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Animonday: Ninja Scroll October 30, 2007

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

I’m sure had I seen Ninja Scroll for the first time fifteen years ago when it was made that I’d have thought it incredibly cool, just as I did with Akira when that was released. The film’s blend of sex, violence and gore is aimed at a young male audience and back then I’d have just about qualified (I was 28). But sadly I didn’t see it then and watching it for the first time as a 42 year old it doesn’t really impress.

The sex is lurid and a little juvenile, the violence incredibly stylised but excessively graphic. Only the plot’s machinations hold up for this somewhat jaded viewer, with characters displaying hidden depths and motivations and even the love story angle works.

The animation wasn’t state of the art when it was made and now looks incredibly dated. While I can see why some would rate this as one of the best anime films ever made it wouldn’t make my top ten but then, as the director says in an interview on the DVD, “teenagers are my target audience” and I haven’t been one of them for quite awhile.

Sci Fi Sunday: The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy October 28, 2007

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Comedy, Science Fiction , 3 comments

After a radio show, a TV series and a book, maybe the Hitchhikers Guide idea has been done to death, that could be the reason this cinematic incarnation fails to work. Or it could be that the film is just crap.

Martin Freeman’s Arthur Dent is so unbearably dull that the destruction of the world would seem like a small price to pay to be rid of him. Dent is supposed to be a normal guy, Mr Average, but that shouldn’t equate to being a complete personality vacuum.

Worse still is Mos Def. Ford Prefect was my favourite character in the TV incarnation but here he’s a nonentity, even overshadowed by Freeman’s Dent. Mos Def is most definitely not Ford Prefect and if you were to look him up in the Hitchhikers Guide I doubt you’d find the word actor used to describe him.

Sam Rockwell is a great actor but for some reason he seems to be playing Zaphod Beeblebrox as John Travolta at his most over the top and with a Texas accent. It’s not totally unfunny but it comes close.

Even the two casting choices that seem inspired, Stephen Fry and Alan Rickman, fail to work. If you have to replace Peter Jones as the voice of The Book (and as Peter Jones sadly died five years before the film was made one can allow the filmmakers that necessity, had he been alive the thought of replacing him would be almost sacrilegious) then Stephen Fry is as good a choice as I can think of, but for some reason it doesn’t work. Poor writing? Jones so ingrained in the mind that no one could compete? Probably a little of both but whatever the reason, Fry is almost as disappointing as Freeman and Def.

In the same way that Peter Jones IS The Book, Stephen Moore is Marvin, so Alan Rickman faced the same problems as Stephen Fry and failed to surmount them for the same reasons. The android with emotional problems should be the funniest part in the film but I barely even smiled and certainly didn’t chuckle.

Only Bill Nighy as Slatibartfast manages to hold his own when compared to the original, somehow his exuberance and energy overshadow the films failings and he manages the almost impossible feat (at least for this film) of being funny. Unfortunately he’s only onscreen for about five minutes.

Director Garth Jennings was onto a loser from the start, how could his film possibly live up to previous, much loved, versions of the tale? It couldn’t of course but it’s how far it falls short of them that’s so amazing. This would be a bad film even if it was the only version but, with others showing that you don’t need a Hollywood sized budget to do the story justice, it seems even worse.

It’s only with the special effects that the film surpasses the TV version, although it still can’t match the ‘special effects’ in my head that accompanied the radio show. At the end of the film, before the credits role, For Douglas appears onscreen. It’s a nice sentiment but the film is hardly a fitting tribute to Adams’ genius.

The Weekend Western: The Last Sunset October 27, 2007

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

Kirk Douglas is Brendan O’Malley, who arrives at the Mexican home of his ex-sweetheart (Dorothy Malone) and her husband (Joseph Cotten) on the run for murder. On his trail is Dana Stribling (Rock Hudson) whose brother-in-law O’Malley murdered.

If that all sounds a touch melodramatic that’s because it is, and things get worse when Cotten is murdered and Douglas and Hudson compete for Malone’s affections on a cattle drive from Mexico to Texas. Hudson has vowed to kill Douglas when they cross the border and it’s this confrontation that the film builds too. Unfortunately it seems to take an age getting there.

Douglas is the films biggest plus. He’s playing the sort of snappily dressed charmer we’ve seen him do often before but there is an undercurrent of violence too O’Malley that gives Douglas a little more to work with. Top billed Hudson’s character is too straight-laced to be really interesting but it’s a solid performance.

It’s a shame Joseph Cotten is dispatched so soon as his is by far the most interesting character, an alcoholic ex-Confederate officer with a shameful past. His first scene with Douglas is the best the film has to offer, with the two sparking off each other in a way that Hudson doesn’t even come close too.

Adding to the melodramatic nature of the film, Douglas hooks up with Malone’s daughter near the end of the film which leads to a surprise revelation (surprising but completely in keeping with the tone of the film) that provides the impetus for the long awaited showdown. After over 100 minutes of build up it’s an almost inevitable letdown with the winner coming as no surprise at all.

Robert Aldrich is too good a director for The Last Sunset to be completely without merit but it doesn’t come close to his best work.

The Friday Night Fright: Man with the Screaming Brain

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

Bruce Campbell’s feature debut as a director is a comedy that suffers from the worst thing a comedy can suffer from – it’s not funny.

Based on Campbell’s Dark Horse comic the film is about a rich American who undergoes experimental brain surgery that leaves him with two personalities, his own and that of the brain donor, a Bulgarian taxi driver. Both men were “murdered” by the same woman, as was Campbell’s wife, who finds her brain transplanted into the body of a dancing robot.

The original comic was set in L.A. but for the film it’s transplanted to Bulgaria for budget reasons and the production looks cheap (it was a Sci Fi Channel original movie). Still Bruce is used to working on micro budget films and money isn’t what makes this a dud, that’s down mainly to the script.

With the exception of the films star the performances aren’t up to much. Stacy Keach looks embarrassed as the mad scientist Dr Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov but far worse is Ted Raimi as his imbecile assistant, Pavel. Raimi clearly thinks he’s funny, and one has to assume Campbell does too, but he’s groan inducingly bad.

Luckily Bruce is on hand and displays his gift for physical comedy. The restaurant scene and the bar room fight may not rank alongside the possessed hand in Evil Dead 2 but they’re the films finest moments.

I’m a big Bruce Campbell fan and I really wanted to like this film but it really isn’t worthy of the King of the B movies and has even managed to put a damper on my enthusiasm for My Name Is Bruce, on the plus side though the extras on the DVD are far more entertaining than the actual film.

There won’t be a Friday Night Fright next week as I’ll be at the FrightFest all-nighter (with George Romero!) but as it’s Halloween week all the other regular Mine Was Taller features (Animonday, Watching the Detectives, The Weekend Western and Sci Fi Sunday) will be taking a darker turn.

Watching the Detectives: Jackie Chan is Inspector Chan in New Police Story October 25, 2007

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

We first encounter Inspector Chan as a drunk who collapses in a back alley before learning via flashback what brought him to that sad state. No, it wasn’t the thought of making a third Rush Hour film with Chris Tucker, Chan lost his entire team after being outwitted by a group of master criminals and unable to deal with his failure he took solace in the bottle. With the help of a new partner he pulls himself back together and goes in search of the men (and woman) who murdered his friends.

The film is going for a grittier feel than the previous Police Story films but it doesn’t quite work. Chan isn’t a great character actor, his stumbling drunk isn’t very convincing and owes more to his hero Buster Keaton than it does to the method acting school. When the film settles for action though, Chan is in his element; even at 50 he’s still doing things that others wouldn’t even try.

The film lacks the fun that’s always been inherent in the series, although it’s not completely without humour. It’s the uneven tone that really lets it down – if you want to see an action packed Jackie Chan film you’re better of with the original Police Story, if it’s something more down to earth then Crime Story fits the bill. New Police Story wants to have its cake and eat it too and that makes it far less satisfying than it could have been.

Animonday: Spriggan October 23, 2007

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Animation, Science Fiction , add a comment

This is epic anime – big SF ideas and big action sequences. The film deals with alien technology hidden on Earth and a secret organisation designed to keep mankind safe from it, there’s also a healthy dose of James Bond and Indiana Jones in the mix.

The film has a high WOW factor but falls down when it comes to character. Only Yu Ominae, the lead Spriggan agent, gets any real depth but when you have a film this action packed something has to give and in this case it’s character. While it may lack real emotional depth it does have an overtly political subtext, with the American villains’ codenamed Fatman and Little Boy (for those who don’t know they were the codenames of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

The ending sets the film up for a sequel but almost 10 years on there’s no sign of one. Perhaps the lack of an emotional connection to the characters in favour of none stop action ultimately backfired, with the film worth seeing for the spectacle but ultimately vacuous.

Sci Fi Sunday: The Hidden October 21, 2007

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

A body hopping alien with a taste for loud music, fast cars and gratuitous violence – it must be the ‘80s!

The film is a buddy cop movie with only one half of the duo human, a bit like Alien Nation only good. Director Jack Sholder wastes no time getting things moving, in the first ten minutes we get a bank robbery and a superb car chase that sets the tone for the rest of the film.

There are some brilliantly staged action set pieces, excellent gross out effects and great performances from the two leads and from the people “possessed” by the alien, in particular William Boyett and Claudia Christian.

To me there has always been something a little odd about Kyle MacLachlan, he’s not an actor I’d find convincing in overtly emotional parts but here, and to a lesser extent in Twin Peaks, that works in his favour. As the alien half of the team he’s not completely emotionless, there is an inherent sadness in the character, but it’s subdued and MacLachlan plays it perfectly.

Michael Nouri gets the more traditional cop role, tough guy at work but a loving family man at home. He does a good job but it’s really MacLachlan and the alien villain’s film.

William Boyett as the second incarnation of the alien is simply brilliant. It’s a dialogue free role but you don’t need dialogue with a face like Boyett’s, it’s a part that goes from the comedic (farting in the restaurant) to the violent (stealing the car) but he’s perfect throughout. As the next host, Claudia Christian gives a memorably revealing performance that’s a world away from her most famous role in Babylon 5. In fact given the aliens trouble with the wind earlier it might explain Christina’s somewhat draughty choice of attire.

The script has some great dialogue but also a few plot holes (no x-rays in the hospital?) and things are tied up perhaps a little too neatly in the end, still it’s a great piece of ‘80s B movie style SF, the kind of thing we sadly don’t see very often anymore.

The Weekend Western: Run, Man, Run

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

Tomas Milian stars as a Mexican vagabond in search of a hidden cache of gold in this superior spaghetti western from director Sergio Sollima.

Milian’s Cuchillo has a talent with a knife but prefers to make his living as a small time thief. After helping a revolutionary poet escape prison he finds himself in search of hidden treasure to aid the revolution when the poet is murdered by bandits. He’s not alone, an American ex-lawman, Mexican bandits, French mercenaries and even a Salvation Army woman are in on the hunt.

While there’s the usual spaghetti western violence the film also has a softer, more comical side. Cuchillo is no Eastwood style superman, he’s a scruffy little tramp but one with a heart of gold. He provides the film with its sense of fun while Donald O’Brien has the more traditional role of the former lawman turned treasure hunter. While he’s no Clint, he does a fair job as the gunman who ends up working alongside Cuchillo.

The film has plenty of action, with the snowbound chase scene particularly memorable. Sollima’s finest moment though comes at the film’s climax, with a The Good, the Bad and the Ugly style showdown given a twist in that Millian uses a knife rather than a gun.

At two hours it’s a little overlong, much of the Texas town sequence could have been excised, but it’s a good film nonetheless. Veteran spaghetti western composer Ennio Morricone’s score isn’t as original as the ones he did for Leone but it’s still memorable with a suitably rousing main theme.

I’m now eager to see Tomas Milian’s first appearance as Cuchillo is Sollima’s The Big Gundown which promises to be a somewhat darker take on the character (he’s being hunted for raping and killing a 12 year old girl). The only question is, do I go for the Japanese DVD of the US cut with English audio or the German DVD of the longer version with Italian audio and English subs? Or both?

The Friday Night Fright: The Toolbox Murders October 19, 2007

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

For this weeks Friday horror flick we have some late seventies sleaze starring the one and only Cameron Mitchell. Most people when they pop down to B&Q have a little DIY on there minds but our Cam has other plans for a Black and Decker power drill than putting up a few shelves.

What we have here are generous helpings (at least in the first half of the film) of bloody violence (no big effects shots though, the budget wouldn’t stretch to that) nudity (the bath scene is like a soft core porn film) and naff ‘70s country music. In fact, given that his victims are all listening to the kind of country music that’s so saccharine it could rot your teeth, one has to feel a little sympathy for Cameron; surely this is a case of justifiable homicide?

The film slows down in the second half after Cameron kidnaps a teenager to act as a surrogate for his dead daughter. In fact, until the over the top climax where we find that Mitchell isn’t the only barmy bugger in the family, it’s a tad dull. Luckily the climax is worth the wait and must surely have been an influence on Scream.

This is trashy fun in the way that only bad films can be, Cameron is suitably demented but it’s Tim Donnelly (brother of the films director, Dennis) who makes the biggest impression (for the wrong reasons) in the scene where he’s hitting on the kidnapped girls mother.

Oh yeah, the kidnapped girls name is Laurie, a popular moniker for girls being terrorised by mask wearing maniacs in 1978 it seems.

Watching the Detectives: Peter Lorre is Kentaro Moto in Thank You, Mr. Moto October 18, 2007

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

Peter Lorre’s Kentaro Moto is part Sherlock Holmes (detective extraordinaire, master of disguise) part James Bond (snappy dresser, more than willing to mix it up with the bad guys). Ten minutes into this second Moto feature and he’s already displayed all of those abilities and that’s one of the big pluses about these films – they may be low budget and formulaic but they waste no time getting down to the good stuff.

Peter Lorre plays the part with conviction and, while we’re never fooled into believing he’s really Japanese, he shows a level of respect for the part that’s admirable. This is no cartoonish parody of an Asian, so often seen in the Hollywood of the times. Moto is (almost) always one step ahead of anyone else in the film and displays a wonderful sense of humour, albeit a touch black.

Here he’s out to foil some nefarious antique smugglers’ attempts to find the lost tome of Genghis Khan, along the way befriending Prince Chung, played by Philip Ahn, probably most famous as Master Kan in ‘70s TV series Kung Fu. Also on hand is John Carradine as a Spanish antique dealer, his first of two appearances in the Moto series.

This isn’t high art but it is a fun way to spend an hour or so and if you’re a Peter Lorre fan so much the better.

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