Wednesday, March 30, 2011

'Diabolik' is lots of fun, despite its excesses

Danger: Diabolik (aka "Diabolik") (1968)
Starring: John Phillip Law, Marissa Mell, Michel Piccoli, and Aldolfo Celi
Director: Mario Bava
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

In "Danger: Diabolik", the long-standing rivalry between the mysterious supertheif Diabolik (Law) and police inspector Ginko (Piccoli) becomes personal when Ginko forces a top gangster (Celi) to take action against his foe and the love of Diabolik's life, Eva (Mell) is caught in the middle.

I read maybe a couple dozen of the "Diabolik" comics when I was a kid, and two I have the fondest memories of is the one where Diabolik and Ginko team up to rescue their wives from a crook who has kidnapped them, and another where they are both on a cruise ship that gets taken over by terrorists, forcing a sort-of team-up between the two.

As portrayed in "Danger: Diabolik", such cooperation would never have taken place--the two men appear to dislike each other entiely too much, even if the respect they have for one another in the comic books still seems to be present to some degree--but aside from this small "failing", I think this film mostly conveys the essense of its source material better than most other comic book movies out there. It's not quite as dark as I remember "Diabolik" being, but it's entertaining enough.

Star John Phillip Law and the costume designers even took pains to match the physical appearance of Diabolik from the comics. There is no arbitrary "re-imagining" for its own sake in this film, as everyone seemed comfortable with and knowledgeable of the source material ot the point where they could do a faithful adaptation. (Even the musical score captures the simultaneous playfulness and grim intensity that were the hallmarks of the "Diabolik" comic.

There's further icing on this cake, as there literally isn't a single scene in this film that isn't staged in a visually arresting fashion. Director/cinematographer Mario Bava manage to fully bring a comic-book feel to the screen, presenting the sort of motion and three-dimensionality that the illustrators of the "Diabolik" comic are attempting to achieve with the many chase scenes and close calls the characters execute in those pages.

Bava also manages to bring a comic book feel in subtle and visually creative ways. Many scenes have the sense of being panels in motion, with action being framed in various ways, sometimes even feeling like "inset panels", like where Diabolik and Eva are staking out a break-in target, and we see their faces in the review mirror, framed before the building they are watching. The most impressive of the many instances of this in the film is a conference of gangsters that is viewed through a lattice, with characters positioned around the room and isolated in their own frames while speaking.

While the creative cinemagrapy is a joy to behold, some of the sets and mat-paintings are equally impressive. Diabolik's secret hideout, with its many security precautionsand gadgets is the sort of thing James Bond's nemisis Blofeld wishes he could have. Lex Luthor probably has lair-envy as well. (Although neither Blofeld nor Luthor would know what do to with Diabolik's huge rotating bed where he and Eva have wild sex while coverd in millions of dollars....)[/left]

As much as I admire the visuals and the sets, I think these also end up being counted among its weaknesses, despite their beauty (or perhaps becaome of it). Director Bava also seems to have been aware that he and his crew had made a very special movie here, and he is just a little too proud of their work and he shows off the sets and the matpaintings just a little too much. On more than one occassion, he spends so much time dwelling on them that the movie starts to sputter and stall--the worst of these is the scene of Diabolik and Eva making love, while visually cool, goes on for so long that it becomes downright boring. It always recovers thanks to even more great visuals and a script that is jam-packed with action, but the film could have been so much better if some of the scenes have been trimmed a bit.

Speaking of the script, this film would also have been alot better if its creators had known when to quit. There is a perfect ending for the filmd, and even a suitable denoument, but it continues well beyond that point and even gets a bit repetitious.

I'm certain the intent was to include a truly impossible crime in the film--to push it completely over the top--but the end result is a feeling that two different major heists and two different endings had been contemplated for the script (each with its own impossible escape for Diabolik) and in the end it was decided to use both of them. The result is that viewers will start feeling a little impatient during the film's final 10-15 minutes, but because we've already sat through something that's thematically identical and that brought the story to a satisfying close.

"Danger: Diabolik" is an mostly well-done, light-hearted action flick, and it's definately underrated and under-appreciated. I recommend you purchase or rent this flick. If it didn't keep going past the point where it should have ended, and if it had been a little more like the actual comics, it would have been perfect.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

'Red Riding' is a moody mystery

Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974 (2009)
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Rebecca Hall, Anthony Flanagan, Sean Bean, David Morrissey, and John Henshaw
Director: Julian Jarrold
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A rookie crime beat reporter (Garfield) tries to discover the identity of a serial killer preying on little girls in Yorkshire, but in the process runs headlong into a dangerous and far-reaching conspiracy involving corrupt police officers, a ruthless real estate developer (Bean), and perhaps even the mother of one of the victims (Hall).

Rarely have so many great performances been featured in a film so intense and stylish added up to so little. By the time the 100 minutes of "Red Riding" have run their course, you'll have witnessed one of film history's most incompetent journalist-detectives blunder his way through a twisted maze of perversion and corruption, solve the case, kinda-sorta see justice done... and you'll find yourself wondering, "Is that it?"

Given that this is the first part in a three-part series based on a true story of a serial killer that terrorized Yorkshire in the 1970s and 1980s--and some conspiracy theorists hold that the killer may still be at large.

Based on this movie, one can easily buy into that conspiracy as the Yorkshire in "Red Riding" makes Chicago look like Mayberry by comparison. Everyone with the smallest scrap of power is tied to a corrupt political machine, and anyone who tries to challenge that machine ends up discredited or dead. In the end, it's a somewhat depressing movie, because the over-arcing message is that "evil always wins".

Part of why evil wins in this film is because good is so damn stupid. The erstwhile hero of the film is both cowardly and lazy, which makes him a very realistic character but it also makes for frustrating viewing. He makes the wrong choice at every single opportunity and ultimately becomes part of the very cover-up he is trying to unravel. Although it's probably a good thing for the series of movies that he--if not for the real-life victims of the Yorkshire Ripper--because the corrupt cops and politicians and business people in this film aren't much smarter. With the way they carry on in this film, and the messes they leave behind, their goose would have been cooked long before whatever ultimate solution will be offered to the central mystery of this film in the third film, "Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1983". Unless, of course, Yorkshire really does make Chicago look like Mayberry by comparison.

While you may feel a little frustration at the stupidity of the reporter hero of this film, it is worth watching for the great acting. Sean Bean in particular puts on a good show as a menacing real estate tycoon who may or may not entertain himself on the weekends by kidnapping and murdering little girls and sewing swan wings on their backs.

At the very least, the film serves as a nice stage-setting for the next chapter in the series, which I will be watching and reviewing shortly.

Monday, March 7, 2011

'The Heist' isn't worth stealing

The Heist (aka "Unlawful Force") (1997)
Starring: Cynthia Geary, Andrew McCarthy, Wolf Larson, Peter Hanlon, Hannes Jaenicke, Brent Stait, and Janice Simmons
Director: Michael Kennedy
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A retired police officer (Geary) turned security company dispatcher engages in a battle of nerves and wits with the leader of a gang that is staging a robbery (McCarthy).

"The Heist" is a made-for-TV movie that screams "cheap" from every single frame. From its limited locations (all of the interior spaces were probably on the same sound stage and all the exteriors feel like they were probably filmed around the same rundown industrial park) to the run-down vehicles used throughout the picture, this is a movie with a budget so low it can't conceal it.

It doesn't help matters that the script is predictable in every way but one (I guessed wrong when it came to the identity of the "mole" in the security company that was, but I called every other plot development long before it made its way onto the screen, and anyone who has seen more than two or three crime dramas will easily do the same.

It's not a particularly bad movie--it's paced decently, no one in the cast embarrasses themselves or their co-stars with bad performances, and stars McCarthy and Geary are as good as one expects them to be, based on work that came both before and after this film--but it's also not particularly good. "Bland" is the perfect adjective to describe it.

This is a film that deserved to fade into TV oblivion, but someone acquired the DVD rights cheaply enough to put it out there for rent and purchase. Unless you're the world's biggest fan of Andrew McCarthy or Cynthia Geary, or unless you've set yourself the goal of watching every single heist movie ever made in North American, it isn't even worth shoplifting.