11 Harrowhouse (1974)

81I02Qse6CL._SL1500_ Fun, London-set comedy caper as Charles Grodin is blackmailed into getting one over on John Gielgud‘s uppity diamond merchant who resides in the titular street.

Rating: ★★★½☆

This review was written 40 years too late

Grodin is Chesser, a small-time diamond dealer who is blackmailed by billionaire Trevor Howard into robbing John Gielgud’s gem merchants located at 11 Harrowhouse.

Assisted by his wealthy girlfriend – a deliciously attractive Candice Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 13.06.35Bergen clearly having a great time in the role – and James Mason’s  convenient inside man at the vault, they use a painted cockroach and a vacuum cleaner to attempt the robbery. What’s not to like?

One of the fun things about watching 70s movies, apart from mild nostalgia, is considering how they stand the test of time. Some reviewed here – “Sitting Target” or “Fear is the Key“, for example – while still entertaining show their age. “11 Harrowhouse”, perhaps because of its more lighthearted approach, does more than draw attention to its years, however.

It benefits from a self-aware narration. Grodin’s mournful commentary on what we are watching is wry and funny, an enjoyable trick that just about works. “Who are those guys with guns? They weren’t here before,” he laments when finding himself chased by thugs.Harrowhouse-A

Self-reflexsive cinema has a long history (“Sherlock Jr.” (1924)) that continues today (that would be you, Charlie Kaufman). “11 Harrowhouse” makes no attempt to explore this in any way that would help a budding student of non-diegetic film with a thesis to deliver.

Rather, it deploys it as a soft comedy element, a gentle reminder of the unlikeliness of plot for entertainment value that us cinema-goers are asked to accept every time the lights go down. By contrast, watch “Last Action Hero” (1993) to get the same effect, albeit with a nuclear-powered hammer drill.

There you go, film students, I’ve given you your start.



Surrogates (2009)

surrogates_movie_poster1 Body-swap SF thriller with Bruce Willis in a bad wig and Bruce Willis with no hair.

Rating: ★★½☆☆

This review was written 5 years too late

An interesting premise, a bankable lead actor, and a tight 89-minute running time should have made Surrogates better than it is. It’s hard to nail exactly what’s wrong with this film – it doesn’t honk in the way you expect turkeys to, and displays nothing outwardly bad. Yet for some reason, it just doesn’t fly. Which is a pity because there’s the makings of a nifty thriller here.

“Surrogates” takes place in a world where customisable robots take our place in the world while humans direct, feel and design them from comfy Captain Kirk chairs at home. You can make your surrogate look any way you like, and live vicariously through it. So dirty old men have hot female surrogates to get it on with other dirty old men who have hot male surrogates.


That’s the obvious advantage you have to show in the movies today – got to have the pound of flesh up on the screen – but elsewhere, for example, human cops are safe off of the street while their surrogates do the dangerous work. It’s a neat idea, and efficiently and plausibly explained in the film’s opening.

Brucie is FBI agent Tom Greer, and his surrogate has hair, natch (thatch?!), and a slightly plasticky looking skin, while real Bruce is the man we pay for: grizzled, bald, unshaven. Where everything goes wrong is when some baddies figure a way to destroy the surrogate and its owner at the same time. Tasked with investigating the killings, Greer’s surrogate gets wasted but he manages to survive. Stepping out into the real world for the first time in a long time, he is the human among the non-human.

“Surrogates” then becomes a relatively straightforward mystery that fails to advance beyond its single, repeated surprise – are you human or a surrogate?

Director Jonathan Mostow (“Terminator 3“) makes it all look good, and action sequences with the physically enhanced surrogates leaping and jumping are exciting to watch. Sadly, his writers (Michael Ferris and John Brancato, also “T3”), let him down. If only they’d had surrogates to pen this screenplay… oh shut up you fool.


Fear is the Key (1972)

512s-A+0i3LBarry Newman is a cop-killing fugitive who gets involved in a shady deep-sea salvage deal. It’s also got Ben Kingsley – with hair!

Rating: ★★★☆☆

This review was written 42 years too late

Fear is the Key” has a lot going for it – a cracking Roy Budd soundtrack, some staple 1970s action visuals (hub caps pinging off cars in a chase, helicopters with inflatable skis), very bad clothes, and a just post-“Vanishing Point” Barry Newman behind the wheel of both a red Ford Gran Torino and, bizarrely, a bathysphere. Yes, you read that right.

On the downside, the pacing of the film is off. A twelve-minute plus car chase is like a precursor to “Smokey and the Bandit” and suffers from terrible continuity (check out the right front wing of the car), not to mention the endless drone of police sirens, and elsewhere director Michael Tuchner submits us to such thrilling spectacles as people taking sowesters off.

Newman plays on-the-lam John Talbot, who escapes a small town Louisiana court house by shooting a policeman and grabbing rich heiress Suzy Kendall as a hostage. Evading the law, he’s eventually snared by ex-cop Jablonsky who, rather than turn him in, brings him to Kendall’s daddy to collect a $$$ thank-you for returning her.

fear-is-the-key-barry-newman-with-a-young-ben-kingsley-behind-as-the-psycho-royaleAnd from there, it all gets a little unlikely, as you might expect from a plot based on an Alastair MacLean novel, when heavyweight John Vernon as a dodgy businessman and a crazy-eyed Ben (“That’s Sir Ben to you!”) Kingsley as his henchman force Talbot into piloting a bathysphere into the depths.

Was there really no one else they could  get? No, let’s take the dodgy, unreliable fugitive. Nothing can go wrong with that.

Curious casting gives “Fear is the Key” something a little different – quite how Brit-film and TV stalwarts Ben Kingsley, Ray McAnally and Tony Anholt ended up in this is a mystery. Newman is good enough, while John Vernon is, as usual, sleeping through the criminal half of his range (the other half usually seeing him as the Mayor or college Dean).

Enjoyable monkeyshines.

Poor quality clip of the car chase:

Plunder Road (1957)

Stylish, efficient 50s robbery flick that holds its own among better known examples of the time.

Rating: ★★★★☆

This review was written 57 years too late

Standard form for heist movies typically sees a good two-thirds of the story detailing the set-up and the showpiece execution of the crime, with the final third showing it all unravelling.

Plunder Road” doesn’t bother with all that, and instead opens with a mostly silent, night time train robbery in the rain where the haul is $10,000,000 in gold.

“Plunder Road”, then, lives up to its title in that it’s the escape with the loot across the highways and backroads of America that fills most of its tight, efficiently directed 72 minutes.

Gene Raymond plays Eddie, the brains behind the heist who’s also on his first and last job. Backing him up are seasoned veterans, including the inimitable Elisha Cook Jr., who split the loot into three trucks and make for LA, hoping to avoid the ever tightening cordon of roadblocks.

n1nh9cewIt’s an interesting entry in the film noir genre, picking and choosing the elements associated with it. It has the cynicism but no femme fatale. It has that overlooked curiosity of noir – technology (indeed, it’s the undoing of one character) – but no double-cross or betrayal. It has the confident orchestrator but no antagonist. And it has the power of the city – the gang hide when in the countryside but understand being in plain sight in the city provides all the cover they need.

Slowly but surely, the plan goes awry, and one by one, the gang get caught, as you would expect. The survivors melt down what’s left of the gold and two years before Ian Fleming has Auric Goldfinger do it in his 1959 James Bond novel, they cast it into car body parts to smuggle it out of the country.

What could possibly go wrong? A worthwhile film and one that sits comfortably alongside better known heists such as “The Killing” or “The Asphalt Jungle“.

Watch the whole movie:


The Grey (2012)

The_Grey_PosterLiam Neeson continues his recent vein of action movies, this time leading a group of plane-crash survivors through a cold Alaskan wilderness where wolves lie in wait…

Rating: ★★★★☆

This review was written 2 years too late

Liam Neeson is box office, it seems. After a long and varied career in dull, apparently worthy roles, the past six or seven years has seen him gravitate towards simple action fare that seems to appeal to cinema-goers everywhere. “Taken“, “Unknown“, and “Clash of the Titans” are all far more fun than “Phantom Menace“, “Kingdom of Heaven” or all that Narnia nonsense. And he shows no signs of letting up. His recent “Non-Stop” and upcoming “Run All Night” together with a second sequel to “Taken” show a man in demand.

The Grey” is more serious than some of these recent efforts, but no less entertaining for it. Neeson is Ottway, a solemn man tasked with protecting oil workers in Alaska from marauding wolves. When their plane goes down miles from anywhere, Ottway takes charge and tries to get them to safety.

Screen Shot 2014-06-12 at 10.13.23As survival films go, it’s pretty familiar stuff – scant resources, survivor in-fighting, and a threat closing in – but director Joe Carnahan stops it from drifting into cheesiness. He balances macho posturing with some just about acceptable philosophical meanderings, splendidly orchestrated action scenes (the plane crash is particularly well handled), and some decent character depth for Neeson if not the others.

An enjoyable couple of hours, “The Grey” shows its metal by not compromising on its reality and selling out to audience-pleasing conclusions – though a misjudged post-credit sequence that stinks of studio interference disappoints. No reason not to see the film though – just turn it off when the credits roll.



Sitting Target (1972)


Note: drawing does not resemble Oliver Reed.

Sitting Target” sees Oliver Reed and Ian McShane get nasty in an early 70s Brit crime flick that comfortably overcomes a few glaring holes to deliver a swift thriller and an unexpected twist.

Rating: ★★★½☆

This review was written 42 years too late

A year after playing brassy diamond smuggler Tiffany Case in 007 adventure “Diamonds Are Forever“, Jill St. John visited the grim tower blocks of south London to play the wife of Oliver Reed’s brutal Harry Lomart, and play her rather well.

It’s the first of several oddities in this enjoyable Douglas Hickox-directed villain flick, that includes Dot Cotton aka June Brown  in a blink-and-you-miss-her role, Edward Woodward at the height of his Callan fame, and Frank Finlay appearing in a second Too Late review after his turn in the previous post “Lifeforce“.

Reed’s Lomart is banged up at the time he gets the rotten news his wife is knocked up. He greets this by punching through the glass divide that separates prisoner from visitor and trying to strange the Mrs.

A stint in solitary later, Lomart and his hoppo Birdy (Ian McShane) break out of prison and hunt down the errant Mrs Lomart  with only her murder in mind. In case you were unsure just how dodgy Reed and McShane are, they brick a dog to death while escaping. Nasty.

Edward Woodward is the cop out to stop them and protect St. John. Finlay is their old accomplice who now wants nothing to do with them. Clapham seems to be the location for most of the action.

Thesis alert! Film plays with multiple images repeatedly, film scholars.

It rattles along at a fair old pace, helped by future Bond director John Glen editing sharply, while StanleyThe ComebackMyers‘s score fits the time and action perfectly.

Reed is the star, commanding the screen in the way few British actors have done since, and it really is hard to think of someone who has the menace he had – think Bill Sykes in “Oliver!” x 10. McShane keeps chirpy company, while both carry on the criminal business with an inevitability of their fates. They’re murderous crooks, see, and they know it only too well, even if normally shooters ain’t their way.

On the downside is a questionable lack of initiative by some characters when opportunity presents itself, some iffy dialogue, a man-motorcyle chase in and out of hanging laundry (not kidding) and a ludicrous Mauser pistol + stock and sight that seems to have the range and accuracy of a sniper’s rife and the delivery of a sub-machine gun that would make Rambo proud – all from a nine-round magazine.

But the film carries it off. London, especially, is shot like a historical record, and at an interesting time when its south-of-the-river tower block estates were pre-ghetto or demolition. Car chases take place through any number of curious archways and tunnels, and the rundown Putney Hippodrome exterior (interior was apparently not Putney but you can see it inside and out a year later in the same director’s splendid “Theatre of Blood” with Vincent Price) provides the perfect place to stash cash.

The late 60s/early 70s provides a handful of revenge classics, “Point Blank” and “Get Carter” being the obvious names, but “Sitting Target” is worth keeping in your sights too.


Opening sequence


Man-motorcyle-laundry scene


Lifeforce (1985)

Cover of "Lifeforce"

Lifeforce DVD

More Cannon fodder from the 80s as hungry “space vampires” descend on London in a for the most part dated mess but just about saved by a few stylish touches and the bones of a good SF story trying to get out.

Rating: ★★½☆☆

This review was written 29 years too late

“What’s 150 miles long?” asks the captain of the Churchill with a smarmy face that says, “Apart from  my cock?”. Thus we meet our leading man in “Lifeforce“, the uncharismatic Steve Railsback whose Wikipedia bio says he studied at the Lee Strasberg School. Question is, did he study acting? Not on this showing.

Indeed, Railsback spends the rest of the film in a glum mood that barely recalls his singular flourish upon first appearing. Credit, perhaps though, as he’s not got a lot to be pleased with.

Obligatory topless picture of "Space Girl" Mathilda May that must be displayed when reviewing "Lifeforce"

Obligatory topless picture of Mathilda May that must be displayed when reviewing “Lifeforce”

See, he is Col. Tom Carlsen, the captain of the Churchill – an Airfix space shuttle – on a once-in-a-lifetime space mission to fly into Halley’s Comet. Upon arrival, he finds naked humanoid aliens: two blokes and a bird totally starkers. Phwoar. Thirty days later, his ship returns to Earth’s orbit with everyone aboard roasted to a crisp except our trio of aliens. And not long after that Carlsen shows up in an escape pod acting slightly odd and spaced out.

So begins the slow awakening of the aliens who bite, infect and titillate Londoners, leading to a “plague” (read: zombie) outbreak. Only Peter Firth‘s unlikely SAS colonel Colin Caine can figure it all out and save the world from the umbrella-shaped spaceship orbiting Earth that seems to be sucking the souls – or lifeforce – out of the infected.

“Lifeforce”, directed by Tobe Hooper of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” fame starts badly, with SF cliches in abundance and no real SF – the Churchill has physical tapes as the black box recorder; you’d think they’d develop something a little better along with their really fast spaceship engine, but no. It has some dreadful dialogue and very low-rent acting, yet manages to chuck in some neat sequences too.


Desiccated coconut

The film is let down by one daft situation after another – Carlsen and Caine talking to the British PM in a rotten looking bunker set; Carlsen and Caine running from place to place with the Home Secretary inevitably called “Sir Something-Or-Other”, stupid guards who can’t help opening the lab door when they really should know better.

On the plus side, the FX depicting desiccated bodies of reanimated victims have a plastic puppet – yet pleasing – appearance, and the obvious model effects of London getting trashed are too fake but still somehow satisfy. Add in the promise of a good story, solid actors given not enough to do (Frank Finlay, Patrick Stewart), and you can clearly see the original ambitions of the film.

Picard spits blood

Picard spits blood

Like much of Cannon’s output, the budget dictating a hurried production is all too apparent – they couldn’t even spell stunt man Terry Forrestal‘s name correctly – and ultimately “Lifeforce” suffers for it.

Still, worth a look just to assess its very obvious remake potential.




Unman, Wittering and Zigo (1971)

MPW-37212Neat British curio with David Hemmings as the new teacher at an old fashioned boarding school where things are not quite as they seem.
Just ask Wittering.

Rating: ★★★½☆

This review was written 43 years too late

Depending on how old you are, David Hemmings is the swinging 60s fashion photographer who might have snapped a murder in “Blowup“, the inventor of “Airwolf“, or the pointy eye-browed guy in charge of competition in “Gladiator“. Back in the early 70s, he was a bit of a name for a while, and he used this clout to get “Unman, Wittering and Zigo” made.

Directed with flair by John MacKenzie (“The Long Good Friday“), carrying off the always difficult trick of expanding original stage material to the cinema, he puts Hemmings in the remote Chantry school as the replacement master for the class Lower 5B. It doesn’t take long for the boys, who all carry on with the arrogance of future Tory ministers, to start remarking that they in fact killed Hemmings’ predecessor. (One of the kids is played by actor-turned-Labour-politician Michael Cashman.)

The film introduces this early on, giving a sense of not pulling any punches, and making for an enjoyable first act. With this quickly established, you start trying to figure where the film will go next.

And off it goes into some fun, dark places where, thankfully, restraint is employed to greater effect than pursuing the expected outcomes of an exploitation horror.

It’s “Unman’s…” strength – the film does not set out to be an exploitation orgy, nor is it a by-the-numbers horror or thriller. It’s more discomforting than anything else, creating a sense of unease without any of local weirdo camping-it-up to be found in Robin Hardy‘s otherwise excellent classic “The Wicker Man” a few years later.

Only the finale marginally disappoints, somehow lacking the climactic punch the film deserves as we learn about the titular trio of the title.

Watch a clip:

Outlander (2008)

220px-OutlanderposterEssentially an Army of Darkness remake that swaps Bruce Campbell‘s goofy time-traveller with Jim Caviezel’s earnest alien stranded in Viking-era Norway. Outhouse would have been a more appropriate title.

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆

This review was written  6 years too late

One should give time to filmmakers who at least try to do something different, especially in the crowded and cliched SF space.

Take something like Highlander (1986), which mashed up past and future (not to mention France and Scotland in its lead actors) and there was a film that at the time felt fresh, new and different.

So it can be done. Sadly, Outlander doesn’t do it. Jim Caviezel, a few years after taking a pasting as Jesus H himself, gets a tad biblical again as Kainan, a spaceman transporting the monster that killed his family only for his ship to crash and free the scary beast to kill and kill again.

Lucky for the beastie, it’s on the rampage in Norway a thousand or so years ago, meaning there are plenty of poor quality fortifications and stupid people for it to make hay with. With feuding villages blaming the attacks on each other (lots of macho posturing and long red hair) only Jim knows the answer, and after downloading the local lingo, he goes to sort things out.

This gives the plot equation: Jim + alien + king + princess who doesn’t like him + Norseman who loves princess and resents Jim. What happens next?

Take a wild fucking guess.

Outlander gets worse as it goes along. As predictable as cheap horror but with none of the knowingness or fun, we get the people who by choice separate from the pack and become beast bait. We get the “We killed it!” moment when villagers kill a bear that could never have massacred on the scale our monster does. We get the anachronisms – Vikings shouting, “Hold your fire!”. There’s an orphan kid, and John Hurt as the King, with the rest of the forgettable cast (excluding Sophia Myles who looks happy enough to pocket the cash for what she can clearly see is tosh) being abandoned extras from “Braveheart” or “Lord of the Rings”.

Caviezel is a likeable actor, indeed his turn in conspiracy TV series “Person of Interest” is nicely understated. Here, and like most of his big screen appearances, alas, he does not have the charisma to carry it off.

I’d rather buy the car.

Watch the trailer

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Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985)

Cover of "Remo Williams - The Adventure B...

Cover of Remo Williams – The Adventure Begins

Mid-80s effort to kick-start an American secret agent franchise. Also known as Remo Williams: Unarmed and Dangerous. Not also known as Remo Williams: Fairly Dull and Lame

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

This review was written  28 years too late

Sam Makin is a washed-out New York cop and Vietnam vet who gets picked by the most secret crime-fighting organisation CURE to be remodelled, retooled, and retrained as Remo Williams – a person who can murder anyone America does not like.

His death faked and his face altered, he finds himself pretty much forced into working for CURE, where he is trained by aged Korean Chiun, Master of Sinanju. Chiun can hear the bones in a finger working when an assailant pulls a gun trigger. Wooo.

Based on the 140+ book series The Destroyer, the wealth of source material plus the bullet-dodging, water-walking gimmickry of a Sinanju-trained hero made Remo an attractive target for a Bond-like franchise. The producers knew this, and dragged in Bond alumni in the form of veteran director Guy Hamilton (four Bond movies) and writer Christopher Wood (a pair under his belt) to try and give it some foundation and legs. Sadly, both were past their prime.

(Wood, incidentally, wrote the tawdry Confessions of a…” series of books that inspired the 70s film series, which in turn led to the just-as-bad, smuttier-than-Carry-On “Adventures of a…” comedies. Interesting fact: 1975’s Adventures of a Taxi Driver outgrossed 1975’s Taxi Driver in UK cinemas. Tenuous but curious.)

Remo has protracted training scenes where the enigmatic Chiun (Joel Grey) criticises his efforts to learn Sinanju but all the time secretly liking him. Interspersed, there’s a nonsense plot involving a dodgy arms dealer and Kate Mulgrew as the Army officer who discovers the secret, causing her to mew and simper whenever Remo shows up. She’s pathetic really.

Set-pieces include a poorly staged punch-up with some rejects from the Village People on the Statue of Liberty, a chase by a persistent Doberman, and Remo hanging off a log being transported through a forest on a cable while being shot at. Each of these is pierced by Craig Safan‘s intrusive score, trumpeting Remo’s successes with irritating fanfares of the main theme to remind you’ve just seen something, er, “spectacular”. Thanks for annoying the shit out of me.

Fred Ward doesn’t work as Remo. He’s got the tough guy smarts but, just as Chiun observes, he lacks subtlety. Ward’s prancing over wet concrete or arching his spine to duck bullets does not suggest mastery of a martial art but a campness, an exagerrated attempt at delicacy. Difficult for a man of Ward’s bulk and Remo’s machoism. Perhaps this is by design, and would have improved with sequels (oh, who am I kidding?). The producers tried, and failed, in finding Remo.

† See the excellent Shepperton Babylon by Matthew Sweet

Watch the trailer

The annoying fanfare, about one minute in here

†† A TV sequel pilot was actually made. See the “hilarious” self-aware riffing here:

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