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Sci Fi Sunday: In the Dust of the Stars December 31, 2007

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

The final film in the DEFA science fiction box set is by far the worst. A spacecraft lands on an alien world in response to a distress signal but the inhabitants claim the message was only sent to test the transmitter. Before long the crew of the ship find that the real natives of the planet are being used as slaves to work in mines under the supervision of an alien race.

To call the film simplistic would be to understate matters. The evil aliens forcing the natives to work in the mines are the evil capitalists (to show how evil they are, they keep snakes as pets!) while the good aliens are the communists, come to save the poor downtrodden workers from oppression. The film has nothing more to offer than that jingoistic point of view and it gets tired long before the 90min running time has run its course.

In place of a more interesting plot we get some dance sequences, including one in the nude (though only in silhouette). Imagine Pan’s People in a musical episode of Doctor Who (original vintage, not the current series) but without the charismatic presence of the Doctor and you’ll have some idea of how tedious this was to sit through.

It’s hard to believe this was made only the year before Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s not just budget and language that set the films apart but ideals as well. Hollywood had got over it’s obsession with invading aliens/communists but on the other side of the Iron Curtain they were still pushing the same tired propaganda.

The Weekend Western: The Professionals

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

A Texas millionaire hires four men to rescue his wife, who’s been kidnapped by Mexican bandits, but all is not as it seems as the soldiers of fortune soon discover. They find themselves with a dilemma – do they complete the mission and collect their money or do they do they stand up for what’s right?

A proto-Wild Bunch? The Dirty Dozen go west? While the film shares its setting (Mexico) and period (early 20th Century) with the Wild Bunch it lacks the depth of character and the “end of an era” feel of Peckinpah’s film. As for The Dirty Dozen, Lee Marvin may have been in charge of the in both films but in The Professionals he’s surrounded by just that – men who know there trade, be in explosives or horses, better than anyone else, rather than condemned men whose only goal is survival.

Richard Brooks provided the script as well as directing the film, and it’s a good one. It may not have the scope of The Wild Bunch but it’s far from a dumb film. Its meditations on the nature of freedom and revolution don’t feel heavy handed and never get in the way of the (plentiful) action. It’s the kind of movie they’ve forgotten how to make these days, where an action movie is measured by how many and how big the explosions are.

Brooks may have had a great script but it’s his cast that really make it work. Woody Strode and Robert Ryan may have the less showy parts but they do sterling work, Ryan is particularly good as the man who cares more for horses than he does for men. The stars of the film though are Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster.

Lancaster gets all the funniest lines as well as the best action set piece, a one man holding action that allows the others to get back across the border. His and Marvin’s characters have a history together, having both fought in the Mexican revolution, and that sense of familiar camaraderie is well realised.

If Lancaster gets all the laughs, Marvin gets the best line, a classic closing shot that’s aimed at Ralph Bellamy, who plays the millionaire. Bellamy, unhappy with the turn of events, calls Marvin a bastard. “Yes, Sir. In my case an accident of birth. But you, Sir, you’re a self-made man.” retorts Marvin before riding off with his companions.

Jack Palance makes a convincing Mexican bandit and if Claudia Cardinale is somewhat less believable as the kidnapped wife, who cares? “$100,000 for a wife? She must be a lot of woman!” quips Lancaster at one point and if she fails as a Mexican she certainly fits the bill as “a lot of woman.”

If The Professionals had been made today there would doubtless have been a sequel, thankfully it came before the term “flogging a dead horse” became Hollywood’s byword. Lucky really as Ryan’s character wouldn’t stand for that sort of thing.

The Friday Night Fright: The Beast in the Cellar December 29, 2007

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

This low budget shocker from Tigon stars those two titans of terror… Beryl Reid and Flora Robson? Yes, Reid, one of Britain’s most cherished comediennes, and Robson, who made her name with serious dramatic roles in Black Narcissus and the like, slum it in this torrid shocker.

The veteran actresses play a pair of spinster sisters with a dark secret in their cellar. When soldiers from the local army base start getting murdered, by what police at first think may be an animal, the old biddies realise that their long kept secret is not just out, but roaming the countryside killing people.

It’s a rather silly story, very similar to The Ghoul starring Peter Cushing that followed some years later. The actresses give decent performances, with Reid showing she was a capable dramatic actress; in fact it’s Reid who provides the films creepiest moment as she makes her confession to the police, bringing a childlike innocence to the character. The murders though feel like they’re from a different film, one bent on cheap shocks rather than atmospheric scares, unfortunately failing to even achieve that.

The Beast in the Cellar is only recommended for those with a strong interest in ‘60s/’70’s British horror, anyone else would be better off looking elsewhere for their scares.

TV Tomb: McMillan & Wife - Season 1 December 28, 2007

Posted by Ian W in : TV Reviews , add a comment

This is a real blast from the past. NBC’s Mystery Movies from the ‘70s, which also included Colombo and McCloud, were essential weekly viewing in our household when I was growing up. Colombo always seemed a little dull (I enjoyed it more as I got older), McCloud appealed to the western addict in me, but McMillan & Wife provided pure mindless fun.

The premise is ridiculous, I’m not sure what a Police Commissioner actually does but I’d put money on it not involving car chases, shoot-outs and fist fights, but such was the daily life of Stewart ‘Mac’ McMillan as played by Rock Hudson.. I also doubt any high ranking police officer ever had a wife as lovely and kooky as Susan Saint James.

Hudson and Saint James had a great onscreen chemistry and give the impression of having just as much fun making the series as the viewer did watching it. While the absurdity of the central concept wouldn’t get of the drawing board today, the series has a certain retro charm. The murder plots may be ludicrously convoluted but they were, at least in the best episodes, secondary to the banter between the shows stars. They were a ‘70s Nick and Nora Charles, just not as pickled.

When the show deviated from that formula, like in the final episode of the first season with Saint James relegated to a secondary role (due, I think to her real life pregnancy), it drags, feeling like a standard 50 minute show padded to 70+ minutes. It was little wonder the series folded after just one season without Susan.

There are plenty of familiar faces for long-time TV fans, the pilot alone features Rene Auberjonois, Jonathan Harris (Lost in Space) and Kurt Kasznar (Land of the Giants). Also making appearances are a pre-Cagney and Lacey Tyne Daly, Don Stroud, Claude Akins and a host of others. None of the guest stars get much of a look-in though, the focus was also on the two charismatic leads.

It’s hard to imagine it having much appeal to new viewers; it’s dated (particularly Hudson’s suits!) and looks cheap compared to today’s shows. There is also some unintentional humour, given later revelations about Hudson’s sexual preferences, with Mac something of a babe magnet who has a past with almost every attractive woman he bumps into. It feels like the star was overcompensating to cover his secret life but it’s so unsubtly done it’s hard not to chuckle. With stars now far more open about there sexuality and mainstream shows featuring openly gay characters, this macho posturing just adds to the show’s dated feel.

Watching the Detectives: Boris Karloff is James Lee Wong in The Mystery of Mr. Wong December 26, 2007

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Karloff’s second outing as the Chinese answer to Sherlock Holmes follows a similar pattern to the first film – Wong is called in by a wealthy man who’s received a death threat, man dies leaving a plentiful supply of suspects, Wong solves the mystery and brings all the potential murderers together for a big revelation.

Given that this is the second time we’ve witnessed Wong called in only to have the man requesting his help die, you have to wonder why he’s held in quite such renown. Still at least if you call the master detective you can die knowing he’ll bring your killer to justice. It’s also a little surprising, given how he plays fast and loose with the evidence, that the police haven’t locked him up for interfering with an ongoing investigation. Instead they go out of their way to pick him up before going to a crime scene.

Karloff adds a touch of class to this poverty row production, even if, apart from a bit of make-up, he doesn’t do much to convince the viewer he’s Chinese. Grant Withers also returns from the first film as Sam Street, the somewhat less quick-witted police captain.

Like the first film the final revelation works quite well, we may have guessed who the killer is but the reason behind the murder comes as a surprise, yet it fits in with the information gleamed along the way.

Animonday: A Scanner Darkly December 25, 2007

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

I’ll keep this brief because it’s Christmas.

Philip K. Dick’s work is notoriously difficult to film, and while there have been some classic SF movies made from his stories (Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report) none have really captured that essential Dickness.

Richard Linklater’s film puts an end to that. All the hallucinogenic paranoia of Dick’s book is translated to the screen, as are the weird and wonderful characters that people the Dickverse. The unique animation style, rotoscoping, adds to the surreal feel of the film. The scrambler suit’s that allow the undercover agents to keep their identity secret even from the people they work with are like nothing I’ve seen in an animated film before, or a live action one come to that.

Rather than distract from the actors performances the animation seems to enhance them. Keanu Reeves, as the undercover cop investigating himself, has never been better. Winona Ryder hasn’t been this good for a long time and Woody Harrelson adds a little humour as Reeves drug buddy. Best of all though is Robert Downey Jr. whose highly animated performance (pun intended) is a real treat.

A Scanner Darkly is a must see for Dick fans, particularly those disappointed with previous adaptations or for anyone who loves intelligent science fiction.

Next week: The last Animonday and my favourite animated film of all time.

Sci Fi Sunday: Stranded December 24, 2007

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No doubt this Spanish production was hoping to cash in on Hollywood’s Red Planet and Mission to Mars, sadly for Stranded both of those films flopped. When the first manned mission to Mars results in a crashed ship the five survivors must try and find a way to survive on the hostile planet until a rescue mission can arrive. With rescue at least two years away it becomes clear that there is only enough food and air to save two of the crew with the others going for a last walk on the red planet.

For the first hour the film attempts a serious examination of the plight of the stranded astronauts before throwing an ancient Martian civilisation into the mix almost as an afterthought. While it almost feels like a different film, it’s this final third that is the most interesting part of the movie. Unfortunately it runs out of ideas, leaving one with the feeling that the ancient civilisation is there just to allow some of the crew a chance at survival and too pad the running time to feature length.

There are some familiar faces among the crew - Maria de Medeiros (Pulp Fiction), Joaquim de Almeida (Desperado) and Vincent Gallo as a sleazy engineer who sees imminent death as a chance to get laid. Rounding out the crew are Danel Aser and María Lidón who both give weak performances that suffer in comparison to the more seasoned pros they share screen time with. Lidón is also responsible for the rather dull narration, she’s just found an alien civilisation but from the excitement in her voice you’d think she’d discovered the local Sainsbury’s. Strangest casting goes to Johnny Ramone (of the Ramones) as the astronaut left aboard the orbiting section of the ship.

As well as starring María Lidón also directed the film, under the appropriate nom de plume of Luna. The film has some impressive visual touches, although there is far too much of the astronauts static riddled spacesuit cameras (possibly to cover up deficiencies in the sets). Unfortunately the performances often have an amateur dramatics feel to them, largely due to some silly dialogue, and it’s hard to accept that Gallo’s sleazball would have been accepted on the mission.

I’ve had this DVD for quite a while, it was free with the now defunct Total DVD magazine, but I’d never got around to watching it because, to be honest, I though it would be crap. It was nowhere near as bad as I expected and it held my attention for its 90 minute running time, I don’t think I’ll be watching it again any time soon though.

The Weekend Western: Django

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

Django is probably the most famous spaghetti western not directed by Sergio Leone. Sergio Corbucci’s film made a star of Franco Nero and spawned more unofficial sequels than probably any other film in history. It’s full of memorable images – Django pulling a coffin through the mud, Major Jackson’s band of renegades all wearing red hoods as they come into town, the revelation of just what is in that coffin and Django’s final confrontation with Jackson are some of the standout moments.

If Leone was fighting against the standard western hero image in his westerns, Corbucci’s Dajngo was a contrast to the cold almost superhuman killing machine that was Eastwood’s man with no name. Django’s quest is for personal vengeance, not profit, and while he’s handy with a gun he’s still human. It’s the characters vulnerability that makes the finale such a powerful cinematic moment.

The films definitely short on plot with much of it made up on the fly but Corbucci makes up for it with some stylish onscreen carnage and a political sensibility lacking in most European westerns. What lets the film down is some awful dubbing. The comatose delivery of the man given the job of voicing Django is just the worst example and it’s not helped by some duff dialogue either. I’ll be tracking down a copy of the Region 1 Blue Underground release as it features an Italian audio option (with English subs) which has Nero providing the voice of Django.

The Friday Night Fright: Monster Man December 22, 2007

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

Nothing new here – two friends driving the back roads on the way to a wedding piss of a local and spend the rest of the movie being terrorised by him and his monster truck. The opening scene may lead you to think you’re in for some “torture porn” as we witness a man’s head being crushed in a vice but what we have here is a horror comedy, with the emphasis on the comedy.

This is Road Trip meets Roadkill, with the humour on display being of the juvenile and gross out varieties. That’s not to say it isn’t funny, it is, just in a very lowbrow kind of way. Eric Jungmann gets the obligatory nerd role and manages not to be overly annoying while Justin Urich makes the most of the vulgar best friend part that would have suited Kevin Smith to a T had the film been made ten years earlier. Aimee Brooks provides some serious eye candy as a hitchhiker with a touch of mystery about her, and she gives a fair performance too.

The star of the film though is the monster truck, an excellent piece of design work that really does look menacing. It would have been interesting to see how a more serious minded horror film would have made use of it.

Director/writer Michael Davis was the brains behind this year’s Shoot ‘Em Up, a film that deserved to do far better than it did. He’s got a gift for fun but vacuous entertainment and I hope Shoot ‘Em Up’s failure won’t put an end to his career.

While it’s instantly forgettable Monster Man is also quite enjoyable, it’s a little like junk food, nice now and again but not something you’d want to live on. Plus it’s hard not to like a film with a sex scene where the girl does a Yoda impression.

Watching the Detectives: Kirk Douglas is Detective Jim McLeod in Detective Story December 20, 2007

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

While the word “detective” may appear three times in the title of this post, William Wyler’s film version of the play by Sidney Kingsley isn’t really about catching criminals or solving crimes. Instead it examines the working environment of a group of cops, focusing primarily on Jim McLeod.

McLeod lives for two things – his beautiful wife Mary and putting away crooks. There’s no flexibility to his interpretation of the law, you’re either a crook or your not, and if you are you should be punished. When a case he’s working on ties in with his wife’s past his black and white world is shattered.

William Wyler really knows how to get the most from a confined location (most of the film takes place inside the Precinct house) and it’s something he’d do again with The Desperate Hours a few years down the line. Not that he couldn’t do big pictures, you can’t get much bigger than Big Country and Ben-Hur. In fact if there’s a complaint that can be levelled at him, it’s that he didn’t make enough films. Rather than try and open the film up, he embraces its set bound, stage origins and by doing so focuses the viewer’s attention where it belongs – on the actors.

Kirk Douglas is at his best as McLeod, whose ideals are so ingrained that, unable to relax his principles even when his wife is involved, he breaks down. It’s not a flattering character, not a heroic movie star kind of role, and it says a lot about Douglas that he was willing to take on such a portrayal. Never an actor overly worried about his onscreen image he attacks the role with gusto, painting a picture of a man haunted by childhood memories of his abusive father.

The films far from a one man show though, there are fine turns from William Bendix as McLeod’s partner and Lee Grant as a timid shoplifter. And if Eleanor Parker’s performance seems a little melodramatic, that has more to do with changing views than any failing in the performance.

With its ensemble cast and examination of the minutia of a policeman’s life (even the janitor is heard from) this could be a forbear of Hill Street Blues. Like that show it mixes black comedy with high drama with powerful results.

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