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Watching the Detectives: Basil Rathbone is Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon February 28, 2008

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

Holmes does his bit for King and Country as he endeavours to keep a new bombsight out of German hands and once again faces his nemesis Professor Moriarty.

This second Universal Holmes movie is far more entertaining than its predecessor, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror. Rathbone, sporting the same windswept hairstyle as he did in the earlier film, seems to be enjoying himself far more here, no doubt resigned to the fact that the Universal were never going to match the two Fox films for class. Nigel Bruce’s Watson seems to get dumber and yet more lovable with each film, you get the feeling he’d fall for the old “your shoelace in untied” trick, and not just once either. Of course the fact that Holmes puts his life in the hands of the bungling Doctor and the equally incompetent Inspector Lestrade at the films conclusion shows a level of trust that’s hard to qualify given what’s gone before.

The Holmes/Moriarty confrontations are a joy as Lionel Atwill gets to ham it up as the Yin to Holmes Yang. The film even manages to squeeze in a reference to Sherlock’s drug habit with Moriarty quipping “The needle to the last, eh, Holmes?” as Holmes details how, were he in the Professor’s shoes, he’d drain his blood in order to prolong his suffering.

The film finishes with Rathbone quoting Shakespeare - “This fortress - built by nature for herself; This blessed plot, this Earth, this realm, this England.” – and thanks to Universal Holmes would continue to do his patriotic duty for another ten films.

Literally Speaking: 52 Pick-Up February 27, 2008

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After a couple of weeks break from watching (and writing about) films (bar a couple of visits to the cinema, which I’ll hopefully go into in more detail elsewhere) it’s time to get stuck in to that pile of DVDs again.

For most men having their wives discover they’ve been playing away from home tops the list of worst case scenarios but successful businessman Harry Mitchell (Roy Scheider) has bigger worries, like blackmail and murder.

John Frankenheimer’s adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel (with a script co-written by the author) is a by the numbers thriller that could be an ‘80s TV movie but for two things – a first rate cast and copious amounts of naked flesh.

The nudity garners the film an 18 certificate while the cast adds a touch of class. Roy Scheider is as solid as ever as the married man tempted by a younger woman. Scheider’s Mitchell is a regular guy, albeit one with a financially lucrative business, and he makes you sympathise with the character far more than Michael Douglas did in a similar role in Fatal Attraction. Ann-Margret is decent enough as his wife although she does get one unintentionally funny scene where she chases Scheider and a late night intruder as they wrestle round the house, all the time keeping a torch on them to allow the viewer to see what’s going on. I was half expecting her to get a credit for Lighting at the end of the film! It’s John Glover’s porn entrepreneur/blackmailer/kidnapper/murderer who steals the film, with the actor positively oozing sleaze.

Frankenheimer keeps the film moving along fast enough that you don’t dwell too much on the silliness of certain elements. The eighties wasn’t a great decade for the revered director and this was probably the best film he produced. A sticker on the DVD proclaims this as “from the director of Ronin” proving that you’re only as good as your last hit, who cares that he turned out a string of classics in the ‘60s?

Adding to the dated feel of the film is the synthesiser score, which is sub-Tangerine Dream quality, and the smattering of porn star cameos (Ron Jeremy, Tom Byron, Amber Lynn). One time Prince “protégé” Vanity displays her acting ability amongst other talents.

52 Pick-Up is a dated thriller from a director treading water that’s only elevated above mediocre by Roy Scheider and John Glover.

The Friday Night Fright: The Devil’s Men February 9, 2008

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

Prior to The Devil’s Men in 1976 Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasence had appeared together in three classic productions – the 1954 BBC TV adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, the Burke and Hare tale The Flesh and the Fiends (1960) and From Beyond the Grave, one of the best of the Amicus anthology films, in 1973. Given that, I had high hopes for this US/Greek co-production. Silly me.

Pleasance hams it up as an Irish priest convinced the Devil is up to no good in a little Greek village, while Cushing gets too little screen time to do anything with the part of Baron Corofax, the Devil’s right hand man. The actors portraying the young tourists captured by the Minotaur worshipping cult were obviously picked for looks and a willingness to get their kit off rather than any great thespian ability. Unfortunately it fairs no better at titillation that at terrifying the audience.

From a historical perspective the film is probably most noteworthy for having a score by Brian Eno. While not his best work it’s a cut above the rest of the film, although, as you might expect from such an avant-garde composer, it sounds dated now.

Even for a diehard Cushing fan like me this was a chore to sit through, so unless you‘re a Cushing, Pleasence or Eno completist I’d recommend steering clear.

TV Tomb: Tales of the Unexpected – Season 1 February 7, 2008

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

This first season of Tales of the Unexpected was made up exclusively of Roald Dahl’s stories (later seasons would include adaptations of Ruth Rendell and Jeffrey Archer, amongst others). Dahl also introduced each tale during the first few seasons, sitting by a fireplace all nice and cosy.

In this day and age, with the likes of M. Night Shyamalan making a career out of the twist ending, the stories presented here should really be called Tales of the Occasionally Surprising, but watching them again, what is really surprising is how many have stayed in my memory.

“The Man from the South”, “Lamb to the Slaughter” and “Neck” all brought back fond memories. The best stories are those with a healthy dose of black humour to go along with the twist ending and all of these fit the bill nicely.

The series featured a surprisingly starry cast. “Neck” gives John Gielgud a dry run for his butler role in Arthur while “Edward the Conqueror” sees Joseph Cotton go to extremes in order to dispose of the feline reincarnation of Franz Liszt. Other notables include Jose Ferrer, Joan Collins and Jack Weston.

They’re nothing special to look at, particularly those shot on video, but it’s the story that’s the main attraction. Julie Harris stars in the dullest of the tales, Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat (she made a second appearance in the episode “The Way Up to Heaven” at the end of the season) but even this features a wryly amusing, if unsurprising, conclusion.

The best of the stories though is the deliciously amusing (and amusingly titled) “Lamb to the Slaughter”. Susan George’s husband is murdered and Brian Blessed is the copper who’s leading the investigation. Both are very good, particularly George, but what makes this one such a joy is the ending. It’s not that you don’t see it coming, rather that you do, with the audience one up on the befuddled police.

Also memorable is Ron Grainer’s theme tune. Grainer is responsible (or at least partly responsible) for the greatest theme tune to a TV series everDr Who – and he also wrote the opening music for The Prisoner. Tales of the Unexpected doesn’t come close to matching them and is, at least partly, memorable for not really fitting the series it introduces; it’s far too upbeat and jolly.

There’s nothing here that will give you sleepless nights but they will provide the odd surprise and more than a few chuckles and, for those of a certain age, they’ll doubtless bring back fond memories.

Watching the Detectives: Stanley Baker is Inspector Harry Martineau in Hell Is a City

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Thriller , 4 comments

This 1960 Hammer production gives film noir a touch of Northern grit as Stanley Baker hunts an escaped convict through the streets of Manchester.

Inspector Harry Martineau put Don Starling away and, when he hears he’s escaped, he knows in his gut he’ll come back to Manchester. Sure enough Starling does return and organises a robbery in order to get some going away money, but things go wrong and a girl is killed. Knowing he faces the death penalty if caught he’ll do anything to avoid capture but Martineau closes in on him and the film climaxes with an excellent rooftop shootout between the two men.

This is Baker’s film, bringing Martineau to life both as the dogged professional cop and the man whose home life is falling apart. There’s none of the histrionics you might expect, with the film doing a decent job of presenting real(ish) police work. Martineau gets his man through belligerence and intimidation and hard work not beating confessions out of people.

There’s a good supporting cast backing Baker up. Donald Pleasence gives the part of Gus Hawkins (the man whose money gets stolen) his own unique touch (he’s constantly blowing his nose with a large white handkerchief) and as Hawkins much younger and unfaithful wife Billie Whitelaw won herself a most promising newcomer BAFTA nomination.

The only bum note is provided by John Crawford as the violent criminal Starling. It’s not that the American is bad in the role, he does menacing quite well, just that he feels out of place, with Baker’s comment about growing up with him and going to the same school leaving you wondering why he sounds like a Yank.

Baker’s main co-star in the film though is the city itself. The film was shot on location and it helps bring the story to life. Arthur Grant turned in some great work for Hammer (Plague of the Zombies being a personal favourite) and his widescreen “Hammerscope” cinematography here is among his best.

Director Val Guest’s career had its ups and downs; the first two Quatermass films ranking among his best while his final film, The Boys in Blue (starring Cannon and Ball), must rank as the ultimate low. Hell is a City is among his best work, capturing the times brilliantly and yet still feeling fresh and involving today.

Literally Speaking: The Night of the Generals February 6, 2008

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A murder mystery that starts in German occupied Warsaw in 1942 and ends in Hamburg in 1965, and along the way encompasses Operation Valkyrie, theplot by top German officers to assassinate Hitler, and the inspiration for the forthcoming Tom Cruise movie Valkyrie . But it’s the murder of a prostitute that occupies Major Grau, an intelligence officer with an abiding desire to see justice done, no matter how low the victim or how high the culprit. Grau’s three suspects are Generals Kahlenberg, von Seidlitz-Gabler and Tanz, and each has something to hide but which is the Nazi equivalent of Jack the Ripper?

There isn’t really a star in Night of the Generals, even though the film has a pretty starry cast, with the film’s focus shifting at different points. Omar Sharif is Grau who provides the thrust of the story, but other than a disinterest in the Hitler assassination attempt, a liking for French wine and a dogged determination to see a job done, we don’t really find out anything about him. In the role of Kahlenberg, Donald Pleasence brings some humour to the film but again we don’t really find out what makes him tick.

The two most fully developed characters are General Tanz and Corporal Hartmann. Peter O’Toole gives a faultless performance as Tanz. Tyrannical, eccentric and filled with self loathing, the General is a psychopath with control of a large army, surely a metaphor for Hitler. O’Toole’s blue eyes have never been so cold and filled with madness as they are here. If Tanz represents the insanity of war than Hartmann is the antithesis, a decorated hero who seeks to avoid combat for the sanest of reasons – he doesn’t want to die. Tom Courtenay is the yin to O’Toole’s yang; a decent guy caught up in a conflict he can’t escape, a lover (of General von Seidlitz-Gabler’s daughter) not a fighter. He’s forced into being Tanz’s tour guide around Paris by General Kahlenberg, an order that leads ultimately to the films satisfying conclusion.

The Night of the Generals is very much an actor’s film, bar one scene of the destruction of Warsaw by Tanz there isn’t much action. It relies on the performances to carry it and director Anatole Litvak gets the best out of his big name cast, Sharif covers the lack of character depth with star power and O’Toole gives us a truly memorable madman, only Christopher Plummer as Field Marshal Rommel disappoints, but with little for him to work with it’s hard to fault the actor.

The film works as both war movie and murder mystery and is well worth a look if you’re a fan of either genre and it’s a must see for O’Toole fans.

I Spy: The Black Windmill February 5, 2008

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When his son is kidnapped MI6 man John Tarrant (Michael Caine) finds himself the prime suspect, partly due to an elaborate frame job by the real culprit, McKee (John Vernon), but also because he does such a good job of keeping his emotions in check. His own professionalism is his undoing, with even his boss Cedric Harper (Donald Pleasence), the very image of British reserve, surprised by his lack of emotion. Tarrant goes rogue to clear his name, save his son and uncover the traitor in his own organisation.

Don Siegel may seem an odd choice to direct this British spy story but it’s that outsider’s view that makes the first half of The Black Windmill so interesting. Tarrant’s marriage is on the rocks, his emotional reserve even extending to his wife, but as the film progresses and he finds himself on the outside he learns the only one he can count on is his wife. He’s forced to decide what’s more important – family or work? You get the impression he doesn’t even like his job, that he does it because he’s good at it.

As Tarrant Caine is excellent, coldly emotionless at the start but regaining his humanity as he realises what’s important. There’s guilt too, here’s a man who’s profession, rather than provide for his family, has put them in harms way.

Donald Pleasence plays Harper as an eccentric office manager with a touch of OCD. He’s a pencil pusher who treats Tarrant’s predicament as an inconvenience, unhappy at having to be involved in the sordid business at all. He’s more concerned with his office plants than the life of the boy.

You can always rely on John Vernon to give you a good villain, and he does so here. I’m not sure what accent he thinks he’s doing (it’s supposed to be Irish, I think) but it wavers considerably from scene to scene. Regardless of accent, he’s a nasty piece of work, torturing small boys and murdering his own accomplices.

The film looses it’s way half way through, with an action sequence that feels like it’s there because someone felt the film needed one (it didn’t) and a twist that’s a bit of a cheat, with all the clues proving to be red herrings. It redeems itself with the final showdown between Caine and Vernon in the titular windmill. Siegel makes the most of the unusual location for a tense bullet filled climax.

SF & Fantasy Sunday: The Sword and the Sorcerer February 4, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Action, Fantasy , 4 comments

‘Twas a time of sorcery and adventure, a time of strapping heroes with floppy hair and big swords, ‘twas…the early eighties! Fantasy movies of the sword and sorcery variety had their heyday then, with Conan and his wannabes hacking their way into theatres.

The Sword and the Sorcerer is Conan Lite, a barbarian on a budget. Its cheap production allowed it to reach cinemas ahead of the film that it was aping, if only by a few weeks. Whereas Milius’ Conan was an epic spectacle, The Sword and the Sorcerer was about making a little go a long way. In the director’s chair for the first time, Albert Pyun made probably the best film of his career, but with a career that includes Brain Smasher… A Love Story and Max Havoc: Curse of the Dragon that’s not really saying much.

The film makes up for what it lacks in class with copious amounts of bloody violence and female nudity. It also has some decent effects work (for the budget) with the demon Xusia an unpleasant looking villain.

Lee Horsley doesn’t have half Arnie’s muscles and plays the part of Talon more like Indiana Jones with a sword than Conan. Perennial bad guy Richard Lynch is the evil usurper Cromwell, while Richard Moll plays/voices Xusia (he only appears in the make-up in the opening scene). Kathleen Beller is the princess who needs rescuing, because this kind of film has to have one. No nudity from her sadly, she keeps her bits covered up (nice butt though).

This is fun flick if you’re in the mood for some mindless B movie nonsense. Unfortunately the sequel, Tales of the Ancient Empire, promised in the closing credits, never materialised, surprising as the film was a big hit, taking as much at the US box office as Conan and costing a hell of a lot less.

The Weekend Western: Texas Adios February 3, 2008

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

1966 was a busy year for Franco Nero, along with a thriller or two, a comedy, some schlocky sci fi and a biblical epic, he found time to star in three spaghetti westerns – the seminal Django, Lucio Fulci’s Massacre Time and Texas Adios. Of the three Texas Adios is, by a long way, the least interesting.

Nero is Burt Sullivan, a small town sheriff, who at the start of the film decides it’s time to head for Mexico to avenge his father’s murder. Considering his pappy died when he was seven it’s strange that Burt’s waited so long before hitting the vengeance trail, maybe he was waiting for his little brother Jim to grow up. Jim decides he’s going to tag along to see justice done for the dad he never knew.

I won’t spoil the film’s twist, but it has much in common with similar familial confusion in Massacre Time. Unlike that film though there’s too little going on to keep the viewers attention, apart from a violent barroom brawl none of the action scenes stand out. Ferdinando Baldi lacks the style of Fulci or Corbucci and the film’s plodding pace doesn’t help matters.

Nero looks and acts cool but Alberto Dell’Acqua as his brother hams it up big time and is a constant source of irritation. Even the music is below par, and that’s usually something you can rely on in an Italian western.

This is one for Franco Nero or spaghetti western completists only.

Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting: Ninja in the Dragon’s Den

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

I must confess that I prefer my martial arts movies sans wirework but there are exceptions, Iron Monkey and Once Upon a Time in China are two that spring to mind. Sadly Ninja in the Dragon’s Den isn’t going to be joining that list.

Things don’t get off to a good start, with the opening credits featuring some synchronised ninjitsu to a very eighties ninja song. Clearly we weren’t going to see scary killer ninjas here, what we get instead is an action comedy with a somewhat uneven tone.

The problem with Honk Kong comedies is that the humour doesn’t always translate, or when it does it’s often too broad and unsophisticated for a western audience. Most feature a goofball character who’s there as a comedy fall guy, Ninja in the Dragon’s Den has one of these and he’s as funny as such characters usually are , which is to say not very funny at all.

If most of the comedy misses the mark at least the action is well choreographed and inventively filmed. It suffers though from the uneven tone of the film, switching from slapstick comedy to one of the heroes violently garrotting a lead bad guy in the space of a couple of minutes, and it doesn’t help that the reason for this switch turns out to be a hoax.

The plot contrivance that pits the two heroes against each other at the end is the oft used “misunderstanding” that gets resolved in time for them to unite for a showdown with an evil bad guy and his band of men. That neither of the leads has much in the way of screen charisma means it’s hard to care who wins, in fact I was actively hoping one of them (Conan Lee) would get taken down a peg or two before the credits rolled.

Some good action scenes are outweighed by silly comic moments and an overly sentimental story. In the films favour is its portrayal of a Japanese character as a hero, although that probably had more to do with Ninjas being hot at the box office in the ‘80s than anything else.

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