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The Mummy

The best of Hammer's Mummy cycle... though periodic longueurs hold it back from being one of their very best.
When thinking about Hammer films which actually form part of a series, the obvious ones are the Dracula's and the Frankenstein's. There were, of course, other occasions when they made sequential films in their long history, such as the Jurassic classics (their prehistoric series) and the Mummy cycle. Even the most ardent fans of the studio accept that some of the Mummy movies are a little dull, and the main cause of this I feel lies with the 'monster' itself... mummies are just too slow and lumbering to have much shelf life as the bad guys in a whole series of bloodcurdlers. One film, yes, why not? But a whole series? Perhaps not. For me, the best of Hammer's Mummy cycle is the first - The Mummy from 1959, directed by the ever-reliable Terence Fisher, featuring yet another collaboration of the studio's favoured star duo Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

Egyptologists Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer), Joseph Whemple (Raymond Huntley) and John Banning (Peter Cushing) discover the long-lost tomb of of the ancient Queen Ananka. Against the dire warnings of Egyptian villain Mehemet Bey (George Pastell), they enter the tomb. Something happens to Stephen inside the tomb which leaves him in a vegetative state, driven out of his mind by some nameless fright. Later, it becomes clear that he was attacked by the still-living mummified figure of Kharis (Christopher Lee), the Queen's high priest and secret lover... and when Mehemet Bey brings the mummy to England to finish off the others who desecrated Ananka's tomb, the scene is set for a final battle to the death.

Lee's mummy, a gruesome and unstoppable automaton, is actually a rather interesting monster for this type of film. Powerful and frightening, yet strangely pitiable, it's a testament to his acting that he creates empathy from beneath so many layers of make-up. Cushing is good value too as the gammy-legged scholar trying to defeat he creature. What hurts The Mummy somewhat is the rather long-winded set-up, involving heavy-going and repetitive recap sequences narrated by Cushing. At its best colourful and exciting, at its worst dull and long-winded, The Mummy is a decent enough genre picture but not really top-tier stuff from the folks at Hammer.

Ski Troop Attack

Simple but serviceable wartime cheapie from low-budget maestro Roger Corman.
Shot in a couple of weeks by Roger Corman, Ski Troop Attack was cobbled together in such a hurry it's a minor miracle it emerges anything other than an unmitigated disaster. At the time, Corman's brother Gene was in the process of producing Beast From Haunted Cave in some mountains in South Dakota, with Monte Hellman directing. Never one to miss the opportunity of recycling existing resources, Roger bagged the same sets (and many of the same actors) to create Ski Troop Attack - a 60 minute wartime quickie blending actual staged actors and scenes with bits of stock WWII footage. Surprisingly, given the nature of its production, the film hangs together reasonably well: it has a serviceable plot, something approaching real character dynamics, and a fairly solid structure. The acting is generally unremarkable, the editing and cinematography are entirely average, but for this brand of low-budget Corman quickie Ski Troop Attack remains a decent enough offering.

A five-man reconnaissance unit led by the young and inexperienced Lt. Factor (Michael Forrest) are on patrol in the snow-swept Ardennes Forest in the winter of 1944. Factor is endlessly at odds with his second-in-command, the older, more battle-wearied and bloodthirsty Sgt. Potter (Frank Wolff). Potter has a taste for killing Germans even though the company has strict instructions to monitor the enemy, not engage them in combat. Suddenly, the German army launches an unexpected offensive and Factor finds his small band at the forefront of the action, in a unique position to observe German movements and report back to HQ. Potter is keen to pick a fight with the enemy rather than skulking in the shadows, but Factor is determined to sneak about gathering valuable information about the enemy's strategy. Factor's small unit soon discover that the Germans are moving supplies and equipment along a vital rail route which crosses a high mountain bridge. The bridge is in a narrow mountain pass, very difficult to strike from above with airpower... but from a ground attack it may be possible to destroy it. They plan to sabotage the bridge, but the job is fraught with danger.

Early on in Ski Troop Attack, the script seems to be sowing the seeds of an interesting clash of interests between Lt. Factor and Sgt. Potter, but this character conflict sadly never evolves into anything of note. Wolff if actually quite good as the snarling, cynical Potter (he's by far the one actor who stands out above the others), but he's surrounded by otherwise mediocre performers. The WWII footage is obviously of a different stock to the dramatic scenes, but it is used sparingly and the differences in the grain never become overly distracting. At 60-ish minutes in length, the film is brief enough to keep your attention and is put together with more coherence than, say, some of the other Corman quickies from the period (such as the dire She-Gods Of Shark Reef or Attack Of The Giant Leeches). While it never ates as a first-rate Boys Own behind-enemy-lines flick, Ski Troop Attack remains competent and enjoyable in its simple, unambitious way. Basic B-movie fodder, but not entirely unenjoyable - you could do a lot worse!

Shadow of the Hawk

Disappointing horror flick built around an under-developed background of tribal mumbo-jumbo.
Relatively obscure as it is, I still had modest expectations from Shadow Of The Hawk - there are several positive reviews here on the IMDb, the idea is appealing, and the cast contains two of the unsung workhorses of 70s cinema in Chief Dan George and Jan Michael Vincent. A little part of me hoped that perhaps this might be one of those rare overlooked gems one is lucky enough to unearth from time to time. Sadly, the film does not live up to its potential - it has a couple of highlights, separated by long stretches of tedium; worse, for a horror flick, it commits the cardinal sin of being virtually scare-less for its entire duration.

Mike (Jan Michael Vincent) has half-Indian ancestry, but has forsaken tribal life for a job in the big city as a computer executive. He is visited by his grandfather Old Man Hawk (Cheif Dan George), who wants him to come back to the old tribal community to help him fight the spirit of Dsonoqua, a vengeful old witch-woman who has previous history with Hawk's family. Mike is initially reluctant to turn his back on his high-tech city lifestyle to go chasing ghosts and goblins in the forest. However, a female journalist, Maureen (Marilyn Hassett), persuades him that he really should show enough respect to at least take his grandfather home and check out his claims. Maureen senses there may be a news story somewhere in all this, and that too motivates her. Mike, Hawk and Maureen begin the long, lonesome drive into the woodland but they are threatened by strange events en route. A menacing black car pursues them and forces them off the road; a masked figure continually observes them from the bushes; they are attacked by enchanted snakes and roving bears. As they near the tribal village, Old Man Hawk reveals that he has known Mike will be the one to face down Dsonoqua since he was a young baby. Now is the time for Mike to embrace his tribal roots and defeat the malevolent spirit of the enemy.

The script trips up everyone here, lacking both drive and coherence. George is a wisened old pro, but he looks pretty indifferent here; Vincent was a rising young star at the time of release, but he too looks like his heart isn't really in it. Things are cursorily explained so there is very little interest or suspense in the events. A couple of scenes are neatly done - a snake bites Old Man Hawk while he sleeps; a car crashes into an 'invisible barrier'; a group of eerily masked worshippers emerge from the trees to terrorise Vincent while he stands in an enchanted circle... but these strong moments are separated by such long stretches of dullness that they cannot save the wider film. Too many scenes fizzle out without making much impression, and an air of dispiritedness hangs over the proceedings. 'Dreary' is the most apt description for it - 'Shadow Of A Movie' might have been a better title!

The Mirror Crack'd

Middling Agatha Christie adaptation - should have been better given the considerable talent involved.
Following the all-star Agatha Christie extravaganzas Murder On The Orient Express and Death On The Nile, a similarly impressive cast is assembled for The Mirror Crack'd. The difference this time is that the story is not one of the many Hercule Poirot entries that Christie wrote; instead, it features her 'other' celebrated creation, Miss Marple. One of the main problems with the film is that Miss Marple doesn't really feature enough in the action. She is confined to her home for much of the film, meaning there are long stretches where she is absent from the screen (worse, this makes her ability to solve the murder by piecing together second-hand information, descriptions and accounts very hard to swallow. It's like asking us to believe Sherlock Holmes figured out the Hound of the Baskervilles mystery without going to Dartmoor, without leaving London... heck, without even setting foot outside 221b Baker Street!)

A film crew descends on the small English village of St. Mary Mead. They are there to shoot a costume picture about the times of Queen Elizabeth 1st and Mary, Queen of Scots. The lead role is to be played by Marina Rudd (Elizabeth Taylor), once an international superstar and multi-Oscar-winning actress, now a forgotten face (she gave birth to a mentally retarded baby after contracting German measles during her wartime pregnancy, and subsequently suffered a severe nervous breakdown). Another key role is to be played by Lola Brewster (Kim Novak), a bitchy diva who revels in engaging in a war of words with Marina. Others present include the director, Marina's husband Jason Rudd (Rock Hudson); the producer Marty Fenn (Tony Curtis); Jason's production assistant and possible adulterous partner Ella Zielinsy (Geraldine Chaplin); and a whole entourage of actors and crew. During a pre-shoot party, a local busybody named Heather Babcock (Maureen Bennett) approaches Marina and bores her with a story about how much of a fan she is of her career. Later Heather dies after drinking a poisoned cocktail, possibly intended for Marina. Scotland Yard policeman Dermot Craddock (Edward Fox) arrives to find out whodunit. He calls upon his injured, housebound aunt, Jane Marple (Angela Lansbury), who lives locally, to seek her expertise in uncovering the killer.

Lansbury is great as ever as Miss Marple, though she needed way more screen time than she is given. The verbal sparring between Taylor and Novak is enjoyably done, while Hudson plays Taylor's husband pretty well. Perhaps the best of the supporting performances comes from Fox as the Scotland Yard detective - a deceptively canny policeman who also happens to be a movie buff. Some of the actors are a little wasted, like Curtis, Chaplin and Charles Gray as a butler. The resolution to the mystery is decent enough, with sufficient red herrings thrown in to keep the killer concealed, but the closing scene is rather confused. John Cameron's score has a habit of launching off into an ill-fitting 'sexy' saxophone style which rarely fits the mood of the film, while Guy Hamilton directs it all in ploddingly efficient fashion. Not the best Christie adaptation ever made; nor the worst. A passable entry, but, given the calibre of the talent involved, it could and should have been much better.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

Cheap, boring and frequently inept family "entertainment" – doctors could recommend this movie as a cure for insomnia!
Oh dear! As misguided family movies go, they don't come much more misguided than Santa Claus Conquers The Martians. A meagre budget does not necessarily spell doom for a film (check out some of Mario Bava's films, for instance, which had little money behind them but still emerged pretty good on the whole), but in this case the lack of funding is evident in almost every frame. The whole film is a desperately sad attempt to make a movie for kids and adults to enjoy together – kids are likely to be hugely unimpressed by the lame comedy and boring story, while adults will be depressed by the woeful acting, production values and plot. One critic wrote: "frankly, I am ashamed to be from the same species as the people who made this movie". Which sums it up. Perfectly.

On Mars, the Martian children are acting strangely. They seem lethargic and depressed; Martian leader Kimar (Leonard Hicks) notices that his own kids are especially gloomy, and wonders if their obsession with tuning into Earth TV programmes is affecting them. The Martian leadership council summon a wise old elder to ask what he thinks is wrong with the kids. The elder (Carl Don) says that the Martian kids are not allowed to play, to have fun, to be young-at-heart, etc, and this, coupled with the fact that it is almost Christmas time on Earth, is making them unhappy. By watching so many Earth shows, they are learning all about Santa Claus and festive spirit, and feel like they're missing out. Kimar decides to take a unit of men to Earth to kidnap Santa (John Call) and bring him back to Mars to cheer up the children. They accidentally end up capturing Billy (Victor Stiles) and Betty (Donna Conforti), a couple of Earth children, as well as old Saint Nick himself. Trouble beckons when Martian subordinate Voldar (Vincent Beck), who has been vociferously opposed to the plan from the word go, tries to sabotage the mission by doing harm to Santa and the two Earth children.

The sets wobble and bounce, the outfits look ultra-cheap and unintentionally funny, the make-up is pitiful (towards the end the green Martian make-up must have almost run out as the Martians look nearly white… unless there's a whole racist subtext at work?), and the performances are roundly terrible. Don as the elder is so awful, adopting a croaky drawl which makes him sound like a constipated cockerel, that the audience is reduced to guffaws during his scene. The others fare little better (Stiles and Conforti are wooden as the Earth kids; Call chuckles away inanely as Santa; and Bill McCutheon as comic relief character Dropo is so irritating one wishes one could strangle him and quietly dispose of him in the space garbage!) At least Hicks and Beck try to give interesting performances as bickering Martians, although the dumb dialogue defeats their efforts. Worst of all is the utter deadly dullness of the film. I literally cannot watch this movie in a horizontal position – I attempted to view it twice in bed, and was sound asleep both times within mere minutes. In the end I stood up and watched the movie whilst ironing to make sure I stayed awake. That bad, you ask? You bet ya!

Seven Nights in Japan

Inconsequential story about a forbidden romance - untaxing and easy-to-watch, but never truly absorbing.
Seven Nights In Japan is an old-fashioned romantic drama with a lot of James Bond alumni aboard as cast and crew. The screenwriter is Christopher Wood (The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker); the director is Lewis Gilbert (You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker); and the cast includes Charles Gray (You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever), James Villiers (For Your Eyes Only) and Ann Lonnberg (Moonraker). The film couldn't, however, be further from a Bond film in style - it's all very genteel and leisurely-paced, with an emphasis on the romantic dilemma at its core. A few sequences involving political assassins are thrown in to pad the running time, but these aspects of the film merely come across as half-hearted and rather silly.

Royal tearaway Prince George (Michael York) arrives in Japan aboard a Royal Navy ship. He is a sailor with diplomatic duties and responsibilities to attend to, but has a history of neglecting such frivolities when the mood takes him. Faced with a long and tedious shore leave at the residence of the British Ambassador, Henry Hollander (Charles Gray), George decides he cannot bear such a stay. He sneaks out of the Ambassador's house at night and explore the delights of Tokyo alone, with civilian clothes and dark glasses to keep his identity secret. One evening, he meets a pretty tour guide named Sumi (Hidemi Aoki) and is immediately smitten with her. He returns to meet her again the following night, and soon a bond of love and desire forms between them. Sumi is not aware of George's true identity... together they head off into rural Japan, spending more time together and falling deeper in love as they do so. George begins to have serious doubts about returning to his ship, and contemplates throwing away all his royal privileges for a simple life with this humble Japanese tour guide. Meanwhile, a team of political assassins plot to locate the AWOL Prince and eliminate him.

The notion of a Royal craving a simpler life and having a wild fling - including (shock, horror) sex outside of marriage with a Japanese civilian, no less - was presumably a controversial theme when the film was released in 1976. However, the film doesn't really follow through on its controversial qualities, and instead contents itself with being a standard yarn of forbidden romance. York is fairly wooden as the Prince, though Aoki is sweetly vulnerable as his love interest. The scenes featuring Gray and Villiers - fretting hopelessly about whether the Prince will return in time for the ship's departure - provide some welcome comic relief. The film is beautifully shot by Henri Decae and has a lovely score by the under-used David Hentschel, but the drama is rarely convincing and the ultimate dilemma about which choice York will make - remain a Royal, or forsake it all in the name of love? - never really materialises into anything gripping. You should really care about what happens to these people, but you don't... it simply isn't particularly involving. And, as mentioned earlier, the assassination subplot is a laughable waste of time. Seven Nights is OK for what it is, a light and harmless romantic melodrama... but deeply affecting and heart-wrenching cinema it ain't.


Routine 60s adventure, shot on unusual locations (which helps a little).
Prolific (and oft-ridiculed) British producer Harry Alan Towers is the man behind this typical 60s adventure flick set in a far-flung corner of Africa. The film is full of none-too-convincing attempts at hard boiled dialogue, murky characters who mostly turn out not to be what they seem, and a few decent action sequences shot on actual locations in Mozambique. Photographically it is perfectly acceptable, even quite good in parts (though some of the night-time sequences are so dimly lit it becomes virtually impossible to tell what is going on). It was the final film of Steve Cochran, here given a rare opportunity to play the male lead (he was usual a memorable supporting character-actor... this film finally gives him a shot at the top-billed hero figure, but later that year he died in suspicious circumstances during a yachting holiday off Guatemala, prematurely ending his career and life at the unfortunate age of 48).

Blacklisted pilot Brad Webster (Cochran) is desperately seeking work in various corners of Lisbon, but as the sole survivor of a disastrous airplane crash a few months earlier he is considered unemployable in most circles. Following a bar-room brawl, he winds up in jail... but the local Commandant, Commaro (Paul Hubscmid), springs him from behind bars and offers him a job opportunity. The job involves going to the African colony of Mozambique and work as a bush pilot for someone named Valdez. If he refuses, he will go to jail for quite some time. Webster heads off to Mozambique, befriending fellow 'last-chance-saloon' passenger Christina (Vivi Bach) on the flight down to the African country. Upon arriving, Webster learns that Valdez is dead and he will be working for the odious Da Silva (Martin Benson) instead, although the job remains essentially the same. Valdez's widow, Ilona (Hildegard Knef), despises Da Silva and is bitter at the fact her husband never left a will, meaning she cannot lay claim to any of the sizable fortune she believes she is entitled to. Further skulduggery is provided by the mysterious Henderson (Dietmar Shonherr), who, like Valdez and Da Silva, seems to have his finger in a number of unsavoury pies. Webster finds himself flying unofficial clandestine flights aiding Da Silva and Henderson in some kind of drug-smuggling racket, but the more he probes the more he discovers this is only the tip of a dangerous iceberg.

Cochran seems too old for the leading role, but Schonherr and Benson make for an agreeably slimy pair of villains. Knef is rather wasted as the enigmatic female lead, either an embittered widow or a scheming femme fatale, while Bach as the romantic female lead is pretty hopeless. The location work is good, though, and provides the film with a bit of unusual local flavour. The final action sequence - which borrows the old Hitchcock trick of basing the excitement at a well- known location (in this case, Victoria Falls) - is actually rather well-done, and is easily the best thing about the film. Mozambique is a routine 60s film, typical of its type and the kind of movie where there's little of it left in your memory the day after you watch it... but it passes the time harmlessly enough whilst on.

Savage Pampas

Sex-starved soldiers lose morale… unusual western, boosted by a unique location and refreshing plot angles.
In 1966 the western genre was pretty tired – only the Italians, with their stylistic spaghetti westerns, were finding new angles to keep the genre fresh. American westerns were becoming thinner on the ground, and those that did still get made were often entirely routine. It would be the sprightly caperish-ness of Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid and the slow-motion violence of The Wild Bunch a few years later which would briefly reinvigorate the Hollywood horse opera. An unusual film from this era is Savage Pampas, which is more of a semi-western than a fully-fledged western. Co-written and directed by Hugo Fregonese, it is an American-Spanish-Argentinian co-production set on the pampas of 19th century Argentina. Maybe the best label for it would be a "southern"?

At an army outpost in Argentina commanded by the ball-busting Captain Martin (Robert Taylor), the soldiers consist of a number of ex-cons, fugitives and desperadoes. For several years they have been locked in conflict with bandits and hostile Indians. All the while, the army soldiers have been kept away from women. Morale is low among the sex-starved soldiers, and many are deserting to the side of the bandits where they are promised women and pleasures of the flesh. Martin realises that urgent changes are needed and arranges for a number of women – whores and ne'er-do-wells – to be brought into the camp to satisfy his remaining men. The women have to be transported across miles of perilous terrain, personally accompanied by Martin and some of his best soldiers. The journey is fraught with danger, and the men and women undertaking find themselves unexpectedly developing mutual respect – love, even – as they go.

Savage Pampas is intriguing for its very unusual plot threads – an examination of the effect celibacy on fighting men; temptations of the flesh; the fragility of morale; primitive attitudes towards women, etc. The film is handsomely shot, with some very good-looking panoramic sequences. There is action and violence in spurts, some of it is surprisingly hard-edged for 1966, though at other times the film is relatively sombre and slow-moving. Taylor holds it together well enough, playing a John Wayne-like authority role (he even drawls his lines like the Duke!) Waldo de los Rios provides a flavoursome score which adds to the rich South-'o'-the-Border atmosphere. Overall Savage Pampas is a smooth and watchable flick – it does not deserve to have fallen into relative obscurity.

Attack of the Giant Leeches

Laughable 50s sci-fi cheapie... little to recommend to general viewers, but genre addicts may find some charm in it.
Shot over eight days on a super-low budget - with brothers Gene and Roger Corman as producer and executive producer respectively - Attack Of The Giant Leeches is a typical 50s sci-fi cheapie. The 50s was awash with films like this, brief and often absurd time-fillers made to capitalise on Cold War fears. Here, rocket activity in the Cape Canaveral area is blamed for mutated leeches which grow to human size and drag unsuspecting local yokels into the swamp. Well, it's a plot… of sorts.

Local poacher Lem Sawyer (George Cisar) stumbles across a large creature quite unlike anything he has ever seen whilst wandering through swampland in the Florida Everglades. He shoots the creature several times. Later, adulterous woman Liz Walker (Yvette Vickers) and her secret lover Cal (Michael Emmett) are having one of their romantic trysts out in the swamp when Liz's husband Dave (Bruno VeSota) shows up. Dave chases the pair of them with a gun, planning to shake them up good, but to his horror he instead witnesses them being dragged into the swamp by one of the gigantic creatures shot at by Lem at the start of the film. No-one believes Dave when he tries to tell them what happened – everyone assumes he killed them in a fit of rage, and has concocted the story about the creatures to get himself off the hook. Later, some more locals searching for the missing bodies also go missing, and game warden Steve Benton (Ken Clark) heads into the swamp in search of answers. He discovers a pair of human-sized, blood-sucking leeches hiding in an underwater cave, feeding off the blood of the human victims they have dragged away from the water's edge.

Cheap, stupid and generally laughable, Attack Of The Giant Leeches is a pretty weak offering in all departments. Much of it is shot in such glum colour that the action is difficult to see. The acting is wooden at best, and the dialogue often borders on the downright ridiculous. It's a surprise to learn the script is by TV and film character actor Leo Gordon, who appeared in countless westerns in the 50s, 0s and 70s. Alexander Laszlo's score is a weird jingling and jangling of instruments which sounds almost as if it's being improvised on the spot. If nothing else the film is extremely short, its running time coming in around the hour mark. It may be nonsense but at least it's brief nonsense. No-one in their right mind would seriously recommend Attack Of The Giant Leeches, but if you're an addict of these low budget 50s sci-fi B-movies you may find some charm in it.

Fortress of the Dead

Tedious bloodcurdler which could have been eerie and genuinely scary. Sadly it fudges its opportunities rather badly.
I saw this film at a film festival, where the programme notes enthusiastically declared it "a gem" and urged patrons at the events to "try to make the time to see it". I was quite excited about giving it a look; these obscurities which are considered long-lost gems usually have a certain appeal. Sadly, in reality the film did not live up to the rather glowing appraisal given in the programme. It could have been a good little chiller had the handling been better, but unfortunately it is nowhere near as effective, eerie or entertaining as it had the potential to be. "A gem" it ain't!

American Frank (John Hackett) returns to the Phillipines 20 years after being involved in combat action at Corregidor. He is greeted by his old friend Joe (Conrad Parham) who urges him to stay permanently, although Frank seems reluctant to agree to the suggestion. In fact, it isn't long before Frank starts behaving quite irrationally, experiencing pangs of chronic panic and traumatic memories. Joe knows that Frank was involved in something pretty unpleasant during the Battle Of Corregidor near the end of WWII, and urges him to return to the scene to beat his demons. Frank heads over to the island, now overgrown with jungle scrub and dotted with eerie ruins of long-abandoned army barracks. We learn that Frank was a member of a 38-man unit which was hit by intense shelling during the fighting. 37 of the company were trapped underground when their building collapsed upon them; Frank was the only one to avoid being entombed. Knowing he should have gone to get help for his trapped comrades, he instead panicked and refused to go out into the open in search of assistance. By the time reinforcements arrived, the 37 buried men had suffocated to death and Frank was the sole survivor of the incident. Whilst returning to the scene of the disaster, Frank becomes increasingly obsessed with the idea that somehow he cheated fate all those years ago, that his true destiny was either to save his friends or to die alongside them. Sensing that their ghosts still prowl the ruined compound in search of some kind of closure, he decides he must find a way to put right his wrong… or die trying.

The setting of the story – a ruined military compound with jungle encroaching on all sides, overgrown parade grounds, smashed and windowless buildings, echoing deserted corridors – is actually very good. It lends the film a tangible atmosphere of gloom and eeriness. Plus the plot itself, exploring how one man carries 20 years of guilt and despair around with him in the wake of a fatal mistake, has plenty of potential. Unfortunately, the film makes nothing of its opportunities. As Frank wanders around the dark corridors of the abandoned fortress, chasing ghostly footsteps and the unseen spirits of his long-dead comrades, there are many moments where a 'jump' cut should have been used: the sudden appearance of a ghostly face, a spectral hand on the shoulder, a fleeting phantom materialising from the shadows, anything really which would have set one's nerves a-jitter. But almost every opportunity to give the audience a good, old-fashioned shock comes to naught. The whole film meanders along tediously, failing time and again to deliver the goods despite solid build-up work. I loathe remakes on the whole, but if ever a film needed remaking it's this one – there are sufficient good ideas here to warrant a new and improved version of the same tale. The handling lets things down badly; Fortress Of The Dead could have been a good movie, but the fact is that it falls frustratingly short.

The Musketeer

A swashbuckler/martial arts hybrid which is so busy trying to serve up spectacular action that it badly fumbles everything else.
Hmmm... an attempt to combine swordplay with martial arts, a period swashbuckler from French literature with a Hong Kong style of action film-making. An odd fusion of influences, for sure. Many viewers will be turned off by the idea even before the credits roll, but I wanted to give the film a chance before judging it. Alas, this is one of those occasions where the mocking critics are proved right - The Musketeer is a huge disappointment, a dispiriting romp singularly lacking in wit, entertainment or any sense of meaningful narrative. It avoids a one-star rating simply because a couple of action sequences are interestingly choreographed and Tim Roth is good as a vile villain. On every other level the film is an abject failure.

Raised by former musketeer Plachet (Jean-Pierre Castaldi) following the murder of his parents, D'Artagnan (Justin Chambers) grows up dreaming of becoming a musketeer himself. Unfortunately, by the time he is old enough and skilled enough to go to Paris to fulfil his dream, the musketeers have been disbanded by the scheming Cardinal Richlieu (Steven Rea). Richlieu is busily manipulating events in France, trying to create uneasy tensions between his own country and Britain and Spain, with help from his sinister one-eyed henchmen Febre (Tim Roth). Febre is the same villain who killed D'Artagnan's parents, and his blind eye is a direct result of an injury inflicted upon him by D'Artagnan as a boy. D'Artagnan manages to persuade some ex-musketeers to rise up and fight back against the political plotters controlling the country. Eventually, Febre becomes so drunk with power and bloodlust that even Cardinal Richlieu realises that he cannot control him, so he asks D'Artagnan and the musketeers to stop him. With the life of the Queen (Catherine Deneuve) and a young chambermaid (Mena Suvari) at stake, D'Artagnan attempts one last desperate bid to destroy Febre in his lair.

The cast is an impressive one: Rea, Deneuve, Castaldi, Suvari - plus other faces like Nick Moran and Michael Byrne - are all established actors with a good body of work in their back catalogue. Alas, they are almost entirely wasted here - Gene Quinatno's hopelessly muddled script gives them nothing to do, since it's only interested in filling the gaps in as cursory a manner as possible between the action set-pieces. Only Roth does anything remotely three-dimensional with his character. It's peculiarly hard to follow what's going on much of the time, since all scenes involving exchanges of dialogue are clumsily fumbled. The fight choreography is at least pretty good, even if it does look rather amiss in a period swashbuckler like this. The climax, involving an elaborate series of stunts on ladders, is the highlight. Overall, though, The Musketeer is one big, unwieldy mess which never catches fire as a piece of entertainment.

Blood Simple

Startlingly good debut from the Coen Brothers - twisted, enthralling and ingenious.
There are two versions of the Coen Brothers' debut film Blood Simple – the theatrical print, plus a director's cut version which, curiously enough, is several minutes SHORTER than the other version. The Coens' director's cut is tightened up in terms of editing and includes a few sections of altered soundtrack - but in truth, they haven't improved what was already a very fine movie… thankfully they haven't worsened it either. And in either of its editions – whether it be the longer theatrical cut or the director's cut - it is still a film which oozes class.

Seedy Texan bar owner Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya, never better) is convinced that his pretty young wife Abby (Frances McDormand) is having an affair. He hires sleazy private dick Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to find out if he's right and, sure enough, Visser soon discovers Abby spending a night of passion in a roadside motel with one of Marty's bartenders, Ray (John Getz). Visser even gets a number of photographs of the lovers in compromising positions, just to prove what he has discovered. Later, burning with jealousy and hatred, Marty offers Visser $10,000 if he will kill the adulterous lovers. It is here where Blood Simple suddenly stops being a standard thriller about treachery and murder, and steps into a wickedly warped world of its own. To say more about the plot would be to give away some of the most cunning and well- crafted twists seen at the movies in many a long year. Let it be sufficient to say that every character finds themselves progressively sinking deeper into their own web of scheming and counter-scheming. Double crosses take place; murdered people turn out to be still alive; erroneous assumptions are made about who is out to harm who.

What makes Blood Simple so fascinating is the way it tangles cause and consequence with such ingenuity, creating a plot that is at once cunningly complicated yet simple to understand. A number of actors give career-best performances, notably Hedaya, Getz and Walsh. The latter especially is brilliantly memorable as the slimy, unscrupulous, maniacally giggling private eye whose moral compass is about as far off- centre as it's possible to get. McDormand is excellent too, as the main female character, who may – according to various moments of deliberate story disorientation – be either a femme fatale or an innocent victim of circumstance. Carter Burwell's evocative score adds to the atmosphere, while Barry Sonnenfeld provides fabulous cinematography (several years before becoming a director himself, of such titles as Men In Black and Get Shorty). The dialogue crackles thanks to the Coens' wonderful script, with Joel himself taking the lone directing duties and turning in a masterclass of suspense and unpredictability. The only flaw – an extremely minor one at that – is the inclusion of a couple of thriller clichés. Most prominent among these is the way these films always seem to feel compelled to incorporate a 'shock' nightmare sequence… and Blood Simple is no different, injecting a not-very-necessary scene towards the end where a dead character turns up in a dream to spook one of the others. Otherwise, the film skilfully avoids clichés, emerging a supremely absorbing, well-made and confident debut from two men who have spent the thirty years since giving us one brilliant film after another. If someone, somewhere, told the Coens to "start as you mean to go on", they certainly did just that, hitting the heights at the first time of asking with this quite wonderful little thriller.

The Creeping Flesh

Interesting and well-handled, if slightly flawed, horror from the folks at Tigon.
Freddie Francis finds himself working for Tigon on the ambitious, albeit flawed, horror opus The Creeping Flesh. It's always fun to see Cushing and Lee working together and this is no exception, although it's fair to say that they don't get enough shared screen time in this particular film. Nevertheless, The Creeping Flesh is an extremely interesting and well-made offering. Ultimately it bites off more than it can chew, but there's still plenty of enjoyment to be had from a viewing of it.

Victorian scientist Emmanuel Hildern (Cushing) returns from New Guinea with the skeletal remains of a humanoid creature. His excitement about the creature is tempered somewhat when he discovers his wife has died while he has been away. Not that their relationship was a normal one anyway – Mrs Hildern had been put into a lunatic asylum run by Emmanuel's brother, James (Christopher Lee), on account of her unquenchable sexual appetite. Furthermore, Emmanuel's daughter, Penelope (Lorna Heilbron), has no idea that her mother has been locked away, believing that she died years ago. Whilst examining the skeleton, Emmanuel discovers if it comes into contact with water its flesh and blood cells are able to regenerate. In other words, the skeleton can regrow flesh when wet. Believing the creature may be the 'Evil One' mentioned in the ancient prophecies of the tribes of New Guinea, Emmanuel decides to investigate further. He discovers strange cells in the creature's biological make-up and concludes they may be a germ-like form of evil, suggesting that evil itself is a virus like any other, as easy to 'catch' as a common cold. Emmanuel attempts to use the cells to create a vaccine against evil. He tests it on his daughter, believing that she may need to be protected in order to prevent her from turning out like her mother. Alas, his tests have the opposite effect and soon Penelope becomes a dangerous murderess intent on luring others to their death. Meanwhile, James plots to steal the New Guinean skeleton for himself… but makes the mistake of attempting to spirit it away during a rainstorm.

As one can see, there's an awful lot going on in The Creeping Flesh considering that it is merely a 94 minute horror film. We have brotherly rivalry and betrayal; messed-up family politics; tribal prophecies; a flesh-growing monster; and the radical concept of evil as a contagious illness rather than an immoral mind-set. Where The Creeping Flesh comes undone somewhat is in its doomed effort to tie so many disparate components together into a coherent whole.Fortunately, the good points outweigh the flaws, resulting in a film that is worth watching in spite of any weaknesses. Flawed it may well be, but The Creeping Flesh still has much to admire. It takes a while to click into gear, biding its time in setting up the main 'evil-on-the-loose' story thread. However, once the consequences of Emmanuel's experimentations become clear - with Penelope going on a murderous rampage - things become exciting and compelling. Plus, of course, running alongside this thread we have the scheme hatched by Lee's character to steal the creature, not realising the potentially catastrophic result of taking it outside in the rain. With its steady but intriguing build-up, disturbing apocalyptic ending and plenty of atmospheric chills in between, The Creeping Flesh is a film that undeniably rewards patient viewing.

Il ratto delle sabine

Fairly feeble peplum entry - of curiosity interest for its unexpected leading man.
Pre-stardom Roger Moore is preposterously cast as Romulus, the founder of Rome, in this enjoyably awful peplum made by a largely Italian cast and crew. It's quite something to witness Moore - skinny-armed, skinny- legged and curly-haired – issuing orders to massed ranks of horny Roman citizens as they plead with him to allow women into their lives. The film is undoubtedly cheap and feeble stuff… but there's a degree of innocent charm to be found in some of these old sword 'n' sandal offerings, especially ones which feature a future superstar in a role which will one day come back to haunt him. Romulus And The Sabines (or whatever title you know it by, for it has many… Rape Of The Sabines, L'Enlevement Des Sabines, El Rapto De Las Sabinas, etc. etc.) is definitely amusing on a curiosity level – if you are a collector of Moore's movies, for instance, this long-lost obscurity is an irresistible hoot.

As the story begins, Rome is little more than a village under the early stages of construction by various fugitives, travellers and vagabonds – all of them male - who have chosen to swear allegiance to King Romulus (Roger Moore). After months of hard toil, the men are growing weary and disillusioned. In particular, they long for women to be brought into their lives and rightly point out that their efforts will be for nought if no babies are being born to populate their newly built kingdom. Reluctantly, Romulus agrees to submit to their demands and asks Titus (Folco Lulli) - king of the neighbouring kingdom of Sabinia - if he will donate some of his women for marriage to the men of Rome. Titus refuses and instead sends a cartload of pigs to the Romans, greatly angering them. But Romulus comes up with another plan, to kidnap the Sabine women by force and bring them back to Rome to repopulate the rapidly expanding nation. Things are complicated further when Romulus finds himself falling desperately in love with Rhea (Mylène Demongeot) a vestal virgin and daughter of King Titus. Meanwhile, the Sabinian soldiers prepare to attack Rome and free their women… but the question is: do the women truly want to be rescued?

There is some incredibly banal dialogue in the film at times. "Hey! There's no need to pull my hair!" declares a Sabine girl, rather prissily, as a Roman attempts to drag her away from her home and family forever. "She's a vestal virgin, Romulus. We have consecrated her to the Gods", warns Rhea's mother as he lecherously ogles the young princess. "Why didn't you consecrate her to the SONS of the Gods?" Romulus ruefully retorts, referring to his self-proclaimed title as the son of Mars. The whole film is stuffed with similarly over-ripe exchanges. Some of the crowd scenes and battle sequences betray the film's ultra-low budget, but there are a handful of decent moments amid the morass – the kidnapping of the Sabine women is enjoyably handled, and the climactic clash between the Sabinians and Romans (prematurely aborted at the discovery of a baby's birth which unites the bloodline of both kingdoms) is competently done. In other aspects the film is something of an embarrassment, especially its cringeworthy attempts to inject humour via a short-sighted Roman ambassador whose visual impairment results in numerous zany pratfalls. Overall, there can be no serious argument that Romulus And The Sabines has genuine artistic merit, nor that it is a neglected gem, but strictly on a curiosity level it has a degree of charm and interest.

Just You and Me, Kid

Mismatched duo become friends against the odds… familiar odd-couple yarn, harmlessly done.
Wouldn't we all like to be blessed with the longevity of George Burns? The actor lived to the rip old age of 100 and remained a picture of health almost up to the point of his death from cardiac arrest. Here he looks sprightly and mischievous at the age of 83, in an offbeat comedy- drama from writer-director Leonard Stern. "A tale of two juvenile delinquents" announced the theatrical poster, the other 'delinquent' being teenaged newcomer Brooke Shields, playing a young runaway orphan sheltered by octogenarian Burns from a drug-pusher.

Bill Grant (George Burns) is an old vaudeville performer still dining- out on memories of glory-days-which-never-quite-were. He lives alone in a large house, and sticks to a series of tried-and-trusted daily routines which infuriate his daughter Shirl (Lorraine Gary) and son-in- law Harris (Nicholas Coaster). One of Bill's many daily duties is to visit his old friend Max (Burl Ives), wasting away in vegetative silence in a home for the elderly. One day, Bill discovers a naked teenager named Kate (Brooke Shields) hiding in the trunk of his car. He takes her home and, bit by bit, pieces together that she is an orphan from a troubled background who has wound up working for small-time drug-pusher Demesta (William Russ). After stealing a small fortune from him, Kate is now on the run. An unlikely friendship forms between the lonely old man and the endangered young kid, but there's many a misunderstanding to overcome (not least being the suspicions of Bill's neighbours that he is some sort of dirty old, pervert keeping the girl against her will) before everything is resolved.

The film has an air of staginess about it, with much of the action taking place at the single location of Burns' house. Occasional scenes are based elsewhere, but other than that one could easily imagine this being sourced from a stage play (which, surprisingly enough, it isn't). Burns is very much the focal character – he has the best lines, the most interesting back-story, and the most natural charm of the main characters. Shields bounces off him nicely, even if her character is often less than likable. By the two-thirds point, the story has pretty much run its course and things limp rather blandly to a predictable and totally 'pat' conclusion, but during its early stages the film is easy- going fun.

There's nothing in Just You And Me, Kid to compel you to watch it… but neither is there any reason to deliberately avoid it. Best summed up as harmless fluff.

The Girl from Petrovka

Odd-couple romance with a refreshingly unusual locale. Better than its rotten reputation suggests.
A love story based on a novel by George Feifer, The Girl From Petrovka doesn't totally work but it doesn't totally fail either. The unfamiliar backdrop of Cold War-era Moscow - where paranoia and secrecy could be the difference between free life or a stint in a Siberian labour camp – adds something new and interesting to an otherwise familiar 'odd-couple' romance. The film benefits too from good performances, especially Hal Holbrook as the male lead, Goldie Hawn as the female lead, and Anthony Hopkins as a secretive wheeler-dealer who is a friend to them both. There is a remarkable story about Hopkins' role in the film which goes like this. When he learned he had got the part, he spent a day trawling through the second-hand bookshops of London in search of the original George Feifer novel which he wanted to read to get a better idea of the character. His search proved unsuccessful so he headed to the railway station to catch a train home… and there, on a seat, lay a discarded copy of the very book he had been looking for. More extraordinary still, when he opened it he discovered it had Feifer's name inside, and was a personal copy the author had mislaid some years earlier!

American journalist Joe (Hal Holbrook) is a correspondent in Russia during the Cold War. Mourning the recent death of his wife, he decides to sell her belongings and asks his friend Kostya (Anthony Hopkins) to help him find a buyer. While selling off the things at a sort of unofficial bric-a-brac sale, Joe meets beautiful and mysterious ballerina Oktyabrina (Goldie Hawn). Oktyabrina lives in Moscow illegally, without the necessary papers, and runs the continual risk of being captured and sent to a labour camp by the authorities. Despite this, she is a vivacious and free-spirited individual whose carefree breeziness quickly attracts Joe. Beneath the façade, though, her personality proves a conundrum – outwardly warm yet privately stand- offish; eager to love yet simultaneously afraid of it. Eventually they do fall in love, but their relationship draws unwanted attention and leads to an unhappy outcome for the young ballerina.

Nicely scored by Henry Mancini and grandly shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, the film is pleasant fare despite its rather lowly critical reputation. Holbrook is more of a character-actor than a leading man, and certainly not your typical romantic lead… nevertheless he is very good as the lonely and cynical reporter living in a place and a manner far removed from home. Hawn is surprisingly good too as the freewheeling ballerina, a rare serious role for her (complete with decent accent). Sometimes the script is a little hard to follow, especially since the ultra-secret and paperwork-obsessed aspect of Russian life depicted here altered dramatically when the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War came to an end. One can't help but suspect some familiarity with the book - or, at least, a detailed grasp of communist policies and lifestyles at that time - might be necessary for the viewer to fully appreciate the finer points of several scenes. The film's downbeat climax certainly packs an emotional wallop, however… and overall it provides a diverting couple of hours' viewing. A likable curiosity.

De Sade

A wholly unerotic, unstimulating depiction of the dying fantasies of its disreputable title character.
Considering that it is penned by the late, great Richard Matheson and directed by Cy Endfield (of Zulu fame), with additional scenes helmed by Roger Corman, the credentials seem to be in place for De Sade to be a rather fascinating movie. The talent behind the camera is more than matched in front of it too, with a cast of some distinction including Keir Dullea, John Huston, Lilli Palmer and Senta Berger. Despite the promising elements, alas, the film is an absolute damp squib. It fails as art, it fails as exploitation; and as entertainment it offers virtually nothing. The film doesn't so much miss an opportunity as collapse with scarcely a whimper.

Fugitive the Marquis De Sade (Keir Dullea) seeks refuge at his ancestral home, where he is persuaded to watch a bizarre play arranged for his entertainment by his uncle, the Abbe (John Huston). The play depicts a distorted recount of the Marquis's own life, and is intercut with his own fragmentary flashbacks to his earlier life and debaucheries. Much is made of the De Sade's uneasy link to Madame De Montreuil (Lilli Palmer), mother of two daughters, both of whom have relationships with the young Marquis. He reluctantly marries the eldest sister, Renee (Anna Massey), even though he finds her dull and plain and lusts much more openly after her younger sister Anne (Senta Berger). De Sade mistreats Renee horribly, and is involved in debauchery after debauchery, orgy after orgy, scandal after scandal; bringing great shame upon the family and earning himself a reputation as a debased and depraved individual.

So, where does a film about such a potentially intriguing subject go so horribly wrong? The blame can be apportioned quite evenly – first comes Matheson's script: a dreadful mess which attempts, unsuccessfully, to evoke a nightmarish dream, fragmented memories of a dying man. Second is the lacklustre performance of Dullea as the title character, a crashing bore as interpreted by the actor (he is totally upstaged by everyone around him, particularly Palmer). And thirdly, the attempts to inject permissive, orgiastic and titillating excesses – sex and depravity chief amongst them – are woefully unconvincing. Dullea romps beneath the bedsheets with several women at once, pouring wine into their mouths while gorging on grapes, but the overwhelming impression one gets is of something utterly unerotic and unstimulating. The character looks more like a 'Jack the Lad' - a 'swinger' for want of a better word – than a dangerous and perverted corrupter of young souls. The film is at least richly photographed, with lavish sets and costumes, but these touches do not save it. They merely nudge it a notch or two above the dreaded one- star rating that it would otherwise deserve. Whichever way you look at it De Sade is a notable failure, a film as forgotten and obscure as it deserves to be,

Calendar Girls

Safe, schematic feel-good story - slickly done and easy-to-watch, though entirely unremarkable.
The true story of a group of Yorkshire women who try to raise funds in memory of one their husbands, taken too soon by leukaemia, forms the basis for Calendar Girls. The real-life women were members of a small regional branch of the Women's Institute and decided to create a nude calendar rather than the usual postcard-style pictures of churches and bridges in the local area. The calendar was an unprecedented success, raising hundreds of thousands of pounds and becoming a symbol of hope and inspiration for people affected by terminal illnesses In this version, certain character names and locations are altered and a subplot is added about a breakdown in the relationship of the two main characters behind the creation of the calendar. Overall, though, the film tries to tell the story quite truthfully in that typically subtle British way where 'low-key' is prioritised over 'bombastic', and the humour is all very polite and well-mannered rather than coarse and OTT.

The Women's Institute of Knapely is a small community group attended by a number of rural Yorkshire-women. Chris Harper (Helen Mirren) and Annie Clarke (Julie Walters) are regulars, although they often find the group meetings somewhat dull. The group chairwoman Marie (Geraldine James) sticks to her rigidly 'proper' style of running the group, disapproving of anything that might seem controversial or out of the ordinary. The group's latest plans centre on the forthcoming Christmas calendar, which will be yet another collection of pretty local landscapes. Following the death of Annie's husband John (John Alderton) from leukaemia, she and Chris decide to raise funds to buy a sofa to commemorate his passing. They suggest presenting the forthcoming calendar as a series of nude photos of themselves and, despite initial scepticism, manage to persuade ten other women to join the cause. The inevitable reservations about whether what they are doing is arty or sleazy soon come to the fore. Against all expectations, the calendar is a runaway success and the lives of the women involved are changed beyond all recognition. They go overnight from unassuming rural housewives to the toast of the country; and the media is quick to descend upon them in the eager search for a feel-good story. The women are even invited to Hollywood. But with this new-found fame and celebrity comes a strain on their friendship which threatens to change some things for the worse…

Calendar Girls is one of those very safe, very schematic films which knows exactly what the audience expects and delivers it with complete efficiency. It isn't ground-breaking, it isn't an emotional tour-de- force, it isn't an earth-shattering cinematic experience – but then it's not a film that was seeking to be any of those things in the first place. The aim here is simply to recount an inspiring true story with warmth and humour. On that level alone, the film does exactly what it says on the tin. Mirren and Walters provide fine foil for each other as the leads, with reliable support from an ensemble of British talent including the likes of Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie, Annette Crosbie, Ciaran Hinds and Philip Glenister. Directed with workmanlike efficiency by Nigel Cole, the film was budgeted at around $10 million and had a worldwide gross in the region of $100 million. A very respectable profit indeed for a small film about some lumpy, bumpy women from North Yorkshire whipping their kits off for a charity calendar.

One Million Years B.C.

Reasonably enjoyable caveman flick, easily the best of Hammer's forays into the 'prehistoric man' sub-genre.
"People did not live in the days of the dinosaurs. You must realise that the picture is being made for entertainment, not for professors…. I think one has to accept that licence with an 'entertainment picture', because it's not supposed to be a documentary," declared Ray Harryhausen. Before this film, dinosaurs in movies were created by shooting lizards in close-up, with extra body-bits glued onto them to create the desired effect. Here, Harryhausen uses his considerable talent as a stop-motion animator to create numerous monsters of the past, including an allosaurus, brontosaurus, ceratosaurus, triceratops and pterodactyl.

One Million Years B.C follows the adventures of a caveman named Tumak (John Richardson). The son of a tribe leader, he is banished from his tribe following a fight with his father over a piece of meat. He wanders alone into the wilderness and encounters various strange creatures, before eventually stumbling across a more advanced tribe who have developed things like music, painting, jewellery-making and agriculture. He is welcomed by these new people and lives among them, quickly catching the eye of a cavegirl named Loana (Raquel Welch). Meanwhile back at Tumak's birth tribe, his father is overthrown as leader by the ruthless Sakana (Percy Herbert), Tumak's treacherous brother. Tumak is forced to leave his new tribe after attempting to steal a spear, and is joined on his wanderings by Loana (who has fallen in love with him). They have various adventures before eventually making it back to Tumak's native home. Upon discovering what has happened during his absence, Tumak challenges his brother for leadership of the tribe. The final battle is interrupted by a massive volcanic eruption which wipes out many of the people in its path.

The film is the best of the series, helped along by a solid performance from Richardson as the adventurous caveman and Harryhausen's sterling work in the effects department. Welch is on hand to provide the 'eye- candy' while Martine Beswick provides extra sex appeal as an animalistic girl from Tumak's tribe. Also worthy of note is the score by Mario Nascimbene, a beautiful blend of siren-like wailing and clashing cymbals, reminiscent of the operatic music of the spaghetti westerns. It's probably the best score of the entire prehistoric series. On a more negative note, One Million Years B.C. is the ugliest of the films at a photographic level. Despite promising Canary Islands locations, there is something unattractive about the cinematography and the film's poor use of colour. The story structure also becomes a little wearisome towards the end; an endless cycle of walking around – dinosaur attack – walking around – dinosaur attack – walking around – dinosaur attack. Overall, though, this is a good film with enough going for it to make its weaknesses forgivable. Is it the best film Hammer made? No… but it is a lot of fun, and Harryhausen's contributions alone make it worthwhile. We all know it's bogus as history and repetitive as a story, but One Million Years B.C. works well as what it was intended - that is: wild, sexy, adventure-filled entertainment.

Lay the Favorite

Extremely poor, often incomprehensible and feebly characterised filmed version of an interesting true story.
Director Stephen Frears and star Bruce Willis seem to demonstrate an uncanny gift for inconsistency. Frears' work ranges from the sublime (Dangerous Liaisons, My Beautiful Launderette, The Grifters) to the ridiculous (Accidental Hero, Mary Reilly). Likewise, Willis frequently lurches from the terrific to the terrible – every Die Hard is cancelled out by a Hudson Hawk; every Pulp Fiction spawns a Color Of Night. Given the involvement of Frears and Willis, one would be right to anticipate only two possible outcomes for Lay The Favorite – it's either going to be very good or very bad. Sadly, in this case the film falls into the very bad category. It can't just be chalked down as another dud in the Bruce Willis canon either – a number of other good actors sink with this ship, including Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joshua Jackson and Vince Vaughn.

Tallahassee lap-dancer Beth Raymer (Rebecca Hall) wants to change her life so, with the blessing of her father (Corbin Bernsen), she heads off to Las Vegas to seek work as a cocktail waitress. Her American dream doesn't turn out quite the way she planned, and pretty soon Beth finds herself desperate for whatever employment she can find (as long as it doesn't involve getting naked). Enter professional gambler Dink Heimowitz (Bruce Willis). Dink bets on anything and everything, placing tens of thousands of dollars per day on various sporting outcomes. Such is the extent of his gambling that he requires a team of lackeys to man the phones in his office. After displaying an unexpected knack for numbers, Beth is given the chance to work for Dink's organisation. She is quickly seduced by this lifestyle of high risk and instant fortune. The rest of the film traces Beth's adventure in the pro-gambling profession. She falls in and out of love with Dink; has various run-ins with Dink's savage-tongued wife Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones); falls for a sensible and well-organised New York journalist named Jeremy (Joshua Jackson); is fired and re-hired several times by Dink; and ultimately ends up working for highly unscrupulous New York bookie Rosie (Vince Vaughn), who puts her in charge of the Curacao limb of his illegal gambling racket.

From a quick scan of the plot synopsis, there's no obvious reason for the film to fail. It has a strong cast, an eventful storyline, and is set in the fascinating world of pro-gambling. The components are certainly in place for a good movie, so where does it all go so horribly wrong? The biggest drawback is the character of Beth, presented in the script as a totally brainless bimbo. Every now and then she displays a moment of sudden ingenuity which rings completely untrue. The entire story is about Beth (she IS the story, in effect) yet is by far the most irritating character in it. Having said that, none of the actors really seem to be firing on all cylinders. Willis seems jaded, Vaughn merely rehashes his loud and brash comedy routine for the umpteenth time, and Jackson gets a boring role and looks bored playing it. Zeta-Jones has slightly more to get her teeth into as the sharp-tongued rich bitch Tulip (some viewers might get a kick out of hearing her screech the C- word at her long suffering husband), but later in the film her character mellows out somewhat and quickly loses her appeal as a result. It seems ironic that Zeta-Jones chose this of all films to return to screen acting after a three year hiatus… can this really be the best offer that came along? The incomprehensible gambling jargon makes many scenes all but impossible to follow. Worse still, the plot never builds to a dramatic conflict worth caring about. Things just amble around meaninglessly for an hour and a half or so, then the film ends. Overall, Lay The Favorite is a waste of time and talent. The book upon which it is based (Lay The Favorite: A Memoir of Gambling) by the real Beth Raymer is reportedly a rather fascinating read. If that's the case, put your chips on the book… because the film is an utter donkey.

The Godfather: Part II

A remarkable epic crime movie, utterly compelling as a sequel though it requires some knowledge of the previous movie to fully enjoy it.
The Godfather: Part II has the rare distinction of being a sequel that is equal to, possibly even greater than, its predecessor. Indeed, it is one of the finest films ever made, a gangster picture that manages to be epic in scope as well as length, showcasing a number of brilliant performances and proving that, for all the fancy special effects in the world, nothing beats a truly compelling story. The only thing to bear in mind is that The Godfather: Part II relies heavily on a knowledge of the previous film – it is not one of those follow-ups that can be watched out of sequence with any hope of grasping what is going on. 'Sequel' might be the wrong word actually, as the film is divided into two sections, one continuing the story of the Corleone crime family from where it left off at the end of Part I, the other acting as a turn-of- the-century prequel, showing the rise of Vito Corleone from orphaned Sicilian immigrant to powerful Mob boss. In effect, The Godfather: Part II is therefore a continuation of, and prequel to, the existing narrative dealt with in the original.

Following the death of his father and older brother, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is the new head of his family's empire, based now in Nevada having moved out of New York several years earlier. Running the 'business' is taking its toll on the once-honest Michael – his relationship with wife Kay (Diane Keaton) is frosty and distant; his brother Fredo (John Cazale) is becoming more of a burden than ever; he must deal with rumblings of discontent from New York; and his pledge to legitimise the Corleone family is further than ever from becoming a reality. Following an unsuccessful assassination attempt, Michael puts consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) in charge of the family for a while, while he goes away to deal with some business matters and investigate who tried to have him killed. His adventures bring him into contact with Jewish gangster Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), who may be Michael's ally or enemy. The story traces Michael's long descent into isolation and paranoia, alienating himself from everyone in his all- consuming quest to come out on top in this epic gangland-battle-of-wits. Interwoven into the story are a number of flashbacks showing the rise of Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando's character from Part I, here portrayed by Robert De Niro). After arriving in New York a poor immigrant, Vito eventually finds honest work in a grocery store but is hounded out of his job by local gangster Don Fanucci (Gastone Moschin). Making ends meet through petty burglaries, he gradually rises up the criminal ranks, killing Fanucci and eventually becoming a feared and respected figure in the neighbourhood.

Whereas The Godfather was criticised for glamorising violent crime and the Mafia, The Godfather: Part II shows things in a much uglier light. Families are torn apart by jealousy and betrayal; relationships are destroyed by the lack of communication; innocence is tarnished irrevocably. In short, the world seems somehow more rotten and corrupt in The Godfather: Part II. It's an altogether more ruthless film, harder-edged, shockingly authentic even. The performances are exemplary throughout. How Pacino didn't win the Best Actor Oscar of the year is beyond comprehension, creating as he does this incredible character whose grip on his empire comes at a terrible price. De Niro is excellent as the young Vito Corleone; Keaton fabulous as Michael's neglected wife; Duvall convincing as ever as the family lawyer; and Strasberg mesmerising as the slippery Hyman Roth, one of the truly great characters of gangster cinema. If it seems like in this review I have done nothing but shower superlatives upon this film, that's because I have. The Godfather: Part II is, quite simply, one of the greatest movies of all- time.

En kongelig affære

Splendid historical drama, with a very interesting character conflict at its core.
One of the surprise success stories of the cinema of 2012 was the Danish-Swedish-Czech co-production A Royal Affair, from director Nikolaj Arcel. The film sounds very much like it will be something along the lines of The Other Boleyn Girl, The Duchess, or perhaps even The Young Victoria. However, it is not really like any of these other movies… for one thing the story (based on true events) is slightly more unusual and the handling of it more atmospherically gloomy; for another, the film is actually by far the best of its type in recent memory.

In the 18th century, young English princess Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander) is offered as the bride to Danish monarch Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) in a bid to strengthen relations between the two nations. Initially excited, Caroline soon comes to realise what a terrible predicament she is in when she actually meets her husband-to-be. Christian, as it turns out, is mentally ill and acts like a child in an adults' body. He uses and abuses women on a whim; he throws tantrums over the most minor of things; he makes rudely outrageous statements regardless of the time and the place; he allows others to make all the important decisions of state without the slightest inkling of the consequences for his country. Into this farcical state of affairs comes educated country physician Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), a man of the Enlightenment who dreams of a better future. Quickly realising that the King is not particularly fit to rule, Struensee begins to help him to make better choices and decisions, and it isn't long before he is virtually running the country. There are many who are jealous of Struensee's position of power and importance, and they search desperately for a way to be rid of him. They get their chance when the doctor makes his one fatal mistake. Attracted to the alluring and unhappy Caroline, Struensee is unable to resist her charms and she, in turn, is unable to resist his strangely attractive looks and brilliant mind. The pair embark on a secret love affair, the consequences of which change their lives (and Denmark's future) for generations.

Handsomely shot by Rasmus Videbæk, the film is a feast for the eyes throughout. It is a feast for the intellect too, with a very concise and well-structured script by the director himself and his co-writer Rasmus Heisterberg. They manage the impressive task of condensing and bringing sense to a huge topic without patronising the intelligence of the audience. Mikkelsen is superb as Struensee, exuding a charming sexuality which makes Caroline's decision to risk everything for him all the more believable. Vikander's portrayal of the unfaithful queen is quite wonderful, with further extraordinary acting coming from Følsgaard as the absurd puppet King. These three leading roles are so impeccably played that they keep one's attention glued to the on-screen events throughout. Building to a powerful and heartbreaking climax, A Royal Affair barely puts a foot wrong. There's the occasional over-melodramatic scene here, a touch of romanticised story-telling there, but all in all the film manages to be a thoroughly absorbing and believable account of extraordinary true events.


Largely dreadful chiller featuring much car crash mayhem and precious little logic.
Crash! from independent film director Charles Band is an energetic but almost totally nonsensical entry in the possessed vehicle stakes. It even throws some wild and woolly occult magic into its jumbled brew, just to tangle its disparate elements a little further. One thing it does have going for it is the presence of horror veterans José Ferrer, John Carradine and Reggie Nalder, although only Ferrer gets any meaningful screen time. Sue Lyon is here too, though seeing her in a cheapjack genre film like this seems dispiriting after the early promise she showed in Lolita and Night Of The Iguana.

Young lady Kim Denne (Lyon) buys a curious trinket from a flea market. Later it becomes evident the trinket is a Hittite charm which can give its owner strange powers. Kim is married to the much older Marc (Ferrer), a bitter and twisted wheelchair-bound professor who holds his young wife responsible for his condition. Theirs is a totally broken relationship, and it's no surprise when Marc sets his ferocious Doberman upon Kim while she is driving, hoping to kill her and make it look like an accident. Kim survives this attempt on her life but comes out of it a disfigured amnesiac. While the police and doctors try to ascertain who she is and what has happened to her, Marc learns of her survival and tries to kill her again. Using her newly-acquired powers, Kim summons her car to come to her rescue. The driverless vehicles tears across the miles, destroying everything in its path as it races to its mistress's aid.

Crash! is a complete muddle of a movie. It throws in everything but the kitchen sink yet, crucially, fails to tie it all together with any real sense of logic or narrative flow. There's nothing particularly frightening in it, despite efforts to make Lyon look creepy and otherworldly with her scarred face and orange-glowing eyes. The car is certainly not scary at all. It roams, rams, wrecks, smashes and destroys everything it comes into contact with but the overwhelming impression is more of a Hal Needham/Burt Reynolds-style demolition derby than an ominous chiller in the tradition of Duel. Plus, of course, there's the gaping plot hole that the car is under the control of Lyon, one of the film's supposed 'good' characters. If evil Ferrer was the one guiding the killer automobile, things might make more sense. But in order to save her own life it is actually Lyon who causes the death of countless innocents. How are we meant to empathise with her when she's responsible for the death of half the road-users in the county?!? A strange, senseless and largely unsuccessful film, Crash! does not shine brightly in the possessed vehicle canon.

The Devil Rides Out

Well made, exciting adaptation of a semi-classic horror novel - a real high point for Hammer.
Richard Matheson fashions a pretty neat script from Dennis Wheatley's novel of occultism and satanic worship, the end result being one of the very best horror movies ever made by the folks at Hammer. The book is certainly good stuff but it suffers in patches from Wheatley's habit of over-indulging in flowery description and long-windedness. Worth reading, absolutely; but you have to forgive the author these periodic stilted segments. The film is unquestionably a much pacier affair, though it still remembers to set aside time for thoughtful character development. Christopher Lee ranks it among his own finest films - rightly so - although anyone who's seen it will be quick to point out that it's actually Charles Gray who steals the acting honours here as the malevolent villain Mocata.

The Duc du Richleau (Christopher Lee) reunites with his close, if long-absent, friend Rex Van Rynn (Leon Greene). Rex is surprised that another of their friends, Simon (Patrick Mower), is not there to greet him too. The Duc reveals that he has concerns about Simon, who has recently severed all ties with his friends, moved into a new mansion, and started mixing in peculiar circles. They decide to pay him a visit to see what is going on, and are alarmed to find their friend hosting some kind of disturbing pagan ritual at his new home, attended by a number of other guests, including the enigmatic Tanith (Nike Arrighi) and the menacing Mocata (Charles Gray). The Duc and Rex attempt to spirit Simon away from the clutches of his new society of friends, but doing this proves much easier said than done. It quickly becomes clear Mocata is actually a powerful sorcerer, capable of a great many evil spells, including summoning up the Devil himself when the need arises.

Tightly directed by Terence Fisher, The Devil Rides Out is a genuinely exciting and occasionally quite scary film which hardly puts a foot wrong throughout its duration. The only real weakness is a slightly-too-abrupt ending, though this is not enough to harm the film too severely. It's great to see Lee playing a good guy for a change, while Gray - as already noted - is a picture of silky sinisterness as the principle villain, one of the horror genre's great bogeymen. The set pieces are especially well done, such as the satanic ceremony in the forest and a night of screaming terror during which our heroes spend the dark hours inside a protective circle while all manner of mind-mashing horrors are unleashed against them. The Devil Rides Out rightly takes its place among the very top ranks of Hammer horrors - it's a hugely entertaining and well-crafted bloodcurdler, not to be missed.

My Summer of Love

Involving, well acted and largely fascinating character study.
Filmed at the termination point of the Calder Valley, Yorkshire, where it runs into Lancashire (with a few scenes shot in Bacup over on the Red Rose side of the border), My Summer Of Love is a nicely shot, relatively brief and mostly engrossing character study loosely adapted from a novel by Helen Cross. It examines the growth of a lesbian love affair between two extremely different – seemingly incompatible – teen aged girls, separated by a gulf in class, interests, education and upbringing. Throughout the film, there remains a continual question mark over the actuality of their relationship – is it real? Is it mutual? Or is at least one of the girls cruelly playing with the other's emotions?

One hot summer in Yorkshire, aimless teenager Mona (Natalie Press) meets a girl of similar age from an upper middle class background, the enigmatic and troublesome Tamsin (Emily Blunt). Mona lives with her only living relative – her brother Phil (Paddy Considine) – in a pub called The Swan, which was run by their mother before she died of cancer. Phil is a former jailbird, now a born-again Christian, who no longer operates The Swan as a pub but instead uses it as a gathering place for religious meetings with his like-minded friends Frustrated by her brother's activities, and ditched by her mean-spirited f@ck-buddy Ricky (Dean Andrews), Mona finds herself gravitating more and more towards her new friend Tamsin. It becomes clear that Tamsin's family set-up is a mess – her mother is hardly ever at home, her father is dismissive and is suspected of having an affair with his secretary, and her sister died of anorexia. Rapidly, Tamsin and Mona discover an ally in each other – someone with whom to share their inner turmoil, their disconnectedness from their families, their need to be loved. And it isn't long before they do indeed fall in love. Meanwhile, Phil plans to construct a huge cross and erect it on a hilltop above the valley, to drive out the 'evil' he senses in the people living there. Mona has no interest in attending the rally at which the cross is to be unveiled, but Tamsin insists on being there. It gradually becomes clear Tamsin wants something from Phil – but what? Is she attracted to him, or does she merely plan to lure him in before humiliating him over his religious beliefs? Moreover, if she is capable of playing such cruel games, what is to say she isn't also playing games with Mona's heart? As the summer heat-wave builds, so too the emotions of the characters boil over into lust and violence.

A small, quiet film which stays on the side of subtlety rather than opting for melodramatic excesses, My Summer Of Love is well-acted and believable throughout. Press plays Mona well, conveying the frustration, confusion and (to some extent) trashiness of the character convincingly. Pre-stardom Blunt is also excellent as Tamsin, fleshing out the character with many nuances which make it hard to decide whether she is a genuinely disaffected young lady or a manipulative bitch who gets her kicks from breaking hearts and causing havoc. The ever-reliable Considine rounds off the main characters brilliantly, playing a man ostensibly calm and peaceable on the outside but with an ever-present hint of ominous rage within. Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski directs the film with a typically European sensibility. It's unusual to find a foreign director tackling one of these Yorkshire-set stories, but it must be said he brings something new and fascinating to the proceedings. The harsher, uglier side of Yorkshire is usually presented in these films, but here Pawlikowski contrasts these things with the glorious wide open spaces of the countryside. The darkness and bleakness exist more within the characters than the setting, and the contrasts that result are very stark and effective. Sometimes the film teeters on the brink of being a little too self-consciously arty, and the relatively short running time might leave some viewers wanting more (more explanation, more characterisation, more tying together of the loose ends), but all in all My Summer Of Love is a very worthwhile little film. For its strong performances and eye-catching cinematography alone, it deserves to be seen.

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