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All reviews - Movies (51) - DVDs (43) - Books (7)

What Time Is It? (1989) ( Che ora è? ) ( Quelle heure est-il? ) (Blu-Ray) review

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 6 February 2013 12:15 (A review of What Time Is It? (1989) ( Che ora è? ) ( Quelle heure est-il? ) (Blu-Ray))

"Talking to strangers is easier. Talking to your own father is hard. Who says fathers and sons need to talk?"

Reunited with the ale stars of the same year's similarly overlooked Splendor (1989) (Blu-Ray), Ettore Scola's What Time Is It? is one of those nice little films that doesn't break any new ground or offer big dramatic sparks but still rings emotionally true and is quietly satisfying. Too `small' to break out in the English-speaking world, it's a virtual two-hander that follows Marcello Mastroianni's successful lawyer as he visits his son Massimo Troisi one afternoon in the quiet town where he's doing his military service. Following the ebb and flow of the day as they occasionally connect and occasionally find themselves at cross-purposes as they talk about everything to talk about nothing, it's a foregone conclusion that their resentments will eventually spill over into an argument but it's surprisingly unforced getting to that point, recognising that life is less a series of dramatic confrontations and more a gradual simmering before things slip out and are crudely and not too effectually smoothed over only to sporadically resurface.

Not much happens: they have lunch, go to a movie, drop in unannounced on Troisi's girlfriend Anne Parillaud and go to a friend's bar. The bones of contention are small in movie terms, but convincingly human - for all his father's protestations that he finds him thoughtful, Troisi thinks he believes him indecisive and he's uncomfortable with the lavish gifts his father bestows on him unbidden (he's more genuinely excited by getting his grandfather's pocket watch than a new car or Rome apartment because it has a real emotional attachment for him) or the way he feels he over-enthusiastically tries to turn his son's passing whims or hobbies into career plans. Both stars are excellent, Mastroianni warm and charming yet never able to put his son at his ease, initially subtly smothering and increasingly prone to sulking, Troisi convincingly awkward at times as someone who wants to be his own man even if he doesn't quite know what that means just at the moment. They're honest performances that feel real, and crucially you believe that they are father and son rather than just a couple of good actors, so it's little surprise that they both shared the Best actor prize at the 1989 Venice Film Festival.

Scola's direction is quietly impressive too, unfussy but with nice little touches, whether it's Troisi suddenly noticing how old his father is in a series of extreme close-ups as a memory of the war years comes up or a tuxedoed waiter doing his James Bond impersonation in a mirror, while the pivotal bar scene where Mastroianni realises just how little he really knows about his son is beautifully handled. That Mastroianni outlived his screen son, who died of a heart attack within hours of finishing work on Il Postino, adds a strange resonance to the film.

Gaumont's region-free French Blu-ray offers a nice transfer with French credits but both original Italian and dubbed French options along with English subtitles. There's an hour's worth of interviews with Scola, cinematographer Luciano Tovoli and Michael Radford, as well as the film's specially filmed trailer with Mastroianni and Troisi failing to recognise each other while striking up a conversation (albeit dubbed into French), though none are subtitled in English.

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Desiree (1954) review

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 6 February 2013 12:12 (A review of Desiree (1954) )

"The two most outstanding men of our time have been in love with you and you're no real beauty, but you have a way with you."

Pitched rather over-optimistically by 20th Century Fox as the next Gone with the Wind and starring Marlon Brando as Napoleon and Jean Simmons as his first love, Henry Koster and his collaborators make rather more workmanlike job of Desiree than they did of The Robe the previous year. The film is pretty much forgotten today despite its huge box-office success in 1954 - so huge that it easily overshadowed Brando's other release that year, On the Waterfront (it even got the cover of Time Magazine). Its relative modern obscurity isn't exactly surprising. It's a solid period romantic soap opera rather than an inspired epic, the sweep of history happening offscreen between the main body of the film in drawing rooms, balls and bridges.

Brando only made the film to settle a lawsuit over his walking out on The Egyptian and is outdone in the charisma stakes by Michael Rennie's Bernadotte. It's not the most electrifying screen Napoleon, that's for sure, with Brando seemingly using the part simply to show there was more to him that Stanley Kowalski types with a restrained, underplayed and softly well spoken turn that wears his egomania lightly. Curiously little of the film concerns itself with his brief flirtation with silk merchant's daughter and future queen of Sweden Jean Simmons, through whose eyes his rise and fall is seen, but then in a film that races over key events in pedestrian diary entries ("There's been a battle at Waterloo") or reduces the disastrous Russian campaign to a few shots of flags, drums and flames, it's perhaps more of a surprise how little of a role she has to work with. After the initial romantic disillusionment of youth sets in a third of the way through the film she's reduced to a reluctantly passive observer to history and the great men who drive it rather than a participant until the pair's final reunion.

There's little real chemistry between the two stars, the relationship quickly settling into a combination of resentment and rarer moments of teasing - at least you hope Napoleon is teasing when he tells the beautiful Simmons "The two most outstanding men of our time have been in love with you and you're no real beauty, but you have a way with you." With Desiree settling into a match with her real true love fairly early in the film while Napoleon marries and divorces for power and position, there's never any real romantic tension in their sporadic reunions and the film never manages to find much tension in the great dictator's rise and fall either as everything of consequence happens offscreen and is either recounted by third parties or diary entries. Unfortunately as Napoleon's proto-EU dream of a United States of Europe - "One law, one coinage, one people" - is thwarted and his comeback fails the film winds down rather than builds up so much that when Napoleon says "Well, gentlemen, I'm ready for exile," you're almost relieved that it's not long before he's St. Helena bound.

Much of the blame can be laid at Daniel Taradash's screenplay, which seems to have been written with budget limitations foremost in his mind - no battles, no crowd scenes, nothing more elaborate than the odd ball - and which never really ventures out of its rarefied circle of charmed lives. While it's more than a little doubtful that the real Napoleon ever described his critics as chuckleheads, Taradash does manage to slip in the odd bon mot as well as throwing in a nod to the lucrative Napoleon merchandising and souvenirs business of the day that at least hints at the Little Corporal's Superstar status in his day, as well as one amusing bit of bickering with his troublesome relatives at the rehearsal for his coronation (the latter staged, naturellement, as a pastiche of Jacques-Louis David's famous painting). Henry Koster's direction is more problematic: he's fine with the actors but, far more than in The Robe, seems at a loss at quite what to do with the CinemaScope format here, often reducing history's great moments to static tableauxs or 18th century police line-ups ("Just take you time and tell us if you recognise the man who invaded Spain"). Only in Napoleon's formal divorce from Josephine (Merle Oberon) does he really seem to break away from the proscenium arch staging and remember he's making a movie where the way the camera moves can be used to project the emotion of a scene rather than its simple geography.

It doesn't get much help from a very atypical Alex North score with none of his usual savagery, torment or innovation: under conductor Lionel Newman's baton it sounds like the kind of thing any studio composer of the day could have produced. Indeed, the love theme itself was originally written by Alfred Newman for Five Fingers, leaving North little room for experimentation until a standout cue when Desiree is confronted by the intimidatingly grim portraits of the Swedish royal family.

All of which makes it sound like Desiree is a terrible film. Yet somehow, despite the uninvolving stretches and lack of a compelling love story, it manages to just about work as a glossy CinemaScope costumer. It may reduce its central characters to the fairly mundane, but it's not without old-school entertainment value, and Twilight Time's limited edition region-free Blu-ray release boasts an exceptionally good transfer with far more detail than you'd expect considering how troublesome the early CinemaScope lenses could be. Though there's been some criticism of the color, it's an entirely accurate reflection of the limitations of the somewhat muted original Deluxe process the studio used instead of the more vivid Technicolor. The disc also includes an isolated score, original trailer and booklet.

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Stanley Kubrick's Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made review

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 6 February 2013 12:06 (A review of Stanley Kubrick's Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made)

Not one for casual readers, but for film buffs there's a wealth of invaluable material here

If ever proof were needed that it was a myth that Stanley Kubrick was in a position to make any film he wanted, his oft-thwarted attempts to bring his dream project Napoleon to the screen provide it in ample quantities. It was originally going to go ahead in 1971, but a combination of MGM's operating losses, a huge downturn in moviegoing and the massive box-office failure of Waterloo all killed it off. In later years, even though no Kubrick film ever lost money from Lolita onwards and most made huge profits, the industry wasn't interested in epics though Kubrick tried to prove he could pull it off by making Barry Lyndon - which caused another wave of problems. Although that turned a profit, it also went overbudget (largely because of having to relocate from Ireland after the IRA threatened to bomb the set and/or kill Kubrick and Ryan O'Neal and their families for 'supporting' the status quo by shooting scenes with extras playing the 18th Century British army on Irish soil) and it was around then that the legend that Kubrick's films were endless shoots began, which only deterred studios even more.

Even though he delivered three profitable films in a row after that, he could never really shake studios concerns that a Kubrick-length shoot on an epic wasn't a good bet even though his films were never particularly expensive. It didn't help that he was tied to Warner Bros., who have never been into big period epics in the way other studios have. Yet that didn't stop him working and obsessing over the project, developing it for years and amassing a huge amount of research in the process. After his death, that research was finally published in an the absurdly expensive limited edition ten-book set, but this considerably less expensive one volume set now offers all the contents in a single bound volume that you need to go into weightlifting training to pick up. It's a rather splendid affair - not just Kubrick's screenplay (surprisingly heavy on narration) but as much of the contents of his infamous boxes as they could photograph and transcribe. It's not one for casual readers, but for film buffs there's a wealth of material that it usually takes months to go through in an archive. It's quite an eye-opener to see just how much work had been done on its various incarnations. It may not be the greatest film never made, but it's great to have all the pre-production material put together to give some idea of what could and should have been. And you can bet that the next few Napoleon films and TV shows will all avail themselves of the collected resources.

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Tower of London (1939) review

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 6 February 2013 12:02 (A review of Tower of London (1939))

"No age is without its ruthless men who in their search for power, leave dark stains upon the pages of history."

Although best remembered today, if at all, for Son of Frankenstein, director Rowland V. Lee was responsible for a nice line in swashbucklers in the 30s and showed he could handle darker bigger budget fare with aplomb with 1939's Tower of London, a determinedly non-Shakespearean but highly entertaining account of the rise of Richard III and the fall of the Plantagenets. It's not quite top notch but it's not far from it, Lee managing to draw slightly more diverse performances from his leads than their usual default screen personas.

Filmed at a time when Universal still had enough of their Hunchback of Notre Dame backlot left to give the film an impressive sense of scale (ironically scheduling conflicts with this film meant that Basil Rathbone had to drop out of playing Frollo in the Charles Laughton version of Hunchback), it's surprisingly lavish, Lee's dynamic and visually striking direction putting every cent and more besides up on the screen. It also benefits from a witty script that may not aspire to Shakespeare but has a firm grip on the practicalities of power in the Middle Ages ("Marry your enemies and behead your friends!") and enough of the blood-soaked cruelty of the era to satisfy the Universal horror fans ("There's a way of tearing the truth from a man's soul") thanks to the presence of a bald and limping Boris Karloff as Crookback's favorite torturer, Dragfoot Mord. There's even a striking battle in the pouring rain (naturally shot in crippling heat) that may well have made an impression on Orson Welles when he heard those Chimes at Midnight.

Rathbone, looking like Mr Spock, is quite magnificent here, relishing fencing with sword and words alike, whispering to avoid waking the sleeping boy king during court business and even managing to deliver one of the screen's few genuinely convincing drunk scenes in his drinking match with Clarence over that fateful vat of Malmsey wine. Ian Hunter makes a convincingly robust King Edward and Vincent Price (who would play Richard Crookback himself in the 1962 remake) a weaselly Clarence. Naturally the good guys can't compete: led by John Sutton, sounding alarmingly like Peter Cook, they're a typically bland lot, and it's only really some weak casting on the side of the angels and a rushed ending that doesn't give Richard and Mord good enough exits after such a grand buildup that let it down. But for 90 minutes you'll probably be having so much wicked fun with this near-forgotten near-classic that you'll forgive the less than grand finale. No extras on the DVD, though.

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"There won't be puppets, will there?"

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 5 February 2013 11:58 (A review of Anonymous (2011) )

It barely takes a couple of minutes of screen time before it becomes obvious that Roland Emmerich's much-mocked Anonymous is going to be a feast of bad acting. Long before the astonishingly inept Rafe Spall turns up doing another of his patented whiney silly singsong voices as Will Shakespeare we're treated to the sight of Ben Johnson being arrested by guards straight out of Monty Python and taken to a dungeon where a Montgomery Burns lookalike is waiting with an EX-cellent red hot poker. It doesn't get much better. As if Spall playing Shakespeare like a bad and very drunk Frankie Howard impersonator wasn't bad enough (he even dives into the mosh pit at one point), Trystan Gravelle's Christopher Marlowe (looking surprisingly healthy for someone who had been dead for five years at the time his scenes are set) is an "Ooh, get her dearie" queen with a nasal twang who makes Kenneth Williams sound butch, Jamie Campbell Bower plays the young Oxford like a sulky boy band pinup without the depth while Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave play Elizabeth I as an incestuous girly flirt dropping illegitimate sprogs all over the kingdom and a batty old broad respectively. Rhys Ifans' Oxford and Sebastian Armesto's Ben Jonson come off the best, but even they have their Monty Python moments.

In fact, the performances are so universally dire that it's impossible not to conclude that the British cast are simply taking the piss out of Emmerich and his hapless writer John Orloff, for truly this is a tale told by idiots, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing so much as the conspiracy theorists' ability to conjure an unlikely alternate reality by citing the lack of physical evidence for one thing as conclusive proof of its polar opposite for which no physical proof exists either, no matter how fragile and unlikely the hypothesis. That it was first mooted by a man called - and I'm not making this up - J. Thomas Looney, author of Shakespeare Identified, should tell you all you need to know...

Yet the idea that Shakespeare never wrote a word of the plays that bear his name and was a minor cog in a major political conspiracy could, in a capable writer's hands, have made for a ripping yarn. Certainly dafter takes on history have provided plenty of entertainment in the past, while even The Da Vinci Code managed to wrap up its long-debunked conspiracy in a successful chase-cum-puzzle-solving format that had appeal to an audience way beyond the tinfoil hat brigade. Yet Anonymous' biggest problem isn't the central conceit which lumps in two unlikely Tudor conspiracies for the price of one or even that it doesn't make a convincing case, it's that it's poor drama and an even poorer historical thriller that constantly veers into outrageous camp comedy as if even the writer doesn't really believe any of it himself and is just having a bit of a lark between the chunks of clumsy historical exposition.

There's also an unfortunate undercurrent of snobbery behind its thesis that one of the common rabble could not possibly have written such plays and that only a rich noble of breeding - an heir to the very throne itself, no less - could show such insight into the human condition that might be vaguely offensive if the film weren't so clumsily executed. (J. Thomas Looney's politics were decidedly neo-fascist, with a belief in the inherent superiority of the nobility, a longing for a return of feudal rule by one's `betters' and a hatred of the democracy that gave the common man a say in his fate.) Much is made of Shakespeare's supposed illiteracy, though bad spelling is fairly common among major writers (some, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gustav Flaubert, Leonardo Da Vinci and Hans Christian Andersen, even suffered from dyslexia) while the most successful composer of the 20th Century, Irving Berlin, never learned to read or write music but hired arrangers to do it for him. Yet while it tears Shakespeare down and turns him into a drunken buffoon and murderer, it never builds Oxford up into a credible alternative.

It's a conspiracy that makes no sense. If the absence of any manuscripts in Shakespeare's handwriting rules him out of being their author, why doesn't the absence of any manuscripts in Oxford's rule him out as well? Similarly the film never addresses the question of why a man who was a popular playwright and poet as well as a major patron of the theatre would need to hire a front for his works when his plays were publicly performed under his own name in his lifetime or even why his surviving mature poetry is so stylistically different from Shakespeare's. The idea that it was to hide a political subtext in his plays, some of which the film implies were written years before the historical events they're supposedly commenting on, doesn't hold much water since most of the examples given don't really have any hidden political agenda - they're just the famous bits everyone knows. The only tangible one comes from Richard III, despite the inconvenient fact that the play that actually was performed prior to the events in the film's climax being, er, Richard II. But then, why let the facts get in the way of a half-baked secret history some imaginary `they' want to suppress?

Emmerich has certainly made films with premises just as silly, yet in the past he's been able to make them play as engaging adventures or entertainingly jaw-dropping displays of special effects spectacle as he alternately destroys or saves the world while ensuring that cute kids and cuddly dogs survive unscathed. Some of that technical proficiency seeps through in the impressive production design and special effects recreating a spectacular Tudor London, even cheekily copying the opening shot from Olivier's Henry V along the way. Emmerich and his team may have managed to make a $30m film look like a $100m epic, but they're still working with a tuppence ha'penny script that's watchable if you're in a tolerant mood but dramatically flat as it veers all over the place, rarely focussing on anyone long enough for us to care whether they live or die, let alone what they wrote. The dreary digital photography that drowns everything in a flat fog of grey and beige as if under the delusion that it adds a sense of dramatic gravitas to the proceedings simply saps what little life is left out of it all. Forget the historical inaccuracies or the nonsensical conspiracies piled on conspiracies, it's the deadly dullness of it all that deals the fatal blow to this Fakespeare. As two minor characters note, "How will it end?" "Tragically, I should suppose."

Not much to get excited about in the way of extras, either - some redundant deleted scenes, self-serving featurettes and directors commentary on the DVD with the odd additional featurette on the Blu-ray.

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A no-frills set of three enjoyable modern epics

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 5 February 2013 11:54 (A review of 3 Film Box Set: The Eagle / Gladiator / Robin Hood )

This set includes single disc versions of Ridley and Russell's Robin Hood (extended version), Gladiator (original theatrical version) and the underservingly overlooked The Eagle. Extras are thin on the ground since all but the Eagle were originally two-disc sets, but if you're just interested in the films it's a decent package.

It may have revived the big screen epic - and particularly the Roman epic, which had laid dormant since the disastrous failure of 1964's the Fall of the Roman Empire, which this film often copies to less effect - but Gladiator was never really in the top rank of big screen epics.

The script problems that plagued the production are also apparent in a lack of focus that is always a problem when people start building the sets before they have scenes to play in them. There's so much attention to detail in creating the world of the Roman Empire that the supporting characters sometimes get leftovers in this theatrical cut (the extended version available separately corrects that to some degree). Even Russell Crowe's personal journey seems at times poorly developed, reducing the film from a story that affects an empire to a simple revenge story, and a somewhat disappointing one at that. The climactic fight with Commodus is still a major disappointment not just because it's so underwhelmingly staged but because, unlike The Fall of the Roman Empire, the film it relentlessly plagiarises, Commodus is never a credible threat: where Anthony Mann gave him foolhardy courage, Ridley Scott has implied he's a coward throughout until even a wounded hero can't even the odds.

That said, the dialogue never descends to the banalities of 1492: Conquest of Paradise, although the visuals never reach its heights (indeed, John Mathieson's frequently muted photography is often less than impressive). Some of the less vaunted CGI shots are not all that they could be either - the tiger was fine, but the flames in one shot in the battle scene weren't moving in synch with the panning shot while the CGI of the procession into Rome looked less than convincing.

Caveats aside, it's certainly enjoyable (Marcus Aurelius' death scene aside, an ineffectual lift from Blade Runner), and both the character and the film's attitude to death - a reward, reuniting him with his family in Elysium - makes it almost unique in the genre. Despite a handful of strong scenes, it's not great, never reaching the highs of The Fall of the Roman Empire or even its own opening battle sequence (too many of the arena scenes are so over-edited they feel like they've been hacked at with a gladius at times), but it is good. The only extra to survive the original two-disc set is the audio commentary by Ridley Scott, cinematographer John Mathieson and editor Pietro Scalia.

Despite a convoluted and tortuous pre-production history and the participation of two of the more oafish bigheads in the business, Ridley and Russell's Robin Hood is a surprisingly impressive and enjoyable medieval epic that manages to find a new string for the old longbow by placing a prequel to the Hooded Man's outlaw days in a relatively accurately drawn Middle Ages with some contemporary relevance. Admittedly it's going to mean a lot more to British and European audiences, but it's hard not to notice that in its unloving royal siblings Richard (a gruff and bluff Danny Huston) and John (an impressive Oscar Isaac) there's more than a little Tony Blair - vain, bankrupting his abandoned country in unnecessary foreign wars and delusionally regarding himself as a pretty straight kind of guy yet quick to punish anyone who tells him the truth - and Gordon Brown - a petty and spiteful ruler who briefly wins over his people with promises he promptly drops as soon as his throne is secure and is woefully inadequate at turning the economy around. The film even uses the infamous political kiss-of-death phrase 'resigning to spend more time with his family' when honest chancellor William Marshall (William Hurt, looking surprisingly like the director) finds himself out of a job.

There are more nods to James Goldman than Errol Flynn here: Eleanor of Aquitaine gets a few bits of Lion in Winterish sniping without the barbed wit (though John's retort "Spare me your farmyard memories, mother: they're not real and I don't understand them" comes close) while the film begins, like Robin and Marion, with Robin and Little John in the King's bad books for being a bit too honest as the Lionheart loots his way back from the Crusades. There's an even stronger element of Martin Guerre to the tale as well as it finds a plausible explanation for Robin's twin origins as the peasant Robin Longstrides and the dispossessed noble Robin of Locksley, doing a neat job of tying in the origins of the Magna Carta and civil disobedience to the legend in the process.

There's plenty of action too, ending with not one but two big battles, though the grand finale is a bit too Saving Private Robin at times and Cate Blanchet's presence leading a small band of feral children in the climax seems a clumsy contrivance to put her in jeopardy merely so she can be rescued (she's far more convincingly placed heroically centre stage in a raid on her village). Throughout, the money's on the screen, with little apparent CGI - the sets, while not extravagant, have weight to them - and if it could use a few more extreme long shots at times, it makes good use of the British landscape for once. Thankfully Scott doesn't overdo the stylistics or the MTV editing here, settling for good old-fashioned storytelling and even throwing in that long-absent favorite, the burning map montage sequence. As for Crowe, while his accent briefly makes a detour to Newcastle before settling in Barnsley for an initially ill-advised Michael Parkinson impersonation (so much so you almost expect him to say "So, Richard - this Crusades business. Bit of a lark or is there a more serious side to it?"), but luckily he grows in stature alongside the character. And satisfyingly, this film is a real journey, not just from France to England but from opportunist to idealist to legend as Robin's progress mirrors that of the character's evolution from the thug of the early ballads to the champion of the oppressed of modern lore.

While it isn't as good or as ambitious as Kingdom of Heaven, this Robin Hood is still surprisingly damn good entertainment. Unlike the Blu-ray, which offers plentiful extras and both cuts of the film, this edition is just the extended version, which gives more time to the feral children and adds a brief action scene and a comic scene between Robin and Marion but offers no major structural changes as per the Kingdom of Heaven director's cut, and with only additional deleted scenes as extras.

Having its release pushed back to avoid Centurion and its title changed from The Eagle of the Ninth because someone in market research thought it sounded like a golf picture, Kevin MacDonald's The Eagle didn't find much luck at the box-office, which is a shame because this adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliff's much-loved Roman novel is a terrific and almost entirely satisfy old-school adventure story. Channing Tatum is the centurion who asks for a post at the very edge of the empire on the Scottish border in hopes of covering his family name with so much honor and glory it'll drown out the shame that has attached itself to it since his father led the Ninth Legion to an unknown fate north of what would become Hadrian's Wall. Despite getting off to a good start by winning over his men and saving his fortress from attack not once but twice, his career is over almost as soon as its begun when he is invalided out of the legion. Recuperating at his uncle Donald Sutherland's villa where he saves the life of a British slave (Jamie Bell), he sees a chance to challenge fate and redeem the family's honor when rumors start that the Eagle standard of the Ninth Legion have been seen beyond the wall...

Andrew MacDonald's film is very much a classic old-fashioned adventure film seen through modern eyes but managing to avoid many of the clichés of the genre, old and new. It reverses the classic casting approach by almost entirely using American actors instead of British ones for the Romans (with the exception of Mark Strong's Dennis Hopper-like legionary gone native), a conceit which works surprisingly well. Aside from a misjudged shot of a ranting druid and a brief fight with some rogue warriors it avoids the excesses of shakeycam and overediting for a smoother visual approach to the action scenes, the desaturated photography managing to turn the Hungarian and Scottish locations into something that looks almost like a lost world while just managing to avoid the tiresome orange and teal visual clichés of most modern action films. There's even a nicely imaginative use of sound in the climax when the sounds of the final battle are reduced not to the usual silence and soaring orchestral chords but those of the two central combatants in a sequence where the audio briefly becomes more impressive than the visuals. Much of the big action is at the front of the picture, slightly unbalancing it for those hoping for the kind of big action movie it seems to start out as, the scale shrinking as the focus narrows and the landscape conversely expands, but it never feels like its dragging its heels or padding things out.

The film initially manages to give a good sense of how the ancient Roman world worked without letting the details get in the way of the story before plunging into the dark savage world beyond the wall, where hard country breeds harsh tribes with more in common with Native Americans than the usual righteous oppressed locals fighting the empire for their freedom. Indeed, when the hero and his slave go on the run pursued by the relentless Mohican-like Seal People, you could easily be watching a Western. Yet even here the film manages to avoid falling into easy good guy-bad guy stereotyping, with Tahir Rahim excellent as their relentless nemesis, managing to create a believable and human character despite having little to work with. Nor does the film opt for an easy hero/villain position on Rome itself, choosing to stake its colors on heroism and courage on either side. Those expecting an epic or a relentless action movie may be disappointed, but as a large-scale old-fashioned adventure, all in all it's rather terrific.

The DVD offers a decent 2.40:1 widescreen transfer, director's commentary, a perhaps slightly better alternate ending that gives the Eagle itself more value than the one finally used, a couple of deleted scenes (one explaining why Douglas Henshall gets prominent billing for just a couple of shots as a charioteer who Tatum kills: the rest of his part never made the final cut) and a making of featurette.

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Very hit and miss, but worth a look at right price

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 5 February 2013 11:50 (A review of The Robin Hood Collection )

Columbia's three disc set brings three of their very sub-Errol Flynn outing's to Sherwood together (though a fourth, Prince of Thieves, was only released Stateside) in a boxed set where quantity outweighs quality.

"What's a pretty girl like you doing all alone in Sherwood Forest?"

Although 1950's lacklustre Rogues of Sherwood Forest saw John Derek take on his fictional father's mantle to dispiritingly little effect, Columbia had done the whole son of Robin Hood thing four years earlier and much better in 1946's The Bandit of Sherwood Forest, with a slightly sleazy and wildly over-confident Cornel Wilde as Robert Hood (well, Robert of Huntingdon). He's called into the fray when his father (Russell Hicks) and the Merry Men, who are beginning to feel their age, renew the fight against tyranny after King John's death when Henry Daniell's evil Regent overthrows the Magna Carta and plans to kill the child king and steal his throne.

There's not much that's unexpected and despite the truly glorious Technicolor (courtesy of Tony Gaudio, who shot Errol Flynn's Adventures of Robin Hood with Sol Polito a decade earlier) and two directors (Henry Levin and George Sherman) it's hardly an A-list production, but it does it enjoyably enough en route to its final duel between Wilde and Daniell, who, caddish to the last, tries to starve the outlaw for three days before their Trial by Combat to give himself an edge. Neither Wilde nor his very 40s leading lady Anita Louise exactly dominate the screen (dialogue like "What's a pretty girl like you doing all alone in Sherwood Forest?" "I'm the scullery maid" doesn't help) while George Macready is wasted in a bit part as Daniell's sidekick, but it's good looking undemanding Saturday matinee stuff that's rather better produced than the material probably deserves.

"Everything has been said, everything has been done."

1950's Rogues of Sherwood Forest sees John Derek stepping into Errol Flynn's costume but never managing to fill it: a dull and wooden presence, he sets the tone for a lacklustre and perfunctorily executed hour-and-a-third that only has Alan Hale in his final film playing the role of Little John for the third time going for it. Unfortunately it only reminds you how much better Errol Flynn and even Douglas Fairbanks, for all his prancing and over-emoting, were in Lincoln Green. Not that Derek is actually playing Robin but his son, who finds himself up against King John, who's overtaxing the people once again to pay for an army of Flemish mercenaries to crush them even further before the barons can force him to sign the Magna Carta ("I'll build a gallows. It will be high and it will be strong," spits George Macready's treacherous monarch). While Diane Lynne's bland Maid Marianne sends him information from the castle via carrier pigeon, the newly outlawed Robin of Huntingdon and Little John decide to bring all the original Merry Men back together, which is an idea that has promise that the film never does anything with at all. With the exception of the final swordfight (initially on horseback), the action scenes are especially lazily thrown together with actors and stuntmen just going unenthusiastically through the motions because they know this is the kind of programmer it's not worth getting any bruises over. Even the Technicolor isn't anything to get excited about in a film that has contractual obligation written all over it and which even recycles some footage from the earlier and much more enjoyable The Bandit of Sherwood Forest. As Alan Hale says at the end, "Everything has been said, everything has been done."

Hammer Films pretty much began and ended their glory days with quickie movie adaptations of TV and radio series, so it wasn't that surprising that Richard Greene's Robin Hood should make the leap to the big screen in 1960's Sword of Sherwood Forest, but despite some capable talent in front of and behind the camera and adding colour and CinemaScope to the mix the low budget and drawn out script render it a flat night out in Sherwood. Greene, who co-produced, is the only member of the TV show's cast to make the leap to the big screen (the famous theme song is gone too), with Little John played by Nigel Green, Friar Tuck by Niall MacGinnis, Marian by an underwhelming Sarah Branch and Peter Cushing giving the film's best turn as the Sheriff of Nottingham, while Richard Pasco and the unbilled Oliver Reed (quite badly dubbed), Desmond Llewellyn and Derren Nesbitt lend support. Sadly there's little color or personality to the story - with Robin trying to stop the assassination of the Archbishop of Canterbury - for any of them to work with. Under Terence Fisher's competent but rather unenthusiastic direction it just ambles along, feeling much longer than it actually is without ever hitting any highs. There are certainly plenty of worse Robin Hood films out there, but that's not much of a recommendation for watching this run of the mill effort.

The DVD offers an acceptable but unexceptional 2.35:1 widescreen transfer with the original trailer as the only extra (the same trailer is the only extra on the other two films as well).

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Barbarossa - Siege Lord [Region Free] review

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 5 February 2013 11:47 (A review of Barbarossa - Siege Lord [Region Free])

"Freedom! Freedom! Let's say freedom a few more times while we're at it!"

While not the outright stinker its reputation implies, Barbarossa: Siege Lord aka Sword of War is the kind of would-be epic where a potentially vaguely interesting period of history untapped by movies is undone by a poor script and stereotyped non-characters played either by disinterested stars like Rutger Hauer (a good 31 years too old for the part and sadly looking it) and a half-decently dubbed F. Murray Abraham or by Italian and Romanian actors who let their bad hair do their acting for them while they brood angrily. Dealing with Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa's siege and destruction of the city of Milan in the 12th Century and the eventual raising of the Company of Death to drive him out of Lombardy, it has its okay moments - mostly during the siege in the middle of the picture - but gets bogged down in clumsy plotting, uninspiring speeches about freedom, nonsense about prophecies, more uninspiring speeches about freedom, post-Gladiator default mode wailing woman scoring, even more uninspiring speeches about freedom and a half-baked love story between Raz Degan's sotto-voiced poser-cum-rebel who looks like he hasn't washed his hair since the 11th Century and Kasia Smutniak's witch while Abraham's treacherous noble hammily betrays the city, molests nuns ("We're going to have some fun!") and lusts after her sister. Naturally history only makes the odd fleeting appearance before turning tail and running to hide like Barbarossa at the Battle of Legnano.

It's all very reminiscent of those 50s and 60s peplums which would have decent production values but lifeless scripts and performances, simply replacing Romans and oppressed Christians with Romanian extras playing medieval Holy Roman Empire types and oppressed Italians. Half-dimensional characters talk either in clichés like "I am as cruel as God is merciful!" "Freedom! Freedom! Let's say freedom a few more times while we're at it!" - okay, I made part of that last one up - or pure historical exposition like "So here she is, the future empress. I just hope that she can make my cousin happier than his previous wife, who was incapable of being loved, and even more incapable of bearing him any children." "We all hope so. And as you must certainly know, his majesty has now wished for an heir for too long." "I'm afraid he's going to have to wait a bit longer for that. But he can console himself. Beatrice brings the whole of Borgogna in dowry." Sadly I didn't make that one up. Both are rendered even more clunking by the necessities of dubbing an international co-production, though that's no excuse for lines like "Prepare to join your bitch whore sweetheart in Hell!"

When they're not talking, half-decently staged shots jostle with awkward ones where you can tell no-one's heart is in it despite the director frequently having most of the resources he needs to pull the scene off. At times they don't seem to have had time or money to put the CGI crowds they need into the background of shots, leading to some bizarre continuity lapses in the final battle where a supposedly awe-inspiring army of thousands in the extreme long shots turns into 30 or 40 men in the long shots, but generally the spectacle is carried off fairly efficiently. It just depends on whether you think efficiency is enough. It's main interest probably lies as a particularly dangerous drinking game from those foolhardy souls who think they can survive taking a shot every time Degan says "Freedom!" without running the risk of life-threatening alcohol poisoning.

The film exists in various versions - a 139-minute Italian theatrical version, a 128-minute international DVD version and a 200-minute TV version. It's hard to imagine any of the longer cuts suddenly turning into a better film. Metrodome's UK DVD is the two-hour version with English soundtrack only, an excellent 2.35:1 widescreen transfer but no extras - and, as is de rigeur with the label's releases, has a cover that bears little relation to the film.

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No worse than many a Hallmark TV miniseries

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 5 February 2013 11:36 (A review of In The Name Of The King Director's Cut )

Looking at In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, one of his many video game adaptations that have earned him the eternal damnation of legions of angry gamers, it's hard to make much of a case for Uwe Boll being the world's worst director. He's certainly not a very good one, but this is more the kind of mediocre any straight to video hack or the odd mainstream director like Brett Ratner at his laziest can deliver than the kind of car crash awfulness you get from the likes of the genuinely dire Robbie Moffat or Timbo Hines. Presumably more influenced by Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films and Ridley Scott's Gladiator than the game itself, it's the kind of derivative fantasy that feels like a bigger budgeted modern version of films like The Magic Sword and Jack the Giant Killer without the monsters. Jason Statham is our hero, a farmer called, er, Farmer. Father to a murdered son, husband to a kidnapped wife, he vows to have his vengeance in this world or the next, but preferably this, spurning King Burt Reynolds' call to arms to rescue wife Claire Forlani from Ray Liotta's power-hungry warlock and discovering his true destiny and saving the kingdom along the way.

Rather than a turkey for the ages, it's fairly watchable if you're in an undemanding mood even if a better director could have made more of his resources. There's not much in the way of unintentional laughs beyond the laughable end title songs (three of `em, ranging from amateurish renaissance fair stuff to bad heavy metal), though it's hard not to guffaw when Statham's character's real name is revealed to be Camden: you can take the boy out of London, but you can't take London out of the boy...You can see where the money (reputedly a respectable $60m) was spent, with excessive helicopter shots of CGi fantasy landscapes and armies. There is one nicely conceived effect that sees Liotta in the middle of a whirlwind of images reflecting the viewpoint of his minions, but generally Boll is lacking in much in the way of visual imagination: his signature shots seem to be tracking in on characters regardless of context or distorted panning shots and at times in the first half of the picture Boll's use of colour looks like he couldn't be bothered to grade the film properly and just went for the one-light rushes look. But in an age where orange and teal seems the default look for every other picture, being unaware of the full colour range is hardly a unique offence.

The action scenes are uninvolving and stunts rarely shot or edited to their best advantage but that's hardly unique considering how poor most modern action scenes are, and at least there's none of the excessive shakeycam or four-cuts-a-second incomprehensibility that prevents you from telling what's actually going on. The exception is the big forest battle in the middle of the picture, which manages to be both insane - somersaulting ninjas, Krugs setting themselves on fire and being catapulted at the king's army, Statham jumping over horses to decapitate Krug commanders and Kristinna Loken's army of tree-dwelling lesbians hanging stragglers from vines with a life of their own - and relatively well executed enough for it to be a fair assumption the second unit took over that scene. Like many an action film before it, it completely overshadows the film's actual climax. But the film's real Achilles heel is the casting.

Statham is okay even if he's no Russell Crowe and Ron Perlman, who seems incapable of giving a truly bad performance despite being in some terrible crap, typically good, as is John Rhys Davies, promoted from dwarf to Gandalf-figure this time round, but the casting is downhill from there. Leelee Sobieski wanders through her scenes with the same blank expression and monotonous delivery for all occasions - love, loss, anger, pride - as if she's still in shock that she's gone from working with Stanley Kubrick to a shot-in-Canada German tax shelter Middle-Earth knockoff and the smelling salts aren't working (to be fair she has a couple of more expressive moments in the extended director's cut). Thanks to too much Botox and bad plastic surgery that makes him look more like a Mongol than a monarch in some scenes, a wildly miscast and disinterested Burt Reynolds at times looks more scary than the evil Orcs - sorry, Kruggs - as he often croaks his way through his direlogue while the even more miscast Ray Liotta, dressed first like Vincent Price and later like one of the cast of Grease and looking like a demented Bizarro World version of Tony Curtis, hasn't been this over the top since Turbulence. But perhaps pride of place belongs to Matthew Lilliard, seemingly playing his every scene as the king's duplicitous nephew like he's being attacked by a swarm of bees (think Renfield on acid) in the kind of loose-limbed and bug-eyed overemotional performance that seems designed to put anyone in their right mind off ever hiring him again. It's quite possible that the only reason he's still working is because so few people saw this.

The director's cut largely adds character scenes and backstory to clarify some plot points while extending other scenes from the theatrical version. It shows a bit more ambition than the theatrical cut in places, notably in a scene wryly crosscutting both King and treasonous nephew rallying their separate armies with exactly the same speech. There's even more unsanity in the extended big battle scene, with the slingshotting Krugs presumably deleted because of dodgy effects. It tends to make it seem more like a miniseries at times, which isn't such a bad thing, though those who hated the theatrical cut will probably find it interminable. At the end of the day it's no worse than many a Hallmark mini-series and certainly quite a bit better than the SciFy Channel's atrocious Earthsea: were it not for Boll's critical bete noire reputation and his tendency to challenge his critics to boxing matches it would probably have come and gone with no more attention than something like The Last Legion.

Still, someone must have loved it (possibly the legion of German dentists who helped fund it and whose names take up 50 seconds of the end credits): despite being a massive box-office flop and not even doing that well on home video, a sequel is actually going ahead with added time travel and Dolph Lundgren as a modern-day special forces veteran thrown back in time. Somehow I doubt it'll be an improvement...

The UK DVD from Metrodome is rather problematic. The two-hour theatrical version is presented in the wrong ratio - 1.85:1 instead of 2.35:1 - and has a few pixelation problems in a few shots, though it did have some extras: 8 deleted scenes, trailer, two featurettes and a commentary by Boll that seems to lose many of the more surreal moments from the US director's cut commentary like bringing his dog into the conversation, taking phone calls about other pictures in German and going off to get something to eat. By contrast the more than half-an-hour longer director's cut is in the right 2.35:1 ratio (although several scenes feel overcropped) but, beyond trailers for other films, has no extras at all - not even subtitles.

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Star Wars of the Rings

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 5 February 2013 11:02 (A review of Willow)

There wasn't a truly successful sword and sorcery film until Peter Jackson got into the act, and despite a liberal helping of trolls, brownies, dragons (bearing a bit of an unfortunate resemblance to a two-headed version of the Penosaurus from Flesh Gordon) and fairies, Willow certainly didn't break the run. Rather than going the Conan route, producer George Lucas adheres to the Star Wars formula in the form of Pat Roach's Darth Vader clone, the skull-masked General Kael, Val Kilmer's Han Solo-esque hero, Joanne Whalley's headstrong princess and Patricia Hayes' Obi-Wan Kenobi figure, among numerous other visual and narrative touches, with magic standing in for the Force as the power that holds the universe together and helps our diminutive hero triumph.

Even if Willow isn't as much fun as you would like it to be, it holds up surprisingly well with age. Kilmer's no Harrison Ford (and his ex-missus is never at her best when acting with an American accent for that matter) and this is no Star Wars, but if you don't expect too much it's a nice enough fantasy adventure with some magical effects (although, coming from a lowpoint in ILM's output, there are a few too many matte lines in places) and a few (intentionally) funny moments en route to a terrific last half-hour.

The major liability is director Ron Howard, who makes 500 extras look like five at one point and could handle the action better, although he certainly fares better than Peter Yates and Krull, which really pushed an audience's best wishes to the limit. Although Howard doesn't do much with the Scope frame, it's certainly a better film in widescreen than panned-and-scanned on TV, and it boasts one of James Horner's very best scores (albeit one that seems heavily influenced by Bruce Smeaton's score for Iceman). There's also a decent extras package as well - audio commentary by Warwick Davis; featurettes Willow - Making of an Adventure and Morf to Morphing - The Dawn of Digital Filmmaking; stills gallery; 8 TV spots; 2 teaser trailers and full theatrical trailer.

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