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TV Tomb: Beasts November 27, 2007

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

A new, semi-regular (depending on how long it takes me to watch them) series on Mine Was Taller, TV Tomb will take a look at some bygone shows. Ranging from the ‘50s to the modern day with shows from the UK, USA and maybe even further afield, the only criteria for inclusion will be that the series has ended its run and thus been consigned to the “TV Tomb”. First up is an ITV show from the mid-seventies that lasted only one season.

Beasts is a series of six self contained dramas with a horror bent from the pen of Quatermass creator Nigel Neale. I didn’t watch the show when it first aired back in 1976, I was eleven at the time and it was probably shown after my bedtime, so this DVD release from Network was my first exposure to it.

It looks dated in its production values but for the most part the stories still stand up. As with many television dramas of the time is was shot on video tape and on the kind of ‘70s sets that never fooled anyone into believing they were the real thing, so it’s not particularly pleasing on the eye. Some of the acting is a little too broad, having more in common with stage acting than film, but there are some standout performances.

High points are the episodes “Baby” and “What Big Eyes”. The first deals with the mummified remains of a baby (of unknown species) found in the walls of a country cottage owned by a young vet and his pregnant wife. The episode’s creepy atmosphere and a fine performance from Jane Wymark manage to overcome a lack of action and the overly dramatic performance of Simon MaCorkindale. The final scene closely mirrored that of Inside which I’d seen just days before at the FrightFest all-nighter and may have added to the unsettling nature of the episode and enhanced its ability to creep me out.

“What Big Eyes”, as you probably guessed, is a werewolf tale but one with a difference. Loopy scientist Leo Raymount is convinced that man has an inherent ability to transform into a wolf and, with a serum created from wolf blood and himself as a test subject, he’s determined to prove his theory or die trying. The episode is virtually a two-hander with Patrick Magee giving a tour de force performance as Raymount opposite a young Michael Kitchen as an RSPCA officer trying to find out what happened to the wolves used in Raymount’s experiments.

It’s clear that Neale was keeping up with his horror reading with two episodes “borrowing” from a couple of then current horror novels. “Special Offer” is Stephen King’s Carrie moved from a school to a supermarket with Pauline Quirke as a girl with telekinetic powers that she can’t control. The episode doesn’t really work, with the story not strong enough to support the fifty minute running time and the performances lacking the scene stealing power of Magee.

Far better is the oddly titled “During Barty’s Party” which plays like a chapter from James Herbert’s Rats. Another two-hander, this time with Anthony Bate and Elizabeth Sellars playing a married couple terrorised in their country home by marauding rats. The fact that the rats are never seen, only heard, adds to the tension and the small cast helps give the episode a suitably claustrophobic feel with the tension mounting steadily throughout.

The oddest episode is “Buddyboy” about the ghost of a dolphin haunting its old pool. Martin Shaw is pretty good as a sleazy porn entrepreneur who plans to turn the disused pool into an “adult” cinema but the story is too weird to really work.

“The Dummy” is another interesting failure. An actor playing a monster in a horror film runs amok when he immerses himself a little too much in the part. The story is a sly jab at Hammer after Neale’s less than happy experience working with the company, with the creature dubbed “The Dummy” a surrogate for the author who perhaps felt himself something of a dummy for being taken in by the studio.

Also on the DVD is an episode of Against the Crowd written by Neale and titled “Murrain”. Superstitious villagers become convinced that a local woman is a witch who’s responsible for a run of ill luck in the area and they try and enlist the aid of an out of town vet, with disastrous results. The episode feels like a dry run for Beasts, with a similar mix of the real world rubbing shoulders with the unknown. Bernard Lee, as a local farmer and ringleader of the witch-hunt, gives a great performance that’s a world away from his most famous role as M in the Bond films.

Beasts is always entertaining, with even the weaker episodes having some redeeming features and at its best it’s a fine example of how good TV horror can be.

Animonday: Steamboy

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

Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s steampunk epic shows us a past where steam technology…well lets just say it goes way beyond powering ships and trains.

One family, appropriately named Steam, have made a breakthrough in steam power, a breakthrough that has divided father and son and that rift threatens to start a war between two nations. James Ray Steam, the youngest scientific mind in the Steam clan, finds himself caught between his father and his grandfather over how the power should be used. Can the young “Steamboy” stop a war starting between Britain and American?

Packed with great characters and huge action sequences (you’ll see the Crystal Palace destroyed!), Ôtomo’s film is a true anime epic. A visual feast that still finds time to ask moralistic questions such as: what responsibility does a scientist have in how his invention is used? It’s impossible not to see the massive steam tower at the films climax as anything but an allegory for the atomic bomb.

The film isn’t bogged down by such weighty issues though; it’s a fun ride that never lets up, with even the few quieter moments full of such delicious eye candy that you’re never bored. It’s also pretty darn unique; I mean what other anime can you think of where the hero comes from Manchester and rubs shoulders with the likes of Robert Stephenson and Scarlet Ohara? Not to mention referencing Coronation Street.

Steamboy is a masterpiece and deserves a place in any anime fans collection, but it will also appeal to those whose taste doesn’t normally stretch to Japanese animation.

Sci Fi Sunday: Eolomea November 26, 2007

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Science Fiction , 10 comments

Spacecraft are going missing en route to an orbiting space station, cause unknown, and a ban is put in force stopping all space travel until the matter it resolved. One scientist seems to know more than he lets on; what is he hiding and how does it tie in to an old aborted mission to an alien world that may have been probing Earth for decades?

This East German movie from 1972 lacks the special effects budget and technical expertise of Western movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Silent Running and so wisely keeps the effects work to a minimum instead concentrating on character. The result is a very talky film that seems longer than its 80 minute running time but it allows the protagonists to be more fully explored giving the viewer someone to connect with. Space exploration it seems is just like any other job, monotonous and often dull with the men working there wishing they were back on terra firma with their lover or son.

It’s an interesting approach, the opposite of the WOW! factor inherent in the trippy 2001: A Space Odyssey. The ending however is a let down, not in its explanation but because it finishes just as the film was getting really interesting. In fact the end of the film would just have been the start of the second act in an American movie.

No classic but it does have curiosity value for science fiction fans interested in more than just the American view of space exploration.

The Weekend Western: Massacre at Grand Canyon November 24, 2007

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

After killing the final two members of the gang that murdered his father death, Wes Evans (James Mitchum) returns home but finds that home isn’t what it used to be. His girlfriend is now married to a local rancher’s son and there’s a land war going on between her in-laws and another land owner. It’s not long before Evans is drawn into the conflict.

James Mitchum looks a lot like his dad but it soon becomes clear that charisma isn’t a genetic trait. In a supporting role he’d be fine but he lacks the presence of a leading man, this makes Wes Evans a rather dull character and, as the film is centred round him, it makes for a rather dull film.

Dull it may be but it is of some historical significance as the first western from director Sergio Corbucci who would go on to make one of the landmark spaghetti westerns, Django, within a couple of years. Here he shares directing duties with Alfredo Antonini aka Albert Band who would become known for producing schlock horror films as well as “producing” Charles Band who would carry on the family tradition of low budget horror.

There’s none of the flair that Corbucci would bring to his later westerns and none of the graphic violence either, instead we get a pedestrian tale that feels more like a second rate American B western with only the bad dubbing showing its true origin. Even the music, something which would become such an integral part of the spaghetti western phenomenon, is here distinctly lacking. Gianni Ferrio’s score is often inappropriately upbeat, ruining the mood of key scenes.

Massacre at Grand Canyon is interesting as an early, pre A Fistful of Dollars, Italian western, showing just how original Sergio Leone was with his first crack at the genre.

The Friday Night Fright: The Haunted House of Horror

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

When one of there number is murdered at a party in a local haunted house a group of trendy young things, led by Frankie Avalon, decide that instead of doing the logical thing and calling the police they’ll cover up the crime to avoid drawing unwanted attention to themselves.

Who is the killer? Is it the ghost who supposedly haunts the house? Or is it one of the partygoers? And can the viewer stay awake long enough to find out? The answer to the latter question is yes, but only just.

The films production was a mess, with director/writer Michael Armstrong removed from the project before it was completed. The final result is a thriller trying to be a horror film and succeeding as neither. Armstrong shot about a third of the finished film, so he’s not without blame, and much of his dialogue is far too of its period to be anything but a joke now.

There’s plenty of ketchup thrown around during a couple of murders and you can kill the time between deaths by playing “spot the TV star” with Richard O’Sullivan and George Sewell, among others, making an appearance. Sewell’s part as a jealous sugar daddy is just padding and adds absolutely nothing to the finished film. Likewise Dennis Prices’ police inspector is there just to add a recognisable name to the credits, with Price on the downward spiral that would lead to Jess Franco crap like Devil’s Island Lovers.

Still it’s not without one redeeming factor – Frankie Avalon gets a knife in the groin.

Watching the Detectives: William Powell and Myrna Loy are Nick and Nora Charles in After the Thin Man November 23, 2007

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

Powell and Loy are as witty and charming as they were in the first Thin Man film and they get good support from a very young James Stewart but the script doesn’t have quite the sparkle of the earlier film and at almost two hours it’s a little long.

This time the intrepid pair investigate the murder of Nora’s cousin, Selma’s husband. As with the first film though the sleuthing takes a backseat to the repartee between the pair and Powell in particular is on fine form: “Come on, let’s get something to eat. I’m thirsty.”

Stewart is impressive, particularly late on, in an unusual part for him. In fact the films biggest fault is too much of Asta, the dog, and not enough Jimmy.

It’s a fun two hours though and it left me looking forward to meeting probably the most inebriated detective in the history of cinema and his lovely wife again soon.

Animonday: Final Fantasy VII – Advent Children November 19, 2007

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

This movie spin off from the long running Final Fantasy game series is doubtless essential viewing for fans of the games but for everyone else it’s almost completely incomprehensible. Characters pop up without explanation and the film assumes the viewer will already have knowledge of the protagonist’s relationships and motivations. It’s a bit like watching Return of the Jedi having never seen Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back.

Visually though the film is a treat with some of the best computer generated animation I’ve ever seen. The design work is unique and the battle scenes spectacular, although there are only so many sword fights you can watch before it gets repetitive, and without the grounding in the mythology and characters it’s hard to really care about anyone.

In fact the final half hour feels like you’re watching someone else play a visually impressive video game. It’s “big fight, followed by motor cycle chase, followed by big fight” structure is like the levels in a game, it feels like you should be hitting “save” at the end of every big action sequence.

Interesting more than enjoyable, the film does show what’s now possible with computer animation and during one big action sequence featuring a very big beastie I was struck by how good a Godzilla film would be if animated in this style. Now that’s a film I’d really like to see…

Sci Fi Sunday: The Jacket

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

The Jacket takes that hoary old SF chestnut, time travel, dispenses with the usual preoccupations of such tales – the how, the why and the potential ramifications – and instead gives us a love story.

A brain damaged Gulf War vet gets framed for murder and becomes an inmate at the Alpine Grove mental institution. Pretty soon one of the doctors is using him to test an experimental treatment that consists of doping him up, putting him in a straight jacket, and then sticking him in a morgue drawer for a few hours. Instead of feeling like he’s gone back to the womb as intended, he finds himself several years in the future. It sounds completely nuts, and as a piece of serious science fiction I suppose it is, but this isn’t a film concerned with SF conventions, it’s a film about damaged people, finding love and purpose.

Adding to the unorthodox nature of the film is Adrien Brody as the time travelling mental patient. Brody isn’t your typical leading man, he doesn’t have matinee idol looks like Brad Pitt, he looks like a regular guy and he brings that feeling to a character facing extreme experiences. He manages to keep a film about time travel via morgue drawer “real” with a performance that’s powerfully emotional yet never resort to histrionics.

He gets good support from Keira Knightley and Jennifer Jason Leigh as love interest and concerned doctor respectively. Knightley is an actress I can usually take or leave but she really impressed me here and Leigh gives her usual strong performance. Only Kris Kristofferson seems a little out of place as the doctor whose experiment sends Brody into the future.

Director John Maybury never allows style to overshadow the characters but still presents a visually impassive film that reminded me a little of Darren Aronofsky’s work in the way it puts character and imagery over plot.

It’s fitting that such an unconventional film should have a score by Brian Eno and the music legend doesn’t let the side down, providing a soundtrack that’s at times creepy and at other heart-warming but never predictable.

The Jacket was far better than I’d expected and the sort of SF none-SF fans would enjoy.

The Weekend Western: Lonely Are the Brave November 18, 2007

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

Westerns don’t need to be epics or even period pieces to be classics, as this contemporary tale of a cowboy in a world that’s moved on without him shows.

When John W. “Jack” Burns (Kirk Douglas) learns that an old friend has been sent to prison for trying to help illegal Mexican immigrants he gets himself arrested in order to see him. Failing to persuade him to break jail, Burns goes on the run alone, with Sheriff Morey Johnson (Walter Matthau) leading the hunt.

David Miller’s paean to a disappearing way of life, and to the freedom that went with it, is a superior piece of filmmaking. Everyone involved is at the top of the game, both in front and behind the camera, and the resulting film is a minor classic.

Burns must rank among Douglas’ finest performances. A true free spirit, with no home or steady job, Burns goes where the mood takes him and Douglas makes this carefree wanderer real. Through his eyes we see how the world is changing, full of fences and signs, rules and regulations. It’s become a world in which men like Jack Burns are obsolete, a world that if you don’t move with it, will run right over you.

The part of Sheriff Johnson is tailor made for Walter Matthau, his hangdog features fitting the character to a T. Johnson, one feels not only has some admiration for his quarry but also sympathy with his plight. His job is as predictable as the dog he watches from his office window everyday, and you sense that part of him relishes the change of pace, while another regrets the inevitable outcome.

Also making an impression is George Kennedy as a sadistic guard. Watching this, it’s no surprise that he went on to bigger things and within five years he was Oscar nominated for a performance that put him on the other side of the bars in Cool Hand Luke.

The film looks great, with the cinematography by Philip H. Lathrop breathtaking, making the most of the impressive New Mexico locations during the chase sequence. Legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith provides the films score and it’s a good one, perfectly underpinning the action and the emotion.

Best of all though is Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay, which sets the scene in the first half of the film and the lets the action take over when the manhunt begins. Trumbo was a Douglas favourite after Spartacus, providing the script for the much less impressive The Last Sunset the year before. Here he gives the actors the ammunition they need to give such impressive performances. While the other films he made with Douglas were a bit overwritten, Lonely Are the Brave says what it has to say early on and then lets the characters and the action take over. Its finale though punctuates the films message all too literally.

Fans of Sylvester Stallone’s First Blood should check this out, as it’s virtually the same story, just with added violence and Sly’s Viet Nam vet in place of Kirk’s cowboy.

The Friday Night Fright: The Mothman Prophecies November 17, 2007

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

I have to admit I didn’t know much about The Mothman Prophecies when I bought it. I knew it wasn’t an updating of the Peter Cushing “classic” The Blood Beast Terror, but rather some sort of supernatural thriller that starred Richard Gere and was supposed to be based on “true events.” What led to my purchasing the DVD though was that it cost £2 which was exactly the amount I had left to spend after trading some DVDs at the local CEX store.

The “Mothman” of the title is a harbinger of doom and residents of Point Pleasant have started seeing the creature with alarming regularity. What widowed journalist John Klein has to figure out is just what impending disaster awaits the town.

The film doesn’t really deliver on the scare front but just about works as a supernatural thriller. Its only really spooky moments being a couple of phone calls between Klein and the apparently omniscient Indrid Cole (the name the mothman uses).

Spinning a thirty minute Twilight Zone plot into a two hour movie means that far too little happens for the bulk of the running time. When things finally kick of at the end the film owes as much to Irwin Allen disaster movies as any horror film, although the final punch line adds a nice twist to the tale.

For a film of this length you’d expect some well developed characters but only Gere’s journalist is really explored, and even he can be summed up as “grieving husband misses his dead wife.” Laura Linney’s cop/new love interest for Gere is as much a blank slate at the end of the film as she is when we first encounter her.

I got the impression director Mark Pellington thinks his film is more important than it really is and I had a similar complaint about his previous film, Arlington Road. He’s a visually impressive director but his po-faced approach to his subject matter prevents his films being as entertaining as they could be.

At two quid though it’s hard to complain too much about The Mothman Prophecies, even if a remake of The Blood Beast Terror would probably have been more fun.

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