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I Spy: Goldfinger March 31, 2008

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

While I prefer From Russia with Love (more so with each viewing) there is no denying that this is quintessential Bond. Everything that would become a mainstay of the series is here – the pre-credit action sequence, the cool main titles, the evil mastermind (complete with henchman), a bevy of Bond girls (even though Bond fails to keep most of them alive), the bombastic score, and the big action packed finale (though it’s in Fort Knox rather than the evil masterminds secret base).

In fact I think it may be because From Russia with Love lacks some of those elements and doesn’t feel the need to be quite so BIG in scale that I’ve come to prefer it. Not that I don’t like Goldfinger, it’s great fun and finds Connery quite possibly at his peak as Bond, familiar enough to be comfortable in the role but not so familiar as to be bored with it. And in Gert Fröbe and Harold Sakata, as Auric Goldfinger and Oddjob respectively, the series has two of its most famous villains. Michael Collins deserves a mention too for providing the voice of Goldfinger, without him “No Mr Bond, I expect you to die” wouldn’t have quite the same delicious menace to it. It also makes a nice change to have a Bond girl who’s both voluptuous and can actually act, with Honar Blackman, fresh from TV’s The Avengers more than able to hold her own opposite Sean.

If you haven’t seen the film don’t read the next paragraph (don’t say I didn’t warn you!).

It has to be said though that 007 makes a bit of a bugger of this assignment. Two woman are killed, both because of him, he barely avoids some severe laser surgery, escapes but gets caught again, relies on the change of heart of one of the villains to save the day, and, bar the intervention of an American, would have set of the nuclear device he was trying to stop (of all his failings being saved by a Yank must top the list). It’s a wonder he didn’t have his licence revoked.

James Bond will return in Thunderball.

SF & Fantasy Sunday: THX 1138

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Science Fiction , 4 comments

George Lucas tries to fool the viewer into thinking this is art but art usually has heart behind it and this is a fairly shallow exercise that dresses up old ideas in new clothes, it’s Orwell’s 1984 bleached white. The idea of Lucas railing against a society that programs its citizens to be consumers is, these days, pretty ironic, this is the guy who makes Gordon Gekko look like a charity worker. Add a little to one line in the film and you pretty much get Lucas’ ideal world –

“Let us be thankful we have commerce. Buy more. Buy more Star Wars DVDs now. Buy. And be happy.”

You can guess what I added I think. And he may well have said this one to Spielberg about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

“Remember, thrifty thinkers are always under budget.”

Am I being a bit hard on Lucas? Probably but I’ve given this film a try twice now, once when I was much younger and now in its shiny new Director’s Cut form (actually the DVD cover proclaims it The George Lucas Director’s Cut as if we were expecting someone else’s). That first time I could put my dislike down to the fact it lacked the bells and whistles I wanted from my science fiction back when I was in my teens, this time though I’m older and more open to an intelligent piece of SF, but spending ninety minutes watching Lucas do the directorial equivalent of navel gazing while wasting the talents of two fine actors is not my idea of fun.

If you’ve never seen THX 1138 my advise is pick up 1984 instead, the Peter Cushing TV version if you can find it but failing that the film. You’ll find just as much thought and much less pretension.

The Weekend Western: Will Penny March 30, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Westerns , 7 comments

This is the old western-hero-hooks-up-with-mother-and-child tale that’s been done more than a few times before but what makes this so special is the central character of Will Penny. It’s as much a character study as anything else with the first half of the film dealing with his quest for work after completing a cattle drive and it’s only in the second half that the film becomes a love story, when he comes across Catherine Allen and her son Horace holed up in the line rider’s shack where he should be spending the winter.

Will Penny is possibly Charlton Heston’s finest performance, with the inveterate poser giving a rare understated performance. There’s a subtlety here that you don’t usually associate with big movie stars. Will Penny isn’t a larger than life hero, he’s a down to earth cowpoke who knows his best years are behind him and Heston plays him as such, allowing Heston the actor to overshadow Heston the Movie Star for a change.

Writer/director Tom Gries script gives the film an authentic, gritty feel that shows what a cold hard place the West was for aging cowboys like Penny, while Lucien Ballard’s cinematography lets us see that while it was a harsh place it was also a beautiful one.

Donald Pleasence is the patriarch of the villainous brood Will comes into conflict with early in the film and who returns to add some action at the end. This was his first serious western role (he’d appeared in John Sturges’ comedy western The Hallelujah Trail a few years before) and it would be the blueprint for his future appearances in Soldier Blue and the TV mini-series Centennial. His ‘Preacher’ Quint is an over the top display of insane evil, very one dimensional but still fun to watch. Bruce Dern plays one of his sons with somewhat more restraint.

In the role of Dutchy, one of Will’s friends from the first half of the film, Anthony Zerbe does a comedy accent and provides a few laughs but Lee Majors is a little too clean-cut as Blue. Elsewhere real cowboys-turned-actors Slim Pickens and Ben Johnson add a bit more grit to proceedings.

The central relationship with Catherine Allen is never overly sentimental, Joan Hackett matching Heston’s restraint. It’s that understated feel that makes the ending so affecting. Even the kid, played by Jon Gries (the director’s son though not apparently his choice for the part) turns in a good performance, with the on set bond he formed with Chuck adding a touch of genuine emotion.

This is Heston’s film though and he dominates it without ever seeming to do very much. It’s a world away from the historical epics he’s more famous for and makes you wish he’d done a few more less showy parts.

Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting: Zatoichi’s Cane-sword

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

Skipping number 14 in the series as it has yet to receive a DVD release with English subtitles (I’ve got an ‘unofficial’ DVD but decided to hold off reviewing it in the hopes that one day we’ll see a proper release) we reach Zatoichi’s Cane-sword. By now the series had established its formula and that formula has much in common with the American Western.

Zatoichi’s like the weary gunfighter who comes into town hoping he won’t have to use his gun again but, when he encounters a damsel in distress, he knows he’s going to have to take on the local cattle baron (or in this case Yakuza boss) . Of course gunfighters aren’t normally blind and they tend to leave fewer corpses behind than Master Ichi but you get the idea.

This time around Zatoichi’s got sword troubles. An ageing alcoholic swordsmith tells him that his cane-sword is on its last legs – one more fight and it will snap. What’s a blind swordsman to do? Hang up his gun sword of course. Ichi tries to live a normal life in a boarding house, taking a job as a live in masseur but when a Yakuza boss attempts to take over the town after murdering his rival, Zatoichi steps in to defend the murdered boss’s daughter.

There’s a little more blood this time around, but not much. Considering the amount of slicing and dicing that gets done you’d expect to see ketchup everywhere but the Zatoichi series is surprisingly bloodless (another thing it has in common with old westerns). This doesn’t stop the fights being exciting and this time out, with Ichi bereft of sword for much of the film, it saves most of the action for the finale when we get a seven minute showdown as Zatoichi takes down the Yakuza boss and ALL his men.

While all the performances are good it’s the wonderful Shintarô Katsu who shines brightest once again. He’ll make you laugh at times but there is a core of sadness and loneliness to Ichi that is never far beneath the surface and Katsu plays it with just the right balance. It’s testament to how good he is that, even after fifteen films, his performance doesn’t feel stale of clichéd.

The Friday Night Fright: Grindhouse March 29, 2008

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

In a break from routine this week’s Friday Night Fright was seen on the big screen. The Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino Grindhouse project is on tour at selected cinemas around the UK in its original form, complete with fake trailers, and I caught it last night at the Vue in Leicester.

I’d previously seen Rodriguez’s Planet Terror segment, along with the fake trailer for Machete, at the FrightFest All-nighter back in November but it anything I enjoyed it more second time around. It’s an insanely gory and utterly demented homage to trashy zombie flicks that totally embraces the Grindhouse concept. Hilariously bad dialogue, over the top performances, a crazy and completely illogical plot and more gore than you’ll see in the rest of this year’s movies combined add up to a thrill ride that doesn’t pause for breath until THE END appears on screen and we hear the last notes of the greatest score John Carpenter never wrote.

High points? Josh Brolin’s mad doctor is a superb scenery (and thermometer) chewing performance. It’s also nice to see Michael Biehn and Jeff Fahey in something other than the straight-to-DVD trash they’re normally wasted in these days. The films only weak performance comes from Naveen Andrews, maybe it’s because I’m so used to seeing him as Sayid in Lost, but he seems out of place here and doesn’t really get into the real grindhouse spirit of things.

Next it was time for the three spoof trailers - Werewolf Women of the S.S, Don’t and Thanksgiving. All three are great fun, Rob Zombie almost made me forgive him for Halloween with his ‘tribute’ to the Ilsa films, while Thanksgiving is by far the best thing Eli Roth has done (yes I know that’s not saying much but it really is pretty good). My favourite though was Edgar Wright’s Don’t, a clever pastiche of all those‘70s/’80s movies with Don’t in the title that, at the same time, managed to look like it would be fun to watch.

So could Mr T top Planet Terror? The answer is yes and no. No, he didn’t top Rodriguez for trashy grindhouse fun, nor does he top him for over-the-top gore or hammy performances. But he has made the better film, and the more enjoyable one. So while Death Proof doesn’t really adhere to the initial concept as well as Planet Terror, it is a thrilling ride.

It’s much slower than Planet Terror to get going, full of typical Tarantino talkiness with the difference here being that, instead of his usual male interplay, we get to listen to a bunch of women. It’s occasionally amusing, though perhaps not as much as QT thinks it is, but only two of the characters come off as likable - Rose McGowan’s Pam and Vanessa Ferlito’s Arlene.

Things pick up when Stuntman Mike arrives. You know this is one mean badass because he’s got a nasty looking scar down one side of his face and he drives a scary looking black car (when he asks Arlene if his scar scares her, her response is “It’s your car”). Russell gets a lot of mileage out of a look and a few snippets of dialogue, managing to turn in a commendably menacing performance that dominates the film while getting much less screen time than the girls.

I won’t go into what happens next but the films second half introduces a second set of girls, and like the first set they get plenty of Tarantino dialogue, full of the usual pop culture references and punctuated with expletives. At this point I was starting to think “oh no, here we go again” but then, thanks to some very good acting from all four ladies, I started to like this bunch. Maybe it was Kim (Tracie Thoms) and Zoe’s love of Vanishing Point but I started to connect with them, even with ditsy but cute Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) so when they are put in jeopardy I was rooting for them (whereas previously I’d probably had more sympathy for Stuntman Mike).

The last half hour is one long chase sequence that features some of the best car stunts I’ve seen for years, maybe ever. It also sees Tarantino doing away completely with the grindhouse look (damaged film, choppy dialogue) as he puts on film an action sequence that had my eyes glued to the screen and left me breathless and exhausted (although that could have been because the film finished at 2am). It really would have been a crime to mar this footage and Tarantino must have felt the same.

Special mention should go to Zoe Bell who plays a part that requires her to be both actress and stuntwoman. Luckily she proves more than capable of both tasks and nearly steals the film from under Kurt Russell’s nose.

At the end of Death Proof I was left with the urge to watch Vanishing Point again (and had it not been so late/early I no doubt would have). So Grindhouse gets a big thumbs up. It may be self indulgent but it’s also great fun and it’s nice to see it on the big screen as it was originally envisaged.

Tarantino seems to be rebelling against the early critical acclaim he received for Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, steering clear of ‘serious ‘ films and instead paying tribute to the films that inspired him with both Kill Bill and Grindhouse. Inglorious Bastards looks likely to follow that trend (if it gets made) and after seeing this I can’t wait.

For a full list of where the film is showing look here

Comic Tales: Daredevil – Theatrical Cut March 28, 2008

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

Matt Murdock was blinded as a child in a freak accident that heightened his remaining senses and gave him a new one, a ‘radar’ sense that allowed him to ‘see’ what was going on around him. This, along with the murder of his father, a boxer who refused to throw a fight, sets the course of Matt’s future – by day he’s a lawyer, defending those no one else will, by night he’s the masked vigilante called Daredevil. Into his dual world comes the beautiful Elektra Natchios and Matt is smitten at first ‘sight’ of her. But Elektra’s father has links to Wilson Fisk the ‘Kingpin’ of crime and, when he attempts to sever his ties, Fisk hires Irish hitman Bullseye to eliminate both him and his daughter.

Mark Steven Johnson’s Daredevil gets so much right it’s easy to forgive its failings. The ‘origin’ section of the film is a pretty faithful adaptation of the original comic story, with David Keith playing Matt’s pugilist pop and Scott Terra doing a pretty good job as the young Murdock. He’s particularly good once he’s been blinded and starts learning to use his newfound abilities. The main problem with this section is it’s a little rushed but that’s to be expected – this isn’t a film about a child coming to terms with a disability, it’s a superhero action movie and the audience wants to see grownups beating each other up, not kids.

Cue Ben Affleck as the adult Matt, a man who, it’s fair to say, has issues. Dressing up in a red leather ‘Devil’ suit is bad enough but he also has an anger management problem. This isn’t Peter ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ Parker, Murdock’s credo would be more like ‘with power comes the ability to beat the crap out of bad guys the law failed to punish’. When he meets Elektra he finds more than just a girlfriend, he finds salvation and purpose. Affleck isn’t the greatest actor in the world but this is well within his range, emotions are writ large here, it is after all a comic book movie and they’re not exactly renowned for their subtlety. What helps his performance no end is the onscreen chemistry with Jennifer Garner, who plays Elektra. Their playground fight should be ridiculous (and really is) but the pair seem to be having so much fun that the audience are pulled in as well. It’s probably my favourite Elektra moment in the whole film.

It’s not just with the heroes that the film gets it right, the villains are pretty impressive too, perhaps surprising given how much they deviate from the source material. Colin Farrell’s Bullseye is Irish and doesn’t wear a costume (he just has a bullseye carved into his forehead) and yet he captures the spirit of character perfectly, utterly without conscience and totally demented, he gets all the best lines (and make sure you keep watching after the credits for a little more Bully, something I failed to do when I watched it at the cinema). The comic Kingpin is white and Michael Clarke Duncan clearly isn’t and much fuss was made about that by comic book geeks when the film was released. This ‘geek’ didn’t have a problem with him being black, I just didn’t think he had the range to pull off the part but I was wrong. Duncan does a great job, dominating the screen, not just with his size but his personality.

Rounding out the cast are another couple of inspired choices - Jon Favreau as ‘Foggy’ Nelson, Matt’s friend and partner (when he’s not wearing the DD suit that is) and Joe Pantoliano as reporter Ben Urich. Both manage to do more with what they’re given, which is almost nothing, than you’d think possible, but maybe that’s just me filling in the blanks because I know both characters so well from the comic.

By now you’re probably wondering when I’m going to get around to mentioning what those ‘failings’ that I alluded to earlier are, well the wait’s over. My main gripe is the CGI, Daredevil is a normal man with heightened senses, he’s not Spider-Man, so it shouldn’t really be necessary to have him depicted by a computer and what makes it worse is, it’s such bad CGI. My next moan is about the wirework. Some of it is excellent, fitting in seamlessly with the fights, but there are moments – DD’s fight with Bullseye in the church and Elektra’s confrontation with him on the rooftops – that take you completely out of the film. Daredevil’s showdown with both of the villains is also a bit of a letdown after some of the earlier action, with the barroom fight probably the films action highpoint.

Still, it gets more right than wrong and uses Frank Miller’s run on the comic as its inspiration, complete with religious imagery, Matt is a good Catholic boy at heart.

I’d love to see a sequel to this, which is what Johnson should have done instead of Ghost Rider. Actually he should have done anything instead of Ghost Rider. Affleck apparently isn’t interested in reprising the role and after the less than spectacular Elektra, Hollywood is probably a little wary, but you never know, if the Hulk and Punisher reboots go well we may yet see The Man Without Fear on the big screen again.  Until then I’ve still got the Director’s Cut to look forward too, which by all accounts is superior to this version.

Watching the Detectives: Boris Karloff is James Lee Wong in Mr. Wong in Chinatown March 27, 2008

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

Going to Mr Wong for help is like wearing a red shirt on an away mission in Star Trek, it’s a sure sign you’re not long for this earth. This time the victim, a Chinese princess, expires in Wong’s own home and attempts to aid the master detective by writing what one assumes is the name of her killer. All she manages though is Captain J, now you might think that would be enough but as luck would have it there’s both a Captain Jackson and a Captain Jaime with ties to the deceased.

Karloff makes his third appearance as the venerable detective and gives a solid performance in what was a very cheap and formulaic series. He’s ‘aided’ once again by Grant Withers as the loud, belligerent but not completely inept Police Captain Street. This time the pair are joined by Marjorie Reynolds as nosey reporter ‘Bobbie’ Logan, who adds some glamour and (in theory) some laughs as well as saving Wong from an exploding taxi.

At a little over an hour it doesn’t drag too much but of the detective series’ I’ve featured so far in Watching the Detectives (Sherlock Holmes, Mr Moto, The Thin Man) this is by far the least enjoyable.

Literally Speaking: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? March 26, 2008

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

There isn’t really a lot to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, two ageing sisters, a crippled former Hollywood icon, Blanche Hudson, and a child star gone to seed, ‘Baby’ Jane, live together in a rundown house. ‘Baby’ Jane is slowly going off her rocker and when she learns of Blanche’s plans to sell the house and put her into care her mental breakdown goes into overdrive with disastrous results.

What makes the film work isn’t the plot but the performances, with the inspired casting of fading stars Joan Crawford as Blanche and Bette Davis as the grotesquely comical ‘Baby’ Jane giving the film a far greater resonance than it would otherwise have. The two stars detested each other in real life and, while that must have made director Robert Aldrich’s task far from easy, it adds greatly to the performances, particularly Davis’s.

Davis’s ‘Baby’ Jane is a childlike version of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, resentful of time and an industry that thrives on youth and the presence of her invalid, and vastly more talented,  sister gives her someone to take out that resentment on. Davis it seems decided on the method approach for the scene where she brutally kicks Blanche unconscious, actually landing a kick to Crawford’s head that required stitches (Crawford allegedly retaliated by putting weights in her pockets for the scene where Davis drags her across the floor).

This isn’t a film to watch for the story, its potboiler plot holds few surprises, but rather for perhaps the last great turns from two of Hollywood’s grand dames. There are few actresses who would take on such unglamorous and in the case of ‘Baby’ Jane downright ugly, parts but it paid of,  both for the film and the stars concerned (both received award nominations and more work off the back of the film)

And Davis’s make-up is as scary as any William Shatner Halloween mask.

I Spy: The Silencers March 25, 2008

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

Dean Martin’s first outing as Matt Helm is less a movie and more an extended comedy sketch. I’ve never read Donald Hamilton’s Helm novels but I’d say it’s a fair bet that they bare little relation to what we have here.

Dean doesn’t so much play Helm as he does himself, or at least his Mr Smooth public persona, with an eye for the ladies or a bottle of booze, whichever comes first. It’s sporadically amusing, although time hasn’t been kind. What seemed cool to me as a kid doesn’t have the same charm now – a station wagon driving superspy? – but Dino oozes charisma and Stella Stevens shows off her ample charms as the comedy love interest. Add in some reworked Martin songs, a cameo by Cyd Charisse and the obligatory Frank Sinatra joke and you’ve got a painless way to spend a hundred minutes.

Like the superior spy spoof Our Man Flint that came out the same year, a trick gun has a major role to play in the climax (both films milk the idea a little too long) with Helm’s firing backwards while Flint’s had a time delay. On the music front Flint wins hands down, Elmer Bernstein’s score no match for Jerry Goldsmith‘s super cool Flint theme.

Producer Irving Allen, when partnered with ‘Cubby’ Broccoli, turned his nose up at Fleming’s Bond books but subsequently went in search of his own superspy franchise. The Helm series lasted four movies while Mr Bond is still going strong. Says it all really…

Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting: The Street Fighter March 23, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Action, Martial Arts , 5 comments

No not the Van Damme movie but rather Sonny Chiba’s first outing as Takuma Tsurugi, the badest of bad asses. Bruce Lee’s characters may have been tough but they had a moral compass, so long as you stayed on the straight and narrow you’d be okay. Tsurugi would think no more of killing you than he would of stepping on a cockroach. And he won’t just kill you either, he’ll kill you in the nastiest way possible, throats are ripped out, balls are ripped off, skulls are cracked open…even by today’s standards this is one violent flick.

Tsurugi is basically a hired gun (just without the need of the gun) and early on we see what kind of guy he is. When he breaks a man out of prison and the man’s siblings are unable to pay he kills the male and sells the female as a prostitute to a crime lord. He’s a psycho with a black belt whose only interest is the money and the violence.

Chiba commands the film, sporting a perpetual sneer he’s super-cool. He may lack the grace and style of Bruce Lee but he makes up for it in brute force, and the fight scenes have a gritty, down to earth feel to them, with unfeasible gymnastics kept to a minimum. Sonny’s gurning during the fights is at times amusing but the bone crunching action and copious amounts of ketchup splashed about ensure that he’s never a figure of fun.

Watching the film in the original language (Japanese) for the first time makes a huge difference, as does seeing the full uncut version (I’m pretty sure the dubbed version I used to own missed out on some of the more extreme violence). I’m not sure I’d agree with Clarence (in True Romance) that it’s a perfect first date movie but it’s bloody good fun…and often just plain bloody.

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