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A change is as good as a rest… May 28, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Site News, DVD Reviews , add a comment

…or so the saying goes, and with that in mind I’m making a few alterations to Mine Was Taller. Since the start of the year I’ve been posting almost every day and, while it’s been fun, it’s starting to feel like a chore rather than a pleasure. With that in mind I’ve going to return to the original DVD Viewing Journal format, with brief opinions on each of the films I’ve watched on DVD. There will be links running through each week’s films, be it star, director, or a shared theme, and the first one will feature vigilante movies.

This will free me up to write some other pieces, both here and for the newly established Eurocritics Magazine,including reviews of the summer’s blockbuster cinema releases and the return of ‘Films I Want on DVD’ which I originally planned as a series back in July 2006 but never got past number one - Rituals, a film that’s since been released on DVD (although I doubt my article had anything to do with that).

The TV Tomb series of reviews of classic (or in some cases just old) television shows will continue, with the American WWII show Combat the next up followed be Fortier, a Canadian detective series (in French) that most of you probably haven’t heard of but which inspired/was ripped off by Tim Minear’s excellent 2005 FBI show, The Inside.

In August I hope to be doing the FrightFest festival again, complete with daily posts and I’ve a few other things planned as well, including Horror Day when I’ll be watching some classic, some cheesy, and some downright silly horror flicks (including my first Bollywood horror movie) with a friend, and we’ll both be posting our views on each film as we go. Horror Day is currently planned for 20 June, starting about noon and running into the wee hours and it’ll hopefully be almost as much fun for readers as it will be for us.

The Weekend Western: A Bullet for the General May 19, 2008

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

This is an overtly political spaghetti western from Damiano Damiani and, with its anti-American intervention message, it’s still very relevant today. The story deals with an American who falls in with a group of Mexican bandits in order to get close to a revolutionary General, and forms a mutual friendship with their leader, El Chucho.

The film is a feast for the eyes as well as the brain, with Antonio Secchi’s cinematography making the most of the Spanish locations, but it’s the script by Salvatore Laurani and Franco Solinas that puts this among the best of the Italian westerns. The characters are well rounded and develop over the course of the film, there’s plenty of humour to balance the action, and it builds to an impressively restrained yet emotionally powerful climax.

Gian Maria Volontè, a familiar face to anyone who’s seen A Fistful of Dollars or For a Few Dollars More, plays El Chucho. The character develops from a loud, greedy and somewhat obnoxious killer into a fledgling revolutionary, a true man of the people and Volontè brilliantly portrays that transformation, turning in a performance that is far more complex than your standard western, be it Italian or American.

By contrast, Lou Castel, as the American Tate, is restrained and emotionless. It’s a performace that may not be to everyone’s taste but for me it served as a nice counterpoint to Volontè, American reserve paired with Latin fire. Tate isn’t explored anywhere near as much as Chucho, his motivation is money, but his chalk-and-cheese friendship with the bandit adds some colour to the character.

Also making an impression is Klaus Kinski as Chucho’s brother, El Santo, a crazy religious fanatic who believes his brother is selflessly aiding the revolutionaries. Kinski has a face that’s worth a thousand words and Damiani makes the most of it, Santo is the only truly selfless character in the film.

Luis Enríquez Bacalov is credited with the score but Ennio Morricone receives a supervisor credit and the spaghetti maestro certainly left his mark on the finished film. Morricone often wrote music he didn’t receive full credit for (due to contractual issues) and it wouldn’t surprise me if this was such a case.

Damiano Damiani’s film is up there with those of the Sergio’s (Leone, Corbucci and Sollima) and it’s a shame he didn’t make more westerns, only making one more (and that almost ten years later) the comedy A Genius, Two Partners and A Dupe. If your only experience of Italian westerns is through Clint Eastwood then you should give this a try, it’ll show you that there’s far more to them than you probably realised.

Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting: The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge May 18, 2008

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

This third outing for Sonny Chiba’s Takuma Tsurugi comes as something of a letdown. Gone are the insanely gory deaths of the first two films, replaced by a lot of ridiculous leaping about. The fight scenes feel watered down too, with director Teruo Ishii more intent of finding interesting angels to shoot from than actually making the fights exciting.

Shigehiro Ozawa, who directed the first two films, seemed to take great delight in making Tsurugi a character who was hard to like, but Ishii wants to turn him into some kind of Japanese James Bond, rather than the cold blooded mercenary we’ve come to know. He even gives us a totally bizarre bad guy who dresses like a Mexican bandit and fires laser beams.

A sad end to what had been an enjoyable series.

The Friday Night Fright: The House of Whipcord May 17, 2008

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

This sleazy little film was a lot more enjoyable than I was expecting. Director Pete Walker generates a fair amount of tension early on, and populates the film with some entertainingly bonkers characters, plus plenty of naked female flesh.

When the appropriately named Mark E. Desade picks up a young French model, Ann-Marie (played, with a surprisingly decent French accent, by Penny Irving) he soon displays a perchance for the perverse but it’s only when takes her home to meet his mum and dad that things really get interesting. Dad’s a demented old judge and mum’s a sadistic ex-prison warden and they’ve set up there own correctional facility for wayward young ladies, where even the simplest crime results in the ultimate penalty. The prison is staffed by a pair of matrons, one a butch older woman with lesbian tendencies, the other getting her pleasure from torturing the inmates.

It’s more thoughtful than you might think though, David McGillivray’s script portraying the would-be defenders of morality as the real perverts. Most of the torture isn’t explicitly shown and while early on some of the nudity is pure titillation, there’s little to get you excited once the story moves to the prison (unless of course you’re as twisted as the people who run it). It also displays a ruthless efficiency with its characters, leaving you wondering if anyone will survive to see the credits.

Comic Tales: Superman IV - The Quest for Peace May 16, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Action, Science Fiction, Comic Book , 3 comments

Christopher Reeve’s reign as The Man of Steel comes to a rather ignominious end with this, his fourth outing. Not that Reeve is bad, in fact he clearly still had a lot of affection for the character, and the basic idea is a good one - Superman taking on an almost godlike role in order to save mankind from itself – it’s the execution that lets it down.

Sidney J. Furie was once a director with talent, producing, amongst others, The Ipcress File, here though he displays none of the flare he once showed. The Quest for Peace is the work of a talentless hack, the Superhero equivalent of Plan 9 from Outer Space but without that films charm. Superman decides to rid the world of nuclear weapons and the world governments (and I mean ALL of them) say “gee thanks Mr Superman, without you to throw the nasty bombs into the sun we’d never have thought of getting rid of them”.

Rather than pit Superman against the world’s leaders, the filmmakers give us, once again, Gene Hackman as comedy villain, Lex Luthor. The problem is he’s just not funny anymore. Batman, Spider-Man, and The X-Men all get new villains in each new outing but it’s like Superman has only got one bad guy. Someone should really buy the producers of the Superman films some comics, after all Bryan Singer continued this preoccupation with the bald headed master of menace in Superman Returns.

Luthor isn’t the only villain though, but the less said about  Nuclear Man the better. Played by Yorkshireman Mark Pillow (with voice provided by Hackman) he looks like he’d be more at home in Spinal Tap. He does provided the funniest scene in the film though, flying off into space with Mariel Hemingway. Even little kids know there’s no air in space but apparently Hollywood filmmakers don’t.

It’s little wonder the franchise stalled for almost twenty years after this travesty, with Superman finding success on the small screen in the intervening years with Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and Smallville. Maybe Last Son of Krypton isn’t cut-out for the bog screen.

Watching the Detectives: Ryoko Shinohara is Natsumi Yukihira in Unfair – The Movie May 15, 2008

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

This spin off film from a Japanese TV series suffers on two counts, firstly it’s trying to be Die Hard in a hospital but hasn’t got nearly enough action to keep the audiences attention, and secondly it relies too heavily on viewers having seen the original series, something most western audience’s won’t have done as the DVD release lacked English subtitles (makes you wonder why they bothered putting them on this really).

Picking up (I’m guessing) where the series left off, we find police officer Natsumi Yukihira visiting here daughter in hospital. It seems the kid was a victim of a car bombing, with Yukihira the intended target. It’s not long before the hospital is taken over by a mask wearing band of villains, who not only kidnap the a high ranking police official who’s receiving treatment at the hospital but also get there hands on some Anthrax that’s stored there. Why is Anthrax stored in a hospital? Simply because the plot requires it. Likewise there is only enough vaccine to cure one person because Yukihira’s daughter becomes infected and to much vaccine wouldn’t be dramatic enough. So it’s Yukihira Vs a gang of heavily armed terrorists, which may sound exciting (if derivative) but really isn’t. Yukihira isn’t much of an action hero, she only takes out a couple of the bad guys, with the bulk of the action (and there isn’t much) falling to fellow officer Yuji Kokubo.

The film never manages to make you feel there’s any real danger; you know Yukihira will save her daughter and that the terrorists will be stopped from releasing the Anthrax. There’s much character interplay that needs prior knowledge of the characters to understand, so maybe if you’re acquainted with the series this would be a better film but I doubt it. None of the cast are particularly memorable (the kid, Mion Mukaichi, gives the best performance) the direction lacks any flair and the soundtrack features a Japanese pop song that’s guaranteed to make you heave.

Literally Speaking: Winter People May 14, 2008

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

I’m a bit of a Kurt Russell fan, in fact I get a bit of ribbing by family members over how big a Kurt fan I am. That’s not to say I think he’s the greatest actor to walk the earth, far from it, but he is consistently entertaining. In fact he’s been entertaining me since his Disney days (Now You See Him, Now You Don’t) and I have fond memories of his one season wonder western series The Quest (anyone else remember that?). He’s one of those actors, and there aren’t that many, who can be equally convincing as a regular guy (Unlawful Entry, Breakdown) and a tough as nails, cold hearted killer (Escape from New York). Plus he starred in one of my all-time favourite films, John Carpenter’s The Thing.

One thing Mr Russell can’t do though is make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Winter People feels like one of those Hallmark Channel TV movies, set in the ‘30s it features rugged environments that somehow still manage to look like greetings card pictures and beautiful people made up to look like they work outdoors, who look just that – like beautiful people made up to look like that work outdoors.

Russell plays Wayland Jackson, a widower who sets out for pastures new with his young daughter. When their van gets stuck crossing a river the pair set of on foot is search of help, what they find is single mom Collie Wright, played by Kelly McGillis. As you’ve probably guessed the pair fall in love and Russell helps mend the rift between her and members of her family caused by her getting knocked up out of wedlock and refusing to reveal the father’s name. Ultimately he also brings an end to the feud between the Wright’s and another local family, the Campbell’s.

It’s all very predictable and frankly pretty dull. Ted Kotcheff, the man who gave us First Blood, directs seemingly without much enthusiasm for the film. Russell gives us one of his everyman turns as Jackson, a clockmaker by profession, and he’s good, the problem is he never really does very much. McGillis does a decent Carolina accent but she’s a little to old for the spirited country girl part. It’s nice to see Lloyd Bridges though, even if all he’s playing is a fairly stereotypical patriarch.

This is a minor entry on Kurt Russell’s resume, and one of Kelly McGillis’ last stops on the road to direct-to-video hell. Worth seeking out only if you’re a very big fan of either star or maybe if you enjoyed John Ehle’s source novel.

I Spy: The Constant Gardener May 13, 2008

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

In the modern world big business has as much to hide as governments, and Fernando Meirelles’ film of spy story supremo John le Carré’s novel is an espionage story where the villains are no longer foreign nations but rather money hungry corporations. At its heart though The Constant Gardener isn’t a spy movie at all, it’s a love story with a political message.

Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz have great onscreen chemistry, which helps the film no end as there’s little time to build up their relationship, one minute they’re having sex after Fiennes delivers a dull lecture the next they’re off to Africa as man and wife. Fiennes’ dull diplomat and Weisz’s left wing activist seem an unlikely couple but the actors make it work and without that bond the film would fall flat, as Fiennes’ love is what propels the story forward as he searches for the truth behind his wife’s death (that’s not a huge spoiler, we learn early on the she’s dead with their relationship shown in flashback).

As Fiennes digs deeper he not only discovers a web of political and industrial corruption but also his wife’s ideals, something he’d never really understood before. The film interlinks this love story with an exploration of the current way of life of the African people and then dresses them both up in the garb of a thriller – clandestine meetings, fake identities, and even a car chase come into play but this isn’t a thriller that plays by the rules, there’s no action packed climax, with the final confrontation between Fiennes and his wife’s killers takes place off screen.

Fernando Meirelles really impressed me with City of God and his direction here is even more assured than in his breakthrough film. The film has a documentary feel to it that adds to the realism, there’s a lot of hand held camera work but it’s more than that, the crowd scenes don’t have the rehearsed feel  you usually get in movies, instead it’s like the actors have been dropped into the real world with those around them oblivious to the fact they’re in a film, and that adds to the authenticity of their performances.

South and Central America has produced some intelligent and adventurous directors of late and Fernando Meirelles ranks at the top of that list. Here he turns what could have been just a standard thriller into so much more. He gets terrific performances from Fiennes and Weisz as well as good supporting turns from Bill Nighy as a corrupt politician and particularly Gerard McSorley as Sir Kenneth ‘Kenny’ Curtiss, the foul mouthed industrialist who’s company is at the heart of the scandal.

TV Tomb: The Sandbaggers – Season 1 May 10, 2008

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

Neil Burnside, the lead character in this classic ITV series, lets the viewer know early on that this isn’t going to be a series full of 007-style outlandish plots and over the top action –“If you want James Bond go to a library” he informs a colleague in the first episode. The Sandbaggers is more interested in the backroom boys than with the agents in the thick of things, it’s the political wrangling that’s at the heart of the show and it’s the characters making the life and death decisions (with other peoples lives) who are the most compelling.

The Sandbaggers of the title are an elite group of covert operatives under the command of Neil Burnside. The seven episodes in this first season see them tracking down defecting government officials, finding kidnapped scientists and plotting to overthrow a foreign government. But the real battles are between Burnside and his superiors, not to mention his own conscience.

Ray Lonnen, who would go on to star in the well regarded Harry’s Game, plays Sandbagger 1, Willie Caine. For Caine it’s simply a job, one he often doesn’t like but is extremely good at, and Lonnen plays him as an honest working stiff, with none of the airs and graces of the higher-ups. Caine is the most honest character in the show, and because of that he’s far less interesting than some of the more politically savvy characters.

I’ve always associated Diane Keen with comedy but she’s surprisingly good here. She plays Laura Dickens, the emotionally scarred trainee agent who’s seconded by Burnside into his Sandbaggers outfit. Her relationship with Burnside becomes more than merely professional, which allows us to see a human side to the career focused Sandbagger chief, and it’s testament to how good she is that we accept this change in character.

But the star of the show is Roy Marsden’s and he makes Neil Burnside one of the most complex characters ever seen on British TV. At times he’s an egotistical, ruthlessly ambitious bastard but he’s also fiercely protective of his Sandbaggers and his relationship with Laura Dickens is touching, partly because he’s so inept at dealing with emotional issues. The political battles between Burnside and his superiors (Richard Vernon as Sir James Greenley aka ‘C’ and Jerome Willis as Deputy Chief Matthew Peele) and his attempts to manipulate his ex-father-in-law Sir Geoffrey Wellingham (Alan MacNaughton) are the show’s highpoints, with the planning usually more enjoyable than the missions themselves.

Series creator and chief writer Ian Mackintosh (he wrote all the episodes for this first season) brings an authenticity to the show, with the writers Royal Navy background and (possible) ties to the intelligence community giving him an insider’s perspective. Mackintosh’s scripts all had to be vetted by the Government before they could be made, with one proposed second season episode a casualty of the Official Secrets Act.

The Sandbaggers was a firm favourite of my Dad but had little to appeal to a thirteen year old boy, which is how old I was when the show first aired. Watching it now I can see why he enjoyed it so much and why he became a lifelong Roy Marsden fan. I’m looking forward to discovering seasons two and three immensely.

Back…At Last! May 6, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : DVD Viewing Journal, Site News , 1 comment so far

Where have I been this last ten days or so you may be wondering and the short answer is offline. Thanks, apparently, to a technical problem that coincided with Virgin Media moving all the old NTL customers to a new server, I’ve been without internet access since the 26th April, as they were unable to sort the problem until the migration was complete. Having been plunged back into the dark ages, before the wonders of the web, for over a week, I’ve realised how dependant I’ve become on it for everything from banking to looking up bus times or just finding the answer to a question. Anyway I finally got back online yesterday so here’s a round-up of what should have been on here the weekend before last –

The Friday Night Fright: The House on Sorority Row

Oh the joy of Music Zone and their 97p DVDs! I’ve got a high tolerance for crap movies, particularly horror, and I picked up some real stinkers from the now defunct Music Zone chain. This isn’t the worst of them, which is a shame as some were so appallingly bad they entertained for all the wrong reasons. No, The House on Sorority Row is just a very ordinary and cheap (so not even any decent gore) slasher flick from 1983.

Written (or maybe that should be cut and pasted) and directed by Mark Rosman, the film takes elements from Black Christmas, Halloween and Friday the 13th (with a little Animal House thrown in for good measure) blending it together to create 90 minutes of boredom. The only time the film shows anything like originality, and even manages a little tension, is when the mad doctor (yes it even has a mad doctor, although he’s not really mad enough to be entertaining) drugs the last surviving sorority girl and uses her as bait to catch the deranged killer. Unfortunately the scene only lasts a couple of minutes before she gets away and we’re treated to more Halloween-style chasing round the house.

The Weekend Western: Posse

Not your usual manhunt western, this is an oater with political aspirations. Kirk Douglas is the lawman with his eye on being elected senator and all he has to do to get there is bring in train robber Bruce Dern, which, as it turns out, is much easier said then done.

Douglas is excellent, as is Dern as the charismatic outlaw. He’d come a long way since being shot down in a gunfight with Douglas and John Wayne in The War Wagon.

It’s not going to top any “greatest westerns” list but it’s solidly directed by Kirk and clearly a reaction to the political climate of the times (mid-seventies). It’s the political subtext and the somewhat unique ending (which may put of those looking for flying lead) that makes it standout. Well worth a look if you like a more leftfield western.

Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting: DOA - Dead or Alive

Films adapted from games are usually duds and DOA is no exception but it’s a dud that’s full of scantily clad ladies kicking ass, so there’s some entertainment to be had.

This treads similar ground to Charlie’s Angels but, unlike that films ADD suffering director, DOAat least has a man at the helm who knows how to put an action sequence together.  Hong Kong action maestro Corey Yuen even manages to craft some decent, if decidedly silly, fight scenes with the beautiful stars he’s given, aided by stunt doubles, snappy editing and a lot of wirework.

SF & Fantasy Sunday: Children of Men

It seems if you put Clive Owen in a film with a pregnant woman you’re on to a winner, with both this and the utterly deranged but hugely entertaining Shoot ‘Em Up forcing me to confess that I’m actually starting to like the actor.

But this couldn’t be farther from Shoot ‘Em Up if it tried. It a unrelentingly grim look at a future Britain, something we rarely get to see, and it makes Blade Runner look like utopia by comparison. Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s view of the Britain’s future may not be flattering but it does feel real. I’ve watched his breakthrough film, Y tu mamá también, and found it entertaining enough but there was nothing in that film to suggest he could handle action as well as he does here. There’s a genuine sense of peril as the bullets fly, partly because it seems unlikely the film will have a happy ending, but mostly because the battle scenes are so realistic.

One of the best and most intelligent SF films of the 21st Century.

That’s the round-up over, next week things will (fingers crossed) get back to normal. As for the rest of this week, well you’ll almost certainly see a review of The Sandbaggers Season 1, possibly a review of the classic American war series Combat – Season 1 Part 1 (if I get the last few episodes watched). And maybe even a review of Iron Man.

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