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

Damnation Alley [Blu-Ray] review

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 4 February 2013 04:10 (A review of Damnation Alley [Blu-Ray])

A long time ago, a film studio far, far away put its faith in a big budget science fiction film in a time of chaos in the industry. It wasn't their only sci-fi film - they had another one with a lower budget going through a troubled production at the same time - but for a while some execs thought that Damnation Alley, their biggest release of the year, would be a big enough hit to cover their losses... The result was probably the most expensive B-movie ever made, costing more than films like The Spy Who Loved Me or The Towering Inferno despite not offering much more than George Peppard and Jan-Michael Vincent driving an RV through the desert for 90 minutes `under skies lurid and angry, in a climate gone insane.' A huge box-office flop, it ended up on a double-bill with Ralph Bakshi's Wizards in the US and with David Carradine quickie Thunder and Lightning in Europe, the success of Star Wars allowing its failure to go largely unnoticed.

It had pedigree: Jack Smight may not be a name many remember now but he was a solid hitmaker with films like Winning, Midway, Harper and Airport 1975 under his belt, the self-destructive Jan-Michael Vincent was still being pushed as the next big thing (and was considerably cheaper than the $2m Steve McQueen wanted to do the film), Jerry Goldsmith provided the score and in Alan Sharp and Lukas Heller it had two excellent screenwriters. Roger Zelazny's novel had cult status and the pitch of doing a kind of post-apocalyptic Easy Rider-cum-Wages of Fear was the kind of logline that green lights are made of. Unfortunately virtually nobody involved in the film seemed to bother reading it, the plot - a killer being offered a pardon to take a suicide mission delivering vaccine across a devastated landscape - reworked as a quartet of Air Force officers who pushed the buttons during WW3 taking a couple of armoured vehicles to Albany to see if a recorded radio signal means there are any survivors there. Along the way they pick up Dominique Sanda (quite astonishingly awful in her English-language debut) and Jackie Earl Haley, encounter giant scorpions, storms, armour-plated killer cockroaches and Robert Donnor's inbred mountain man and the touring company of Deliverance before the film just filters out without ever coming up with a real ending. There's not much dramatic conflict or character along the way either, much of it hitting the cutting room floor as the penny finally dropped with the Fox execs that they had a turkey on their hands, leading them to shelve and heavily re-edit it, expensively adding some psychedelic sky effects to try to make it look a bit more visually impressive. It didn't work.

It's the kind of film that may have cost a then staggering $17m but looks like a $1.5m AIP exploitation flick. It's certainly hard to see where the money went, especially when one big explosive setpiece is stock footage from George Peppard's earlier Operation Crossbow. The special features on Shout Factory's US DVD and Region A-locked Blu-ray offer some explanation: the inexperienced producers made plenty of mistakes, the chief of which seems to be not waiting the two years original effects man Douglas Trumbull thought the film needed and going through a process of trial and error - mostly error - with less talented replacements. Animatronic scorpions that didn't work were replaced with real life ones not terribly well matted onto real backgrounds, cockroaches were a mixture of the real thing and models pulled on strings and, while the sky effects are pleasingly like a chroma key 70s album cover, they're often so poorly composited with the blue screen actors that they look like something from a cash strapped 70s episode of Doctor Who. The most bizarre effect, however, sees a very obviously live actress doubling for a tailor's dummy in one motorcycle stunt, which at least is a reversal of the norm. At it's best it looks like a cheesier version of an old Lost in Space episode, but it's a flat and uninspired affair, mechanically moving from plot point A to plot point B with workmanlike lack of zest or originality, nothing much happening along the way to its anticlimax. It doesn't even manage to summon up any urgency or drama to its opening scenes of Armageddon. It's just about watchable, but that's not much of a recommendation.

While the UK DVD is extras free, Shout's US version and Region A-locked Blu-ray has a decent extras package: audio commentary from co-producer Paul Maslansky, whose experience on the much more enjoyable Race With the Devil led to the studio calling him in to see the film through production when it became clear the original producers were better at packaging the film than the day-to-day practicalities, trailer, TV spot and a trio of interviews with co-writer Alan Sharp (who is open about it not being up to his usual standards and about the film's dramatic shortcomings), co-producer Jerome Zeitman (who fesses up to his inexperience and the many production problems) and Dean Jeffries, who designed the Landmaster vehicle that made more of an impression than any of the characters (and which I used to pass regularly on my way to work when it was parked in his LA workshop in the 90s). Although the US TV broadcasts included some deleted scenes to pad out the running time, none of these have been included.

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"Resistance is inadvisable."

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 4 February 2013 04:08 (A review of Doctor Who - U.N.I.T Files (Invasion of the Dinosaurs and the Android Invasion) )

"A variety of prehistoric reptiles began to appear in the general London area. There was, as you can imagine, considerable panic and some loss of life."

Best known to many as the one with the shonky dinosaurs, Invasion of the Dinosaurs is one of the most anarchically anti-establishment Doctor Who stories of them all, the dinosaurs that mysteriously appear and disappear in the streets of an evacuated London merely a smokescreen for an elaborate conspiracy involving time travel, genocide and a rather overzealous approach to ecological issues. The conspiracy may have the usual suspects - politicians, scientists and the army - but they appear to be a curious mixture of extreme left-wingers and right-wingers who want to save the planet from the human race by wiping them out and starting all over in a golden age.

At the time of the show's production in 1973, green matters were still an issue led more from the extreme right than the left, but despite being written by a former communist the show also takes plenty of swipes at the dogmatic nature of the far left, with their `reminder room' and determination to kill anyone they can't successfully re-educate. Indeed, even its deceived `idealists' whose `guidance' will prevent the New Earth from making the same mistakes as the old are a narrow minded lot who are ultimately more angry at being tricked than at the prospect of human history and the entire human race - with a few politically correct exceptions - being `painlessly' erased. Even more intriguingly, one regular and very sympathetic character in the series at the time is in on the plot and is so devoted to the cause that he'll happily be erased himself if it helps usher in the new golden age. It's all the more surprising considering how many of the Jon Pertwee stories were driven by ecological issues to see the show offer villains with a similar agenda and technology, albeit much more ruthless methods, to the Doctor himself. Few long-running shows have ever challenged their hero's assumptions in quite the same way even if the point is played down.

None of which makes the dinosaur puppets any more convincing even if they are the work of veteran 007 special effects man Cliff Culley, though thankfully they're used fairly sparingly, as is the Whomobile, Pertwee's short-lived space-age replacement for the much-loved vintage car Bessie that was introduced in this story. But the strengths outweigh the problems, from the decent performances (including a very amiable Noel Johnson, once a huge star himself as Dick Barton on radio) to its willingness to slyly subvert the show's own formula. There's a good extras package too: the obligatory group audio commentary, five deleted scenes, an extended 2003 interview with Elisabeth Sladen about her time o the show, a location comparison, a brief extract from Billy Smart's Circus featuring Pertwee and the Whomobile and a very good half hour documentary on the making of the show and its subversive undertones. There's also the option to see the opening episode in black and white or in a highly inconsistently colorized version (the other five episodes are all colour, but the first only survives in a poor black and white copy).

The Terry Nation-scripted The Android Invasion is a more conventional affair and, despite being packaged as part of a UNIT collection, has only the most superficial UNIT presence (the last brief appearances of Ian Levine's Sergeant Benton and Ian Marter's Harry Sullivan) as Tom Baker's Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith arrive in a mysteriously deserted English village near a space defence centre. Not that it's deserted for long, but there's definitely something wrong about the inhabitants and the place itself, with the few familiar faces they encounter ready to kill them without a second thought, though it's not the androids who are regimenting their behaviour who turn out to be the ones with invasion plans. It's a decent enough story even if it is one of the ones that doesn't do much more than fill a four week part of the schedule between more memorable stories (in this case sandwiched between the excellent Pyramids of Mars and the enjoyable gothic Brain of Morbius) in the show's strong thirteenth season.

UNIT is completely absent from the extras, too: the usual audio commentary, a half hour making of that focuses on Terry Nation's return to the series with a nod to the similarities between this story and his work on The Avengers (the show even features `Mother' himself, Patrick Newell), a half hour overview of producer Philip Hinchcliffe's prestigious non-Doctor Who television work, an Easter Egg of some location sound rushes and a tie-in Weetabix commercial.

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Doctor Who: The Face Of Evil review

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 4 February 2013 03:45 (A review of Doctor Who: The Face Of Evil )

Best remembered for introducing one of the Time Lord's most memorable companions, the warrior Leela, Doctor Who - The Face of Evil has a lot more to recommend it than Louise Jameson's skimpy costume fuelling millions of schoolboys' and their dads' fantasies. It's a surprisingly compelling mystery that sees the Doctor arrive on a planet plagued by invisible monsters (not the only time the show would borrow from Forbidden Planet in Tom Baker's tenure), a tormented villain with the doctor's voice who makes others act out the images of his torment and two warring tribes, one primitive, the other more hi-tech. While he's trying to work out whether they're the captors of a survey team that crashed on the planet or their children, it gradually emerges that we're watching a sequel to a story that was never told by the series, one that deals with the disastrous long-term consequences of his interfering in the past - so far in the past that it's not until the terrific visual punchline to episode one that he even remembers it...

It's one of Baker's best stories, and in Leela he has a surprisingly vicious (at least at first) and ferocious companion, one who actually kills and is proud of her deadly prowess. It's quite a leap from the Victorian Pygmalion figure the role was initially intended and yet despite, as Jameson informs us in an interview on the DVD, being based on a combination of her dog and the little girl who lived in the flat upstairs, she's not presented in a patronising way as a bit of cheesecake with a blade: she can look after herself and is more likely to rescue the doctor than need rescuing herself. It also benefits from surprisingly good design for its jungle planet, something of a Doctor Who speciality in the Pertwee-Baker years, making it one of those stories that for the most part looks as good as its script is ingenious.

There's another good extras package on the disc too - audio commentary by Jameson and co-stars and crew, deleted footage, as well as other featurettes, vintage toy commercials and a stills gallery that reveals the initial horribly misjudged blackface makeup for Leela. Most revealing is that interview with Jameson that doesn't skirt over her difficult working relationship at the time with Baker. He famously didn't want to have a sidekick at all, and the opening episode shows why that wasn't likely to have worked as he wanders around not so much talking to himself to explain the kind of plot points he'd normally fill his sidekick in on as he is talking directly to the camera. It doesn't quite break the fourth wall but without the audience surrogate figure doesn't work half as well. He may not have been happy with the solution at the time, but there's no doubting that it worked wonderfully and that this story made a superb introduction. Oh, and don't forget to watch out for the Janus thorns.

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One of the finest Carols you'll ever hear

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 4 February 2013 03:41 (A review of Tom Baker Reads A Christmas Carol)

Charles Dickens' most popular tale has seen so many incarnations on big and small screens, stage, radio and any other media platform you can think of that it's hard to imagine any new version bringing much to it but dreary over-reverence or wild departures. Amazingly, this truly superb reading by Tom Baker seems to manage the trick, bringing a freshness that makes it seem shining new. What it brings is what is always lost in its dramatic adaptations, the wonderfully wry humour of Dickens' prose, whether it's describing the badly-located hovel he lives in as having played hide and seek when a young house and never been found by the other houses or speculating that a group of spirits chained together must have been a bad government. And in Tom Baker, AudioGo have made a truly inspired choice of reader. While you might be expecting some of the ripe, grandiose showmanship that's so often his stock in trade, he's surprisingly subtle here, never losing the throwaway wit without playing it up and at the same time never losing sight of the story and its humanity. It's a wonderful performance with a rich, diverse variety of tones and character voices that surprise and delight in a truly splendid rendition that deserves to become a Christmas tradition in itself. Truly wonderful!

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Ghost Stories from the BBC: The Signalman / Stigma / The Ice House (DVD) review

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 4 February 2013 03:39 (A review of Ghost Stories from the BBC: The Signalman / Stigma / The Ice House (DVD))

The original BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas came to an end with this trio of tales that saw a shift in tone from the previous M.R. James adaptations. With a planned adaptation of James' Count Magnus proving too expensive for the BBC's modest means at the time, the Ghost Story for Christmas series cast its net wider in 1977 with an adaptation of one of Charles Dickens' short stories, with exceptional results. The Signalman is one of the highlights of the series thanks to excellent performances by Denholm Elliott and Bernard Lloyd, a great use of his striking location by director Lawrence Gordon Clark and a splendid adaptation by Andrew Davies that retains much of Dickens' very distinctive dialogue. The latter gives an air of what could be described as formal unease to its fireside tale of a traveller and a signalman who meet in a tunnel in a strange valley. The traveller thinks he has found a contented man, but it's all too obvious that he has instead found a very troubled one, and one not just troubled by the pressure of responsibility with so little to do but so much depending on it and the long periods of inactivity while the telegraph wires sing ominously as the wind turns them into a wild harp. Elliott is especially good as the rational man haunted by a harbinger of doom who has predicted two disasters on his stretch of rail and he believes is predicting another in a beautifully atmospheric production that's driven as much by helplessness and confusion as it is by dread and unavoidable fate.

It's just a shame that the BBC didn't go back to the original 16mm negatives for a higher resolution scan than they provided the BFI with here - for most of the time it's a very solid transfer that's certainly as good as the TV broadcasts, but the spectre's appearance in the shadows of the tunnel are too dark until its countenance is revealed. Thankfully it's not enough to mar what is, despite its simplicity, one of the finest adaptations the BBC has ever produced. The DVD also includes a lengthy and particularly good introduction by Clark, dealing both with the practicalities of the shoot - the signal box and gorge were near a rough area and schoolchildren would throw rocks at the crew! - as well as the background to the story, from Dickens' inspiration coming from a real fatal train crash he survived in 1865 and the way the Industrial Revolution had become a monster that left many powerless victims. Unfortunately, unlike their earlier standalone DVD edition, John Nettleton's reading of the original story has not been carried over. The DVD does, however, include the two remaining stories from the 70s incarnation of the series.

With Stigma the series took a different turn, moving away from the more expensive period adaptations to cheaper modern day originals, albeit with similar elements in the case of this tale by Clive Exton of the perils of landscape gardening if you live near pagan standing stones and burial mounds. Kate Binchy's housewife is on the receiving end this time, finding herself mysteriously bleeding to death despite having no wounds after attempts are made to remove a giant stone that ruins the lawn, something you know isn't going to end well. Lawrence Gordon Clark made his exit from the series with this one, less comfortable with the modern setting and, as he admits in his introduction on the DVD, rather uncertain just what the nature of the malignant force was. That the characters are unaware of it themselves is one of the more effective aspects of a decent but not great entry. This also rings in the changes with the addition of a lot of gratuitous nudity that's, naturally, essential to the plot in that way that only ever seems to apply when female nudity is involved. Funny, that.

John Bowen's The Ice House is an intriguing little number set in an isolated spa where the guests go from relaxed to increasingly unnerved as they get `a touch of the cools' which may or may not be related to the old ice house in the grounds and the twin vines whose flowers give off a seductive scent. Although set in the 70s the language is very formal and archaic, guest John Stride's delivery gradually becoming as artificially precise and mannered as the somewhat otherworldly brother and sister who run the place and only want what is best for their guests, creating an unnerving atmosphere even though little actually happens. Largely played out in sunlight rather than shadows, it's a surprisingly effective little story best appreciated as an ambiguous mood piece rather than a ghost story.

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The Wolfman (2010) - Extended Cut [Region Free] review

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 4 February 2013 03:15 (A review of The Wolfman (2010) - Extended Cut [Region Free])

"Life is far too glorious, especially for the cursed and damned like myself."

At times the extended version of 2010's The Wolfman is a case of a film failing for all the right reasons: an interesting attempt to mix a classical moviemaking aesthetic and old school production techniques with modern production values that often does a lot right but strangely never quite works as well as it should. Whether that's down to much-publicised production problems and extensive reshoots that saw the budget nearly double while the studio tinkered with it for the best part of a year-and-a-half and ensured that neither the 118-minute unrated cut on DVD or the 102-minute theatrical version that accompanies it on the Blu-ray is a true reflection of the director's original cut is a moot point, but it may simply be that director Joe Johnston took too classical an approach at times. The 1941 version isn't a great film by any means and certainly didn't have the resources this reworking had, but at least it kept things moving while this takes its cue from its house of buried secrets and underplays its hand a little too much at times. Johnston may have talent and an obvious love and respect for old Hollywood and classic filmmaking, but at times you can't help thinking that Anthony Hopkins' could have been talking about him when he says "You have a long way to go yet, my young pup."

The first hour of the extended version certainly drags its paws a bit with too many deliberately lifeless domestic scenes until it finally develops some real bite in the second half with a combination of vivid setpieces, be they beastly rampages, rooftop chases or a drug-fuelled nightmare asylum sequence that give great vintage montage straight out of the 40s, and not entirely unexpected plot twists that put a new spin on the troubled father-son relationship of the original film. Most importantly it develops a sense of pace and urgency that carries you along that the first half could sorely have done with. The original Universal monster movies were always tightly paced affairs around the 70-minute mark, and the studio seem to have taken a leaf from their book with the shorter version they eventually released on the big screen, which is surprisingly a huge improvement and a much more satisfying film by far.

Most of the cuts are from the first half of the picture, and there are few that you could disagree with. Gone is Talbot's unsympathetic backstage introduction, his half-gypsy heritage and much of Hopkins' silent eccentricities, improving his performance in the process as well as making things move faster and smoother. It's not all good news, with the revamped 40s Universal logo replaced, while some atmospheric shots of Talbot Hall and a cameo with an unbilled Max Von Sydow as a stranger offering a subtle link between the werewolf of this tale and the Beast of Gévaudan hitting the cutting room to keep things moving. Ultimately they're trade-offs worth making, proving the old adage that what you leave out can be as important as what you keep in the editing. That's even more noticeable in one of the deleted scenes on the disc where the Wolfman gatecrashes a society masque where the guests all think he's wearing a costume: while obviously extremely expensive, it doesn't really work and would have slowed the picture to a halt just when it had picked up a full head of speed.

In a role outside his usual comfort zone Benicio Del Toro gives an interestingly subdued performance that doesn't play for easy sympathy, Anthony Hopkins similarly tones down his potentially hammy role while a dowdy looking Emily Blunt gives the kind of capable performance that's more her stock in trade than the exceptional ones many critics claim. Even Hugo Weaving is pleasingly understated for once as the policeman on his trail (Inspector Abilene of Jack the Ripper infamy, no less), with the sole portion of ham being served up by Anthony Sher's Jermunn Sykiatwrist in a performance seasoned with a liberal dash of Lionel Atwill.

Despite their Oscar win the makeup effects aren't as impressive as they could be, although Rick Baker does make up for the underwhelming first transformation with an especially visceral second one in front of hundreds of assembled doctors and some rather impressive makeup in the finale that makes the actor underneath the hair recognisable even though it's almost certainly a stuntman. Similarly a few other effects are less than impressive, looking like last minute additions to try to beef things up, although the combination of CGi and miniatures does allow our tormented antihero to go on the rampage right in the heart of Victorian London in the best of the film's big three setpieces (the other two, an attack on a gypsy camp by a barely glimpsed beast and Talbot taking on the werewolf who created him as a mansion burns around them are pretty good too). Despite the post-first cut changes, Talbot never turns into a demonic wolf but remains very definitely a wolf MAN, largely walking upright in a surprisingly effective throwback to the original Universal Wolfman cycle.

The film is also very obviously influenced by Bram Stoker's Dracula [DVD] [1992], and not just in the casting of Hopkins. Danny Elfman's brooding orchestral score nods to Wojciech Kilar's memorable music for Coppola's film without falling into slavish impersonation that you wonder why the studio ever thought removing it and commissioning an electronic replacement (by Paul Haslinger) was a good idea before they came to their senses and put it back: it's not one of his major works, but it serves the film and its mood well. The early somewhat monotonous tone in the extended cut certainly hinders it and the lack of a convincing love story takes the pathos from the ending, but for all the problems and accompanying bad press, in the 102-minute version at least the film ultimately turned out surprisingly well and easily one of the best monster movie revivals in a long time.

You won't find much detail about those problems in the extras on the Blu-ray - along with a trivia track, picture-in-picture featurettes and occasional commentary by Johnston, the accompanying featurettes are of the promotional puff-piece variety, though the studio's uncertainty is very evident in the two alternate endings on the Blu-ray that alter the characters' fates in the final shots: one might have worked had the love story been there but the other simply looks like a cheap bit of sequel baiting. As usual DVD buyers get the short stick, with only the longer cut of the film and the deleted and extended scenes.

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Three intriguing period kaiju classics

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 4 February 2013 02:59 (A review of Daimajin - Triple Feature Collector's Edition - Blu-ray)

Spanning three films all released at four monthly intervals in the same year, 1966, the Daimajin series is one of the most atypical of all Japanese kaiju films. In this case the strange monster is a giant statue of a warrior that comes to life, but rather than menacing a modern city he's a force of nature at once both protecting and threatening the devout villagers in period feudal Japan. Slow to anger - it's not until the last 15 minutes of the first film that he's roused - when unleashed he doesn't distinguish between tyrants and their victims in his destructive wrath. Until he comes to life the first film is in many ways a typical period drama with more swordplay than monster mashing with its rightful and decent rulers killed in a palace coup and the Lord's two surviving children hiding on God's forbidden mountain in the shadow of the mighty statue of Daimajin until they can grow to take their revenge. The statue itself is barely highlighted, seen in the background of a few scenes but never foregrounded until the blasphemous pretender to the title decides to tear down the monument to further demoralise the peasants he has been mercilessly oppressing and forcing to build fortifications to secure his power: BIG mistake...

Surprisingly for the increasingly cash-strapped Daiei Company it's quite a lavishly mounted production, boasting handsome production design, a score by Akira Ifukube's that occasionally evokes his work on Godzilla and impressive cinematography by Fujiro Morita, who features in three half-hour interviews on Mill Creek's Blu-ray release. The special effects are generally well handled, with superior compositing to many other kaijus in some of the `hero' shots - there's a particularly impressive zoom past some burning carts to Daimajin's face that is particularly striking.

Return of Daimajin aka Wrath of Daimajin (both titles that were also used for the third film in some territories, which causes some confusion) fulfils the classic sequel requirement of being the same, but different. This time rather than a palace coup it's a local tyrant taking over a prosperous rival's territory and deciding to stamp his authority and demonstrate his contempt for the notion of God's wrath by destroying their statue, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the one in the first film. They get round to this a lot quicker this time, and rather than using sledgehammers and nails do the job with explosives

Once again it's more than an hour before Daimajin finally makes his appearance, one unseen intervention from beneath the waves notwithstanding, summoned by the tears of a virtuous noblewoman just in time to prevent another crucifixion (there's a surprising amount of Christian imagery in this entry), and as with the first film there's a real sense of Cecil B. de Mille to the wrath of God scenes as the elements run riot, a comparison made even more direct by the waters surrounding `God's Island' parting behind the Daimajin. This time he's a bit more discerning who he aims his wrath at, and he faces more ingenious opposition too, though perhaps because of the rush to get the film into theatres as soon as possible the compositing on the effects shots isn't as good as the first film. But it's still another handsome production shot in the kind of classical style you'd be more likely to expect from a high quality samurai film that makes for a satisfying 78 minutes' entertainment.

The third and final film, Daimajin Strikes Again, changes the format slightly and jettisons most of the religious angle, though not noticeably for the better. This time rather than the aristocracy being deposed, it's peasants being captured for slave labour and their young children rather optimistically going across the Maijin's forbidden mountain to rescue them. This time we don't have to wait so long for a bit of destruction, the film opening with the barely glimpsed Daimajin tearing down and stomping much of the countryside in one of his moodies, but it feels a bit like a last minute decision to add a bit of oomph to the picture. Once the prologue's out of the way it's less than compelling stuff: while more than decent actors, the children aren't strong enough characters to carry the film over the long and not particularly exciting journey, and even an unexpected death doesn't add any impact to a surprisingly flat affair. Eventually, after enough screen time has passed and the weather has taken a turn for the worse, Daimajin puts on his angry face and stops this season's would-be warlord and his samurai (especially thinly drawn this time round), yet despite decent effects there's not much of a thrill in the destruction this time round.

While still a cut above the kaiju norm, the production values don't stretch so far this time despite the crew's best efforts to hide what looks like a much smaller budget, though the arrival of heavy snow in the last half hour does give the film a fairly unique look for the genre even if the main locations aren't as well used as those in the first two films. But there's no getting around the fact that this last outing for the giant statue is a pretty dull affair.

Despite a few slightly flat shots, the Blu-ray transfers are generally impressive considering the age of the films and the budget price of Mill Creek's region-free disc. Some of the subtitling is a bit awkward at times - "Quiet you silly priestess!" - but then silly translation has always been part of the charm of the genre (the discs also offer a decent enough English dub alongside the original Japanese). Along with the interview with Morita, the original Japanese trailers are also included.

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Hanzo: The Razor [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC] review

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 4 February 2013 02:56 (A review of Hanzo: The Razor [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC])

Who's the Edo Police constable who's a sex machine to all the chicks?

Who's the Edo Police constable who's a sex machine to all the chicks? Hanzo the Razor - Sword of Justice - can you dig it? With his funky theme tune and angry strut, he's the cop who takes no bribes and no excrement from the brass either, firmly on the side of the poor over the big rich who can buy their way out of trouble. He does things his way, whether that means torturing himself to find out how much pain a suspect can take, blackmailing his boss to stay on the force, beating his oversized penis with a wooden club or using it to secure confessions or information from female suspects. Yes, you did read that last bit right. Shintaro Katsu may bear an unfortunate resemblance to Stratford Johns but he's also not pounding a 20th century Tokyo city beat but a 17th century one, and this Police Constable is anything but PC. Even Harry was never this dirty...

Following the Zatoichi and Lone Wolf and Cub/Baby Cart series, Kenji Misumi's film should be deeply offensive or at best a smutty sex comedy - aside from Hanzo's interrogation technique, one female suspect is identified by her lack of pubic hair, observed under particularly perverse circumstances. Yet somehow, through a combination of cynical disillusion with all the old myths of honour in the samurai genre that are roundly condemned in no uncertain terms and some surprising stylisation (how many sex scenes are shot from inside a woman's vagina?), it somehow manages to come out as genuinely subversive and occasionally exhilarating rather than just exploitative. No doubt about it, this is an exploitation film, but a surprisingly classy one that's well aware of the inherent absurdity of grafting the John Shaft or James Bond aesthetic, complete with gadgets, onto a period swordplay film, yet still playing it absolutely straight. Even the plotting is anarchic, with Hanzo spending much of the film unravelling a plot that costs several lowlives their low lives to uncover a conspiracy that is at heart so trivial it goes nowhere, and rather than a showdown with the Man it ends with a surprising assisted suicide sequence that owes nothing to notions of honorable sepuku and more to do with the mercy killing of a complete stranger.

The result is a bonkers-on-paper movie with a surprising integrity, and a remarkable closing shot that promises great things to come, but unfortunately, Misumi didn't return for the second film in the series, Hanzo the Razor - The Snare, and it shows. Where Misumi used a pulp format to attack the pomposity of the genre and the false values they peddled, Yasuzo Masumura just makes a straight out sleazy exploitation film with added nudity, violence and S&M, very little of it especially interesting. The plot is considerably more lurid, with illegal abortions, a convent filled with nympho nuns being used as a brothel and a rapist/thief who, unlike Hanzo, doesn't leave his victims wanting more but in a pool of their own blood, but the execution is uninspired. It's not that Masumura has a poor visual sense, more that he lacks the imagination to lift the film out of the ordinary - no stylistic flourishes this time and despite an okay final twist the plotting is pretty perfunctory this time round. Social commentary is limited to the state diluting gold so they can siphon more of it into their own pockets, in the process devaluing the currency, forcing prices up and leading to a crime wave as the poor try to survive any way they can, but where his predecessor might have used the plot as a means of drawing attention to corruption and hypocrisy, Masumura just uses it as a plot Maguffin.

Despite recycling many ideas from the first film with considerably less panache, it has its moments (Hanzo gets into the convent by getting buried in its grounds and escaping from his grave, while there's a striking overhead shot of a duel on a bridge), but Hanzo spends an inordinate amount of time in the closet (literally) in this one and there's little in the way of originality in the by-the-numbers writing. Too much of the film feels like one of the lazier Dirty Harry sequels when they'd said all they had to say in the first film and from then on it was just about making money.

Curiously the trailer includes what is either a brief deleted scene or, as was fairly common in Japanese trailers, a specially shot scene of Hanzo and the Treasurer's bodyguard preparing to duel.

Worse was to come with Hanzo the Razor - Who's Got the Gold?, the third and not surprisingly last of a series that only took two sequels to run completely out of steam. Directed by former assistant director Yoshio Inoue, it cuts back on the gratuitous sex and violence but doesn't find anything more to replace it than a standard and rather drawn-out plot to replace it involving Treasury gold hidden in bamboo spears, a fake ghost, a blind priest lending stolen cash to impoverished samurai at high interest to fund his drug-fuelled orgies, a dying doctor trying to persuade the local elder to adopt western ways to avoid Japan becoming a foreign colony and the usual corrupt officials on the take. The odd original idea is thrown away and the film shows little enthusiasm even for the character's trademarks, which are given a perfunctory once over as if purely by contractual obligation. They really can't think of anything to do with the main character anymore and he just becomes another clichéd swordsman: the best it can manage is a joke about him possibly turning gay. At times it feels like Hanzo has just clumsily been grafted on to an existing run of the mill script for another period movie. The action scenes are nothing to write home about either. Even at 84 minutes, this tired effort drags its heels terribly, feeling like nothing so much as a film made by people who were bored with their job.

Extras are limited to the original trailer and liner notes. All boast excellent 2.35:1 widescreen transfers with English subtitles, but bear in mind due to negative damage there are a few frames missing from one shot in the first film - very noticeable because a character suddenly disappears from the frame.

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GATE OF HELL [JIGOKUMON] (Masters of Cinema) (DVD & BLU-RAY DUAL FORMAT) [1953] review

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 4 February 2013 02:48 (A review of GATE OF HELL [JIGOKUMON] (Masters of Cinema) (DVD & BLU-RAY DUAL FORMAT) [1953])

It may be a triumph of style over content, but what style!

In 1953 Teinosuke Kinugasa's Gate of Hell aka Jigokumon was one of the breakthrough Japanese films on the international market, winning the Grand Prix at Cannes and two Oscars (though, shockingly, neither was for Kôhei Sugiyama's remarkable photography) but received a rather more muted reception in its homeland. That's perhaps understandable since the execution is much more impressive than the not always convincing plot, particularly a crucial development in the third act that rather strains credibility and leaves you wanting to shout "Just tell him!" at the screen. The first third of the film is rather deceptive too, beginning as a vividly stylised saga of dynastic struggle as a proud rural samurai plays a crucial role in thwarting a coup during the Heiji War. Asked to name his own reward, he asks to marry the court lady in waiting who acted as a decoy for the Emperor's sister, and refuses to take no for an answer when he learns that she is already married to the head of the Imperial Guard. The condescending amusement of the court and rival samurai and the decency of the woman's husband only fuel his desire further until tragedy is inevitable...

It's a film that occasionally manages to wrongfoot the viewer, not least in the final scene, but as drama it's never quite as compelling or convincing as it could be. Kasuo Hasegawa's intransigent would-be husband and Isao Yamagata's kindly husband offer an effective study in contrasts, the former tightly wound, the other blinded to the danger by his own unselfishness but, surprisingly, Machiko Kyo is more problematic as the woman caught between them, all too obviously hitting her marks and striking poses at times while the rest of the cast seem more unforced. But ultimately it's the camera rather than the cast that makes the film such a remarkable experience - the film's use of colour is absolutely extraordinary, with a bold strong colour palette that's dramatically compelling in its own right. It's hard to disagree with Martin Scorsese, who described the film as one of the ten great achievements in colour cinematography in world cinema, and thankfully Masters of Cinema's Blu-ray/DVD combo has a stunning transfer of the breathtakingly excellent 2011 restoration of the film. On one level you could argue that the film is a triumph of style over content, but the plot is still strong enough for the style to enhance the content even if the film's striking visuals remain the main attraction.

The disc has no extras apart from a detailed booklet, but it's such a visual feast it's unlikely you'll be disappointed with the disc.

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Kagemusha - Criterion Collection review

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 4 February 2013 02:45 (A review of Kagemusha - Criterion Collection)

Get Criterion's US disc for a fine presentation of the uncut version of Kurosawa's comeback

After years in the wilderness ended only when Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas persuaded 20th Century Fox to invest some of the money they'd made from Star Wars in his financially stalled epic, Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha was one of those real life fairy tales that you feel bad for not liking more. It's a film with good things in it and the odd great moment, but despite having a good story to tell and the budget to do it justice it never really comes to life. The tale of a thief whose uncanny resemblance to a warlord leads to him assuming his role after his death to prevent his kingdom falling apart and slowly gaining both the admiration and unease of those who use him over his alternately inspired or disastrous improvisation in the role itself tends to feel like a convincing imitation rather than the genuine article. A big part of the reason is that the characters never come to life thanks to a script that's thin on character and a performance by Tatsuya Nakadai that's more than competent but feels like it's had the life directed out of it. Kurosawa originally cast Shintaro Katsu, the larger than life star of the Lone Wolf and Cub and Hanzo the Razor films, only to fire him in rehearsals over what he saw as a lack of respect and, as Coppola suggests on one of the interviews on Criterion's DVD and Blu-ray, that was probably what the part needed instead of Nakadai's quieter, more contained but all too often near-anonymous performance. Throughout he seems kept at arm's length, observing events but never allowed to take centre stage until near the end of the film.

The film's other big problem is it's pacing. For international consumption Fox cut the film by some 20 minutes from its original Japanese version (losing Takashi Shimura's brief last role for the director entirely), and you can understand the reason for the cuts - the first hour is at times almost stultifyingly slow, the Noh Theatre influence resulting in scenes that aren't just slow and studied as positively glacier-like in their pacing: the opening shot runs for several minutes in an unbroken stationary shot, and it's far from an isolated example. Yet as a result when the film does explode into movement, such as the mud-covered messenger waking sleeping troops as he runs to deliver his news or when the shadow warrior improvises a rousing ride-by to rally 'his' troops only to fall from his horse, the contrast gives them much more impact.

While it's not top tier Kurosawa by a long way, it's not entirely negligible either. There's an especially bold use of vivid colour, even going into outright stylisation in the watercolour-like nightmare sequence, and the justly celebrated final battle sequence that defies expectations has real impact: it's the one part of the film where Kurosawa's emphasis on technique over character actually provokes a genuine emotional response, though it is telling that you feel more for the mass of victims that we've never met than the main character who carries the film. There are enough moments of pure cinema to carry it over the rough spots, but it feels more like a bit of a miss than the triumphant comeback critics hailed it as back in 1980.

Fox's original European PAL DVD was a real dogs dinner of a release, offering only the cut version in an exceptionally grainy and muted transfer that did a grave disservice to Takao Saito and Shoji Ueda's fine cinematography (no extras either), but Criterion's US DVD and Region A-locked Blu-ray offer the uncut three hour Japanese version in a very pleasing transfer. It's also accompanied by a slew of extras: audio commentary by Stephen Prince, five Suntory Whisky commercials shot on the set alternately showing Kurosawa and Coppola sharing a glass or the director talking to the extras or inspecting prop helmets before downing a glass; a 43-minute reconstruction of the story through Kurosawa's concept paintings that was edited by actor Masayuki Yui, who plays Ieyasu Tokugawa in the film; a comparison of some of those paintings to frames from the finished film; 19-minute interview with Lucas and Coppola; a 43-minute retrospective documentary that's part of Toho's It Is Wonderful to Create series of Kurosawa documentaries; and the US and two Japanese trailers with some footage of Kurosawa at work.

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