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Watching the Detectives: Ricardo Cortez is Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon January 31, 2008

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

Watching this 1931 version of the classic tale was like watching a movie reflected in a funhouse mirror, everything’s there it’s just a little distorted. Ricardo Cortez is an oilier, smarmier Spade, much less likable than Bogie’s take on the role, Otto Matieson is a taller, yet less threatening Dr. Cairo than Peter Lorre, Dudley Digges is a less rotund Casper Gutman than Sydney Greenstreet…the list goes on.

With one exception the cast in the later, more famous version, were superior, that exception being Dwight Frye. If you wanted barking mad then Dwight was the man to call in 1931, appearing as Renfield in Dracula and Fritz in Frankenstein, in The Maltese Falcon though he’s a much more subtle loony, playing Gutman’s pet killer, Wilmer. He doesn’t get a lot of dialogue and has to do most of his acting with his eyes, but he gives the impression he could explode at any moment.

While it’s always going to take second place to John Huston’s version this was still very entertaining, more so for being pre-Hays Code and therefore a little racier than you might expect.

One of the rare occasions where the original isn’t the best.

Literally Speaking: The Four Feathers (2002) January 30, 2008

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

Given the tragic death of Heath Ledger last week this film sort of picked itself out of the pile of DVDs I‘ve got lined up for this series. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of Ledger’s work, of the seventeen films he made (eighteen with The Dark Knight) I’ve only seen eight and, while he was certainly a good actor, he was often overshadowed by his co-stars – Mel Gibson in The Patriot, Billy Bob Thornton in Monster’s Ball and Paul Bettany in A Knight’s Tale – but I’ve yet to see his most acclaimed performance in Brokeback Mountain.

A.E.W. Mason’s novel has been filmed no less than seven times but I’d only seen the classic 1939 version with Ralph Richardson and John Clements prior to watching this. Given that the film has an Indian director in Shekhar Kapur it would be fair to expect a slightly different take on this tale of love and daring-do in the days of the British Empire than previous versions, and, in that regard, the film doesn’t disappoint.

While it shares the central love triangle with previous takes, this isn’t a film about heroics but rather the horrors of war, with the British no better than The Mahdi and his followers, and certainly more arrogant. Rather than being about Harry Faversham’s quest to regain his honour after his friends brand him a coward, the film uses that as a devise to show the suffering war brings and how it brings out the worst in men.

Given the horror it shows us, the film still manages to look beautiful, with Oliver Stone’s cinematographer of choice, Robert Richardson, doing a fine job capturing the spectacle of the battles and the majesty of the desert. It’ll make you thirsty just watching it.

Of the three leads Ledger shines the brightest, with Wes Bentley giving a restrained performance as befits the stiff-upper- lip part he’s playing, while Kate Hudson doesn’t have to do much more than look pretty in period costume (she puts on a decent accent though). It’s Ledger who carries the film, getting stuck in during the battle scenes and showing what a capable horseman he was. His friendship with native Abou Fatma, played by Djimon Hounsou, is far more interesting than his bond with his English cronies and the film contrasts the judgmental nature of his so called civilised friends with the honest comradeship of this Black man.

The film doesn’t really work as a love story, there’s no real chemistry between the leads but the big problem is that the tale it’s telling doesn’t really fit the message it wants to get across. Kapur would have been far better served by an original story set in the period than trying to mould this tale of honour and redemption to fit his needs. History even gets a rewrite, with the outcome of the battle of Abu Klea revised so the British get a pasting.

Not a bad film, but one that’s aspirations are never fully realised, The Four Feathers won’t be the film Heath Ledger is remembered for, even though he’s the best thing about it.

I Spy: From Russia with Love January 29, 2008

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

This, the second Bond film, is one I never really liked that much when I was younger. It lacked the gadgets (unless you count 007’s attaché case, and I didn’t), the diabolical mastermind (unless you count Blofeld stroking his pussy, and, as we don’t even see his face, I didn’t) and said master criminal’s hidden lair (Bond’s final confrontation is with a small Russian woman in a hotel room!)

Yet it’s now one of my favourites and for many of the same reasons. Coming before the series found its formula (that would come with the next film, Goldfinger) it stands out from the rest. Things don’t really get moving until Bond boards the Orient Express in the films action packed second half. This section is one long chase, first in the claustrophobic environs of the train, then by truck, and. finally, in the first of the series spectacular boat sequences. The film has more in common here with North by Northwest than anything in the subsequent Bond films, but of course 007 is no innocent victim.

The film may lack a lead villain but it does have one of the all time great henchmen in the macho form of Robert Shaw’s SPECTRE agent Grant. With so much testosterone on display it’s hardly surprising Connery and Shaw wanted to do their own fight scene, and it gives the sequence a raw brutal quality, aided by the close confines of the confrontation, that’s never been equalled. Both stars no doubt nursed a few bruises (in private of course).

The film is a step up from Dr. No in almost every way. Director Terrance Young orchestrates some great action sequences, John Barry’s score is a big improvement on the first film (although it would get better still) and the opening credits are more in keeping with what we’d come to expect from a Bond film (they were produced, not by Robert Brownjohn not Maurice Binder).

Weak points? Well Daniela Bianchi clearly didn’t get the part Tatiana Romanova based on her acting ability (that’s nothing new), but I much prefer my Bond girls to be able to deliver their own lines as well as look pretty (Bianchi was dubbed by Barbara Jefford).

Their really isn’t much to complain about though. This is the Bond Casino Royale was aiming for, taking the character back to his roots and away from the over the top aspects of the series.

James Bond will return in Goldfinger.

SF & Fantasy Sunday: The Big Empty January 28, 2008

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

Aiming for the cool indie weirdness of Repo Man, The Big Empty comes up way short. Its title is half right though, the film isn’t big but it certainly is empty.

To go into the details of the plot would be pointless, it’s both convoluted and at the same time vacuous. It feels like writer/director Steve Anderson woke up one morning and decided to write the most outlandish tale he could just for the sake of it. The film is populated by oddball characters from an FBI agent/frustrated actor to a cowboy clad serial killer but none of it has any real point.

Some of the performances aren’t bad, Kelsey Grammer has fun playing it straight as the FBI man and Sean Bean gets a dry run for The Hitcher as an English cowboy nutjob. But it’s all just wasted effort in a film as pointless as this.

The best thing about the film (by a long, long way) is the soundtrack, with both the songs (from Lazy Lester and John Lee Hooker amongst others) and Brian Tyler’s score providing more pleasure than anything in the film. This is one DVD that should have had a music only track.

The Weekend Western: Valdez is Coming

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

Burt Lancaster as a Mexican! The idea probably sounds ridiculous…I mean Burt looks about as Mexican as George W. Bush does an Arab…and yet, a bit of make-up and a first class performance and Burt becomes Bob Valdez, ex-cavalry scout and current lawman (on the Mexican side of town of course).

Many a ‘70s western mirrored hot topics in the here and then, with Viet Nam an obvious target (Soldier Blue and Ulzana’s Raid). It’s not war but race that’s at the heart of Valdez is Coming and considering it offers up a black man murdered for a crime he didn’t do, a pregnant Indian woman now a homeless widow and the browbeaten, and later just plain beaten, Bob Valdez, you’d have to be a little slow on the uptake not to get the film’s message.

For all that the film doesn’t feel preachy, the subtext never getting in the way of what is a damn fine action western. In lesser hands Valdez’s transformation from submissive lawman to a one man guerrilla army would be ridiculous (particularly for someone of his advanced years) but Lancaster makes it real. Bob knows the land, knows the people and, most importantly, knows how to handle a gun (he carries a small arsenal) and Burt, in the way he handles that array of weapons, the way he moves and interacts with the environment, makes it all real.

The supporting cast is pretty good too, from up-and-comers like Richard Jordon as a young hothead (the sort of part he played a lot early in his career) and Hector Elizondo’s hired gun to Jon Cypher as the main villain (a world away from Hill Street Blues) and Susan Clark as the cause of much of the films strife. Best of all is Barton Heyman as Cypher’s right-hand man, El Segundo, a very bad man to be sure (he’s scarily moustachioed to prove it) but also a complex one, capable of respecting his adversary, far more in fact than he respects his boss.

Made in Spain the film has the feel and look of a spaghetti western but whereas most Italian make horse operas featured morally ambivalent anti-heroes, Bob Valdez has a just cause and a sense of personal honour that sets him apart.

In the late sixties and early seventies Burt Lancaster starred in several superior westerns. Some, like The Professionals are rightly regarded as classics but others are somewhat under appreciated. Valdez is Coming falls into that latter category, it’s a film that’s well worth a western fans time, primarily for Burt’s powerhouse performance, which I’d rank up there with his best.

Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting: Zatoichi’s Vengeance January 27, 2008

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

It’s been a while since I’ve watched any of the Zatoichi films and with half the series still waiting to be discovered I though it was about time to renew my acquaintance with the blind swordsman.

This is the thirteenth in the series and features everything I’ve come to expect – a beautiful woman fallen on hard times, a masterless samurai, an evil Yakuza boss with a seemingly endless supply of henchmen, superb swordplay (with a trick or two from Zatoichi) and plenty of eating and drinking. If there’s one thing our blind masseur enjoys it’s filling his belly.

They say it a fine line between comedy and tragedy and Shintaro Katsu straddles it brilliantly in these films. He’ll make you laugh one minute and bring you close to tears the next, not to mention displaying his own unique sword fighting style.

While Ichi leaves a trail of dead and wounded in his wake the fight scenes are oddly bloodless. This film features a rare (at least up to this point in the series) glimpse of the red stuff, not as you might expect, as Zatoichi slices and dices his way through the bad guys, but from a nose bleed he suffers while taking a beating.

While the films may be as formulaic as the Bond movies in the west, they are always watchable thanks to Katsu as the downtrodden blind man who always wins the fights but can never seem to find happiness.

The Friday Night Fright: A Tale of Two Sisters January 26, 2008

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

Two thirds of the way through this atmospheric Korean horror I was struck by a feeling that I’d seen something similar and not too long ago at that. It took a few minutes for the old grey matter to make the connection, the fact that the two films, at first glance, wouldn’t seem to have much in common no doubt slowing it down some, but it finally produced the answer – Spider. “What could David Cronenberg’s drama about a schizophrenic man have in common with A Tale of Two Sisters?” you may be thinking…or possibly “Ian’s finally cracked up, better call the men in white coats”. Before you make a booking for me in a padded room let me explain…

Both films chuck you in at the deep end and expect you to swim, by which I mean they don’t go the usual route of explaining who everyone is, how they got where they are and, well, basically setting the scene for what’s to come. It’s up to the viewer to figure things out; this of course requires the use of something often neglected by modern moviemakers – a brain. All too often these days we are encouraged to “leave your brain at home” when paying a visit to the cinema, as this will impair our enjoyment of the movie, so it’s nice to watch a film every now and then that doesn’t require a lobotomy to get the most out of it.

Sorry, I digress. So we have to think, but both films aren’t exactly forthcoming with information. For about the first half an hour there’s very little dialogue in either film, this has two potential effects - a) those who did not disengage their wits before viewing are drawn more tightly into the film, as they try and put the pieces together from what clues they can gleam or b) those who’ve shut down all cognitive thought either on a temporary basis or a more permanent shut down (this latter group are usually referred to as “Michal Bay fans”) enter a deep sleep that may resemble a coma but is not really a cause for concern.

I think I digressed again. Anyway we’re now getting down to the meat of this little comparison, for as we piece things together it becomes clear that both films are being told from the somewhat questionable perspective of a mentally disturbed individual. Can we trust any of what we’re seeing? As the films progress the similarities grow with both featuring a tragic final act, where all is revealed in truly heartbreaking fashion.

Cronenberg’s film is a drama (with a touch of mystery) while A Tale of Two Sisters is a horror film, (with some extremely creepy moments) but both deal with a dysfunctional family unit. Even without its more supernatural elements A Tale of Two Sisters would be an excellent film, and probably have won more acclaim from mainstream critics. As it is, it functions as both a drama, dissecting repressed Korean family life, and also as one of the scariest Asian horrors I’ve seen.

The inevitable dumbed down Hollywood version is on the way, so you’ll be able to leave your brain at home again. Just make sure you remember where you put it, you never know when you might need it again.

Oh and the dig at Michael Bay fans was a joke – I actually enjoyed Transformers and even took my brain with me (didn’t really need it but I had it with me just in case).

Comic Tales: Death Note January 25, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Action, Fantasy, Comic Book , 1 comment so far

The Death Note of the title is a book with the power to kill, all you need to do is write your targets name inside and hey presto! they’re history. Of course there are some conditions; you need to know what they look like for one – if for example you wanted John Smith to die, how’s the book going to know which John Smith is your intended target? On the plus side you can even pick the time and method of departure for your victim.

When this book comes into the possession of Light Yagami, a law student who’s lost his faith in the legal system, he uses it to dispatch criminals the system, for one reason or another, has been unable to convict. He’s like The Punisher with a pen, no need to get your hands dirty when all you have to do is scribble in a book.

The authorities are understandably not too happy with this one man judge, jury and executioner (dubbed Kira by the press) but how far will Light go to protect his secret identity? The “god of death” Ryuuk, the original source of the book, is Light’s sole confidant. Only someone who has touched the book can see Ryuuk, who looks like a Goth version of The Joker with wings.

I’ve not read the manga on which the film is based, so I had little idea what to expect but was pleasantly surprised, although the film certainly has its faults. First among them is that it’s visually pretty dull. You’d expect a film based on a manga to be something of a feast for the eyes but the look of the film is flat and uninspired. Also on the down side is Ryuuk, a completely computer generated character who looks like he’s stumbled in from the animated version of the comic. Apart from eating a few apples (he’s got a taste for them) he doesn’t really interact with the environment at all.

Without flashy effects the film has to rely on the story and luckily it’s more than up to the task. Intricately plotted, with the Death Note allowing for some clever twists, it engages the brain if not the eye. Central to the film is the competition (both characters treat it like a game) between Light and the mysterious “L” who works with the police, helping them close the ever tightening net on the vigilante.

Tatsuya Fujiwara, who starred in Battle Royale, plays Light. He gives a terrific performance, you see him go from idealist to… well that would spoil the fun, but it’s an interesting character arc to be sure. How much wrong would you do to keep doing what you believe is right? And is there, in the grand scheme of things any real difference between the two? These are the questions Light wrestles with.

The thing I loved the most about the film is the cat and mouse game played by the two leads. It brought to mind Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty and “L” is very much a Holmes type - brilliant, arrogant and undiplomatic. He’s a teenage Sherlock with a sweet tooth, with the police relegated to pawns in a deadly game of chess between two super brains. As the enigmatic “L” Ken’ichi Matsuyama brings new meaning to the work quirky, perching birdlike on a sofa while eating the sort of foods that would give a dietician a heart attack, he steals every scene he’s in.

It’s surprisingly long at almost two hours but I never found the time dragged and the ending left me eager to watch the sequel (also included in the rather nice Korean 3 disc set) and I’ll be revisiting the world of Death Note again in the near future.

Watching the Detectives: Peter Lorre is Kentaro Moto in Mr. Moto Takes a Chance January 23, 2008

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

Moto is more spy than detective this time out, working to stop an uprising against the French government in Cambodia. He’s aided by two American filmmakers and a beautiful female pilot whose plane crashes close to where Moto is posing as an archaeologist.

As with the other films in the series the budget is limited, the acting variable and the direction uninspired. In fact there’s only one reason for watching these – Peter Lorre. If you’re a fan (as I am) this will be a fun sixty minutes, as Lorre again shows us the contrasting sides to the Japanese detective – charming around friends but a cold blooded killer when required. He’s like a mini Asian James Bond with the added talent of being a master of disguise.

This is the fourth film in the series and by far the most light-hearted of the three I’ve seen. I actually watched it out of sequence by mistake, Mr. Moto’s Gamble should have been next, but as there’s no character development through the series, and no recurring characters other than Moto, I doubt it matters.

Literally Speaking: The Quiet American (1958)

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

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel is a love story with a political backdrop. Michael Redgrave plays the bitter and cynical reporter Thomas Fowler opposite Audie Murphy’s idealistic young American with the pair competing for the affections of beautiful Vietnamese girl Phuong, played less than convincingly by Giorgia Moll.

This love triangle is mixed in with the First Indochina War fought between the French and Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh over Vietnamese independence. Apart from providing an interesting and unusual setting, it also anticipates American interference in the region which would lead ultimately to the Viet Nam War.

Despite all that though the film is at heart a love story, with our lead protagonists all doing what they do for love. The contrast between seasoned pro Michael Redgrave and Murphy, who stumbled into the profession after his World War II heroics got him noticed by Hollywood, mirrors their onscreen characters.

Few actors have been as convincingly world weary as Redgrave is here, there’s a hopeless desperation about Fowler, you get the feeling that his love or desire for Phuong is all that’s keeping his from a total breakdown. Yet given how things play out it’s hard to feel sympathy for him.

The boyishly handsome Murphy can’t really compete in the acting stakes but he doesn’t show himself up either. The American is a slightly ambiguous character; we’re never sure if he’s just the do-gooder aid worker he paints himself as or if he’s secretly working for the US Government. This must have made a pleasant change from the B western heroes Murphy usually played.

As the cause of the film’s strife, Giorgia Moll, is sadly found wanting. It’s not that we can’t believe that two men could be in love with her; she’s beautiful and has an innocence that’s alluring, no the problem is she isn’t, and doesn’t look, Vietnamese (she’s from Italy which is where the film was shot). As was the norm of the time we have a Western actor playing an Asian character, with John Huston’s The Barbarian and the Geisha, made the same year, one of the few exceptions.

Giving the films best performance is Claude Dauphin as the cop investigating the American’s murder (the film is told in flashback with Murphy dead at the start). He’s got a real living-in kind of face, like he’s seen it all before and nothing surprises him anymore, and it suits the character, who’s one step ahead of Redgrave at the films downbeat finale.

The film may be adapted from a book but is has a stagey quality to it like a play, perhaps not surprising given how talky it is. Joseph L. Mankiewicz had a knack for turning plays into decent films, prior to The Quiet American he made Julius Caesar and he’d go on to make Suddenly, Last Summer, The Honey Pot and Sleuth. Here he uses that ability to keep the viewer hooked, even though the film features very little in the way of action, for the full two hour running time.

Recommended for those who like their love stories with an air of fatalism.

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