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Ties with The Deer Hunter and Bullet in the Head for being the darkest war movie ever, 3 July 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Francis Ford Coppola's epic Vietnam story is a classic film by public definition, there's no doubt about it. Fully conveying the horrors of a useless war and the psychological effect upon the people fighting in it, this is powerful and challenging viewing. It's a beautifully shot movie and a highly influential one, helping to launch a whole Vietnam sub-genre at the time of which the Italians were extremely fond. Although if I hear that damned pretentious Coppola quote "this film isn't about Vietnam - it IS Vietnam" one more time I'm likely to scream!

The acting is very good and the actors (there are no women here) are frighteningly adept at playing insane men. Martin Sheen provides the focus piece of the movie and his deterioration into madness is so subtle that it's hard to realise that he has become deeply desensitised at the film's end until his final act of brutality. Marlon Brando is, well, Marlon Brando, thankfully on screen for only a short while as his babblings quickly become irritating (although I did like the bit about the snail on the straight razor…) Cameos from Robert Duvall as a cowboy-type general and Dennis Hopper as a spaced-out photographer just add to the insanity of it all and a young Larry (now Laurence) Fishburne has the sympathetic role of a young soldier whose life is cut tragically short.

Aside from the realistic action sequences, this is mainly a jungle-trek film, shot on location to give it that extra real look. Fans of the Italian jungle genre would be wise to check this out, as at times this covers very similar ground. The powerful ending has Sheen and friends arriving at Kurtz's hideout to discover all manner of corpses hanging from trees and laying scattered around, with heads everywhere. Sheen's killing of the mad general is intercut with (real) footage of a bull being slaughtered in a native ritual - for me, this was sickening, and made the dying words of Brando - "the horrors, the horrors" seem all the more appropriate. An unforgettable film, and one that is both dark and very disturbing, although hardly an enjoyable watch.

Apocalypto (2006)
An all-time favourite adventure film, 3 July 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

While I enjoyed Mel Gibson's last historical epic, Passion of the Christ, I found it a bit lacking in heart. The focus was on viscera and the downbeat story was just too tough to enjoy. When I heard his latest movie was an action adventure about the ancient Mayans, I was pumped and pretty sure I'd enjoy it.

I did. APOCALYPTO neatly blends the type of skillful direction we've come to expect from the director with an action-film template that never disappoints. It's Gibson's best film as director, beautifully shot throughout with some stunning jungle locations, an epic and awe-inspiring Mayan city that will take your breath away, and the best waterfall scene I've seen in a film. The cast of unknowns are entirely remarkable, each and every one one of them, and it's amazing how the viewer can empathise with them from the very first scene, despite the facts that their characters are little more than jungle savages who speak in an unknown tongue.

The film follows the journey of Jaguar Paw, the excellent young hero, who's taken as a slave to a Mayan city where blood sacrifice is the norm. Through his eyes, we see hundreds of remarkable sights that I'll have fun watching again and again. The latter part of the film is more straightforward, and my favourite bit: it's essentially a re-run of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, as our lone, wounded hero attempts to flee a gang of well-armed hunters. The bad guys end up getting picked off one by one in increasingly satisfying ways, pretty much like something out of a horror film.

Gibson goes all-out with the bloodshed from the very beginning. Severed heads, entrails, torn hearts, headless corpses, rotting fields of the dead, axe wounds to the skull, and death by jaguar are just some of what's in store, and it's all handled very well indeed. Laced throughout with genuine humour and wonderfully pulse-pounding excitement, I loved every minute of APOCALYPTO despite the lengthy running time and I recommend it wholeheartedly to everybody.

Atrociously charming, 3 July 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Police detectives and news reporters gradually begin to piece together a puzzle when a man is murdered by what appears to be an ape. The answer lies in the basement of a house inhabited by a ghost hunter, Agatha Brewster (Minerva Urecal), where mad scientist Brewster (Bela Lugosi) has turned into THE APE MAN of the title.. with his back problems and facial hair, Brewster totters on the brink of madness as he whips a murderous gorilla he keeps in a cage. His only salvation lies in the spinal fluid of human beings whom he must kill to get. However, as his friends turn against him, the reporters find the truth and the police close in, Brewster must find a final victim to save himself...

This is a real camp classic. Lugosi is the star of the show, putting in an incredibly funny performance as the bearded doctor. In an early scene he walks across his laboratory in a laboriously lurching fashion which makes you reach for the rewind button. There's another scene where he is also being 'cured' by his fluid, and gradually becomes upright, which is also hilarious to watch. By this time, Lugosi's famed accent had been considerably reduced, but he never totally got rid of it. The film is also surprisingly fast paced for the time, and wisely spends most of its short running length in the basement laboratory.

There are lots of murders (which are, I guess, the horror part) and even a man in a remarkably fake gorilla suit jumping up and down and going "oop oop". With films of this sort, I usually find myself not paying attention during lengthy scenes where minor characters talk about trivia (to increase the running time, no doubt) but this film has none of that. It's full of action and campness and it is, as to be expected, atrocious, but it's so charming that you can't help but love it.

Watch the quality slip away, 3 July 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

As a film, APARTMENT 1303 suffers from being far too similar in scope and tone to classic, better Japanese horror films that have come before: I'm thinking JU ON: THE GRUDGE and ONE MISSED CALL to name but two. It's yet another story of a haunted apartment block (DARK WATER anyone?) inhabited by the same type of long-haired female ghost that's been popularising Asian horror films ever since RING was a success in 1998. The story is derivative and reminiscent of earlier films but this one always comes off worse in the comparisons as truth be told it's not a patch on those aforementioned classics. I did kind of like it, though.

It's a slow burning chiller, depicting a series of violent suicides in which young females jump to their death from an apartment balcony. The sister of the latest victim begins to investigate and discovers a macabre back story involving a young girl and her alcoholic mother that's somehow linked to the present day tragedies. It covers very familiar ground but I didn't mind as I enjoy these Japanese horrors with all their atmosphere-building and regular shivers and shudders.

Unfortunately the film falls apart towards the end as events start to get increasingly ludicrous, thus blowing any realism that the filmmakers have strived so hard to build beforehand. The appearance of a ghostly girl whose hair extensions are dragging victims to their death is frankly laughable and it doesn't help that some horrid blue-screen effects of people hanging off balconies are even poorer than the one that marked Alan Rickman's fall in DIE HARD – and that was twenty years ago. In an effort to throw in lots of last-reel twists, we're left wondering what the hell is going on, and one of the biggest mysteries lies with the young girl and her mother living next door – if they're ghosts, how does a living male interact with them at the beginning of the film? Maybe a better question is why a family owns dog food when they clearly don't have a dog.

The acting is fairly mediocre and there aren't any shining performances here, but that doesn't matter as the characterisation never goes beyond the basics anyway. The over-the-top ending leaves you wondering what the hell they were thinking of rather than sitting back with a satisfied 'wow' as in some genuinely good twist-movies such as THE USUAL SUSPECTS. The first hour's a fun exercise in suspense building but the hijinks at the climax ruin a lot of this film's credibility.

A real hoot, 3 July 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Action-packed Italian costume adventure yarn which is a bit of a crowd-pleaser thanks to the fun characters, the ever-twisting plot which doesn't let up for a second, and the inclusion of lots and lots of battles, action, torture and bizarre plot devices like a savage tribe of bloodthirsty natives and a horde of man-eating killer plants! AVENGER OF THE SEVEN SEAS is a thoroughly entertaining old-fashioned affair of the kind they certainly don't make any more and I found it highly exciting entertainment.

The film begins on some tiny godforsaken island as slave workers fish for pearls and periodically are eaten by killer sharks. Into the scene comes the grandly villainous Captain Redway, who is played to the hilt by Roldano Lupi as a big, bear-like brutish man with no compassion for fellow members of the human race who is out for himself and himself only (later on in the film he kills his own girlfriend to be rid of her!). Redway is assisted by the heroic David Robinson, who can't bear to see his relatives beaten and whipped by Redway so rebels and is half-drowned in chains for his troubles.

To further muddy the waters, in comes a ship of good-natured pirates who drive the Navy ship away and rescue the slaves. Robinson and the pirate Captain join forces, but the Captain's daughter is captured by Redway. A fight between the two ships ensues with (wow! they had a budget!) lots of blazing cannons, massive destruction and men frantically fighting out to the death on deck. Unfortunately Redway escapes through the marshes and captures and kills the rest of the slave workers. Forced to give himself up after his brother's death is threatened, Robinson finds himself thrown into a torture cell where his body is swung through the air against sharp knives sticking out of the walls!

Meanwhile, the pirates are betrayed and their base massacred with only a few survivors taken. A small party manage to take the pearls into the swamps where they are butchered by a third party of savage natives. Redway agrees to exchange slaves in return for the lost pearls, and the prisoners are given over for sacrifice to flesh-eating carnivorous plants. Luckily Robinson manages to escape from his prison and arrives at the swamp to valiantly battle the killer plants, hacking them to pieces before returning for an all-out assault on the Navy fortress. Redway himself is finally captured and impaled under the spikes of a falling portcullis!

Peplum star Richard Harrison takes the heroic lead in the movie. A former magazine model in the '50s, Harrison's dependable strongman performance is one of the film's highlights as he makes for a powerful, charismatic lead. Roldano Lupi is excellent as the dastardly villain and Michele Mercier and Marisa Belli supply ample charm as the women caught up in the events. The film is pretty violent for the time with many scenes of bloody death, whilst the action is well-choreographed and always exciting. The cheesy scene of the man-eating plants attacking people is just the icing on the cake as we get to see Harrison hack the papier-mache creations to a pulp!

Although beset by sloppy editing and many plot holes (if Robinson wasn't the traitor who told of the location of the pirate base, then who was?), AVENGER OF THE SEVEN SEAS tries so very hard to be entertaining that it does its job admirably. Boosted by colourful photography and a rousing score, the film offers a thrill-a-minute pace and a plot which just about goes the whole shebang from beginning to end, starting with a one man rebellion and ending with an entire fleet destroyed, as well as a pirate stronghold and half of a slave base! Fine old-fashioned fun for all the family.

Nothing worse than an unfunny comedy..., 3 July 2015

For me, there's nothing worse than an unfunny comedy. Sure, plenty of horror films aren't horrifying, but at least they do entertain, even if you're laughing at them. Sometimes thrillers won't thrill but they're usually of interest anyway. But a comedy that just isn't funny...well, what's the point? And I'm afraid to say that ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES! is THE unfunniest comedy I've ever had the misfortune to sit through, and this is from a guy who's seen a fair few Troma flicks in his lifetime.

From the outset, you realise that this is going to be a broad, very broad, skit on the kind of '50s sci-fi movie epitomised by ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES, except a lot of those films were tongue-in-cheek anyway. ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES! quickly devolves into a series of quick-fire sketches, playing on the absurd humour. There's a meeting room that's too small so all the officials have to climb over the desk to sit down. A Japanese guy badly dubbed into English. A guy who parachutes in and drags his parachute around for the entire duration of the film. The tomatoes almost seem forgotten about at times, although there are a few scenes of people being chased by the huge fruit that rolls down the street after them. The ending is nonsensical and frankly embarrassing.

The budget is non existent and the acting awful from the entire cast. There's no one-liner that works. Every trick in the book seems to have been thrown into the mix, like the Scooby Doo gag that comes from nowhere and goes back again just as fast. In fact, the only thing I liked about it was the catchy song that plays over the opening credits, but there's another eighty minutes of nonsense to sit through after that. Maybe, just maybe, this would have worked as a short, but as a feature film it's a dog. Avoid this one like the plague.

Surprisingly boring, given the title, 3 July 2015

More gruesome creepy-crawly creatures turn giant-size with disappointing effects in this undeniably cheap slice of swampland scaremongering produced by exploitation legend Roger Corman in his inevitable cost-cutting manner. Whilst the authentic-seeming swamp locations help to add a lot to the atmosphere of the movie, the ramshackle production values hamper it from the start, with a supposedly monstrous "giant leech" looking more like a dirty, poorly-patterned floating blanket with badly drawn-on eyeballs. Also hampered by unbelievable wooden acting from the leads and an emphasis on dialogue and plot development over the bloodsucking action promised in both the title and advertising, this is a Z-movie escapade only of interest to real fans of golden-oldies who can forgive their films' many flaws.

Genetic mutation as a result of pollution is the predictable explanation behind this horrific puzzle but it's a shame the monsters are so poorly-seen yet still very tacky and unbelievable from what we do see. Towards the end there's an overload of underwater photography which alternates between being creepy and silly (the creepiest parts are when the corpses of the eaten victims float to the surface, released from their underwater caves). The man vs. monster battles which always form an integral part of such movies are rather poorly done and you never get the sense that the characters are in real danger, despite the best efforts of the music which would have you on the edge of your seat.

The build-up to the battle involves lots of cheesy dialogue between redneck types and arguments as to whether the swamps should be bombed - the ecologist debate vs. the rational government approach. The acting is pretty much poor from all performers, who it seems are amateurs at this kind of thing, in fact even the unconvincing leeches themselves are better actors than most of the cast! Even though its only an hour in running time, Attack of the Giant Leeches sorely tested the patience of even this kindly reviewer - sometimes bad movies are so good that they become gems; this is so bad that it's not even funny, just poorly done and with a minimum of skill on the parts of all involved. A spiritless and unconvincing film only for generous fans of the period.

You get what you'd expect, 3 July 2015

Here's another great title from Roger Corman, but it's a shame about the movie itself which has a lot of potential but doesn't really take that anywhere. The silly script and bizarre storyline seems to have been made up on the spot (knowing Corman's track record, maybe it was) and is a far cry from the acclaimed Poe adaptations he would be creating a few years later. Instead what we have is a campy, no-budget B-movie in which giant, poorly-designed crabs go around and kill a few people with their rubber claws. Oh, and they're indestructible and can communicate telepathically with people, okay? Still, it's not the worst film ever made and will pass the time moderately well for bad movie lovers, and the best thing is that it's admirably short.

The strange storyline and ridiculous plot elements (the island on which our cast are stranded is shrinking all the while) make for one weird film which plays like a bad nightmare. To make matters even more bizarre, a scene halfway through the film which shows a man falling down a rope into a pit is actually tacked on to the beginning of the movie, so you start off in the thick of the action and wonder what the hell is going on! There is no explanation for this error and it just added to the experience for me.

The cast will be an unfamiliar one to people who don't watch a lot of these type of films, although Mel Welles appears in a small supporting role as a scientist. Richard Garland is the boringly straight hero while Pamela Duncan makes for a voluptuous heroine who looks great in a swimsuit. The movie is surprisingly gory in places for the time in which it was made, with the standout being the discovery of a headless corpse. However, the crabs fail to be the least bit threatening - or even plausible - with one risible moment showing a crab apparently "snoring". That's a new one on me! It's a shame that the budget and technical proficiency behind this film was so low, as the spirit was indeed willing as you might say. This is a film which will only appeal to those devoted to Corman's career or crappy B-movies of the '50s in general.

Not as good as the original, but still worthwhile, 3 July 2015

Everybody knows that remakes are never much cop – very rarely do they improve on the often classic originals. ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 isn't better than the John Carpenter film from the '70s, but it IS a decent remake. This is because it updates and changes the original film in positive ways that make it different enough to be worth watching. That, and the fact that it's a very good little thriller in itself.

The gang in the Carpenter movie was scary because it was random. There was no motive, just the fact that they were out to kill people for the fun of it. That's gone in this movie; the gang here has a definite motive that leads them into a life-or-death struggle for survival. There's a big twist which I won't reveal, but the fact that the gang are all armoured and possessing high-power weapons makes them even more of a threat than in the original movie. I loved it. Key scenes from the Carpenter movie are revisited, but turned around on their head to seem fresh and new.

The worst thing about the film is probably the script, which relies far too heavily on profanity for effect. This is a big no-no, in my opinion, and reveals a dearth of imagination in James De Monaco's screenplay. Still, French director Jean-Francois Richet makes a decent fist of it, investing his film with plenty of suspense and tension, and the action scenes are all very well handled. I was frequently on the edge of my seat, and I haven't been able to say that about many recent action films from Hollywood. The only bit I didn't like was a bit ripped off from DIE HARD 2 where an icicle is used to dispatch a bad guy.

ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 also benefits from an ensemble cast who make the best of what the script gives them. Ethan Hawke, who I never have liked – and still don't like much – works hard in the lead hero role. His work doesn't quite pay off and make him charismatic, but I think he does a good job, for what it's worth. Laurence Fishburne's still trading on his 'king of cool' image that he gained from THE MATRIX trilogy, so he doesn't have to do much work here, but he's one of the actors holding it all together. Gabriel Byrne is underused, as is Brian Dennehy, although it's nice to see the latter actor back on screen in a role reminiscent of his one from FIRST BLOD. Elsewhere we have John Leguizamo (CARLITO'S WAY) having fun as an on-the-edge addict, Maria Bello a little out of place, Ja Rule better than he was in HALF PAST DEAD, Kim Coates playing a jerk yet again, and Drea de Matteo as a lowlife. What's more to say?

Huge suspense in a low budget siege flick, 3 July 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This early Carpenter classic remains a cult item and contains many of the things we associate with him such as a spooky atmosphere and some catchy synthesiser music. I'm finding myself liking a lot of Carpenter's films and this is no exception. It runs like a hybrid of THE BIRDS, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and a crime thriller, with birds and zombies replaced by faceless gang members. The similarities to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in particular become very apparent when you think about it: an isolated building under siege from an ever-increasing horde of enemies; a black hero; a finale which sees the survivors retreating to the basement.

The tension here is created by a deliberately slow start which gently eases the suspense up to breaking point, finally bursting the bubble with a sudden bust of graphic violence - that of a young girl getting shot to death. From then on it turns into an increasingly desperate life or death battle between the inhabitants of the abandoned police station and the hordes of gang members. The acting is actually very good here, a surprise as most of the cast were never heard of to begin with and never seen again afterwards. Stoker and Joston in particular are excellent as the opposing cop and convict who join forces. The charisma between these two tough guys is something to see and they really hit it off together. Joston has the showier role as a mild-mannered murderer but Stoker's subtle performance adds the depth needed to the film.

The music is quite simplistic and yet still very effective, although not as exceptional as Carpenter's classic score for HALLOWEEN. After recently watching an uncut, pristine and widescreen print on DVD I was able to appreciate this film in all its real glory. If you like some of Carpenter's other films then check this one out, you won't be disappointed, and action and thriller fans should definitely spend a night with this one to see what exactly can be achieved on just a small budget.

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