Category Archives: British Movies

Murder Elite (1985)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Sisters feud over estate.

The story centers on Diane (Ali MacGraw) who moves in with her sister Margaret (Billie Whitelaw) at the family’s estate in England. Diane has frittered away her inheritance while living in America and now comes to Margaret in a near penniless state. Margaret expects Diane to ‘earn-her-keep’, but Diane resists doing any farm work and instead schemes at how to take control of the family’s fortune while having a fling with one of the farmhands named Ron (Ray Lonnen). She realizes that if Margaret dies then the estate will go to her, so she convinces Ron to kill Margaret when she goes out for one of her late night walks and then blame the death on a mysterious lady killer who has been terrorizing the countryside. However, things don’t go as planned as Diane and Ron soon find themselves being the ones in danger.

The film works as a weird hybrid between a slasher flick and an old-fashioned Agatha Christie-like mystery. The only interesting element is MacGraw’s presence who seems completely out-of-place in the English setting. This could easily be described as her career swan song as she never starred in another theatrical film after this one. In fact she only did four more movies, two of them being TV ones, and no film appearances at all since 1997. Usually when someone’s acting career has nosedived they turn to overseas projects, which is exactly what this was as she hadn’t had a hit movie in 13 years and was well over 40, so in many ways she had no choice, but to take it.

It might’ve worked had she had genuine acting talent, but it becomes painfully clear in her scenes with Whitelaw that she’s being seriously upstaged by a far more superior actress. Casting MacGraw as antagonist doesn’t gel as she’s unable to convey the necessary evilness. As sisters the two look nothing alike and Whitelaw is supposed to be ‘way older’ than MacGraw, but in reality they look practically the same age. During the early ‘70s Ali had long hair that came down to her waist and it looked great, by the later part of the decade she had cut it real short and it was okay, but her she wears it shoulder-length, which isn’t sexy at all.

The plot is only mildly intriguing and all the action takes place on the drab estate, which quickly becomes dull visually. There are a few twists to keep it watchable, but the one that comes at the end, which reveals who the true killer is, is full of loopholes making this little known mystery excursion come-off as flat and pointless.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: May 13, 1985

Runtime: 1 Hour 38 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Claude Whatham

Studio: Tyburn Entertainment

Available: VHS 

The Internecine Project (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Killing off his enemies.

Robert Elliot (James Coburn) is a former spy whose been given an offer as government advisor, but he must get rid of four people (Ian Hendry, Michael Jayston, Harry Andrews, Christiane Krueger) who hold secrets to his past before he can accept the position. To accomplish this he comes up with an ingenious plan, which consists of tricking these four to kill each other off all on the same night at around the same time while Robert sits comfortably at home and tracks their progress.

This is the type of intricate plot  that usually works best as a novel, but director Ken Hughes has things pretty well thought out. The first half isn’t too gripping, but once Robert’s scheme gets going it becomes quite intriguing. The plan certainly does border on being over-the-top and too dependent on the participants doing everything exactly as their instructed in order for it to be successful, but overall I felt it could’ve been possible, which is the main ingredient that makes it work as it manages to remain delicately within the realm of believability.

The supporting cast play their parts to the hilt complete with nervous ticks and flawed personalities, which helps add a fun dimension. Although clearly done on a modest budget the camera work and set design are creatively handled including one unique scene where the victim gets strangled by her killer through a shower curtain.

I also liked how one of the killers played by Christiane Kruger requires her instructions, which are given to her verbally by Coburn, to be repeated and written down as she is afraid she might forget them otherwise. I would respond in the exact same way even though most other movies in this genre will have the instructions spoken very quickly and only once, which would always make me wonder how they’re able to keep it all straight.

The only downside is the twist ending that seems like it was thrown in as a cutesy way to the end the film without much thought put into it. A really good twist should have some foreshadowing earlier that doesn’t seem all that important at the time and then when it’s all over allow the viewer to think back and go ‘A-ha, I should’ve seen that coming!’, but that’s not the case here.

If anything I would’ve had Lee Grant’s character more instrumental to the outcome as I could see no other purpose for her presence otherwise. I spent the whole film wondering why she was even in the movie and when it was over I was still asking that same question. She’s a beautiful lady, but her role is unfocused. One minute she’s feisty feminist and then the next she’s an emotionally needy wreck. She plays it well, but her efforts do nothing to propel the plot.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: July 24, 1974

Runtime: 1 Hour 29 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Ken Hughes

Studio: Allied Artists Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

The Lady Vanishes (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Where’s the old lady?

In 1939 while traveling by train from Bavaria to Switzerland American Heiress Amanda (Cybill Shepherd) befriends an English nanny named Miss Froy (Angela Lansbury). The two sit across from each other inside a train compartment. When Amanda awakens from a nap she notices that Miss Froy has disappeared and when she asks others where she went to everybody denies having even seen her. Amanda starts to question her own sanity and tries to use the assistance of American photographer Robert Condon (Elliot Gould) to help her figure out what is going on.

This film is a remake of the classic 1938 movie of the same name, which was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and based on the novel ‘The Wheel Spins’ by Ethel Lina White. I last saw the original over 30 years ago while attending college, so my memories of it are fuzzy and I’ll be unable to compare the two. However, I do remember enjoying it and feeling that this thing doesn’t quite reach the same level.

The biggest issue is the casting of Shepherd. I think she’s a gorgeous lady, I loved seeing her in the low cut white dress and at one point she even appears to bravely do her stunts by jumping off a moving train, but her acting is not up to par. She can be great as a bitchy, sarcastic woman or even as a kooky eccentric, but as someone we want to root for or sympathize with, no way. Some of her former co-stars including Bruce Willis and Christine Baranski have described her as being cold and competitive to deal with and that’s the exactly same vibe I get every time I see her. Her efforts to cover that up in an attempt to play a more likable character doesn’t work, so instead producers should cast her in parts that mesh with her personality while getting someone else more affable for this role.

Gould has the same problem. He looks bored and out-of-place and I don’t know why the nationalities of the two lead characters, which had been British in the original, were changed to American here, but it doesn’t help. Besides there is absolutely no chemistry between he and Shepherd, which makes the romantic angle come off as quite forced. He was also considerably older than her and they should’ve at the very least cast two people more in the same age range.

Even the great Angela Lansbury is all wrong here. She still gives the role a stellar performance with her best moment coming when her eyes well up with tears as the other passengers openly contemplate throwing her off the train and into the clutches of an SS officer standing outside, which proves that the truly great stars don’t need any speaking lines to convey just the right emotion.  However, she was only in her 50’s at the time and didn’t come off looking elderly. Dame May Whitty played the part in the original and was in her 70’s, which is what the age of the actress playing the part here should’ve been.

The basic premise is still entertaining enough to keep things passable, but I would’ve liked the mystery angle played up more by showing things only from Amanda’s perspective until the viewer started to question her sanity as well. The scene where Amanda sees the name Miss Froy written in the dust of a train window by the Lansbury character earlier and then having that name strangely disappear off the window after they go through a tunnel makes no sense. This was supposed to be a ‘realistic’ thriller and therefore surreal elements should not have been thrown in.

The climactic sequence is entertaining, Arthur Lowe is enjoyable in a supporting part, and the Austrian scenery is luscious, but the movie is marginal and only helps to make the viewer appreciate the original more than anything.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: May 8, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 35 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Anthony Page

Studio: Rank Film Distributors

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: They all did it.

The time is December, 1935 and world-renown detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) boards the Orient Express as an unexpected guest who’s able to find a spare compartment due to his friendship with the train’s owner (Martin Balsam). During the night one of the other passengers (Richard Widmark) is found dead and it is up to Poirot to solve the crime while the train remains stalled by a large snow bank.

This production is considered by many to be the best film version of any of Agatha Christie’s novel-to-screen attempts and in fact the author herself said as much when she attended a showing of the movie on the night of its premiere. Director Sidney Lumet’s ingenious touch is on-target the whole way as he creates a nice blend of kitsch and camp until the over-the-top costumes, playfully sharp dialogue, and glossy camerawork become more of the fun than the mystery itself.

In fact it’s Lumet’s ability to capitalize on the little things and control every minute detail that makes it so captivating even on repeat viewings. Their ability to turn an abandoned warehouse into a bustling train station is just one example. I also enjoyed the moment when the train leaves the station that gets done to the sound of a waltz composed specifically for the film by Richard Rodney Bennett. Originally they were going to have train sounds edited in and had hired a sound engineer who had spent his whole life recording these noises for specifically this purpose only to get the disappointment of his life when he was told that they had decided to go with the music alone, which crushed him so much that his eyes welled up with tears and he never returned.

Finney’s performance is outstanding. He was not someone you’d have in mind initially for this type of part, but through his brilliant acting and effective make-up he disappears into the role and immerses the viewer in the presence of this highly eccentric character and his unusual habits including the way he puts both his hair and moustache into a hair net before going to bed and reads a newspaper while wearing gloves.

The star studded supporting players are perfectly cast for their parts too. Anthony Perkins nicely plays-up his nervous man routine while Wendy Hiller is enjoyable as the caustic aging Princess who wears a constant frown because her doctor advised her that smiling ‘was not good for her health’. Widmark has an amusing conversation with Poirot particularly with his inability to correctly pronounce the detective’s last name and Ingrid Bergman shines in a small bit as a poor, but devoutly religious woman, which was enough to net her the Oscar for best supporting actress.

Spoiler Alert!

The murder scene in which all the passengers file into Widmark’s cabin and systematically take turns stabbing him is, like with everything else, astutely captured particularly with the way it’s shot by using only a blue tinged light as its sole light source. Lumet craftily uses a two-camera set-up here in which one camera captures the characters and the other focuses on Lauren Bacall’s character’s reactions to it as she stands at the doorway as a lookout. Bacall was never known as an actress to show much vulnerable emotion, but here, at least through her facial expressions, she does quite well. However, this segment also reveals a fatal flaw as Poriot’s cabin was right next to Widmarks’s and earlier in the film he was able to hear the conversations going on in the cabin next him almost perfectly, but then as each participant takes turns stabbing Widmark they say something out loud and yet for whatever reason Poirot never hears this, which makes you wonder why.

End of Spoiler Alert!

The script, by Paul Dehn, gets talky but is saved by its amusing verbal exchanges and Lumet’s use of different lenses to capture it, so I didn’t find it a problem in a movie that deserves its classic status both a mystery and cinematic achievement. The remake directed by Kenneth Branagh is set to be released in November.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: November 24, 1974

Runtime: 2 Hours 8 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Sidney Lumet

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Blu-ray (Region B/2, A/1)

Death on the Nile (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Murder on the river.

Based on the 1937 Agatha Christie novel of the same name the story centers around everyone’s favorite Belgium sleuth Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) as he tries solve a murder that occurs while he is traveling on a steamer going down the famous Nile River.

The on-location shooting in Egypt is the film’s chief asset. The scene where actors Simon MacCorkindale and Lois Chiles climb to the outer top of a pyramid is impressive as in the extended scene inside the Karnak Temple Complex. However, outside of this the visuals are blah and this entry fails to show the same cinematic flair done 4 years earlier of another Christie novel that was brought to the big screen Murder on the Orient Express.

I was also not too impressed with the steamer that was used to cart the characters down the river as it appeared to be too small and not at all luxurious. The fact that the production crew took a real steamer that they had found and then painstakingly recreated it to a minute detail inside the Pinewood studios in London is certainly commendable, but I felt the insides of the cabins were too big and too fancy and not in proportion to the actual boat that we see from the exterior, which looked like nothing more than a cheap, mid-sized thing that could be rented by a small family at a modest price for an afternoon on the lake.

The story itself takes too long to get going and in fact the murder and actual mystery doesn’t occur until 1 hour and 10 minutes in. Mia Farrow gives a provocative performance and it’s interesting seeing how things were before there were anti-stalking laws and people could simply follow around those that they hated, which is what the Farrow character does here, and harass the hell out of them without any fear of breaking any penalty, but the set-up gets too played out. The supporting cardboard characters are dull and put in simply to heighten the mystery with their own motives for wanting to kill the victim, which comes off as formulaic.

The ultimate denouncement isn’t too great either. I never read the book, so I don’t know how closely this follows it, but the explanation for how the killing is done hinged too much on careful split-second timing that I don’t think anyone would’ve been able to actually accomplish nor even want to risk trying. Also, the evidence that Poirot uses to solve the crime is threadbare and circumstantial to the extreme and if the killer’s hadn’t ultimately cracked under pressure I’m not so sure they would’ve been convicted.

The cast of big name stars is wasted and only Angela Lansbury is entertaining as the alcoholic erotic novelist, but even here her drunken condition gets overplayed as we never ever see her sober making it seem almost like she suffers from a degenerative disease like cerebral palsy. Ustinov is no fun as Poirot and Albert Finney was far better as he played the same character in a more lovable and amusingly eccentric way. He was asked to reprise the role, which he played in Murder on the Orient Express, but due to the unpleasant grind of having to wear a lot of makeup for the part he ended up declining.

If you’re a fan of Agatha Christie or enjoy mysteries then you may take to this a bit more. It’s still watchable and even marginally engrossing; however despite the excellent cast and splashy production values the ultimate effect is flat.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: September 29, 1978

Runtime: 2Hours 20Minutes

Rated PG

Director: John Guillermin

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD

Bad Timing (1980)

bad-timing-1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: He needs to control.

Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel) is an American psychiatrist teaching at a Vienna University who falls for a free-spirited young lady named Milena (Theresa Russell). Despite still being married to the much older Stefan (Denholm Elliot) she decides to leave him and move in with Alex, but their relationship soon becomes rocky. Alex gets jealous of her flirtatious ways and wants to control her, but she resists. Their constant fighting sends her into a depression and she begins to abuse both drugs and alcohol. One night Alex finds Milena’s comatose body inside her apartment apparently the victim of an overdose. She gets rushed to the hospital, but the police detective on the case (Harvey Keitel) isn’t so sure that Alex is being completely honest with him about how the events unfolded and through a fragmented narrative the viewer slowly becomes aware of Alex’s very dark and possessive side.

This movie, which was labeled by its distributor as being “a sick film made by sick people for sick people”, still remains as fresh and provocative as when it was first released. The possessive boyfriend theme was at the time a new concept and thus thankfully avoids the annoying clichés we now see in today’s movies while still coming off as groundbreaking and edgy instead. Yale Udoff’s script nicely weaves a complex texture between examining the dark psychological undercurrents of its characters to also creating an intricate and original mystery that keeps you on edge until its final and still quite shocking ending.

Director Nicolas Roeg crafts a mesmerizing visual design with each shot and edit and I especially liked the way he intercuts between showing Milena unconscious inside the emergency room to scenes of her and Alex making love. Their cluttered apartment is interesting as well and tends to be messier when the two are at odds and more organized when they’re apart. Roeg employs a wide range of music styles instead of just choosing one and playing it over and over like in most other movies.

The film’s main defect is Garfunkel’s presence whose acting talent is limited. His character is interesting particularly with the way he majored in psychiatry and yet seemed to be suffering from many of the same problems that he was studying making it seem almost like people who get into that line of work do it not so much to help others, but instead as a sort-of self-analyzation for themselves. However, his performance is wooden and his only memorable bit is when he and Milena hitch-hike a ride with some farmers and he gets stuck in the back of their pick-up with the goats while she rides up front with the two guys and he jealously looks in on them from the rear window.

Russell, who went on to marry director Roeg after this film was completed, goes in the exact opposite direction by overplaying her character until it becomes almost campy. Why this beautiful woman, who gets lots of attention from just about every guy she meets, would fall for such a dull dope like Alex makes no sense nor does her need to constantly try and win him back every time he mistreats her.

The best performances come from the supporting players. Keitel nails it as the cunning detective and Elliot has a great moment where he continues to casually eat his lunch while Alex harangues him on the other end of the telephone receiver.

Despite the miscasting of its two leads and the fact that the movie saw only a limited engagement when it was first released the film has still managed to gain a strong cult following. Much of this can be credited to Roeg’s artsy direction as well as the dark ending that still packs-a-punch.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: September 21, 1980

Runtime: 2Hours 2Minutes

Rated R

Director: Nicolas Roeg

Studio: Rank Film Distributors

Available: DVD (Criterion Collection), Blu-ray (Region B/2), Amazon Video

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

my-beautiful-laundrette-1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Gay couple manage laundromat.

Genghis (Richard Graham) is a young Pakistani immigrant living in London and feeling frustrated by being trapped in his humble surroundings while living with his father (Roshan Seth) who due to his left leaning politics and alcoholism is unable to bring in any meaningful income. His Uncle Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey) is doing quite well even though some of his methods are unscrupulous. Nasser gets Genghis a job at his car washing facility, but Genghis has loftier goals. He wants to take over the rundown laundromat that Nasser owns and turn it into a thriving business with the help of his gay lover Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis). Nasser agrees and is surprised to see what a success it becomes, but is unaware that Genghis and Johnny are funding it with the help of illegal drug money and Salim (Derrick Blanche) is onto their scheme and wants a part of the take.

The film’s screenplay was written by Hanif Kureishi who liked the title character came to Britain from Pakistan and has become a much celebrated playwright despite starting his career writing pornographic novels. The story brings out many complex issues that could prove fascinating to those unfamiliar with the political landscape of Great Britain during the Margaret Thatcher era. The problems and racism that those from Pakistan had to face in the U.K. are vividly brought to the forefront, but what is even more interesting is the pressures and loyalties that they were expected to follow amongst their own culture and families and how these could end up being just as conflicting and confining as those placed on them by the outside world.

I enjoyed many of the scenarios that the film brings out, but was frustrated that the story offers no conclusion to any of them. I was interested in seeing how Nasser would react to Genghis and Johnny’s relationship, but we never get to find out even though the film teases us with a scene where he begins to suspect it. There is also no conclusion as to what ultimately happens to their laundromat business, or whether they were successfully able to expand it, which again gets touched upon. We aren’t even able to find out if Salim was able to survive a vicious beating by some street punks or whether these same punks were ever brought to justice. Why bother bringing up all these story threads if they are just going to be left open and why should the viewer be sucked into the quandaries of these characters if it is all just leads to one big ambiguous ending?

Daniel Day-Lewis shot to stardom with his role here, but I didn’t really feel he had the body type to be considered a ‘tough guy’ or even a bouncer type. Sure he’s tall, but still pretty skinny and not exactly muscular. I also thought the trendy pseudo-hip getups and hairstyles that he and his gang have look tacky and I first saw this film back when it was released and I felt the same way about the outfits then that I do now.

The direction by an up-and-coming Stephen Frears is okay, but his use of a soundtrack that resembles the noise of a washing machine takes away from the gritty drama element that this story supposedly wants to be as does the onscreen opening and closing titles that spin around like clothes in a dryer.

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My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: August 18, 1985

Runtime: 1Hour 37Minutes

Rated R

Director: Stephen Frears

Studio: Working Title Films

Available: DVD, Blu-ray (Criterion Collection), Amazon Video

House on Straw Hill (1976)

house-on-straw-hill-1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10      

4-Word Review: Writer battles his secretary.

Paul (Udo Kier) is a writer who had success with his first novel and now working on his much anticipated second one. To help him get the manuscript done faster he hires a secretary (Linda Hayden) who comes to his isolated, countryside home to type it up, but the two don’t get along. Soon Paul becomes convinced that she is out to kill him and he just may be right.

This pseudo horror film has an enticing visual style.  I liked the close-up shots of the typewriter keys banging on the paper as well as the giant wheat field surrounding the home, which to a degree helps create an interesting atmosphere, but writer/director James Kenelm Clarke goes back to these things too often eventually making the film one-dimensional and monotonous.

The film is also loaded with a lot of explicit sex. If this were a porno then that would be great, but for an intended horror film it goes off the mark completely. We really don’t need to see Linda constantly masturbating. Having Paul find a dildo in her suitcase as he does would’ve been enough. Linda’s ultimate seduction of Paul’s girlfriend (Fiona Richmond) in a provocative lesbian sequence is completely pointless to the story and clearly just done to grab the crowd that’s into watching mindless sleaze.

The characters come off as weird, half-human caricatures whose motivations and actions are confusing. Both Paul and Linda needed to be better fleshed out for the viewer to have any compelling reason to care what happens to either one of them. The scene where Linda masturbates in the wheat field and is then attacked and raped by some locals only for her to turn-the-tables on them and kill them is particularly stupid because she is somehow able to immediately compose herself afterwards and come back to the house and act like it never happened when with anyone else it would’ve been an emotionally traumatic experience that would’ve taken months maybe even years to get over if even then.

The film’s twist ending is particularly weak and the film should’ve used flashbacks and other subtle clues to help the viewer figure it out for themselves the reasons for Linda’s motivations instead of having it all explained to them by her at the end. I also didn’t like the title as it is too reminiscent to Straw Dogs, which also took place in a remote home in the English countryside and dealt with a rape by some of the local thugs. This might’ve been intentional, but it was a big mistake because it just reminds the viewer of that movie, which was far better.

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My Rating: 3 out of 10

Alternate Titles: Trauma, Expose

Released: March 15, 1976

Runtime: 1Hour 24Minutes

Rated X

Director: James Kenelm Clarke

Studio: Norfolk International Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

The Walking Stick (1970)

walking-stick

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Polio victim becomes pawn.

Deborah (Samantha Eggar) is a shy, lonely woman who suffered from polio as a young girl and now must rely on the use of a cane to get around. She still lives with her parents while suffering from claustrophobic tendencies due to being locked inside an iron lung as a child. She meets Leigh (David Hemmings) a struggling artist at a party and he asks her out. Initially she resists his advances, but eventually gives in. The two form a tight bound and even move in together, but her fairytale romance is short-lived once she realizes that she’s been pegged as a pawn and simply used by his gang for her inside knowledge of the auction house where she works to pull off a daring robbery.

The film, which is based on the novel by Winston Graham, is quite leisurely paced. To a degree I didn’t find this to be a problem as it still managed to hold my interest, but too much time is spent on the romance making it seem more like a drama.

The robbery and its planning doesn’t come into play until well over an hour in and seems like a whole different movie altogether. Certain hints should’ve been brought in from the beginning to make it clear to the viewer that despite all the romance this was still meant to be a thriller, which is just not obvious at all. The crime scenes do at least provide some action and quick edits, which normally would’ve made it exciting, but because it takes so long to get there it comes off as off-putting instead. The intended tension doesn’t work because we are less concerned if Leigh and his gang are going to get away with it and more upset at seeing Deborah being taken advantage of.

Eggar gives an outstanding performance and seeing this normally effervescent woman wearing a perpetual frown seemed almost startling, but she conveys her characters inner unhappiness quite well and mostly through her facial expressions alone. However, her character is also quite cold and acerbic. To a degree this is understandable as it’s clearly just a defense, but the viewer never sees enough of her softer side and therefore doesn’t emotional bond with her as they should.

Hemming’s more outgoing personality creates a nice contrast to Eggar’s introverted one, but his character is pretty benign. Dudley Sutton who plays his cohort would’ve made a better boyfriend as he is good at showing a dark side and would’ve kept the viewer more on edge.

The ending doesn’t provide any type of clear wrap-up and leaves a lot of loose ends hanging, which is a pity. The production values are decent and I liked the flashback scenes showing Debora being put into an iron lung, which is the film’s best cinematic moments, but the pace needed to be tighter with more emphasis placed on the story’s twists and turns.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: April 15, 1970

Runtime: 1Hour 41Minutes

Rated GP

Director: Eric Till

Studio: MGM

Available: DVD-R (Warner Archive), Amazon Instant Video

Excalibur (1981)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: The sword is magical.

The mystical sword named Excalibur gets cast into a stone by Uther (Gabriel Byrne) and the wizard Merlin (Nicol Williamson) proclaims that the next man to be able to remove it will become the King of England. Many try and fail, but years later it is Uther’s illegitimate son Arthur (Nigel Terry) who is able to do it.  Although very young he is able to create the Kingdom of Camelot with the help of Merlin. He also marries Guenevere (Cheri Lunghi) who has an affair with his most trusted knight Lancelot (Nicholas Clay) and then his half-sister Morgana (Helen Mirren) steals away Merlin’s powers and uses them to try and destroy the kingdom.

The story is based on the book by Thomas Malory who supposedly wrote it while he was incarcerated. Although this film is considered a classic now it was not as well received when it was first released. Critic Roger Ebert called it ‘a mess’ and the great Pauline Kael described the dialogue as being ‘atrocious’. For me I found it long, but enjoyable even though I’m not crazy for this type of genre.

One of the things that I didn’t particularly care for, or find all that exciting were the battle scenes. Watching men roll around in the mud with their swords doesn’t come off as too interesting when compared to gun battles. There were also too many of them and all seemed too similar to the others with the final one ruined by having it shrouded in fog. In reality the knight’s armor was also always made by either steel or iron, but for this film they created it out of aluminum, which made it appear too flimsy and clanky. It is also given a bright glow, which was intentional, but I didn’t care for it.

What I did enjoy was the atmosphere particularly when they go off to search for the grail. The scene where the men approach an area that has dead bodies hanging from the trees and a crow sitting on a branch biting off one of the corpses’ eyeballs, which apparently took several days of continuously rolling the camera before the bird did what they wanted, is in one of the best moments in the film. I also liked the magical glow given off by Camelot when it is seen from a distance, but I would’ve liked a shot of the magical kingdom seen up close, which never occurs and was probably due to budgetary restraints, but would’ve been cool.

The performances are all-around excellent. Terry does quite well in the lead playing Arthur at different stages of his life, but I was most impressed at the way he came off as convincingly being only 19 at the beginning even though he was really already 35. Clay, who plays Lancelot, also looks like he was barely over 20 when in reality he was 34. Williamson is amusing as Merlin and Mirren is effectively evil as the villainess. This is also a great chance to see Patrick Stewart and Liam Neeson in some early roles.

The movie moves along briskly and is overall entertaining although some the scene transitions and dramatic arcs were awkward. Those that are into medieval fantasy will clearly enjoy it more.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: April 10, 1981

Runtime: 2Hours 20Minutes

Rated R

Director: John Boorman

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video