to achieve though is something of a mystery.

The Friday Night Fright: The Ordeal September 29, 2007

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This is one very strange film. A travelling entertainer, after a performance at a care home, barely manages to extricate himself from the female occupants and workers with his pants on. Heading off for a performance at a Christmas party, little does he suspect that he’ll soon be the object of desire for the male of the species.

Breaking down on the way he finds himself at a local inn and we discover the back roads of France come close to the American backwoods of Deliverance in holiday destinations to avoid. It’s not just the inn keeper who’s weird but the local villagers too; taking a walk in the woods he stumbles across a group of locals and discovers that they take animal husbandry quite literally in those parts.

The village’s lack of women is never explained but this is the sort of film that would fall apart if the script went into too much detail. In essence it’s a modern Grimm fairy tale and like all the best fairy tales has a strong vein of black humour running through it.

I’m not really sure if I enjoyed it or not but it did keep my attention for its relatively short running time and is definitely unlike anything you’ll see coming out of Hollywood. It’s well made and I’ll be interested to see what director Fabrice Du Welz turns his hand too next. While he’s obviously influenced by American horror films (as well as Deliverance the film pays homage to the dinner scene from Texas Chainsaw Massacre) I can’t see him doing an Alexandre Aja.

Watching the Detectives: Jean Reno is Pierre Niemans in Crimson Rivers II – Angels of the Apocalypse September 26, 2007

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Jean Reno returns to the part of Commissaire Niemans that he first played in 2000, this time partnered with Benoît Magimel. The first film was a solid if unexceptional thriller based on the novel by Jean-Christophe Grangé, this time though the story is an original one and comes from Luc Besson. You’d think that would be a major plus but in fact it’s the films weak point.

Things start OK but soon go downhill. Someone is killing off the Twelve Apostles, well there namesakes anyway, but this is no serial killer thriller à la Se7en or TV’s Messiah, would that it were as that would make more sense than what follows. Gruesome murders, a lost treasure, and some ninja monks all add up to a mess of a film that can’t decide if it wants to be a thriller or an action movie and ends up falling short as both.

Reno looks bored, while Magimel, after an excellent Bourne style martial arts fight at the start, gets nothing much to do. Only Christopher Lee comes away with any credit, showing he can be just as menacing speaking French as English but sadly he doesn’t appear until the film is two thirds done.

A missed opportunity.

Animonday: Renaissance September 25, 2007

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It’s French week on Mine Was Taller and kicking things off we have this stunning animated feature from director Christian Volckman. The film’s black and white look brings to mind Frank Miller’s Sin City (both graphic novel and movie versions) but the colour scheme is the only thing the films really have in common.

This is a futuristic tale dealing with man’s quest for immortality and the corruption that inevitably follows. It’s easy to see why the filmmakers wanted current Bond, Daniel Craig, to voice the hero as in many ways this is an animated, futuristic take on Ian Fleming’s hero. But Craig isn’t the only actor to bring some Bond baggage with him, Jonathan Pryce plays the films villain and he does a better job than he did in Tomorrow Never Dies. Composer Nicholas Dodd is clearly in tune with the film’s Bond vibe and gives it an action epic feel that would make him a good choice to score Bond 22.

It’s not perfect though. While the films visuals are breathtaking at first they do get a little samey after a while and, at 110 minutes, it’s a little on the long side. It’s well worth seeing though, with its unique look and exciting action sequences it shows that when it comes to animated features the French are as inventive as any Hollywood or Asian filmmakers.

Sci Fi Sunday: Android September 24, 2007

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A wonderfully quirky futuristic Frankenstein tale that has mad scientist Klaus Kinski looking for a spark rather than a brain to breath life into his female creation. The film works like a low budget companion piece to Blade Runner, dealing as it does with similar themes of android rebellion, just on a much smaller scale (and budget).

A limited cast, with only five major roles, and a shoestring budget, results in a film far more focused on character than action. Don Keith Opper plays android Max 404 as a Pinocchio like figure who dreams of being human. It’s Max and his relationships with the other characters that gives the film its heart, particularly Brie Howard as one of the three criminals using the space station to lay low who Max becomes infatuated with and of course Kinski as his creator, Dr. Daniel.

Kinski is on fine form as the lecherous Daniel, displaying his gift for comedy during the dinner scene, with that wonderfully expressive face saying far more than the dialogue he delivers. While all the films performances are good it’s Kinski and Opper that stand out.

Somewhat dated in its effects and its “futuristic” technology (the digital watches and Max’s video game must have seemed advanced at the time) the film holds up thanks to good writing and strong performances.

The Weekend Western: The Great Silence September 23, 2007

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Westerns , 2 comments

A spaghetti western that features the bloody violence one would expect from the genre but also much that sets it apart. The spectacular snowbound locations give the film a unique look, while its mute hero displays a strong moral fibre that’s at odds with the usual Italian western anti-hero. Known as Silence because he cannot speak, he refuses to shoot first, preferring to goad his opponents into making their move, he also has a tendency to shoot their thumbs off.

It’s unusual for having a black love interest for the hero, in the shapely form of Vonetta McGee who later found fame in Blacula and a score of other blacksploitation flicks in the ‘7os. The film has an international cast with French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant playing Silence, while Klaus Kinski is the main villain, Loco. Sadly none of them provide their own voice on the dubbed English soundtrack.

The king of spaghetti western composers, Ennio Morricone contributes a striking score. It’s more subdued and less catchy than his more famous compositions for Eastwood’s Italian films but no less effective.

Climaxing with bloodbath so unremittingly bleak that an alternate happy ending was shot but not used, this isn’t your average shootout. It’s an ending that stays with you and makes you wonder what, if anything, director Sergio Corbucci was trying to say. Is it just nihilism or something more?

It may not rank alongside the best spaghetti westerns of Leone but it’s certainly a cut above the average and a film all fans of Italian horse operas should see.

The Friday Night Fright: Count Dracula September 22, 2007

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In 1970 Christopher Lee made two appearances as Dracula, Taste the Blood of Dracula, his fourth appearance in the Hammer series, and Count Dracula that teamed him with director Jess Franco.

The attraction of the film for Lee was the chance to play Dracula true to Stoker’s original book rather than the almost feral interpretation of the Hammer films in which he had hardly any dialogue. Things start off well enough with Harker making the journey to Dracula’s castle. Lee, playing the part sans cloak and with a full moustache, makes the most of these early scenes, delivering his lines as if they were Shakespeare. He even gets to do the famous “children of the night” line but given the cheap nature of the film those children are played by German Shepherds rather than real wolves.

After this impressive opening it all goes down hill, with Lee reduced to popping up just to nibble on the occasional maiden’s neck, in much the same way as the Hammer films he so resented doing.

When it come to casting Renfield it’s hard to think of a better choice than Klaus Kinski. The fly eating insane asylum inmate seems tailor made for the batty German actor but with no dialogue (according to Franco, Kinski said he could convey what was needed without words) and little screen time a great opportunity is wasted.

The films third major star is Herbert Lom as Van Helsing. Lom probably comes off the best of the three but that isn’t saying much. He’s confined to a wheelchair towards the end of the film, the explanation given being an off-camera stroke, though it was probably due to Herbert being incapacitated for some reason. There is a confrontation between Lom and Lee at the film’s climax that should have been one of the few high points but as the actors shot there scenes completely independent of each other any spark between them is lost.

The films best scene, for entirely the wrong reasons, has the intrepid vampire hunters Harker, Seward and Morris, terrorised by a room full of stuffed animals. It’s unintentionally hilarious and brings to mind the dear’s head in Evil Dead but manages to make that film look like a big budget Hollywood blockbuster by comparison.

In an interview on the DVD, Franco berates both Coppola’s Dracula and the Hammer series, claiming that his is the better and more faithful film. While the film may be more faithful than those versions, after its opening sequence it’s far from true to the book and as a piece of cinema can’t hold a crucifix to most other versions of the film.

Watching the Detectives: William Powell and Myrna Loy are Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man September 20, 2007

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

Nick Charles is an ex-detective now living off his wife’s inheritance (and doing his best to drink his way through as much of it as he can) when an old acquaintance gets him embroiled in a murder case. For the first half of the film he does his best to distance himself from the case, enjoying a life of leisure, but when he realises he can no longer avoid it he attacks the mystery with gusto.

What sets this apart from most murder mysteries is that we don’t really care whodunit; we’re far too busy enjoying the verbal jousting of Powell and Loy. The films script is still a comic goldmine (“Waiter, will you serve the nuts? I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts?”) but it’s the comic timing and amazing chemistry between the two stars that really make this a cut above the rest. Powell, glass almost always in hand, is perfect as the reluctant sleuth and Myrna Loy shines as his sexy and sassy Watson.

The dinner party denouement brings things to a satisfyingly witty end that sees Powell toying with all the suspects before forcing the real culprit to show his hand. The benchmark for every detective couple since, this may have had its imitators, particularly the likes of McMillan and Wife and Hart to Hart, but no betters.

Animonday: Titan A.E. September 18, 2007

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Science Fiction , 5 comments

This week’s animated feature comes from the US rather than Japan but it certainly owes a debt to anime films with its epic SF ideas. In the first ten minutes we’ve witnessed the destruction of the earth by an alien race bent on the annihilation of the human race, with the remnants of mankind scattered throughout the galaxy.

If the ideas are anime inspired the characters are straight out of Star Wars, Matt Damon’s Cale and Bill Pullman’s Korso are Luke and Han from Lucas’s space opera, with the only real difference being that Korso is the optimist and Cale the realist. We also get a spunky female character in the shape of Akima, voiced by Drew Barrymore.

The plot is simple, a search for the lost ship Titan that holds the future of mankind within its metal hull, but it does take an unexpected (and very un-Star Wars) turn midway through the film that you don’t expect in an American animated film.

It’s the visuals that really make the film stand-out, with its blend of both old style and computer animation. The chase through the hydrogen trees and the cat and mouse game in the ice crystals are the highlights. In fact the latter has a touch of Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn about it and that film is also plundered for Titan A.E.’s ending with the Titan very reminiscent of Project Genesis.

But while it may ape a lot of other films it’s still an enjoyable experience with some top notch voice acting and mind blowing visuals being the films biggest assets.

And if you’ve ever wondered what Matt Damon would have been like as Luke (or Bill Pullman as Han for that matter) then this is the film for you.

Sci Fi Sunday: Time After Time September 16, 2007

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Such a simple idea – H. G. Wells builds a time machine, Jack the Ripper steals it and Wells has to chase him into the future – it’s a wonder no one thought of it before. This isn’t heavy SF, the effects, what few there are, aren’t what you called jaw dropping but the films is more concerned with character than exploring the fantastical elements of the story. There are no time paradoxes here, no fear of changing the past or the future, of destroying the fabric of reality; instead we get a love story.

Malcolm McDowell’s Wells is a stranger in a strange land, everything is alien to him and he brings a whimsical quality to the film. As his nemesis, David Warner gives the film its edge. Even though the Ripper is never really explored, we don’t find out what made his tick, why he does what he does, Warner still manages to make him real, not just a one dimensional bogeyman. The films best scene is their confrontation in a hotel room. It not only shows what great actors the pair are but also the contrast between the characters, with Warner’s Dr Stevenson as at home in the ‘70s as Wells is out of place.

What gives the film its centre is the relationship between Wells and Amy Robbins. It’s a relationship that shouldn’t really work, a bank employee falling for this strange Englishman should stretch credibility too far but thankfully Mary Steenburgen got the part. Steenburgen is, frankly, a bit odd. She’s not the actress you pick if you want normal but for a quirky romance she’s just right. She’s as perfect a match for Wells as she would be for Doc Brown years later in Back to the Future Part III. Of course it helps that McDowell and Steenburgen were falling for each other in real life.

Nicholas Meyer isn’t a prolific director. This was his first film and in the twenty-eight years since he’s only made seven more but with the exception of breathing life into the Star Trek movie franchise with The Wrath of Kahn this is his finest hour. There aren’t many films that have taken science fiction elements and blended them into a romantic thriller with such wit and charm and it’s stood the test of time extremely well.

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