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Richard Bowden "The Film Flaneur" (UK)

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Whiplash - The Complete Series [DVD]
Whiplash - The Complete Series [DVD]
Dvd ~ Peter Graves
Price: £27.86

18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Whiplash - Australian Western, 1 Mar 2010
Whiplash is a little known, largely forgotten ITC television series, a co-production from the 60's. It features Peter Graves - more famous through his later association with the original Mission Impossible - as hero Christopher Cobb. He's an American immigrant in 1840-50's Australia who owns and manages a stage line - a life apparently very loosely based on an actual business which ran between Melbourne and the Victorian goldfields. Each 30 minute episode of Whiplash deals with the travails and tribulations surrounding his endeavour, in which Cobb frequently has to fight for his business and his life.

Whiplash was a result of ITC seeking new entertainment fields to conquer after the success of such earlier programmes as William Tell, The Buccaneers and The Aventures of Robin Hood, all of which had fared well in the important American market. No doubt this was allied to encouraging familiarity with successful 50's stateside western shows, such as Wagon Train. Shot as a co production at Australia's Atransa Studios as well as on location, Whiplash tried the interesting step of appealing to the transatlantic audience in particular by setting what, in effect, is a western scenario in the Antipodes. This was not the first time it had been tried, in The Sundowners (1960) for instance, Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr starred as sheep drovers down under, perhaps another inspiration for the 1961 TV show.

Interestingly, the stories making up the 34 episodes of Whiplash steer clear of what would seem an obvious choice of subject: that of Cobb's initial arrival and earliest attempts at making his way in the country. Instead we join the hero with his enterprise already fairly well established. In the first episode for instance, `Convict Town' we see Cobb first encounter the young friend Dan (Anthony Wickert) who was to make a regular appearance in support on the show. Dan - who wears for the first and only time a distracting hick-style straw hat - after some initial doubts proves himself and is offered regular employment with a company that's already opening roads, and with more than one office and employees.

The effect of this `pre-establishment' of Cobb & Co is to remove the main source of drama away from the birth pangs of a fledgling, civilising business and place it elsewhere, noticeably in the free-ranging Cobb's various encounters which may, or may not prove closely connected with his stagecoach line. But throughout such latitudes Cobb himself is always beyond reproach, remaining a strong and reliable outsider in a small community someone who, although an outsider, has the ability to see things afresh and offer a unique input. Watching Whiplash today one is reminded sometimes of another, highly successful series from just a couple of years before: The Rifleman. This too featured a strong man fighting for his right to settle in and then make his way in a small (western) community, and one who had a trademark weapon at his skilful disposal. But Cobb's whip makes fewer appearances than The Rifleman's famous, modified, firearm and it has to be said that Graves brings to his central role none of the dangerous rectitude so ably demonstrated by The Rifleman's Chuck Connors. In one episode, `Episode in Bathurst' (aired very early on and one of 4 written by one Gene Roddenberry) Cobb even goes out of way to deny the mystique and allure of firearms. calling them "ugly stupid and vicious".

That's Whiplash attempting to have its prairie oyster and eat it, and points up the serial's central creative dilemma. In attempting to be a western and yet on such occasions overtly denying some of the genre's key pleasures, there's a danger of it being neither fish nor fowl. This is a problem exacerbated by the American scriptwriters' treatment of early Australian society, with pace and drama but often no real research behind each episode. Allied to the difficulties in finding suitable stock footage, admitted at the time, and the creators found things awkward. One week revelling in those familiar elements expected out west, or its equivalent, next time the programmes will deny many of those some pleasures, featuring story lines that take matters far away from the traditional American frontier. (A degree of this uncertainty is shown at the start of each show when the episode is put into context for the audience by a few words on screen.) In `Sarong' for instance, a story line about pearl divers and their exploitation - a show incidentally including some mild titillation which the more morally austere Rifleman might have blanched at or that of `The Adelaide Arabs'. Aimed squarely at a younger audience, and lacking the irony or sophistication found in other series of the time, Whiplash may have struggled to find its way amidst competing shows with less confusing inspirations, one reason why its run was relatively short.

Today, with hardly any westerns airing on TV, and with the pleasant ring of nostalgia surrounding it, Whiplash poses audiences fewer problems. Indeed, its original aspects have much more going for it. Fresh from the now equally overlooked series Fury (1955-1960) Graves makes for a very watchable hero and, if in the event he seems slightly wary of giving his all to dramatic, violent action, ultimately this fits in nicely with the thoughtful character he portrays as Cobb. Other elements have dated less well: noticeably the treatment of the aboriginal peoples, highlighted in the striking episode `Dutchman's Reef' (another Roddenberry effort) where, playing a missing heir `gone native', an actor wears blackface.

Taken as a group though, the shows make for consistently entertaining viewing and, as an overlooked track of early 60's British television juvenilia certainly worth a look, even if not of the top rank. Network should be congratulated for continuing a fine series of reissues, with excellent picture quality throughout. The set includes few extras, but includes a French version of the memorable opening song, rendered in both cases by Frank Ifield.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 22, 2012 11:58 AM BST

Phantom Planet [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Phantom Planet [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Dvd ~ Dean Fredericks

15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Phantom Planet worth discovering, 29 Nov 2009
The Phantom Planet was one of the many victims of TV's Mystery Science Theatre 3000 back in 1997 where its failings provided a rich source of comment. When watched away from such mockery, it doesn't prove the tedious slog that other MST3K choices have sometimes proved in their original, un-tampered versions. A sucker for 1950s and 1960s space movies - Destination Moon, Conquest Of Space and the rest - I have a weakness for those films informed more or less by the hard science of the times. In which men risk space travel in curiously stripped-down boiler-tank interiors, served by a few lights on a console and clunky readouts, belt-up in space recliners, and when they land, high concept meets low culture.

Having said that, most of the 'science' in The Phantom Planet occurs at the beginning, and again at the end, and what falls between, despite some speculations about the revolutionary properties of gravity, is more than a little daft. Director William Marshall, whose only other credits were two late Errol Flynn movies, returned a decade later for this last effort, based on a script by the producer. Essentially a love triangle set on a Lilliputian planet (revealing this won't spoil any of the wooden drama it attempts) The Phantom Planet's early scenes are reasonably proficient and suffer most with the benefit of technological hindsight. But once hero Captain Frank Chaplin (western regular Dean Fredericks) lands on asteroid Rheton, any scientific integrity deflates as quickly as the spacesuit he wears, the astronaut shrinking down to local size courtesy of the planet's uniquely affecting atmosphere.

If the script had called for Chaplin to remain an intergalactic giant among alien pygmies, then perhaps the film's central triangle would have been more problematic and interesting. But, as it turns out, the interpersonal relationships and jealousies engendered by Chaplin's unscheduled arrival are the most mundane elements of the story. His principal love - an infatuation, incidentally, sprung upon the viewer at a very late stage - is a mute girl, Zethra (Dolores Faith). Along the way he is also tempted by Liara (Coleen Grey), the daughter of Rheton's ruler Sesom (an elderly Francis X. Bushman, here reminiscent of the controller in Plan Nine From Outer Space). The fly in the ointment is Herron (Anthony Dexter), jealous of Chaplin's attractions to his preferred mate. Thus all the worthy speculations of the opening space drama are reduced to an off-world soap opera.

Rheton is a peculiar place, an asteroid-deemed-planet by dramatic contrivance and insistence of its inhabitants. Despite a surfeit of women, there are relatively few people around outside of one or two gatherings. In environmental styling it often reminds one of the early Star Trek, with severe (i.e. cheap) décor, moulded rock faces and limited vistas. But it has its attractions, apart from the feminine majority: for action fans there are the 'disintegrating gravity plates'. These form a key part of a scene where, in echo of Kirk's bare-chested arena battles to be on TV a few years later, Chaplin and Herron fight a duel to the death. They also lead to the demise of the film's principal alien, a stranded representative of Rheton's principal enemies and potential destroyers, the Solarites. Played by none other than Richard 'Jaws' Kiel in monster costume the Solarite is, despite all efforts, relentlessly un-scary and cheap-looking, shambling around before attempting to grope Zethra.

Bad movie lovers will find a lot to enjoy in The Phantom Planet even away from the marauding Solarite terror. The rifle shot sound effects ringing out in space during the climatic space battle for instance; the Solarites' burning cotton wool ball spacecraft (an effect worthy of Edward D. Wood), as well as the earnestness of all involved. Then there's clunking pieces of dialogue. A solemn narrator, heavy on the significance, starts and ends the film. It is he who firsts suggests, with a heavy hint, that there might exist races both larger and smaller than our own, and that mankind might only be "unimportant driftwood... floating in the universe." This faux high manner emerges a few times elsewhere in the film, as when Chaplin's doomed co-pilot speaks directly to camera and informs us solemnly that "Every year of my life I grow more and more convinced that the wisest and best is to fix our attention on the good and the beautiful" - a quote apparently lifted wholesale from a more prestigious source, and here ludicrously self-important. Incidentally, the same speaker is responsible for one of the movie's best moments: during his untimely demise, drifting helplessly off into the void and realising the inevitable, he relaxes calmly and starts off on the Lord's Prayer.

I've given this film an above average score as, for those with a taste for this type of thing The Phantom Planet remains entertaining, if daft. There's an innocence here, typical of the period, which makes up for shortcomings and that's helped along by Marshall's adequate direction. And ultimately I suppose such innocence can be seen as a legitimate response to a universe that has become more confusing and complex a generation on. On the DVD the image is good but, as one might expect, there are few extras.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 23, 2011 2:33 AM GMT

Beaufort [DVD] [2007]
Beaufort [DVD] [2007]
Dvd ~ Joseph Cedar
Offered by best_value_entertainment
Price: £12.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well Fort out, 29 Nov 2009
This review is from: Beaufort [DVD] [2007] (DVD)
Beaufort is that rarity among war films - one with the subject matter of retreat and a (at least implied) defeat of sorts. As such it falls in with such earlier and illustrious company as Ford's They Were Expendable (1945) - a generation and continent away perhaps, but which also showed the camaraderie that can develop at the anti-climactic close of a military campaign. Unlike Ford's work, with its unspoken certainty of eventual victory, director Joseph Cedar's Beaufort is a portrait of military inertia and inevitable pointlessness, at least as experienced by its small band of combatants. Conversely it's a million miles away from such films as Black Hawk Down where it's suggested gung ho bravery can some way appease for operational ineptitude and loss. If it's true that most history is written by the victors, then Cedar's film and its ilk ought to be treasured as offering a truer and more convincing alternative - even if, as in Beaufort's case, the results are criticised by local critics for being `left wing' and `defeatist'.

Co-adapted for the screen by its author Ron Lesham, the film concerns a group of soldiers guarding a mountaintop in Lebanon shortly before the Israeli withdrawal in 2000. Beaufort Mountain is a place with particular historical significance, both as twelfth century crusader castle and a more recent, hard-won Israeli military capture - although it's quickly apparent that the value is more symbolic than strategic. Frequently shelled by the Hezbollah, guessing perhaps that the IDF is about to pull out, the outpost is isolated, the garrison depressed, with an unclear purpose.

As the film starts, Beaufort's soldiers are joined by Ziv (Ohad Knoller), sent to investigate a new-style explosive device found on the road. During the opening scenes of the film there's some anticipation in subject matter of the recent Hurt Locker, but matters shortly take a different course after the first traumatic event. It turns out that the central character of Cedar's film is not the bomb expert but the introspective and honourable Commander Liraz (Oshri Cohen). A man who "can't believe someone gave him the job", whose increasing guilt and disillusionment at his responsibilities make up the core of the narrative.

It has to be said that Beaufort is rather a glum film, shot in claustrophobic interiors, often at night. This may be an accurate representation of warfare under such circumstances but although Cedar, like Ford, admirably avoids sentimentality he fails to fill the space left with any real pathos and poetry, although showing successful empathy with his characters. Neither is there much, if any, black humour to provide contrast. When not on guard duty, or dodging incoming rockets, the soldiers are normally in their bunker-like environment - the corridors of which at times remind one of a spaceship without an alien - gloomily interacting with each other. The military installation on Mount Beaufort, largely empty and of questionable purpose, becomes a symbol of their whole mission, perhaps even more so than the plaque hanging there celebrating recent war dead. The camp stands in contrast to the remains of the original castle, visited at one point by several of the soldiers while in contemplative mood: the earlier construction had a far more distinguished point and still seems to be a source of strength.

Where Beaufort scores is through its representation of a soldier's life when trapped between duty and political inertia, even though it's implied withdrawal from political engagement can be seen both as a strength and weakness. Instead of confrontation, it relies upon the unspoken rage of the morally dispossessed. In one telling scene, we see Ziv watching on TV an interview with the parent of one of his fallen comrades. The commander's slow tapping with a lighter on the table, an insistent accompaniment to the points being made on the small screen (that a parent's duty is to ensure his offspring are better aware of the value of life), is like a military tattoo for a friend's funeral cortege and though him, honour itself. Ziv, the loyal soldier, cannot overtly question his predicament, but the ironic beat over coverage of events inevitably offers commentary.

Writer-director Cedar's previous two films Ha-Hesador (aka: Time of Favor, 2000) and Madurat Hashevet (aka: Campfire, 2004) both engaged with social and political aspects of the modern Jewish state, sometimes with controversial elements. In this latest one he provides another well-wrought and thoughtful piece, worth seeking out, even if it does not pretend to offer any answers. But perhaps that is the point: answers are always hard to find, let alone agree on, in such circumstances.

The most substantial extras item is a 24 minute making-of documentary which gives an idea of the difficulties and process of staging the film. While mainly interesting from a technical standpoint and the unique location, it can hardly be called essential. There's also some deleted scenes, most of which flesh out further the relationship between the principals. Add to this two versions of the film's trailer, long and short, and that's it. What's missing, of course, is any separate attempt by the makers to place the events of the film in a military-political context. Viewers of the film in the Middle East would have their own ideas and experience as to the background, but those elsewhere would benefit from some documentary information. The result is that Cedar's film, rather like Mount Beaufort itself, stands isolated.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 30, 2011 9:50 AM BST

Go [DVD]
Go [DVD]
Dvd ~ Taye Diggs
Offered by The Happy Zombie
Price: £2.54

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Go Get, 29 Nov 2009
This review is from: Go [DVD] (DVD)
Those who relish the narrative style and humour of Pulp Fiction ought not overlook Go, Doug Liman's less well-known effort from just a few years later. Although ultimately unable to match Tarantino's celebrated narrative verve, budget, and overall flair for casting, upon re-viewing a decade later Go is still very watchable. Along with The Bourne Identity this is arguably the director's best film, out of a career that has also produced the potboiler Mr & Mrs Smith, such deeply guilty pleasures as Jumper and his very well-regarded debut Swingers. I know many have a warm spot for the latter. But I would turn to Go again more readily, it being unassuming, unpredictable - and made outside the demands of a commercial franchise.

Based around the experiences of associated Californian characters which include participants of a drugs deal that goes wrong, and set deftly over a 24 hour period, Go features three stories, each shot through with varying degrees of black humour and irony. In the first, Ronna Martin (Sarah Polley), a supermarket checkout worker threatened with eviction from her apartment, starts the plot ball rolling with an attempt to score some Ecstasy as a one-off to raise some cash. Her regular supplier is off on a trip to Las Vegas, so she takes the chance to bargain direct with dealer Todd Gaines (a splendid Timothy Olyphant). In second strand, entitled `Simon', we see Ronna's supplier and co-worker (Desmond Askew) on his trip to Vegas and the outrageous events that occur there, and then back home. The third part,`Adam & Zeck', is about two gay TV actors, inveigled by the police to help with a drugs bust. The last part of the film brings much of what has happened together to form a conclusion.

There's much to admire in a film with so many well handled competing elements as Go; it would have been easy for the script to have taken itself too seriously or simply lose focus as incident follows incident, with 10 important characters to keep track of. Instead, spurred perhaps by a relatively short running time, Liman's film shows a sure touch throughout - right from the opening moments, where the viewer's ears and eyes are caught by a notable jump cut taking us straight from Columbia's logo into the rave scene which forms a central scene of the movie.

Although the cast were largely unknowns and largely drawn from a TV background, (the film was apparently planned for release as an independent production before being picked up by a large studio), the performances are generally good. An exception is Desmond Askew (Simon Baines). The English actor, better known to local audiences as a member of UK TV's Grange Hill, is uneven, especially in his early scenes, although he improves and it is not enough to throw the film off balance. Some have even found his manner ultimately adds to the believability of his character, while he certainly contributes to some of the movie's funniest moments. Many of the others are added by William Fichtner, playing a drugs cop with peculiar designs on Adam and Zack, who's first threatening, then creepy, and finally absurd. In fact it is the relative obscurity of many of the cast that adds to the freshness. While the plot is hardly original, there is no sense of staleness with several laugh-out-loud moments, at least once away from the dark irony of the opening segment. Writer John August's (a regular Tim Burton collaborator, incidentally) sure touch keeps things moving along in a fashion which only occasionally loses its way - for instance, its not clear why Ronna's friend Claire suddenly finds the drug dealer attractive - while making its inspiration clear with a diner scene a la Pulp Fiction, and some moments of Taratino-esque dialogue.

The obvious derivations of Go, together with some knowing pop in-references, as well as perceived character underwriting, have been enough to garner less appreciative responses from some viewers. But taking all these factors on board, and even with the somewhat hackneyed drugs-deal-gone-bad story at its heart, it remains very likeable, while the story's unpredictability mean it is never stale and frequently very amusing. I recommend it.

Wild Life [DVD] [2005] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Wild Life [DVD] [2005] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Dvd ~ Mickey Curtis
Offered by EliteDigital UK
Price: £7.89

3.0 out of 5 stars Wild Life, tame results, 30 Oct 2009
Wild Life is a relatively early film from director Shinji Aoyama, whose best-known work in the west has hitherto been Eureka (2000), together with the grisly horror Embalming (aka: Enbamingu, 1999). Response to Aoyama's characteristic style varies considerably, from those who consider it deep, profound even, whilst noting the issues he 'imports' into genre pieces, and those who lose patience with his deliberate pacing (Eureka runs for almost four hours) pointing to his willingness to play journeyman director, casually taking on projects from various sources. This is not necessarily a criticism, as Japan's most prolific contemporary director, as well as the one attracting positive critical interest, Takashi Miike, has also shown a lack of inhibition. Aoyoma's ethos however is rather different to that of his controversial colleague. His softly spoken, often eccentric characters and personal attitude to cinema is more reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch, although the Japanese director himself cites Godard and Ford as being among his influencers. Those familiar with his native contemporaries will also cite Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a friend of the director, and whose distinctive films can display a similar deliberate, enigmatic quality.

The present film is ostensibly a yakuza drama. Washed up boxer Hiroki makes his living as a 'master nailer' - servicing pachinko machines - who leads a solitary and regimented private life. His main loyalty is to his boss Tsuruma, now under threat from yakuza gangs who threaten his market. Also involved in events are a former co-worker of Hiroki called Mizuguchi, now turned small scale crook, and Rei, his boss' daughter with whom he conducts an awkward wooing. When both Mizuguchi and Tsuruma go missing, Hiroki is pressured by the gangsters, and also targeted by the police on the whereabouts of a certain envelope, believed left in his care and which he initially thinks contains drugs. Obliged to emerge from his emotional shell and re-engage with the world, Hiroki's loyalty to his boss and responses to the daughter drives matters to an inevitable showdown...

Such a description of the plot barely does as it justice, as what really distinguishes Wild Life is the treatment such commonplace genre concerns receive. Ultimately, it is the viewer's response to such unorthodox storytelling that decides just how well the narrative works. The fragmented experience offered by Aoyama's film resembles one of the jigsaws laying uncompleted in Hiroki's apartment than a regular narrative, as his co-written screenplay, in the words of one critic, "plays out like a memory, in short pieces, linked by a peculiar dream-like logic." Dream-like is right, as a lot of Wild Life would be confusing without some determined concentration and imagination on the part of the viewers - a requirement rarely demanded from Hollywood these days, the adventurousness of which must be applauded. Headed up into named chapters, within them the expected linear train of events is disrupted so that the viewer receives regular detours into the past, as well as multiple story threads and interrelationships to contend with.

Some have suggested that Wild Life's structural playfulness intends to parody the crime genre in which the director is working. In classic film noir, fractured, nightmarish narratives work to suggest moral confusion. Aoyama's strategy appears to be, by breaking down and drawing out aspects of his plot, creating a plot where the genre elements can practically be discarded in favour of his sour-sweet contemplation of other realities - those perhaps of loneliness, loyalty and dislocation.

Unfortunately of lot of this is made hard going by a story the elements of which, chopping and shunting notwithstanding, remain resolutely conventional. Aoyama (who co-adapted the script from an original novel) lightens things up with some welcome, if slight, whimsical humour, but its really not enough. One is reminded of the films by Sabu, another of his contemporaries, who has brought to his own series of genre works a mischievous irony, transforming standard material. Aoyama makes much heavier work of it. Horoki for instance, is an interesting and enigmatic enough character, but alas one who never really comes alive, until he called upon to utilise his boxing skills in self-defence. It's a defining moment, but one which occurs too far in the storyline to sustain the interest of all but the most devoted viewer. At the centre of another interesting scene there's also a gay cop, sweet on the hero, who could have been, with profit, been dragged further out of the closet. These moments are in relatively short supply in what is rather a glum affair and, at worst, seem like distractions rather than any genuine enlivening of the plot. In short, Wild Life's lead is not eccentric enough, and his infatuation not passionate enough; the complicated plot is not noir-ish enough and the yakuza thugs just not menacing enough to make much impact. There's a sense that too many of the supporting characters are just ciphers to the director's wish to suggest something profound (witness Hiroki's "Am I falling or rising?" speech in the last part of the film) out of relatively mundane, if unduly complicated, circumstances.

The result is that the viewers' attention begins to wander. Fortunately Wild Life's fluid cinematography is excellent; for instance Aoyama's camera a couple of times circles his principals in a way suggesting those shifting elements laying at the centre of his story, while elsewhere the director also masks character entries and exits through camera movement a technique that, economically, sets the viewer subtly on edge.

Village Of Doom [DVD]
Village Of Doom [DVD]
Dvd ~ Masato Furuoya
Offered by Amazin Deals *****
Price: £8.98

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Little known 1980's exploitation flic with violent ending, 30 Oct 2009
This review is from: Village Of Doom [DVD] (DVD)
During the Second World War, a young man from a secluded village is denied the chance to serve in the Japanese army through his tuberculosis. Highly intelligent, although isolated, he lives with his kindly grandmother. Taking advantage of the times he enjoys the company of several married women, but once news of his disease spreads he becomes increasingly socially ostracised and plots revenge...

Masato Furuova, the star of this film and who plays the alienated Tsugio, committed suicide earlier last year. This seems cruelly apt, as Village Of Doom (aka: Ushimitsu no mura) is a film full of images of death, whether of a body hanging under a tree, spilled poison, gunshot wounds, stabbings or a shotgun barrel entering mouths, although the principal violent events occur at the end. Starting as a film in which Tsugio helps to send a friend off to war and then, after being denied active participation in the real struggle overseas ends up bedding several war wives almost by accident, it ends with him shouting "Banzai!" again - this time to himself, before marching off on a bloodthirsty campaign of his own. Between these two pivotal events is the story of a tubercular youth faced with his physical disadvantages, as well as the frustrations of living in a small, presumably in-bred village. Here, it is said, blood kin sleeps with blood kin and unwanted outsiders are "buried in the hills." During the war there are "always lonely women" the results of their liaisons, it is suggested, being dropped in the river. In many ways this is a return to the isolated and feudal Japan of the past: inward looking, where feuds were brought to bloody and formal climax.

Director Tanaka spent a good deal of his early career in the Japanese porn industry before branching out onto more ambitious and complex subject matter. Village Of Doom betrays some of these origins, as Tsugio's early encounters are filmed in characteristic fashion (there is notable finger-fellatio scene which is dwelt upon) and his serial bedding of those lonely wives, their husbands serving conveniently overseas, would be standard fare for a sex comedy. However Tanaka and his screenwriters have a different tale to relate, one whose success depends to great extent on how sympathetic their lead character is, rather than any libidal considerations. And it's a brutal story, based on a novel, but which one feels might just as easily been inspired by real wartime events. Tsugio's actions are staged in such specific and grisly fashion that they feel like a reconstruction of a case; whether or not this is true, there is no doubt that they provide a powerful conclusion.

Of Tsugio it is said, "geniuses like you come once in 100 years" although no real evidence of his intellectual quality is offered outside of his obvious sensitivity. Placed in the care of his grandmother (his parents presumably dead) he dwells morosely on his brief sexual ascendance in the village and then his humiliation, real or imagined, at the hands of various inhabitants such as village lout Tadaaki. Compared to absent warriors like Mamoru given such a rousing send off at the start, or his school friend Tetsuo, continually borrowing money to visit whores in the outside world, he always feels inferior. But Tsugio is indeed the presiding genius over much of the events that rock his small world. His decision at the end to "go to war ... and become a devil," is something of a cathartic act, one by which he establishes his own value just as, in one perverse sense, it defines his village.

Featuring several prominent female roles, the drama is performed adequately, although it must be said no one is outstanding. It's a film that has every suggestion of being made quickly, although arguably the rough-edged quality works in its favour. Particularly effective are the Tsugio's scenes with the love of his life Ysuyo (Misako Tanaka), as well as the final few moments when, blood-spattered and satisfied, he confronts the inevitable. The end of the film is what will gain it any notoriety, although it is considerably less sadistic and flamboyant in the staging that would be instanced today. As a chunk of rare 1980s' Japanese exploitation cinema, and by a name otherwise unknown to many viewers, its worth seeking out.

The Razor's Edge [DVD]
The Razor's Edge [DVD]
Dvd ~ Tyrone Power

4 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Too long, too pretentious and too much Power, 30 Oct 2009
This review is from: The Razor's Edge [DVD] (DVD)
A film which - to borrow Shaw's words about Henry James - has "chewed off more than it can bite", 'Razor's Edge' manages to last for long 140 minutes or so without hardly a single, original, thought in its head. The badly miscast Tyrone Power, wide eyed and gormless, tries to look intellectual but ends up appearing confused. As much as he works at his part, Power simply can't communicate philosophical contemplation adequately. This central weakness makes his single-minded odyssey appear shallow, trite, and selfish - ultimately achieving nothing but a good view of a sunrise from a private hut in the Himalayas. His newly found enlightenment may mean a lot to him personally, but the film reduces it to the status of a hypnotist's act, useful in curing headaches. A moment's comparison to a similarly tortured soul, Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh in Minnelli's 'Lust for Life' (1956) reveals just how soft and insubstantial is the centre of Zanuck's earnest would-be masterpiece; Douglas is neurotic, fierce and intense as the man seeking for great peace of soul - Power just stands around and looks mildly perplexed.

There's some recompense in the splendid performances of Webb and Tierney of course, and Goulding's extravagant mounting of this prestige production makes individual scenes pass more easily than they otherwise might do. Some of his camera movements and set ups are complex, choreographed carefully, and reveal more about character relationships than the dialogue. But the Indian episode is trivial and unconvincing, while Darrell's querulous rejection of material shallowness beforehand is nothing like as full throated as one would like it to be. (Perhaps this coyness is an indication of the political temperature of the times.) Similarly, Sophie's degradation is hardly shocking to modern eyes, her final collapse in a vague 'smoking den' after falling prey to Pisovka (Absinthe) a relatively mild affair.

As Maugham, Herbert Marshall gives his usual sophisticated performance, while John Payne remains obstinately wooden. As one might expect from such a project, Newman's score is opulent and lush, the cinematography crisp and detailed.

Ultimately this ambitious, flabby, work makes one want to return to the more sincere, slimmer delights of 'Laura', where both Tierney and Webb were united earlier to much better effect. Or, for a film where camp is worn on the sleeve rather than wrapped in the earnestness of 'art', I'd recommend Tierney in 'Leave Her To Heaven', made immediately after the classic noir.

It may not be based on a grand novel, but it sure is more enjoyable.

Fateless ( Sorstalanság ) [2006] [DVD]
Fateless ( Sorstalanság ) [2006] [DVD]
Dvd ~ Marcell Nagy

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A fresh look at the worst of times, 30 Oct 2009
Critics have compared Fateless to such other award winning films around the same subject, notably Robert Benigni's Life Is Beautiful (aka: La Vita è Bella, 1997), and Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993). Whilst in interview on the UK DVD the director Koltai doesn't mention Benigni's comedy of doom, in passing he does cite the Spielberg, to whom he makes it clear that Fateless is in some degree at least, a riposte. For the director, Schindler's List is "a mistake for those who know what really happened" is his view, which represents "no victory for humanity." The determined un-sentimentality of Koltai's film reflects that view, something which he goes as far as to transpose formally into a particular editing technique - an approach that audiences, more used to a cosy and somewhat predictable view of the Holocaust, will find striking. Koltai's treatment of narrative in his film, characteristically breaking down stark events into short, impressive scenes that fade to black, he terms "a series of études." Such a treatment serves to isolate the protagonists in time, away from the emotionality that a more connected continuity encourages. Indeed for Koltai "time is the... terrible... sentence," and the main motive behind his film, rather than outright shock, and his film has great power precisely through this denial of the usual response.

An easy criticism of Fateless is that conditions of the camp are shown as persistently harrowing, but rarely explicitly violent. The hero Köves is starved, slapped and humiliated, but rarely does the viewer see an on-screen killing, even if the stench of the crematoria is omnipresent. So much is real horror left unseen in fact that at the close of the film, upon his return, there's a scene where Köves is quizzed about the existence of gas chambers by a doubtful citizen at his home station. As a confirmation it is surely unnecessary for the audience, as we've seen them earlier. One suspects that the importance of this brief exchange is instead to assert, once and for all, that Köves acknowledges the reality of the horror he's seen. Whether or not such epic tragedy, and his involvement in it, has enriched his humanity, a la Spielberg, is another matter entirely. By the end, Köves thinks back to his experience almost nostalgically, to the camps where "life was cleaner and simpler" and "where there's nothing too unimaginable to endure." As one might expect from an acclaimed cinematographer, much of Fateless looks superb. Whether its the snowflakes, like the millions of spirits already departed, floating inside the cattle trucks that speed the Hungarian Jews to their fate, or the field of camp mates, paraded mercilessly in the heat, and wavering in their distinctive striped uniforms, Koltai's eye creates haunting moments which remain with the viewer long after the closing credits. Arguably such poetry detracts from the grim reality of the camps in which a good deal of the film is set; but a good deal of the film is shot in muted colours, a blanched scheme, as if the warmth of life has bled out into genocide.

Performances are generally excellent, notably that of Nagy. Interviews on the disc show the young actor's nervousness at some of the more demanding scenes (and the increasing time required spent in make up as his on screen physical deterioration continues) but he plays a role which takes him from the dining room of the family home of Budapest to the death carts of Zief, without faltering. Fateless is an international co-production between Hungary, German and England. All three languages make their appearance, and so - incidentally - does the new James Bond, Daniel Craig, as Köves' liberation approaches. Here playing a concerned GI, who strongly suggests the boy seeks out a new life and a university place in the west, Craig makes a brief, if effective impression. As it turns out Köves' ultimate decision is characteristic of a film that favours reality over idealism.

But for those who seek the unrelenting grimness of camp life depicted as in, say, One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovitch (1970), or the memorable depiction of the hardening of innocence into vengeful shock (Come And See), Fateless will doubtless prove a slight disappointment. Ennio Morricone's excellent score notwithstanding, which gives events here an occasionally pathetic sheen, this is a film which in many ways raises more issues and questions than it answers, and certainly offers no stereotypical picture of a ghastly time. Instead, by asking the audience to question preconceptions, it stakes claim to being one of the more important Holocaust dramas of our time.

Onibi - The Fire Within [DVD]
Onibi - The Fire Within [DVD]

1 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Onibi not bad, only could be better, 30 Oct 2009
Director Rokuro Mochizuki started his career in the Japanese porno industry before making his name with some strikingly characteristic work in the 1990s, a success contemporary with other industry colleagues such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Takashi Miike. Unlike these two however, Mochizuki has made less of an impact in recent years and, together with his Another Lonely Hit-man (1995). Onibi - The Fire Within is probably his best - or at least judged so from those seen so far in the west. As is frequently common practice in the conservative Nipponese film industry, where art house work is typically 'smuggled' to audiences in the guise of genre pieces, Mochizuki often works within the yakuza film, creating his own distinct style within the frequently considerably stretched boundaries of the gangster narrative. The 'fire within' of the title here refers to the flame of existence, something akin to essential essence, or the soul. At one point in the film there is reference to the ghost of a victim, materialising next to the killer immediately after an assassination and hero Kunihiro affirms its existence. But it more specifically refers to the hero's special kind of strength, recognised by those who befriend him upon his release: "You're just like a cultural asset," says his new boss, before Kunihiro's dry response: "and you want me to explode when necessary."

After so many years in prison he has had to rely upon this inner spirit to survive, a process that has become formalised through a love of classical music. He has also made the close acquaintance of Hideyuki Sakata and the suggestion is that their relationship, at least while inside, is more than that of close friends. Refusing a large amount of money to welcome him back to the gang immediately upon his release, Kunihiro has problems settling in, and there's a sense that he feels ill at ease with the gangsters of today. Instead of money from his new contacts, Kunihiro unexpectedly asks for a camera, through which he captures elements of his new environment, as well as establishing his own presence and viewpoint within it. Initially unable to connect even on the most rudimentary physical level with the female piano player Asako the film sees Kunihiro seeking to re-enter society though a series of what might be called meditative vignettes, the success of which brings him closer to Asako and her plight. Just as in Another Lonely Hit-man, it takes a woman to draw the chief protagonist back into normal life, and with similarly disastrous results. Similar to the earlier film too is the importance of photography. It is only when Asako asks the hit-man to help kill a man who has nude photographs of her that his re-assimilation begins in earnest, to the point that he later breaks into her house to retrieve her photo albums (which, ironically, she then refuses to look at). Some have seen the director's especial concern with cameras as a wider metaphor for his own interest in the nature of representation - Mochizuki was educated at Image Forum, an experimental film academy - an interpretation born out, perhaps by the final image of Kunhiro at the close, the most artificial shot in the film.

The Fire Within's source is from a story by a former lawyer of the Yamaguchi crime syndicate and presumably the original was based in brutal fact. Mochizuki brings a whole dimension of his own to the adaptation, in an exploration of outward image and real identity. Critic Tom Mes, for one, has no doubt as to the success of the result calling Onibi "the best Japanese film of the last 15 years" - a judgement at which this viewer, at least, would hesitate. Mochizuki's film is an extremely subtle one - but it has to be said that its calm surface is rather like a mirror, in which the more one stares in the hope of seeing, the more is reflected back - opportunities for this activity existing aplenty due to the slow, emphatic pacing throughout. Does Kunihiro distance himself from his fellow gangsters through an existential desire to be free for instance, or is he simply stunned and still trying to readjust to the new set of operations after 27 years? Chief actor Yoshio Harada (seen more recently in Azumi, 2003) and the also excellent 9 Souls, has had a long and distinguished film career. The depiction of Kunihiro was something of a change for him, as previously he had cultivated a macho action image on screen, "a long haired whirling dervish of controlled passion and anger," in such films as Fukusaku's Triple Cross and on that basis had amassed a large following. In the present film he excels in showing a great spirit in repose rather than action, turning himself into a different kind of actor completely.

The casual viewer will find the trance-like elements of this film either distancing or profound, according to taste. Notable is a scene set in a swimming pool (shot under difficult conditions during an E. Coli outbreak in Osaka) where the camera spends long moments on the participants, finding its own rhythm and pleasure though the play of elegant instrumentals. Mochizuki's use of music like this, to bring out the inherent mood and raptness of scenes, reminded this viewer of Kubrick's Barry Lyndon - a very different film indeed, but one which also contained moments of stillness and poise where the score, too, hinted at emotions laying below calm exteriors. Another director who springs to mind, closer to home, is Takeshi Kitano. He similarly places moments of Zen-like calm in his gangster films, including a fondness for water, only to interrupt such placid moments with abrupt violence. If Mochizuki is not quite as memorable as Kitano, his film is one which repays re-viewing for the patient fan, although those who seek their yakuza flicks with more up-front concerns will best advised to look elsewhere
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Only the Valiant [DVD] [1951] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Only the Valiant [DVD] [1951] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Dvd ~ Gregory Peck

3.0 out of 5 stars Uneven film still entertains, 30 Oct 2009
Made a couple of years after Ford's 'Fort Apache' (1948), in some ways Douglas' violent film is reminiscent of that earlier work. Gregory Peck's straight-backed Captain Lance, unpopular stickler for honour and adherent to all the fine print of duty, recalls Ford's military martinet Lieutenant Colonel Thursday (Fonda). There's a significant difference of course: Lance has a quiet competence throughout (and grudging respect of the ranks) conspicuously absent in Thursday's command. And whereas Thursday's actions lead to disaster, Lance pulls off a successful mission. Corporal Gilchrist (Ward Bond, also in 'Apache'), grudgingly admits as much as he declines to shoot the Captain, maddened at the height of his personal whisky drought: Lance is "the only man who can get them through", faults and all. Like the narrow pass through which the Apaches must move to attack the fort, Lance works within a narrow confine of responsibility and honour which can be dangerously constricting.

Interestingly, for a film ostensibly full of action, much significance attaches itself exactly to the opposite. For instance, it is Lance's unwillingness to draw upon others to clear his honour that estranges him from the post and his girlfriend Cathy after the death of Lieutenant Holloway. Most importantly, it is Lance's 'failure' to shoot the indian chief at the beginning, immediately after the fluke capture, which precipitates the death of so many others (a fault corrected at the end when Lance uses a knife in the last struggle). The film suggests that it necessary to bend the rules sometimes to achieve more effective results (whether or not this includes condoning murder in cold blood of a captive is another matter) - and positions various disrupting influences against the Captain as way of demonstration of the checks and balances this involves.

Chief of these is Corporal Gilchrist, who rather steals the film - particularly in the light of Peck's characteristic dullness as an actor. It is Gilchrist who is present at the start of events, he who rounds out the film. It is he too, who provokes a rare yielding, as far as military rules are concerned, by Lance: the Captain allows him a surreptitious swig of whisky just before the final attack. A boisterous, womanising drunkard, Bond plays a character to the hilt familiar from Ford's 'cavalry trilogy' and other films.

The forces contrasting Lance's discipline, control and code of honour rang neatly and conveniently against him at the fort. A deserter, a drunkard, a frustrated bully, an irrationally violent man - these and others, are the small command aptly chosen by Lance (being those the army can "spare mostly easily") to support his mission. In effect, such a select rabble represent the dregs of the army. But also, the weaknesses and darkness which all men contain, and naturally it is these which Lance has to face and master, as much as holding the pass against more physical incursion.

Reflecting this intrigue, the film is naturally rich in character acting. Besides Bond's loud bluffness, one also relishes Chaney's satanic Kebussyan (his character definitely *not* a Fordian derivative!), and the grouchy bitterness of Neville Brand's sergeant Murdock. Much of the film's pleasure lays in such incidentals, especially as the events at the pass, when examined logically, hardly make military sense (Why don't the indians just attack in one go? Why do they keep retreating back through the pass when they have broken out?)

Douglas, who went on to make the superb 'Rio Conchos' (1964) and the minor cult item 'Barquero'(1970) made too few Westerns, and does a good, tough job in direction. His pacing and grasp of tension helps to mask over the glaring differences in geology between the studio's 'pass' and the real thing shot on location. Co-scriptwriter Brown was to write Hawk's masterpiece El Dorado. In short: recommended, but for a more complex and convincing portrait of the cavalry under command see Ford.

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