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Reviews

The Dukes of Hazzard
(2005)

The ducks of Hazzard.
Perhaps if I'd never grown up and still been the ten-year old boy I was when I first sat down to watch the TV series I would have come away from this film with a big smile on my face. It's difficult to see who this appeals to - if you're old enough to remember the original series then you must surely be too mature to find anything worthwhile about this pap. If you're too young to remember it, then what's the point going in the first place?

This is a film so in love with it's own idiocy that it feels like a party you haven't been invited to. It looks like it should be a barrels of laughs, but you'd be hard pushed to raise a smirk. The whole enterprise hasn't an ounce of invention or wit, and the cast of characters are two-dimensional stereotypes with little or no redeeming features. Script, direction and acting are all abysmally amateur. The self-referential nostalgia factor (everything from "Smokey and the Bandit" to "Wonder Woman" is obvious and embarrassing, and Jessica Simpson should be taken out the back and shot for her performance (which is what you'd expect to happen in Georgia if you believe what you see in this film). William Scott's gurning isn't much better.

Awful in almost every aspect, don't waste your money for a few moments of great car stunts.

Skeletons in the Closet
(2001)

Low budget, but high standards.
The first thing to get past is the fact that this straight-to-video thriller is shot on video, and, as such, looks low budget, and feels like a TV show. But once you can get past that, the video works in its favour, encouraging you to take more from the performances and the story. It's seemingly more realistic, with, literally a clearer view of what's going on. The direction is very simple, but this helps to concentrate on the characters and the plot.

The three leads give credible performances, and there are enough ambiguities in the story to keep you guessing until the end (despite some unfortunate holes in credibility). A bigger budget and bigger stars would easily see this type of thing in your local cinema. As it is, a competent thriller, a surprising straight-to-video hit.

Satan's School for Girls
(1973)

Pedictable but harmless horror.
Not bad, made-for-TV movie from Aaron Spelling and co. Although predictable for the most part, it has engaging lead performances and a sense of straight-laced melodrama that offers up a few surprises intermittently. Fans of "Charlie's Angels" will be interested to see Jackson here before she went on to bigger things, but the lead performance from Pamela Franklin is just as noteworthy (whatever happened to her career?).

Moderately successful atmospherically, but hardly ground-breaking, it nevertheless isn't the worst of the wave of similar films from the same period, and it certainly has its moments.

Kiki and Herb on the Rocks
(2005)

Disappointing mockumentary.
Last summer I spent a few hours on a boat on the Thames in the company of deranged cabaret duo Kiki and Herb. It wasn't the first time I'd experienced life through the eyes of the gin-soaked Kiki, and won't be the last if I can help it. These lives shows fused a knowing irony of contemporary pop songs, skewed into barely recognisable, angst ridden torchsongs, with the desperate (and desperately sad) musings of a woman who's lived a coke-fuelled, battle-scarred life, and who still stands tall and does it her way. Justin Bond's slight frame holds this beast at bay until the moment she storms the room in a deluge of bitterness, rage and child-like innocence, making Liza look astonishingly well-adjusted.

It's difficult to make any connection between that night and this movie, as the energy and spontaneity of Kiki and Herb's live show is lost. The character is so firmly embedded in Bond, and so lived-in, that we never doubt for a moment that she exists - that the desperate naivety and need for acclaim is genuine. But the film relies solely on this personality, and offers very little to compare with the live experience. The build-up is too long, and despite the (often very funny) repartee it begins to flag. Without the songs and the tragedy of her past Kiki comes over as just another drag queen, all mouth and no trousers, and the bitching begins to drag after a while.

Kiki and Herb deserve immortality on the big screen, but this isn't it. They deserve to have their story told, their live show celebrated. But this film does none of those things. See them live.

Shadow of the Vampire
(2000)

This shadow has little substance.
A inventive conceit is given lacklustre treatment in this homage to the great silent horror "Nosferatu" (1922). Merhige's film is a strange amalgam of genres, straddling horror, comedy and costume drama, but never really settles into a comfortable position. There are some astonishingly eccentric performances (as you would expect) from the likes of Malkovich, Dafoe and Izzard but the story never opens up enough to remain consistently interesting. It's a marvellous idea that Murnau found, in Schreck, a real life vampire to bring a genuine horror to his seminal movie, but the narrative doesn't develop beyond the obvious bemusement of his fellow cast, and the maniac compulsion of an obsessive director aiming to finish his 'masterpiece'. The characters remain largely two-dimensional, and the full horror is never fully exploited, leaving a half-formed horror parody, complete with torch-wielding eastern Europeans and cross-bearing local innkeepers.

A film for those who enjoy full blooded performances (although how Cary Elwes ever got an acting job is still a mystery), and have a passing interest in the history of horror. But, sadly, it feels like it could have been so much more.

Invisible Ghost
(1941)

The invisible plot.
Another cheapie from Monogram, once again casting Lugosi as a hypnotic murderer, lit from below as is expected. This time, however, he's the innocent victim, entranced by the sight of his 'dead' wife who appears beneath his window and seemingly 'commands' him to kill (rather surreptitiously and for a reason not fully explained). Indeed, most of the plot isn't really fully explained, but it's academic. Instead of the plot, concentrate on the director's unusual flair, and the writers' penchant for a decent gag or two. It's these that elevate this slightly above the rest of its kind. Some interesting panning between rooms, and behind furniture, and a memorable shot of Lugosi leering direct to camera from behind his black robe show that director Lewis had, at least, a modicum of creativity. There's also a wicked sense of humour that takes you by surprise, and is handled well enough to complement the thriller element. Sadly, the performances are mundane, especially Lugosi, who, once again mugs and grimaces his way through the part. The film is stolen by Clarence Muse, superb as the amenable butler, Evans - although he does get all the best lines.

Michael Jackson's Boys
(2005)

I agree
I am at one with the previous comment by Theo. This so-called 'documentary' is one of the most biased pieces of television I've seen in a long time. Irrespective of your opinion on the current case against Michael Jackson, you would still be hard pressed not to find this programme leaving a nasty taste. I find it hard to believe this could ever be shown if the case was taking place in the UK, as the whole tone implicitly suggests that Jackson grooms his young male friends, before rejecting them once puberty hits. There are a few interviewees who support Jackson, however, the editing and script are predominantly misrepresentative. There's a plethora of archive footage to back up the director's agenda, but very little in the way of investigative journalism. Indeed, a very dangerous film.

Camilla: The Uncrowned Queen
(2005)

Cut and paste documentary film-making.
This is a hastily assembled 'documentary', broadcast on British television shortly after the announcement of Prince Charles' and Camilla's engagement. It trawls through the history of the couple from their first meeting nearly three decades ago, and brings the story right up-to-date. There's barely any new footage, save for a selection of 'talking heads' interviews with those who think they are in the know, with the majority of the programme made up of news footage. A shameless cut-and-paste job that gives you some of the more obvious facts but leaves out anything exclusive or interesting, which may be of interest if you are unfamiliar with the whole saga, or if you've never seen a British newspaper in the last 10 years.

Wacko About Jacko
(2005)

Unusual angle amidst the many Jackson documentaries.
This is just one of many documentaries screened in the build-up to Jackson's trial on allegations of child sex abuse. Most are cheap cash-ins for the TV companies, but this was an interesting and eye-opening account, not of Jackson, but of a group of his fans. In fact, the link to Jackson isn't necessarily the most intriguing part of the film, rather it's the way the adulation is borne out by a group of young, seemingly rational men and women. Leveugle's success is that she never mocks her subjects (which would seem the easiest thing to do) and they come across, for the most part, as people with a passion for their hobby - it just happens that their hobby is following one of the world's most famous men. The film avoids the 'freakshow' elements on the whole (except the inclusion of a Jackson wannabe whose adulation has made him cosmetically change his appearance to resemble the star), and is better for it. This leaves us with a balanced and honest film that goes some way to understanding the power of celebrity and the nature of obsession.

The Ape Man
(1943)

Thankless part for a declining star.
Yet another in the long list of Lugosi's B-movies as his career was in decline, this is of interest only to those who wish to follow that downward trajectory. Here he plays a stricken scientist, whose experiments have rendered him with ape-like instincts and a mass of facial hair. It's a thankless part that leaves Lugosi stumbling around for the most part in a simian stoop, leaving the best parts of the story to his supporting cast. But there's neither suspense nor horror enough to cover up the limits of the cast and the budget of the production. Ford and Currie, as the journo duo offering light relief, seem to have escaped from a different movie, and Urecal's wide-eyed posturing is ham of the highest order. Pity the unfortunate Van Horn, who spends his time in an unconvincing gorilla suit throughout. Oddly, there's an obscure, self-referential ending, which serves little or no purpose as far as I can see, and which points up the apparent irregularity of the comedy/horror subject matter.

A short waste of time, but a waste of time nonetheless.

The Phantom of the Opera
(2004)

Overindulgent.
There is little doubt that in the transference from stage to screen this musical has lost none of it's opulence or extravagance. The film is a triumph of production design, of artifice over art, with barely a rounded characterisation in sight. The leads are as bland as the source material, but at least there's a supporting cast who realised that a spirited performance is, at least, a distraction from the main event. Nothing, however, can overwhelm the fact that this is a musical of dubious quality - Lloyd Webber's histrionic score succeeds in conjuring up the required Gothic atmosphere (especially when the soundtrack volume is cranked way up), and Schumacher delivers a sumptuous, swirling homage to Baz Luhrman's 'Moulin Rouge' - but overcoming Hart's trite, sophomoric lyrics is too much for anyone.

White Man's Burden
(1995)

Heavy load.
Nakano's film delivers little subtlety, and even less originality than many seem to give it credit for. The one-note premise never develops into anything other than that and leaves the actors floundering in a movie that would have made a competent short, but not a feature. The performances are all passable, but the story loses credibility and goes nowhere, taking a long time to get there. Despite the writer's best efforts some of the scenes seem to reinforce rather than break down some racial stereotypes, and it's really not that shocking to see Travolta as a down-trodden white guy because they actually do exist - as do rich black guys (ask Harry Belafonte if you don't believe me!).

The Woodsman
(2004)

Intelligent and thought-provoking.
An intelligent and thought-provoking film that never flinches from it's subject matter, and includes a superb performance from it's leading man. Kassell's film manages to steer clear of didacticism and lays the misunderstandings and prejudices about, and ignorance of, paedophilia open for the audience to interpret in their own way. The protagonist is neither a sympathetic hero or a villain, but during the course of the film he wavers between the two leaving the audience both supportive and sickened. This amalgam of conflicting emotions makes 'The Woodsman' essential viewing for a rational, adult audience. I only wonder how an audience would react to a paedophile played by an unknown actor without Bacon's profile, as I suspect many people would find it harder to accept without his charisma or celebrity attached to the film.

Death Mask
(1984)

Obsession with an unknown boy.
Granger lends some gravitas to this story of a medical examiner who becomes obsessed with discovering the identity of an unknown boy whose body is discovered in a cardboard box. It's a shame that the filmmakers felt the need to embellish the incredible facts of the case with trite sentimentality and routine detective story clichés. Despite Granger's assured performance and some creepy moments, the narrative drive just isn't there. The only thing that kept me hooked was the need to discover for myself the identity of the boy. I was unaware of the real case so it was even more frustrating to reach the denouement and go away empty-handed.

Bigfoot and the Muscle Machines
(1985)

Try this for size.
"Bigfoot and the Muscle Machines" was one of those 80s cartoons, part of a seemingly endless stream from the US, that pitted a group of superheroes against a scene-chewing bad guy. Based on a toy by Hasbro, the crime fighting team here were Yank Justice and his giant machine 'Bigfoot', alongside a pair of foxy red-headed twins, and the silver-haired Prof D. In the UK video version (presumably a amalgamation of a few episodes) they help out with preventing billionaire Mr. Big getting his hands on the fountain of youth.

It's all rather predictable, but makes a change from the usual space setting by having humans battling humans, and Yank Justice's sadistic streak is a bonus, "Are we gonna talk? Or munch knuckle?!". The animation is shoddy though, and it's all a bit tedious after Bigfoot has got out of each predicament by driving over everything in sight. Probably better in bitesize episodes rather than this 50 minute marathon.

Roller Blade
(1986)

Talentless crap.
Films like this really defy any sort of critical analysis because how 'bad' they are is directly related to how much enjoyment you get out of it. That said, this effort, whilst offering at least a few good laughs, is ultimately so lame that it wears very thin. You might find yourself sticking with it to the end with a sense of utter disbelief or you might only get past the first scene, but either way you'll be wondering just how little money it cost to make, and just how the hell they got a distribution deal in the first place. Cult status is assured (it's already had 3 sequels, which is unfathomable) - it's a futuristic sci-fi adventure with roller-skating nuns, child kidnap, power crystals, and naked nuns in jacuzzis. Trash doesn't get any worse or any weirder, and it's a thin line between talentless crap and auteur genius.

Is it the worse film I've ever seen? Yea, verily.

The Naked Country
(1985)

Barely entertaining.
A turgid account of one man's struggle to escape from the murderous clutches of a bunch of estranged aborigines. The film concerns itself more with the gruesome dispatch of the villains than the reasons for their disgruntlement and their attitude towards the white landowner who is the victim of their hunt. There's a story here about the treatment of the native population, and the pernicious effect the 'white folk' have had on the spirituality, belief system and way of life of one of the world's remaining indigenous peoples, however the filmmakers seem to steer clear. The turns are good, particularly John Stanton, but Rebecca Gillings has a thankless part as his long suffering, staid wife, and Ivar Kantz has even less to do as her unexpected 'knight in shining armour'. Still, as ever, the Australian outback proves itself as a great film set.

Backwoods
(1987)

Eek!
Incredibly lame rip-off of a rip-off of a rip-off. Basically third generation 'Friday the 13th' on a meagre budget, with a cast of unknowns who have, justly, stayed that way - kudos though to Jack O'Hara as the eponymous 'geek' for a performance with more conviction and disturbing energy than the rest of the crew put together. It's difficult to really find anything interesting to say about a film that has very little to offer. Poor acting, poor story, and characters that behave randomly and illogically at every opportunity. For a film of this nature it's also disappointing (and incomprehensible) that all but two of the cast survive!

Torn Curtain
(1966)

Frustration
A study in infidelity and trust wrapped up as a competent spy thriller from the mid-60s that doesn't match up to the director's usual standard, but still stands above most of the output of the time. It's main problems are lack of credibility in an otherwise taut story, an underwritten part for Andrews, and a sub-Herrman score by John Addison. Despite this, Hitchcock assembled an authentic cast of Europeans and still manages a couple of great set-pieces and cranks up the tension to the full; the silent farmhouse murder is excruciatingly frustrating, and the trip across the border in the decoy bus is deftly handled to just the right level of squirming anticipation. Unfortunately the unnecessarily easy escape from the ballet (possibly the writer's fault, rather than the director's) just lets the whole film down.

Valentine
(2001)

More of the same...
Another derivative slasher pic, about ten years out of date. This one is surprisingly weak considering it seems to have been chosen by Boreanaz as his first big leap from 'Angel' to the movies. It is a safe bet, but hardly taxing for either the cast or the audience. It's all been seen before, and usually better than this.

The Barkleys of Broadway
(1949)

Fab fluff from Freed
Another fluffy concoction from the Freed unit at MGM, this one most notable for the reteaming of Rogers and Astaire after a ten year break, with the usual mix of tunes and laughs. Full of the usual high jinks expected from the stars, the screenwriters and the creative team it's hard to resist...even if the polish can't completely cover all the cracks. When Fred and Ginger dance (again) to "They Can't Take That Away From Me" you just can't help but melt! Who could ask for anything more?

Great Performances: Musicals Great Musicals: The Arthur Freed Unit at MGM
(1996)
Episode 6, Season 25

When the lion roared.
An interesting documentary on a man of huge influence, about which little information is known. Arthur Freed's unit at MGM produced some of the greatest movie musicals of all time, a fact that is borne out by the numerous clips used in this film. Accompanying these are interviews with some of the leading figures from the studio at the time, actors, dancers, choreographers and colleagues. However, although the story of the Freed unit is entertainingly told we never really get to find Freed himself. It seems that even those who knew him found the man elusive. Still, there is plenty to enjoy here among the classic movies and the anecdotal evidence of a film studio at its peak.

Die Another Day
(2002)

No use to anyone now...
So, after forty years on the big screen it has come to this! Despite, or perhaps because of, the best efforts of those involved in the making of the Bond movies, we have one of the weakest films in the series. In their relentless pursuit of the highest gross at the box office they have relinquished the character and soul of the series. What they have failed to do is really take risks, and surely this is what Bond thrives on. It's fine to say there's a formula to stick to, but there has always been scope to expand or challenge that formula, which is the essence of the series. You know what to expect, and what you expect is the unexpected.

The film succeeds in it's opening two thirds, but falls apart in the last act. There is an immediate edginess that we haven't seen since the Dalton escapades. Tamahori seems prepared to break some taboos and this iconoclastic approach gives us a dishevelled Bond, tortured and betrayed, and ultimately useless. Madonna's much-maligned title song, and Daniel Kleinman's surreal opening credits are perfect partners, both distorting the formula early on. As Bond finds himself out in the cold, abandoned by those he trusted there are the makings of a great movie. The character is growing before our eyes, and Pierce Brosnan gives his best acting performance as Bond in this film. It is a disappointment, then, to see the story develop so well, only to be taken apart later. It feels as though Tamahori was given the reins to the project, but had to share the saddle with many others. Once the story is set in motion the film disintegrates. Here, it must be said, that the overabundance of CGI is the main culprit. It is all very well to use the technology at hand to enhance your story, but the best effects are those you don't notice. With "Die Another Day" the producers have abandoned the ethos of the series, the thing that has made each Bond movie a must-see: the spectacle. Of course, blue screen and CGI have been used before in the series, and it hasn't always been successful, but here it appears that they have become complacent, and the effects are degenerative rather than supportive. For a series which is world-renowned for it's stunt work, this is a travesty and it's revealing to see that the best action sequence in the movie is the one-on-one fencing duel.

But it isn't all down to the poor effects. There is a pointed remark from 'M' that gives much away as to the direction those in charge wanted to go - "The world has changed since you've been away". Indeed, since "The World Is Not Enough" the world has changed dramatically. One of the many questions for the Bond-makers must surely have been, how do we make this film relevant after the events of the last year? The answer it seems is to ignore it, and take Bond to a world far removed from reality. They failed to realise that it is Bond's "reality" that gives the series the edge it needs. Despite the preposterous situations and the larger than life villains, there has always been a 'realness' about Bond. Not since "Moonraker" has Bond been such a cartoon.

So, after forty years Bond looks tired and out of touch. Spirited performances and some entertaining set pieces can't hide the laziness of the CGI, the execrable 'jokes', or the languid familiarity. "Die Another Day" sees Bond as just another in the crowd of action blockbusters, not at the helm as once was the case.

Cannibal ferox
(1981)

Rotten.
A late addition to the short-lived exploitation sub-genre that was 'Italian cannibal horror' movies, "Cannibal Ferox" is a tasteless and forgettable exercise in low budget filmmaking. It is flimsily plotted and structurally weak, with little to recommend it except perhaps the unintentional laughs. The attempts to draw some kind of intellectual parallel between the behaviour of the 'uncivilised' Amazonian indians, and the 'civilised' streets of New York is cackhanded in the extreme, with a cast of characters for whom being eaten in the nether regions of the rainforest seems the only humane thing to do. The catatonic stare of our heroine in the final shot is the best indicator of how you might feel after sitting through this.

If you like your blood and guts without any emotional attachment, then this might just do it for you - either way DON'T watch the BBFC 18 certificated UK version, which has even less plot, and minimal cannibalism!

The Man Who Knew Too Much
(1956)

Perfect.
All the trademark Hitchcock elements are in place yet again, for a wonderful example of crowd-pleasing from the man who knew better than anyone just how to work an audience. James Stewart, everyone's perfect everyman returns to familiar ground, with the perfect wife (Doris Day, perfect casting), and perfect family. Into this chocolate box world is thrown some dangerous information, and a downward spiral of kidnap and murder.

As usual, there are the elaborately staged set-pieces, and the intimate psychoanalysis that you would expect. Here, the assassination sequence in the Royal Albert Hall provides the former - a beautifully choreographed blend of music and images building to the pivotal crash of cymbals, and the scenes in Morocco the latter, as our couple become obliviously embroiled in international espionage. It is hard to find fault with any of Hitchcock's contrivances (using the Oscar-winning 'Whatever Will Be' as a plot device to get Doris singing is almost too much, but forgivable), and the the whole cast are superb, giving incredibly naturalistic performances - see the scene in the Moroccan restaurant, which almost seems ad-libbed.

One of Hitchcock's best.

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