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Murder by Death (1976)
Affectionate genre spoof
MURDER BY DEATH is both a send-up of the whole detective genre along with a riff on the classic haunted house movies of old. The plot, like that of CLUE and others in this sub-genre, is simple in the extreme: a group of detectives arrive at a creepy old mansion and must club together to solve a murder.
What I liked most about this film was the quality of the writing. Although the producers didn't have the rights to use real-life literary detectives, they're all obvious spins on the famous names: Poirot, Sam Spade, Miss Marple, et al. The jokes come thick and fast and there's barely a slow moment as these guys bumble their way through the plot and drop the ball on regular occasions. Not all of the jokes work, but there's a noticeably higher success rate here than in other spoofs and it never flags at any rate.
And what a cast! David Niven's role as a plummy toff is a highlight, but I also have a soft spot for Peter Falk, coming across as a cross between Columbo and a '40s era pulp PI. Peter Sellers stands out as the Chinese detective, and before you cry racist, it's worth noting that he's spoofing the western actors who played Chinese detectives back in 1930s and 1940s cinema. Elsa Lanchester (THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN) is also a hoot as a batty older lady. With the dialogue in the hands of such reliable stars, it would have been hard for it to all go wrong, and thankfully it doesn't. It's great fun.
Avoid at all costs
THE LOST EPISODE is another in a long line of no-budget found-footage ghost films set in abandoned asylums, following on from the likes of the GRAVE ENCOUNTERS films and EPISODE 50. This one's the worst yet, despite the presence of cult horror favourite Michael Rooker (HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER) working as both director and guest star.
This film features a muddled narrative set in both past and present, repeatedly swapping between the two time zones. One narrative involves a film crew shooting a documentary in the asylum, the other involves the stereotypical group of teenagers out for a thrill. Lots of lame wandering around and godawful dialogue scenes are interspersed with some extraordinarily lame deaths.
The movie's cast is appalling, with not one actor standing out from the quagmire. Rooker wisely hides his face behind a mask for the most part, but as a director he displays no discernible talent whatsoever; stick to what you're good at, dude, i.e. stay in FRONT of the camera where we want to see you! Needless to say there's nothing else worth mentioning here, because it's an entirely worthless film and comes close to meriting the dreaded 'one star' rating.
War Horse (2011)
I haven't read the acclaimed children's book by Michael Morpurgo on which this film is based, but I can't help but feel it's a missed opportunity. Like the later HARRY POTTER movies, it's a film which flies over the subject matter at speed, portraying multiple characters with their own little storyline and failing to connect the viewer with any of them on an emotional level.
The film starts off with Peter Mullan playing another animal-hating character (after TYRANNOSAUR), and then suddenly we learn that the lead, Jeremy Irvine, has fallen in love with his horse. I didn't get that at all; there's no warmth in the screenplay, no reason for the care. Then things stir briefly for the war stuff, but it soon descends into the doldrums again. It picks up for a climax which should be emotionally devastating, but unfortunately it was one which left me cold inside.
Part of the blame goes to Richard Curtis, for making his screenplay so mechanical, but the rest must go to Spielberg himself. Spielberg of late seems obsessed with crafting visually beautiful but ultimately hollow viewing experiences. Hell, I preferred the 1990s film adaptation of BLACK BEAUTY, even WITH Alan Cumming's unnecessary narration.
The Hollow Crown: Richard II (2012)
Exceptionally made Shakespeare adaptation
THE HOLLOW CROWN was a BBC miniseries of Shakespeare historical plays first broadcast in 2012. I recorded them all that time ago, but have only just got around to watching the first; of course, Shakespeare can be very dry and there are always more fun things to watch in the mean time.
Anyway, I needn't have worried because RICHARD II turns out to be a fabulous adaptation of the play. It features pitch-perfect acting, a wonderful realisation of a historical world, and plenty of excellent moments which excel in bringing Shakespeare to life. It's also a mature and sometimes graphic tale that serves in bringing to life one of the intriguing of English kings.
The production isn't entirely perfect, as it's a little overlong and drawn out, but then again this isn't one of Shakespeare's best plays. It's very simplistic stuff, detailing an initial series of events and then playing out the consequences of them. But what a cast! Ben Whishaw is equally as good here as he was in THE HOUR, and the supporting players include David Morrissey, James Purefoy, Patrick Stewart, David Suchet, and Rory Kinnear, none of whom put a foot wrong. Sterling work indeed, then, and here's to HENRY IV PART I...
LEGION is an extremely superficial CGI-fest and would-be fantasy/horror featuring Paul Bettany as an archangel whose job is to save mankind from an army of supernatural enemies. It's a companion movie to the same director's equally disappointing PRIEST, two films which never seem to break out of a predictable Hollywood B-movie mould.
This one's pretty much a single location movie in which a bunch of strangers are holed up in a desert diner and trying to survive against the odds. Bettany underplays it throughout, but he's an acting colossus compared to a rubbishy Dennis Quaid (playing a character who boozes throughout the production) and his equally unmemorable acting companions. The only exception is ALIEN 3's Charles Dutton, whose screen time is all too limited unfortunately.
LEGION has plentiful action but none of it is inspiring despite a handful of grisly shock scenes. Instead this seems to be a movie which borrows liberally from the likes of THE PROPHECY, ROSEMARY'S BABY, and at the climax THE TERMINATOR, particularly when Kevin Durand's character comes into it at the end. The most noticeable thing about the movie is the lacklustre quality of the script, complete with insipid dialogue and a lack of realism throughout. Give it a miss.
Captain Apache (1971)
Bizarre comic western that ends up a misfire
This is a bizarre comic western, also known as DEATHWORK and THE GUNS OF APRIL MORNING. It's a UK/Spanish co-production that sees Lee Van Cleef - at the peak of his fame - playing the world's unlikeliest Native American, whose nickname here is "Red Ass" judging by the number of times people call him it. The narrative is a mystery yarn in which the Van Cleef character attempts to discover the meaning of the phrase "April morning".
It's an odd film indeed, one in which the tone is all over the place. You can tell it's a comedy more from the over-the-top nature of the camera shots and the one-liners than a genuinely funny atmosphere, but the whole thing is just too ridiculous to take seriously. I felt embarrassed for Van Cleef in his cast-against-type role and the production values are just sloppy, with US TV director Alexander Singer out of his depth and lacking the style of your typical spaghetti western filmmaker.
The cast is undoubtedly the most interesting about this film; it includes Hollywood-star-turned-giallo-actress Carroll Baker as a femme fatale whose appeal is stolen by the lovely Elisa Montes, and Britain's own Percy Herbert as a heavy. Stuart Whitman bags a large supporting role as an ally whose motivations are decidedly murky. CAPTAIN APACHE features some adequate action sequences to prop up the flagging narrative but it's a definite miss, unfortunately.
The Great Fire (2014)
A crushing disappointment
Another viewer compared this would-be miniseries exploring the 1666 Great Fire of London to EASTENDERS and I think they were spot on: this is extraordinarily disappointing given the effort and level of talent involved, and says a lot about the current state of the ITV drama department.
The miniseries is about the fire but the fire hardly comes into it. Instead we gets lots of uninteresting soap opera shenanigans involving sex, politics and conspiracy. The characterisation is on the level of a provincial pantomime and never once did I believe in or care about any of the sub-plots.
In a bid for quality, a lot of familiar actors from the best TV series around today are brought in. We get Rose Leslie and Charles Dance from A GAME OF THRONES and Jack Huston from BOARDWALK EMPIRE, but none of them are at their best. And they're sidelined in favour of Daniel Mays, who's out of his league playing Pepys (who seems to be a bit of a twit) and the singularly wooden Andrew Buchan. No, THE GREAT FIRE is a chore to sit through and there's nothing here I can recommend to any viewer.
Better than Dyer's Outlaw, but not as good as I'd hoped
VENDETTA is a British vigilante movie in which an ordinary guy is pushed to the edge by the brutal murder of his parents. The film stars an older, wiser Danny Dyer as the chief character, a man who spares no expense in the way he tracks down and dispatches those responsible for the terrible crime.
At the outset, I was pleasantly surprised by VENDETTA. It bears some strong cinematography and good production values for a low budget British genre movie; director Stephen Reynolds is particularly to be commended for making this look like it stands up against the best Hollywood has to offer. And the first half hour tells an intense, dramatic story via decent editing and well thought-out scenes.
It's a pity, then, that the film can't sustain this calibre of writing, because it starts to go downhill soon afterwards. The issue is the plot, which doesn't really go anywhere as the narrative progresses. It becomes repetitive and vague, with too much time given to inconsequential characters and their actions, like Dyer's military superior and the efforts of some shady government types to track him down. All of this stuff is unnecessary and detracts from the story.
Still, the producers deserve credit for eliciting a decent performance from Dyer, and some of the supporting roles are nicely filled. Roxanne McKee continues with the potential she showed in A GAME OF THRONES, and it's always fun to see Bruce Payne even though he only appears in a cameo here. Watch out for KNIGHTMARE star Hugo Myatt in a bit part, and Vincent Regan as a military type. The violence is strong and the story gutsy, lifting this head and shoulders above the comparable likes of Nick Love's OUTLAW.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Wonderful cinematography and a worthy epic to boot
David Lean's LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, a 4-hour desert epic telling the true story of T. E. Lawrence, a man who united the Arab tribes against their Turkish enemies, is considered an epic for a reason. It has wonderful vistas and backdrops brought to life by some splendid widescreen cinematography; it boasts a stirring score and stunning production values in which everything is catered for. It's the kind of film that makes modern movie-makers, with their green screens and CGI armies, look lazy.
The story itself is both intriguing and compelling, working on both the individual and the expansive level. There's action here: desert crossings, battles, sabotage and war, and yet it's much more complex than that. The script carefully draws out the nuances of the various Arab tribes and the tribal complexities preventing peace in the region, as well as providing a fitting introduction to the modern-day Middle East.
The only thing that really dates the movie is the acting, as these are the kind of stiff, mannered performances have long since gone out of fashion; Alec Guinness for example acts in a way long out of fashion. But the calibre of the cast is epic in itself and there are lots of supporting actors giving decent turns, such as Omar Sharif and Anthony Quayle. Peter O'Toole and his role both stay an enigma throughout, but that's no bad thing; instead, it only adds to the wonder of the piece.
2001 Maniacs (2005)
Demented cannibal comedy
2001 MANIACS is a cheesy B-movie remake of a cult H. G. Wells gore film of the 1960s entitled 2000 MANIACS. This is a low budget production, packed to the brim with rubbery gore effects and a hammy turn from A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET star Robert Englund, and yet despite (or maybe because of) all this it turns out to be a surprisingly enjoyable little movie.
I think the film works because the tone is just right. There's a ton of black comedy here, some of it blacker than black (like when the black guy turns up in the southern town asking where black guys hang around, and the locals point him to the nearest lynching tree). The story is relatively fast-paced, and you can be sure that there will be a grisly murder just around the next corner.
The acting is less impressive, and some of the characters are just a little TOO over the top (yes, even in a film like this) but yet it somehow hangs together. It's clear that Englund is having a ball as the demented town mayor and there are cameos from Peter Stormare and Eli Roth as the story progresses. None of it is scary or disturbing, but it is funny in places and it's certainly miles better than the amateurish original.