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Mother! (2017)
6/10
MOTHER! (Darren Aronofsky, 2017) **1/2
10 December 2017
Director Aronofsky has said that he came up with the idea for this film after a screening of Luis Bunuel's THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL (1962) & his own thinking on the current human condition! As I lay watching the film - undoubtedly the most controversial release of the year - I was also reminded of many other films: Bunuel's own VIRIDIANA (1961; in the way in which invited guests unceremoniously take over a household) & SIMON OF THE DESERT (1965; throngs of people invading the personal space of & expecting answers from their idol); Roman Polanski's REPULSION (1965; a repressed woman who never ventures outside her home & loses her mind), ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968; a struggling artist invites a sinister couple into his marital home & they take over to the chagrin of the introverted & pregnant wife) & THE TENANT (1976; which had been the director's own male version of REPULSION anyway); Mike Nichols' WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRIGINA WOOLF? (1966; a younger married couple are the disbelieving witness to the constant squabbles of an older couple); & any number of Euro-horrors climaxing in conflagration & reincarnation (including Francesco Barilli's THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK [1974])!! The narrative is clearly an allegory but I found the implied biblical connotations heavy-handed & the overt criticism of modern-day fame perfunctory. Most audiences were shocked by the gory climax & some critics deemed this a black comedy; frankly, I was neither horrified nor entertained! All the characters involved (except for the perennially barefooted Lawrence) range from the slightly unsympathetic (Bardem) to the downright annoying (Harris & Pfeiffer)...one can't really fault Aronofsky's technical prowess here but, as Biblical tracts go, I preferred his more irreverent NOAH (2014), while BLACK SWAN (2012; still his best work) was a far more interesting & satisfying 'descent into the maelstrom'.
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8/10
MY VOYAGE TO ITALY {Parts I & II} (Martin Scorsese, 1999) ***1/2
15 November 2017
I've often claimed that I admire Martin Scorsese far more as a film historian than as a film-maker & something like this only reaffirms that notion. While I've watched A PERSONAL JOURNEY WITH MARTIN SCORSESE THROUGH American CINEMA (1995) years ago, I've only managed now to catch up with its follow-up; although it doesn't seem to me that the previous documentary was as selective as this one, his later (& much shorter) A LETTER TO ELIA (2010) was equally choosy. While in a way this stringent choice of material - in this case, some 20 movies discussed over a 4-hour time slot - makes for a rigorous analysis of the films in question (almost playing like a selected, scene-specific audio commentary from a distinguished fan), one can't help feeling that the movies or film-makers which have been bypassed are being unjustly discriminated against! Yet, this is Scorsese speaking about the handful of Italian movies that have meant the most to him on a personal & artistic level...so there are (mainly) 8 Rossellinis, 4 De Sicas, 3 Viscontis, 3 Fellinis & 2 Antonionis. As much as I enjoyed listening to him dissecting each of these films for 10 minutes at a time, the fact that he (mostly) concentrates on celebrated World Cinema classics to begin with also means that he is not really stating anything new (unlike, say, his then-'surprising' championing of Allan Dwan's neglected oater SILVER LODE [1954] in his previous documentary which had stuck with me enough to purchase the film on DVD much later on & come to love it myself)! While I can understand that some of the omitted titles just might not have been available to view as he was growing up, some of the missing stuff IS perplexing: he doesn't mention De Sica's classic MIRACLE IN MILAN (1951) but instead concentrates on the lesser-known THE GOLD OF NAPLES (1954; the only film included I've yet to watch) & skips over LA NOTTE (1961) when he gets to Antonioni's famous trilogy! He also commits the common mistake of dismissing Rossellini's work between his Bergman & TV phases (1955-1965); I, for one, am glad that his VIVA L'ITALIA (1961) is being released on BluRay by Arrow next year in 2 versions! Again, the decision on what to include may have willfully been restricted to his formative years...but, the thing is, he is so good at analysing the films included that one longs to learn his opinion on lesser-known masterpieces like Mario Monicelli's THE GREAT WAR (1959), Luigi Comenicini's EVERYBODY GO HOME! (1960), Dino Risi's THE EASY LIFE {IL SORPASSO} (1962), Vittorio Cottafavi's THE 100 HORSEMEN (1964) & Valerio Zurlini's THE CAMP FOLLOWERS (1965)! His complete passing over of Mario Bava, Pasolini & Bertolucci is genuinely baffling, to say the least...but, for what it's worth, what is included makes one yearn to watch the films again & it served as a personal reminder that some of these I've only watched once ages ago!!
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6/10
THE PUZZLE OF THE RED ORCHID (Helmuth Ashley, 1962) **1/2
1 September 2015
This is yet another "Krimi" pairing Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski; the hero this time around is, like them, a Jess Franco regular i.e. Adrian Hoven, and the leading lady future "Euro-Cult" starlet Marisa Mell. The film, however, is not only inferior to THE DEVIL'S DAFFODIL (1961) – which preceded this viewing – but only marginally a genre entry…as, rather, than a sadistic masked killer (the German "Krimis" were obvious precursors to the Italian "Gialli") we get rival gangs of Chicago hoodlums who improbably relocate to London to first extort and then dispatch various wealthy elders when they invariably turn to Scotland Yard for protection! Why this is done is never quite clear, especially since they never get to collect; incidentally, we start off with one mobster eliminating his opponents – but the only survivor, Kinski, soon sets up his own unit of gun-happy thugs whilst retaining an ostensibly respectable front as a tobacconist. One of the victims bequeaths his fortune to his secretary (Mell) rather than his sole ne'er-do-well relative (who has a propensity for orchids, the only link to the title – that is to say, extremely cursory – provided by the narrative!); still, he proves to be not what he seems – with his final trapping of the heroine inside a bank vault one of the very few scenes pertaining to the form's recognizable style (another highlight has a car going off the rails after a large mirror set up along the road gave the illusion to the bewildered driver of an imminent head-on collision).

Lee does not have much of substance to do as an F.B.I.(!) agent, but he at least gets to display his quick two-gun draw in a shoot-out with one of the baddies. Somewhat more prevalent, regrettably, is a comic-relief butler who happens to have served each of the murdered parties immediately prior to their untimely demise…and, ultimately, even offers his would-be expert services to both one of the perpetrators – who promptly winds up dead himself – and the Police!
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Jaguar Lives! (1979)
4/10
JAGUAR LIVES! (Ernest Pintoff, 1979) **
1 September 2015
I had first recorded this off late-night Italian TV but, thankfully, had not yet checked the movie out before it turned up in English: a vague James Bond rip-off in which the protagonist (one Joe Lewis) happens to be a martial arts expert – for the record, the two styles had already clashed, far more successfully, in Bruce Lee's last-completed and best vehicle i.e. ENTER THE DRAGON (1973). Even if the producers of this one were wily enough to recruit a roster of co-stars – no fewer than 5 of whom had appeared in previous Bond extravaganzas (Barbara Bach, John Huston, Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasence and Joseph Wiseman)! – the result is, while not boring, hardly thrilling, in spite their being practically no let-up to the action!!

Incidentally, much is made of the mysterious identity of the chief villain (at least, they had the good sense to not cast an established actor in the role – who would have invariably blown the hero out of the water in that department!) when the pre-credits sequence gives this away all-too-plainly!! Lewis' "sensei" is Woody Strode and, among his adversaries, is Capucine (who, having failed to dispatch the "Jaguar" herself, later calls on Lee and insists to be informed when this is finally accomplished!); the latter, however, displays an admirable code of ethics when he lets Lewis go after he has repeatedly defeated his goons inside a Japanese cemetery! Wiseman plays blind and Huston (amusingly, his character is named Ralph Richards!) wheelchair-bound, so that only Pleasence has fun as the self-appointed but – inevitably – cowardly dictator of a banana republic.

As I said, the action highlights (personally choreographed by the leading man) are not exactly ground-breaking and too often merely silly – at one point, he takes on a gang of motorcycle thugs, not to mention the various minions at a factory, whom he overcomes not via his usual karate moves but by throwing every kind of accessory which comes his way at any approaching assailant!; then again, it must be pointed out that director Pintoff had started out in animation. The film, at the very least looks good – helped in no small measure by the globe-trotting nature of the plot – but, atypically, Lewis proves oddly resistant to female company (save for ex-colleague Sally Faulkner, who has improbably forsaken espionage for a nun's habit!). The concluding moments show the protagonist once again having his training sessions interrupted by the arrival of agent Bach…but, unsurprisingly, no sequel ever surfaced (or was likely ever commissioned, though the star would in fact return to the big screen for FORCE: FIVE {1981}, directed by ENTER THE DRAGON's own Robert Clouse!).
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Massarati and the Brain (1982 TV Movie)
6/10
MASSARATI AND THE BRAIN {TV} (Harvey Hart, 1982) **1/2
1 September 2015
Yet another made-for-TV espionage thriller – after the recently-viewed ONCE UPON A SPY, also with Christopher Lee, and S*H*E* (both 1980) – with an even more comical and juvenile bent, considering that the "Brain" of the title is no more than a whizz kid of 10! Lee dispensed with his moustache for this one but not his wicked ways – he plays an ex-Nazi bent on retrieving a sunken fortune in rare coins. The hero, then, is the typical luxury-loving womanizer whose penchant for impromptu karate sessions with his Oriental manservants is also straight out of some Inspector Clouseau vehicle!; his abode, then, is not unlike the Bruce Wayne manor minus the Batcave, faithfully overseen by a long-suffering butler/chef whose recipes continually go unappreciated!

The director had made the impressive horror thriller DARK INTRUDER (1965), a failed TV pilot subsequently released to theaters; this one feels like it had the same intent and, likewise, was not picked up for a series! The film is not terrible per se, but neither is it especially engaging or memorable – though Lee's commitment to his roles in even such substandard fare is indeed admirable (incidentally, as in AN EYE FOR AN EYE {1981}, he gets to express befuddlement at his opponents' sheer resilience but, given that he had previously left them tied up at the mercy of a time-bomb, this reaction is perhaps understandable here!). As expected, the protagonist has any number of females crossing his path, be they colleagues, clients or criminals; also on hand is ill-fated child actress Heather O'Rourke, soon to briefly attain fame in the same year's POLTERGEIST.
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Once Upon a Spy (1980 TV Movie)
6/10
ONCE UPON A SPY {TV} (Ivan Nagy, 1980) **1/2
1 September 2015
This continues the string of bad-to-middling pictures Christopher Lee lent his services to after he went the Hollywood route; while not terrible as such – at the very least, it reunited him with former Hammer scribe Jimmy Sangster – the end result is best described as terminally bland.

Rather than imitating the James Bond formula (though John Cacavas' score certainly throws several cues in that direction), the film seems like a belated addition to the myriad espionage TV series of the 1960s yet fully embracing the absurd obsession with technology that was redolent of the era in which it was made; interestingly, Lee's shrinking of a cumbersome computer to portable size can be seen as a prophetic indication of the extensive progress achieved in this particular field! He plays a reclusive tycoon, bound all the way through in a snazzy missile-carrying(!) wheelchair, whose everyman nemesis (Ted Danson) not only happens to be an old rival but ultimately contrives to hoist the older man with his own petard. Aiding the protagonist is a female secret agent (a relationship which, typically, starts off on the wrong foot and inevitably ends in romance) and, to further accentuate the feminist viewpoint, Eleanor Parker fills in for the Agency Head.

The film, then, is not unentertaining for what it is and, if anything, manages a nod to both Hitchcock (Danson is about to be eliminated when a crowd of tourists bursts upon the scene and he joins them on their way out towards safety) and the cult TV series THE PRISONER (hero and villain conduct a deadly board game utilizing human pieces).
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Safari 3000 (1982)
4/10
SAFARI 3000 (Harry Hurwitz, 1982) **
1 September 2015
Made in the wake of THE CANNONBALL RUN (1981), this racing-car comedy actually features David Carradine in the lead, who had starred in the similar (but more violent) DEATH RACE 2000 (1975) and the unrelated CANNONBALL (1976). The heroine, then, is Stockard Channing and the villain Christopher Lee – appearing here in a silly Darth Vader get-up, albeit claiming to be a descendant of the Borgias and irritatingly prone to opera singing, not to mention being flanked by an unfunny and long-suffering "navigator"!

The African setting allows both ample travelogue footage and, ostensibly, added peril for the contenders; that said, the race itself is curiously lacking in excitement and, besides, while we are told there are as many as 93 participants, we only ever see a handful of stereotype members (Brits, French, Japanese, Australians and one female team) apart from the central rival duo…who, needless to say, end up neck-and-neck near the finishing line but, unsurprisingly, Carradine and Channing emerge victorious in spite of Lee's every attempt to thwart their progression. Incidentally, this could have taken a leaf from the "Wacky Races" cartoons of the late 1960s, itself inspired by THE GREAT RACE (1965) – that is to say, it should have been broader, but perhaps the film-makers did not want to go the route of THE CANNONBALL RUN…which rather let the result fall between two stools, hence s virtual obscurity since its year of release!

While it is watchable enough for what it is, especially as the picture runs for a mere 86 minutes, there is hardly anything memorable going on for the entire duration – which makes the involvement of renowned producers Jules V. Levy and Arthur Gardner (their last effort) and Oscar-winning composer Ernest Gold all the more baffling!
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6/10
AN EYE FOR AN EYE (Steve Carver, 1981) **1/2
1 September 2015
Back when I had watched THE EXPENDABLES 2 (2012), I acquired about a score of vintage Chuck Norris vehicles; I was familiar with only a few of them, and this was the first opportunity I have had to check one of the others out – albeit in tribute to Sir Christopher Lee.

The film is very typical action fare of its era – comparable, for instance, to the contemporaneous flicks Charles Bronson was starring in – but obviously incorporating Norris' brand of martial arts to complement the expected gunplay. The plot, too, is pretty routine: the star, along with his cop partner, gets ambushed (due to a snitch within the Police force) during a raid on some drug dealers – with the latter losing his life in gruesome fashion. Receiving no support from his superior (Richard Roundtree), he gives up his gun and badge – but, needless to say, continues the investigation on his own. This becomes even more personal when his partner's Asian TV reporter wife (engaged in her own expose' of drug trafficking) first contacts Norris that she may have acquired a lead on the villains and then winds up dead herself before she can divulge the information to the hero. Soon, however, he acquires a couple of associates: the dead woman's father (Mako), himself a martial arts expert and who often comments wryly on Norris' own skills; and her co-worker, who just happens to live in the same building, and who eventually goes to live with our protagonist and his dog after her own place is ransacked (at one point even comforting a perspiring Norris in the wake of a nightmare).

Lee plays the TV station head, but his mere casting gives away his identity as the head of the smugglers, while Matt Clark is the crooked cop who gets to die violently for his double face. The film, then, is not bad as these things go (aided by a rather good score)…but there were a few instances of unintentional humour (Lee's chief goon is a club-footed giant – played by wrester "Professor" Toru Tanaka – so that his pursuit of the female journalist in a train station, which havoc apparently goes completely unnoticed by the authorities, emerges as awkward, to say the least), misjudged direction (when she calls Norris and is bluntly interrupted, the latter keeps asking her what is going on rather than precipitating to her rescue!; likewise, Roundtree keeps antagonizing Norris when their goals are clearly the same) and outright silliness (Lee, realizing that his operation is jeopardized, exclaims Norris's character name upon seeing him at his mansion, as if he had not been sufficiently set-up as his nemesis all through the picture).
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6/10
TOO HOT TO HANDLE {Black-&-White Version} (Terence Young, 1960) **1/2
10 August 2015
According to the IMDb, apart from the delightful Jack Conway-Clark Gable-Myrna Loy screwball comedy from 1938, there are 5 more movies that go by the name of TOO HOT TO HANDLE. The film under review (retitled PLAYGIRL AFTER DARK in the U.S.) is the would-be steamy noir-ish Jayne Mansfield vehicle made in Britain and co-starring actors who normally are above this sort of thing – Leo Genn, Carl Boehm and Christopher Lee – but which decidedly help in raising it above the rut of contemporaneous quota-quickie gangland thrillers; indeed, Patrick Holt – whom I recently watched in a film from that very ilk, SERENA (1962) – even plays the Police Inspector here!

The American "Blonde Bombshell" plays Midnight Franklin, the star attraction of a Soho strip club called "The Pink Flamingo"; suave Genn is her boss whom he affectionately calls "12 O'Clock" and she has feelings for; Boehm (in his second British film) plays an inquisitive journalist reporting on the sordid London nightlife – typically he falls for one of the girls but, surprisingly, it is not the leading lady but gloomy Danik Patisson; and Lee is Novak, Genn's double-faced right-hand man/MC. Another well-known figure (pun intended) that is featured further down in the cast list but whose violent demise plays a pivotal role in the film's climax with respect to the major characters' fate is future "Carry On" star Barbara Windsor.

Indeed, the film's unhappy ending – in which most characters show their true (and uglier) colours – is its real trump card…more so than the much-touted "hot" numbers of Miss Mansfield; speaking of which, unfortunately, not only is the print I watched shorn of colour (which is how it is widely available today – probably a disservice to the great Otto Heller's original lensing – and which, arguably, also enhances its ties with the aforementioned sub-genre)…but her two songs are bereft of sound, too!! Luckily enough, the sequences are intact – if still just as monochromatic and chaste – when looked up individually on "You Tube" (which is where I came across the film in the first place) and, apparently, TOO HOT TO HANDLE is available in colour on a German DVD.

Incidentally, while the film may have been intended as a dramatic showcase for its shapely star, she had fared much better in Paul Wendkos' debut, the superior noir THE BURGLAR (1957), which I have caught up with just the other day; besides, while it may seem odd that a film originally shot in colour would "exist" solely in a black-and-white print, this is the 10th such instance I have come across in my film collection alone…
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Jinnah (1998)
7/10
JINNAH (Jamil Dehlavi, 1998) ***
10 August 2015
Though I knew how proud Christopher Lee was of his achievement in this film, I had been wary of checking it out in view of the subject matter – which was as foreign to me as it must have been for most audiences (indeed, the movie was a straight-to-DVD release in the U.K., the star's very own native country!). However, I need not have worried since, not only was it a compelling biopic (the titular founder of the Muslim state of Pakistan was a contemporary – and religious rival – of "Mahatma" Gandhi) but one that was tackled in a quite original fashion for pictures of its ilk.

Having mentioned the beloved Hindu leader, at 110 minutes against the 188 of Richard Attenborough's GANDHI (1982), the film under review feels somewhat like a subplot within the epic narrative of that multiple Oscar-winner – in which Jinnah is said to have been unflatteringly portrayed (I have not watched it for years, so I cannot really say myself). As such, the plot here follows much the same pattern – following Jinnah from his youth as a barrister to an interracial marriage (though he would later disown his daughter for doing the same!) and his dealings with the British rulers (represented by war hero Lord Mountbatten – played by James Fox – whose wife apparently carried on an open affair with the future first Prime Minister of an independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru!). Ironically, despite their often radically different approach (Jinnah coming across as Malcolm X to his Martin Luther King), Gandhi was assassinated by his own people because of his ultimate consent to the country's "partition" – allowing the Muslim minority in India to have its own nation; in the film, he even meets Jinnah in the computer-driven(!) afterlife and chides him for it.

Incidentally, it is scenes such as the latter – which surprisingly abound here – that stand out, even more perhaps than the expected stirring speeches (powerful though these undeniably are); in fact, the movie emerges as more of a fantasia (though obviously far removed from the self-indulgent excesses of Ken Russell's treatment of many a classical composer in his 1970s heyday) than a typical biopic. This may have been done so as to give 76 year-old Lee maximum screen-time – but the notion of having him look over his life accompanied by a sharp-witted heavenly "narrator", to determine what good he has done but also where he went wrong (the moving finale has him asking forgiveness of his subjects for the great hardships they had to endure as a direct result of his honest struggle to lend them "dignity"), was certainly an inspired touch – shades of "A Christmas Carol" and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)! That said, some confusion is not avoided: not only does Lee see himself as an old man – but he is even shown advising his younger self (Richard Lintern) on what course of action to take! One of the best sequences, then, has him fictionally take up law one last time in order to try Lord Mountbatten for what he deems betrayal i.e. having renounced his pro-Pakistani stance – again, a welcome fanciful passage that reminds one of THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (1941) and A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1946)!!

While the production went through much financial difficulties that almost saw it abandoned and Lee's casting was reportedly the cause of an uproar in Pakistan itself, it must be said that the actor's commanding performance really holds this together and, thus, he was justified to hold it in such high esteem within his extensive and varied canon.
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