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Il grande silenzio (1968)
An Unforgettable Film
"The Great Silence" is probably the biggest departure the western genre has ever made from the black hats / white hats stereotype. The titular "Silence" and Klaus Kinski's slimy antagonist can only be separated by their contrasting personalities; otherwise, they are both murderers on the wrong side of the law, and often sympathy is created for the both of them; Kinski after all is just a bounty hunter, not some raging psychopath, this is arguably the same character who would seem OK if played by Eli Wallach. Silence on the other hand, while he may not kill everyone he meets, does shoot peoples' thumbs off which isn't a particularly nice thing to do. Both Silence and one of the "bandits" share a mutual goal of revenge; and in Silence's case he is performing such an act not for self satisfaction, but for money, which doesn't make him too different from Kinski's Loco. And finally the outlaws in the hills aren't outlaws at all; rather a sect of Mormons who have been thrown out of their homes by an unforgiving lawman.
Now the lines between good and bad are indefinitely blurred, it is as if the wild west can't sink any lower. The unconventional snowy setting, and the inability of the sheriff to keep the town in order signal the end of the west. There are no heroes anymore, there is no justice and "winners" rarely deserve their success. And this message couldn't hit home any harder than it does here. The superb direction and the picturesque photography are mere side notes.
I don't like the speak with an ego; but I do think I've seen a fair share of films and seen a variety of subjects and issues dealt with varying degrees of skill. This in mind, I have to say that "The Great Silence" has the most brutal, shocking conclusion I have ever seen. The bleak, pessimistic nature of the film couldn't have been summed up more effectively.. In the past I've looked towards the likes of Unforgiven, Once Upon a Time in the West and The Wild Bunch for a definitive conclusion to the western genre. Now I can say, without decrying the quality of these films, that "The Great Silence" is the one and only film that can act as a capper to the entire genre. The west has never been more dead.
"Spider" is probably Cronenberg's most low key film; out have gone the blood, guts and mutation, resulting in his common theme of "body" horror being translated into a completely psychological issue as the titular character's past, present and imagination all dangerously coincide in chilling fashion.
Everything is played to perfection here. Cronenberg's direction gives one of the bleakest depictions of London seen in many a year. The locations visited by Spider as a child and a man are so expertly filmed that the two realities also begin to merge in the viewers' mind to the same extent. It is also impossible to overstate Fienne's performance. He barely utters a word, and even in the initially corkscrew depiction of his mind he still manages to create sympathy for his strange plight. He is practically matched by Hall his child counterpart, and Byrne tackles a difficult role (and accent) effortlessly, but Richardson probably gives the most pivotal performance(s). The reason for her duel role may be hard to grasp until the film has been viewed and assessed; yet even on the surface she creates such heavily contrasting characters that it is difficult to comprehend that it is the same person beneath the make up.
It is without a doubt a "must watch twice" film, not for some cheap Shyamalan-ism, but because it is so difficult to decipher the first time. Yet, due to the skill of everyone involved, this doesn't hamper how effective it is the first time. The plot being unravelled is merely a bonus; this is pure cinematic art. Visually it is just as effective at showing the collapse and collision of two realities, and when you can get the full message watching the film with the sound off you know you are dealing with a true master of cinema.
Without a doubt one of Cronenberg's finest and most unmissable films.
Sengoku jieitai (1979)
More madness from Toho
"GI Samurai" sees Sonny Chiba and some other guys get transported back to civil war stricken feudal Japan for no particular reason, and much carnage ensues. It's a rather over the top essay of sword vs. machine gun that ultimately yields some interesting results.
The plot essentially runs along the rails that you might expect from the title; initial fish-out-the-water antics ("what is this flying metal box?" etc etc), "aren't we better off here" discussions and ultimately a huge battle. The latter is proof that the film doesn't take itself seriously at all, the carnage taking up most of the second half as samurai army battles Chiba's platoon; a face off one would fully expect from the title but it still manages to overwhelm with its inventiveness and extravagance. It's certainly one of the most unique battle sequences of its time and doesn't drag despite its extended length.
Chiba gives a gruff performance as Iba, initially a good leader but someone who finally finds himself questioning his own morals as the situation slowly has an effect on him. This is certainly one of his better vehicles from his terrific CV. By the final act the two worlds have had such an effect on each other you have to wonder if it was a bit of nihilism on the part of the writers, as they seem to be asking "weren't we better off back then?'. But this is maybe reading a bit much into was can generally be described as a hugely entertaining two hours of (almost) non stop action.
Azumi 2: Death or Love (2005)
The definition of a lazy cash in
There's no denying the first Azumi film was a commercial product; it was an adaptation of a popular manga and had cast of young, attractive actors and certainly wasn't lacking in the budget department. Yet it more than entertained for what it was, and I can't deny I enjoyed it immensely.
"Azumi 2" lacks just about everything that made the original so wonderful. The first thing that should set alarm bells ringing is the absence of the superb Ryuhei Kitamura at the helm. With him, he seemed to take not only his own visual flair and kinetics, but the originals style, beauty and most importantly, its heart. While the first had a simple "hitlist" plot, this one has a corkscrew mess of a story, with too many dull characters stabbing each other in the back so many times the potential for any sympathy or pathos is obliterated. Gone is the effective interplay between the lead characters; Azumi and her cohorts are often reduced to a bunch of stroppy teenagers arguing in a forest. Characterisation is non existent; if anyone watching actually cares who lives and who dies, I'll be shocked. The same applies to the villains here. The final battle - in fact all the battles - are completely devoid of any sort of tension. The fact that they are poorly choreographed and abysmally directed - not to mention few and far between - is made a sideline by their own sheer pointlessness. The villains themselves try far too hard to be campy, and even if they were all combined, they don't come within a country mile of the Pete Burnsian antics of Jo Odagiri in the original.
####Major Spoiler at end of paragraph!#####
Aya Ueto tries her best it has to be said, and she also managed to keep her hair in good condition between the films. Azumi is now a fully fledged assassin, meaning she can wave her sword around in slow motion; unfortunately, now the character is instilled with a sort of Man With No Name style mysteriousness, Ueto's model looks become even more inappropriate. I know this is supposed to be the point, but this combined with the ineffectiveness of everyone else in the film, the stupidity of the plot and the general ineptness of the film in general means it is downright impossible to get behind her character this time around. The less said about Chiaki "Remember me from Kill Bill" Kuriyama's performance the better; it suffices to say her "turn" from good to evil is about as subtle as napalm.
Overall, this was just a colossal disappointment. Any merits is does have were done ten times better in the first film. A lazy, unsatisfying - and generally downright boring - mess.
Operazione paura (1966)
A fantastic work of Gothic art
"Bay of Blood" was my first Bava film, and to be honest I was wholly under whelmed; given I was watching a censored version but no amount of gore could have made up for its corkscrew plot. So I watched "Kill, Baby Kill" slightly dubious as to Bava's status as the god of Italian horror.
But I couldn't have been more impressed by KBK; a superbly crafted Gothic horror, certainly one of the best horrors the 60s had to offer. The plot is kept to a minimum, the film concerns itself with the tale of the ghost of a murdered girl killing off the occupants of a remote village and the sceptical outsider investigator trying to make sense of it. The emphasis here is on atmosphere; the crooked, turn of the century village where the action takes place is fine tuned to the finest detail; from the deformed house fronts to the green and red lighting that bathes the entire film. The eccentricity of the set pieces was certainly ground breaking for the time; Bava's influence on later directors such as Argento and Tim Burton, along with Hammer productions is obvious. The cast is just as OTT; from Fabienne Dali's sorceress to Luciano Catenacci's skulking burgomaster, the films atmosphere couldn't be more razor sharp.
There are a few shocks in the film, but the eeriness of ringing bells, laughing children and cobwebs have never been exploited quite as well as they are here. A stupendous exercise in horror as an art form; unmissable for any fans of the genre.
Doctor Who (1996)
Too much of a jump - although it has its merits.
It could be said that Doctor Who was on the skids as soon as Tom Baker left; not so much the fault of Davison, Colin Baker and McCoy, but the fact that it wasn't connecting with the public as much as it used to. With the advent of the likes of Star Wars, all the wonder it used to have had started to fade. So needless to say it needed updating. The episodes of McCoy show how Doctor Who had refused to move with the times; which, looking back now, is part of its charm. So the natural thing for a studio to do when they decide to bring it back is throw it a huge budget and send it packing in the direction of Hollywood.
That said, this could have turned out a lot better than it did. McGann is terrific and distinctive as the Eight Doctor; probably the least "alien" of the lot. The love interest doesn't bother me as it does some; especially when compared to the recent escapades of David Tennant and Billie Piper that show the Doctor doesn't necessarily need his A sexuality as much as he did in the Tom Baker era (despite the rumour of him having a family right back in the Hartnell years). The inclusion of McCoy probably works the most wonders in connecting it with the Doctor Who of old; seeing him entering San Francisco and in the extravagant new TARDIS interior makes the transition from low budget cult TV to big budget mass appeal a little easier to take. The decision to bring back the Master is also an excellent one, and if the film had chosen to focus directly on the two Time Lords it would have worked fine.
Unfortunately, it veers off for a while about some nonsense about an atomic clock, during which time the big budget extents to motorcycle chases and the like until the action moves back to the TARDIS. Still here, the presence of people who don't know what their doing is apparent; why can the Eye of Harmony only be opened by humans? How is the Doctor half human? Etc etc. The producers were obviously trying way too hard to give Doctor Who mass appeal.
Still, it did bring the Doctor back to the masses briefly and is certainly better than nothing - and overall is reasonably enjoyable, mainly due to the presence of McGann's very effective incarnation. By mentioning Skaro, Gallifrey and other plot specifics of old, they were at least trying to keep it heavily linked to the TV series (which, objectively speaking, is more than Russell T Davies is doing at the moment). We may never see this Eight Doctor again, or ever know what happened to him or where Christopher Eccleston's Ninth Doctor came from; this at least makes the TV film an interesting contribution to the Who legacy.
Daikyojû Gappa (1967)
Satire, you say?
Move over Dr Strangelove; "Monster from a Prehistoric Planet" is the new satire in town. Okay, maybe my sarcasm is unjustified, Japanese satire is either too high brow for me or gets completely lost in translation. And its perfectly easy to loose anything in the atrocious dubbing kaiju films get plastered with.
If I'm kind I have to call it a parody of King Kong; as the film deals with an expedition force, who are trying to find exotic animals for a new theme park, stumbling across a mysterious island where the indigenous tribe (who look strangely similar to Japanese with coal on their faces) worship a god called Gappa. The expedition take a baby Gappa back to Japan, with the parents in hot pursuit. Cue the miniatures.
With the hideously handled love side story and the hilariously sentimental finale, I can only assume that this film was intended as tongue in cheek fare, and the satire label certainly confirms this. This aside however, the film is terrific by the standards of the time, with incredible amounts of destruction and very little time to breathe in between. Whether I'm missing the supposed hard-hitting social satire I don't really care; "Monster from a Prehistoric Planet" is a wonderfully extravagant example of monster films done properly, with a plot that doesn't dither amount and action that moves back to Japan pretty swiftly and doesn't let up from then on. The clichés are all over the place but this is hardly an issue, intentional or otherwise. Certainly, a kaiju film trying its hand at satire would be expected to be about as subtle as a ton of bricks, and with this in mind the film could have turned out a hell of a lot worse.
(To the elite, "Monster from a Prehistoric Planet" has a special appeal. The Gappas are the very same monsters that menaced Kryten and Rimmer on wax world in series 4 of Red Dwarf; and as Kryten observed, you've probably seen more convincing dinosaurs in a packet of "wheatie flakes")
Certainly one of the most entertaining martial arts pictures.
"Zu Warriors" certainly pushed wuxia to its limits; it has such a relentless air of enthusiasm, especially given its limited budget, that its incredibly easy to dismiss any faults it does have just because of its overwhelmingly extravagant nature. Its glorious, vivid production design and intentionally camp attitude makes it very difficult not to be totally drawn into its colourful images while completely forgetting the film has a plot.
Tsui Hark has included just about everything in this one. The special effects may not be up to much but that is a sideline; the wonderful swordplay starts almost immediately and the films rarely lets up as it jumps from one operatic martial art display to another, helped by an impeccable cast featuring iconic stars such as Sammo Hung and Brigitte Lin.
Unfortuantly it still took some work before films of this sort were appreciated in the west. Despite the efforts of John Carpenter, it still took over a decade and Crouching Tiger to truly bring this wonderful form of entertainment to the masses. There's only so much praise you can give a film before saying it has to be seen to be appreciated fully. This is certainly a landmark in wuxia and an essential showpiece of Hong Kong action at its finest. (A testament to this is the fact the DVD has a Bey Logan commentary.)
Sometimes words fail me.
Kaiju films have never been revered for their subtlety, and in a film that has Nazis capturing Frankenstein's "immortal" heart which leads to a homeless boy in Japan transforming into a less green version of Bruce Banner, subtlety should be the last thing on the menu. Yet "Frankenstein Conquers the World" never lives up its zany premise, and certainly not the title. Maybe I should rephrase; I actually sound like I was expecting a 60s Toho monster film to bowl me over.
The thing is, for about fifty minutes this film concerns itself with a group of scientists, led by the dashing American Dr Bowen, trying to capture their escaped specimen. This means for much of its running time the film is more like a prototype Honey I Blew Up The Kid rather than any insane monster action picture. It's not until Kaiju films' answer to Benny Hill - Baragon - turns up (for no reason whatsoever), that the film breaks out the endearing rubber suits and model tanks. This is too little too late however; and the decision to confine the action to a forest means there is little to no building crunching action (apart from a particularly amusing scene where Frankenstein tries to kill a bird with a tree. Yes, a tree.)
Toho's productions of this era usually have a certain camp charm which renders terrible production as a minor concern; but even in terms of camp this one falls pretty short when compared to real classics like the 74 version of Mechagodzilla. The insane concept of the film should mean it stands out from the Kaiju crowd, for better or worse; but this one sinks right in.
A hostage thriller with a snake!
In the same year he managed to haul a steamboat over a mountain ridge, Klaus Kinski also had a bit of bother in a posh area of London with a snake, which gave him infinitely more trouble. His evil plan to kidnap the son of a rich owner of a string of hotels is doomed to failure when his accomplice Susan George utters the fatal words "Nothing will go wrong".
As Kinski and his cohort Oliver Reed become besieged by the police, it becomes apparent something unpleasant is slithering through the ventilation ducts. This calls for much snake-POV camera work, however when the snake is actually seen the footage is rather convincing for such a low key film - only at the end does Kinski appear to be battling a treacherous hosepipe. In fact, the snake is very much a sideline for much of the film - a lot of the time it is just a bog standard hostage thriller, however the surprisingly A-list cast does a terrific job. Sterling Hayden gives a likable "grandpa knows best" performance, in what turned out to be his final film role, and Reed is gritty as always as the paranoid accomplice. Kinski on the other hand is clearly sleepwalking - however his sleepwalking acting is better than most peoples best.
The idea is a reasonably unique one although it is hardly pushed to its limits - if Tobe Hooper hadn't cleared off it would certainly have been much, much better. The snake's appearances may be few and far between but when it does rear its slithery head there are a few jumps to be had - although the majority of the "thrills" come from the hostage set-up and not the snake. The cast is probably the primary reason to watch "Venom", however on the whole it is surprisingly enjoyable given its reputation of "the rubbish horror film Kinski did instead of Raiders."