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Mass Effect Andromeda (Xbox One) 24/04/2017

A galaxy far, far away

Mass Effect Andromeda (Xbox One) This game is currently around £42 to buy new, but given that it’s not been that well received, I imagine it will be down to around £30 within a couple of months. Mass Effect was a hugely enjoyable science fiction RPG trilogy from Bioware which, for me, was the defining single-player experience of the Xbox 360. OK, they screwed the ending up, but all in all, it was completely absorbing and had a rare emotional heft for a video game. It created memorable alien races, had an appealing aesthetic, and was fun to play (a few kinks notwithstanding). So now, with the next generation a few years in, they’re re-launching the franchise. (Although according to internet rumour, most of the people involved in making the original have moved on to other things. Bioware Montreal is not the Bioware of old.) The results are, to put it mildly, patchy. Why Mass Effect? The main problem with the game is that it exists at all. Mass Effect 3 may not have had the best ending of a multi-part video game story, but it did have a definite ending. Or rather, endings. The problem is that the player could choose from one of three or four different end results. So a direct sequel to Mass Effect would be impossible, as it would force the developers to accept one of the possible Mass Effect 3 endings as canon. This would piss off all the fans who went for the other endings. And pissed of Mass Effect fans are a surprisingly noisy bunch. So they’ve come up with the ingenious wheeze of having a hundred ...

The World at War (Blu-ray) 13/04/2017

Never before in the field of human conflict

The World at War (Blu-ray) This set is currently, released by Network, about £50 on amazon (although I’m sure it was cheaper when I bought it, so shop around). There’s an older Blu-ray release from Fremantle, which carries the subtitle ‘The Ultimate Restored Edition’, but that crops a huge chunk of the image off and should be avoided (it’s also more expensive). The World at War is an iconic documentary series that was first broadcast on ITV in late 1973. There are 26 episodes, each lasting around 50 minutes (they had fewer ad breaks in those days, so each episode fit into a one-hour slot). It tells the story of the Second World War, from Hitler’s coming to power in Germany, to the start of the Cold War. Most episodes tell the story chronologically, although some focus on one aspect of the war and follow that from beginning to end (Atlantic convoys, for instance). Episodes feature a mixture of footage from the war and talking head interviews. Laurence Olivier narrates it, as he was probably the most famous ‘classy’ actor in the world at the time. His narration is very good, with a slightly sardonic edge – I don’t think I’ve seen anything that justifies Olivier’s monumental reputation (he was primarily a stage actor), but this is certainly better than most things he was putting his name to by the early 70s. That said, some of his pronunciations are just weird (‘strarfed’ for ‘strafed’, ‘feeted’ for ‘foetid’. And I’m not sure I could even attempt to convey how weird his pronunciation of ‘Ukraine’ ...

Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast (Blu-ray) 03/04/2017

Nothing so appalling in the annals of horror

Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast (Blu-ray) This set from Arrow Video – containing 10 Blu-rays and 8 DVDs – is supposedly exclusive to amazon, where it costs around £90 at the moment. It can usually be found on ebay too, for a little more than that. It’s a limited edition, so may one day sell out. The director Herschell Gordon Lewis was a legendary exploitation filmmaker active in the 60s. He churned out cynical movies for regional drive-ins. He's famous for inventing the 'splatter film' - horror movies that foreground outrageous acts of dismemberment, in which the plot is a mere afterthought. Lewis’s films are generally cheap, cheerful and short, and if none of them could be described as 'good' with a straight face, some of them are certainly fun. That said, it was a bit of a surprise to see Arrow release an expensive boxset of Lewis's work. It doesn't include all of his films, but there are 14 of them, along with a huge number of extras. The box itself is a hefty old thing, about the size of a cereal packet, but much heavier. (I guess the idea is that it contains a 'feast' of Lewis's films, just like a packet of corn flakes contains a 'feast' of corn flakes.) A more expensive, even more limited edition was also produced, but sold out very quickly - I did buy that, but it was preposterously large and unwieldy, so I sold it and bought the smaller one instead. Anyway, only six of the films are proper gore flicks, with the others being made up of Lewis's (generally less exciting) other work (some of which still have ...

Hell Drivers (Blu-ray) 30/03/2017

Roaring Down the World's Deadliest Roads!

Hell Drivers (Blu-ray) This Blu-ray from Network is £15 on amazon or HMV, but at time of writing is a more-than-reasonable £10 on Network’s own site, with free postage. Hell Drivers is a tremendous British thriller from 1957 about short haul lorry drivers ferrying gravel around. Which, admittedly, doesn’t sound like the most exciting premise for a film, but it sure as heck works. It may well have been inspired by The Wages of Fear (1953), a classic French thriller about drifters and ne’er-do-wells driving trucks laden with explosives through the jungle in South America. Year: 1957 Director: Cy Endfield Stars: Stanley Baker, Herbert Lom, Sean Connery More information at: IMDB user rating: 7.2 Tom is fresh out of prison. He gets a job as a truck driver making runs between quarry and depot. Drivers have to make at least 12 trips a day, on pain of dismissal, and the more trips they make, the more they earn, speed limit be buggered. Tom is befriended by the Italian driver Gino and finds himself flirting with the secretary, Lucy. He also incurs the wrath of thuggish head driver Red, who jealously guards his daily record of 18 trips. Which still doesn’t really sound all that exciting. The actual thriller elements aren’t really all that prominent, apart from the climactic scenes of the film. It’s a bit too obvious that the footage of the trucks has been sped up, and there aren’t that many near-misses or crashes to enjoy. But the slow-burn rivalry between Tom and ...

Happy Birthday to Me (Blu-ray) 27/03/2017

Pray you're not invited!

Happy Birthday to Me (Blu-ray) This Blu-ray from Indicator is currently £15 on amazon and in HMV. I’m not a huge fan of slasher films, the ubiquitous American low-budget 80s horror subgenre. But some of the earlier slashers, before they became too formulaic and lazy, can be quite enjoyable. This Canadian offering is one of the better ones. Year: 1981 Director: J Lee Thompson Stars: Glenn Ford More information at: IMDB user rating: 6.0 At a posh school for rich kids, the most popular students are known as ‘the top ten’. A black-gloved killer starts to murder them in the usual novel ways. The focus of the crimes seems to be new girl Virginia, who will soon be celebrating her birthday… (Virginia is new to the school, and yet she is part of the top ten. Were they the top nine before she arrived, or did they have to kick someone out to make way for her? Is there a waiting list? And why are most of the top ten the usual objectionable jocks and bitchy girls, while one of them is a bullied nerd? What kind of exclusive high school clique allows a nerd into its ranks?) The film plays heavily on the mystery angle of the story, with almost everyone set up as a red herring – there’s a creepy nerd, a creepy peeping tom, a creepy psychiatrist, a creepy dad, and a creepy friend. And Virginia herself has a mysterious past, was the subject of experimental brain surgery, and has a tendency to visit her mom’s grave in the middle of the night. The midnight graveyard trips, like the fact ...

Aenigma (DVD) 20/03/2017


Aenigma (DVD) This is a film-only review, mainly because my chances of getting ciao to add the Blu-ray are precisely zero. It has recently been released on Blu-ray by 88 Films, and will set you back around £13 in HMV, possibly slightly less on amazon. (And as an aside, wouldn’t it be more useful if ciao included amazon and HMV prices in its search results for DVD and Blu-ray products? I’d hazard a guess they’re used more than and Zavvi.) This is a late 80s effort from Italian horror director Lucio Fulci. His late 70s / early 80s zombie movies, especially Zombie Flesh Eaters and The Beyond, are genuinely impressive, if a little silly round the edges. But after about 1983, the quality of Fulci’s work dipped drastically, as low budgets began to take their toll. Aenigma, sadly, is no exception – it was an Italian / Yugoslav co-production, and at least made it into cinemas, unlike a lot of Fulci’s late work. But it’s still crap. Year: 1987 Director: Lucio Fulci More information at: IMDB user rating: 4.8 At a posh girls’ school in Boston, an unpopular girl, Kathy, is left in a coma after a prank goes horribly wrong. But she somehow manages to possess the body of new girl Eva, using her to get revenge on the kids who tormented her (or as many of them as the budget will allow). The murders are all supernatural, so it’s not really clear why Kathy needs Eva’s body at all. Eva also starts an affair with the doctor treating Kathy, because apparently ...

Beyond the Darkness (Blu-ray) 09/03/2017

The naked and the dead

Beyond the Darkness (Blu-ray) This Blu-ray from 88 Films is currently £15 on amazon. Beyond the Darkness is a moderately notorious horror/sleaze/gore movie directed by Joe D’Amato, a man to whom horror, sleaze and gore came easily. Possibly the lowest of the low where Italian exploitation is concerned (he does have a few competitors, but not many), D’Amato’s films have a knack of showing me things I had no idea I didn’t want to see. In truth, the most excessive D’Amato efforts are not readily available in this country, and are never likely to be, uncut at least. We’re left with his more innocuous films – although that’s very much a relative term, even his most harmless films leave you feeling like someone has secretly filmed you sleeping and put it on youtube. This movie is grim, splattery and features quite explicit nudity. At one point, years ago, I thought of it was one of the grottiest films I’d ever seen. Now, though – having explored what you might call the D’Amato deep cuts – I realise that this is a stroll in the park. Would that I could return to that state of pre-lapsarian innocence! Year: 1979 Director: Joe D’Amato More information at: IMDB user rating: 6.3 (higher than I’d have expected) Frank is a young taxidermist who owns a mansion, which he shares with his housekeeper, the creepily obsessive Iris. Frank’s girlfriend, Anna, dies in hospital from some unspecified illness. Frank deals with his grief by stealing her body from the cemetery, taking it ...

Body Double (Blu-ray) 13/02/2017

Dial D for De Palma

Body Double (Blu-ray) This Blu-ray/DVD set from Powerhouse Films is £15 on amazon at the moment. It’s a limited edition, so may shoot up in price soon. Brian De Palma is part of the movie brat generation that brought us Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, among others. He’s never quite had the kind of insane success they’ve had, nor the kind of artistic acclaim of Scorsese, mainly because there’s a faint whiff of the disreputable about him. One of the main sticks used to beat him is the accusation of misogyny, especially in his Hitchcock-influenced thrillers. And Body Double is exhibit A in the case against him. Year: 1974 Director: Brian De Palma Stars: Melanie Griffith More information at: IMDB user rating: 6.8 Actor Jake Scully is out of work and down on his luck. He gets fired from the crappy vampire movie he’s making, then walks in on his wife having it off with another man. Another jobbing actor offers him the chance to house-sit. While doing so, he starts to spy on a woman in a nearby house who does a striptease (alone) every night at the same time. Unfortunately, she also seems to have attracted the attention of a creepy repairman, who starts to stalk her. I always associate this film with American Psycho – in the book, Patrick Bateman describes how he rents the film over and over in order to watch the central murder scene. Consequently, I was expecting the scene in question to be over-the-top and tasteless. In fact it’s no such thing. It’s not very ...

Rillington Place (Blu-ray) 06/02/2017

Notting Hill carnage

Rillington Place (Blu-ray) This Blu-ray is around £15 on amazon at the moment. This is a recent BBC miniseries about John Reginald Halliday Christie, one of the more famous British serial killers. Active during and just after the war, Christie murdered at least seven people, hiding their remains in his house and garden. This sort of true crime drama is usually produced by ITV, and gives popular TV actors the chance to show off how versatile they are – off the top of my head, I can recall Dominic West as Fred West, Martin Clunes as ‘Acid Bath’ Haigh and James Bolam as Harold Shipman. There are doubtless many others. It’s a bit rarer for the BBC to get involved. The BBC, presumably fearing accusations of bad taste from its enemies in the press and government, has really gone to town with its Christie project. It’s stretched out over almost three hours, and features proper film actors (albeit ones who aren’t quite as successful as they used to be). Everything about it screams self-conscious ‘prestige’. The Christie case is perhaps best known for including a famous miscarriage of justice (and in the days of capital punishment, miscarriages of justice couldn’t be remedied later). That presumably provides enough justification for the series to be made, rather than prurient interest in one of the first famous British sex murderers. The main problem for the TV series is that there’s a celebrated film version of the same story, 10 Rillington Place, which was made in 1971. The film – which was made on the ...

The Tyrant King (DVD) 30/01/2017

Swinging London

The Tyrant King (DVD) This DVD (which for some reason comes in a CD-sized case) is only about £8 on amazon at time of writing. This is an odd little thing. It’s a children’s drama serial made in 1968 by the fledgling Thames television, apparently to test out their location filming equipment. It was also apparently developed as an extended advert for London Transport. It was broadcast once, and then seemingly forgotten about. This DVD release is a few years old now, but I only stumbled across it quite recently. Three posh kids decide to break into a large mansion on a whim, where they overhear a preposterously camp man, Uncle Gerry, seemingly setting up some kind of illegal exchange to take place a week to the day. Determined to stop him, the kids try to figure out where he will be, based only on a few verbal clues – it will be somewhere touristy, and involve a landmark he cryptically refers to as ‘the tyrant king’. So the posh kids set off to visit every London landmark they can think of. Soon they find more clues in the form of an odd series of drawings sewn into a wallet. They also realise they’re being stalked by a sinister man they call Scarface (who does, to be fair, have a whopping great scar on his face). It’s a very strange story, in that its primary purpose is to advertise what a terrific place London is to visit. There are six 25-minute episodes, and they’re all padded with lengthy scenes of tourist footage, usually of people milling around in vaguely recognisable bits of central ...

Spirits Of The Dead (Blu-ray) 17/01/2017

Edgar Allen Slow

Spirits Of The Dead (Blu-ray) This Arrow Blu-ray is a mere £9 on amazon at the moment. There was a boom in gothic horror movies in the late 50s and early 60s. One of the main strands of this boom was Roger Corman’s series of Edgar Allen Poe movies, most starring Vincent Price. While critics in the US and the UK were generally scornful towards horror movies, the French were far more willing to take them seriously, even to consider their artistic merit. This might be why two acclaimed French directors, Roger Vadim and Louis Malle, got together to make this anthology of Poe stories in 1968. Joining them was Italian maestro Federico Fellini. All three stories are pretty obscure as Poe goes, with William Wilson being the only one I remembered reading. I guess they felt they had to choose stories that hadn’t been adapted for films already by Corman and his various imitators. Metzengerstein Roger Vadim kicks things of with this tale involving a probably haunted horse, or something. Frederique is the spoiled, thoroughly decadent ruler of… somewhere unspecified. She does whatever she wants in pursuit of her often unpleasant pleasures. But she becomes oddly obsessed by her unwordly, reclusive cousin, the only man who doesn’t seem fascinated by her. When he rebuffs her, she has his stable burned down, and he dies trying to save his favourite horse. And then a wild black stallion arrives at Frederique’s castle… The story is rather confusing, which wouldn’t be a problem if it was actually any good. ...

Expresso Bongo (Blu-ray) 04/01/2017

Soho shenanigans

Expresso Bongo (Blu-ray) This BFI Blu-ray is about £10 on amazon at the moment, and possibly a bit cheaper in HMV. Expresso Bongo started out as a hit West End musical in 1958, and was filmed a year later. The stage version was a caustic satire on the Soho-based music industry of the time, in which a shady manager exploits a talentless young bongo player, Bert Rudge, propelling him to stardom as ‘Bongo Herbert’. Soon everyone wants a piece of the boy, and his manager struggles to keep control of him. The film is pretty good, but sadly, it tones down the satirical element considerably. It follows the plot of the stage version more or less, but by casting Cliff Richard, a genuine, successful pop star as the boy, it can’t really pass him off as a no-talent oaf. And although the rest of the cast seem to understand they’re in a satire, Cliff certainly doesn’t – he acts about as well as he sings. His polite RP voice, presumably rehearsed endlessly to make him not seem threatening to anyone, is completely wrong for the part. Bert’s meant to be a working-class boy who makes it unexpectedly big. Cliff plays him as a posh drama-school student who’s accidentally wandered onto the wrong street. (I don’t like Cliff Richard. I find his voice feeble and undynamic, his stage presence minimal, and – apart from a brief period in the late 70s – his choice of songs weak. It says a lot about Britain that our most successful pop star is Cliff ‘Blandy McBlandface’ Richard.) But while Cliff is terrible, luckily the rest ...

The Beatles: Eight Days A Week - The Touring Years (Blu-ray) 19/12/2016

The Beatles on the road

The Beatles: Eight Days A Week - The Touring Years  (Blu-ray) A review of the single-disk Blu-ray release of this recent documentary. It should set yuou back about £15 in HMV at the moment. This documentary tells the story of the Beatles’ years as a live band, from their pre-recording years in Liverpool and Hamburg, through to their world tours and their eventual disillusionment with the constant grind of live performance. And it’s… well, it’s not bad I guess. I’m just not really sure why this particular story needed to be told, especially since the Beatles themselves made a lengthy TV documentary series, Anthology, about their entire career in the mid-90s. This constant stream of Beatles new releases, re-releases, video games, whatever, is governed solely by the desire to exploit the fans, and to keep this particular property alive long after it should have fizzled out. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Beatles as much as anyone, and recognise that they’re absolutely the premier act of their era. But their era was a long, long time ago – their transformation from actual musicians into bizarre pop culture monolith has worn out my patience. It’s not like the film is bad or anything. It’s not a chore to sit through, although two hours does feel a bit over the top. There’s plenty of entertaining footage of the Beatles in their prime, performing some of their classic hits (and a few not-so-classic numbers). But I’m not sure that it really justifies the strapline: ‘The band you know. The story you don’t.’ Any Beatles fan (and I suspect most ...

The Lobster (Blu-ray) 06/12/2016

There is blood and biscuits everywhere

The Lobster (Blu-ray) This Blu-ray is currently £9 on amazon. Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos broke through in 2009 with Dogtooth, a grotesque black comedy which gets away with its absurd premise by playing it with complete conviction (and which, in spite of the sex and violence, is genuinely hilarious). Lanthimos has moved to London, and his most recent film cuts back on the extreme imagery and has a starrier cast, but is every bit as good as Dogtooth. Year: 2015 Director: Yorgos Lanthimos Stars: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz More information at: IMDB user rating: 7.1 The Lobster’s set in a dystopian world which resembles ours a bit too closely. People are obliged to be part of a couple – single people are given 45 days to find a new partner at a hotel/concentration camp, and if they fail, they are turned into an animal of their choice. David’s wife has just left him, and he arrives at the hotel looking for partnership. He decides that if he fails to find a companion in the allotted time, he will become a lobster. He takes his brother with him – his brother is now a dog, having failed to find love himself. (Obviously this raises the question of what animal one would choose to become, if one had to. I’d go for a tapir. I am fond of tapirs.) The hotel itself is full of bizarre rules – masturbation is not allowed, but guests are sexually stimulated once a day by the hotel maid. The staff act out little playlets designed to show how being single is unnatural and ...

The Taking Of Pelham 123 (Blu-ray) 28/11/2016

No other hijack was ever like his

The Taking Of Pelham 123 (Blu-ray) This Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox is only £7 on amazon at the moment. Year: 1974 Director: Joseph Sargent Stars: Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw More information at: IMDB user rating: 7.7 Four criminals, each known only by a colour-based pseudonym (Mr Grey, Mr Blue etc) hijack a subway train, acting with military precision. Uncoupling the lead carriage, they hold its passengers hostage and demand one million dollars for their safe release. While New York's ineffectual mayor grapples with the dilemma of whether to pay, transport cop Garber tries to figure out the bad guys' plan. How on earth do they plan on getting away with it? This is a fantastic, taut thriller with a premise that is delightfully simple in concept but full of enough detail to keep you interested after the initial buzz has worn off. Surrounded by cops on all sides, and restricted by technical safeguards built in to the trains, it should be impossible for the criminals to escape with their loot. But obviously they have a plan, and it's the unravelling of this mystery that fuels most of the second half of the film, along with some fantastically suspenseful action scenes. And the New York subway is a great location for something like this, as passengers are effectively trapped when they’re in transit. As someone who uses the London Underground twice a day, it's always vaguely in the back of my mind - passengers are quite vulnerable to those who might want to do them harm (as ...
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