Thursday, 31 October 2013

Grim (1995)

I paid $2 for my DVD of this low budget horror film from the UK. I'm not sure I got my money's worth.

Grim is a derivative and inept monster movie, with a slim plot, bland characters, and very little in the way of either tension or action.  What it does have plenty of is "stupidity".  Right from the start it kicks us off with ouija board action.  You know, the board game produced by Hasbro.  Summoning any genuine supernatural force with one of those is a bit like starting WW3 by playing a game of Risk.

Nonetheless, in the world of this movie, ouija boards can waken a vicious troll from its eternal slumber, and said troll can then run around killing and eating people.  Except, you know, for the random scantily clad woman that it abducts and keeps chained up for no apparent purpose (at least, thank goodness, no purpose shown on screen).

Like all sane persons, what the characters in this film do when confronted by a series of murders is to go spelunking.  Because there have also been strange subsidences in the ground and obviously these things are connected.  Seriously, I know movie characters are usually hopeless at making connections between obviously related things, but there's such a thing as going too far in the opposite direction.

Now to be fair, some of the folks on the caving party were involved in accidentally summoning the creature and so know it is there and want to either banish or control it, depending on their individual personalities.  But every other character who goes along must've just read the script or something.

So they wander around the caves for a long time, bickering with each other, until they start being picked off by the troll.  I don't remember exactly what the timer count was up to by the time they started dying, but I wish it was earlier.  Eventually the obvious survivor characters work out the creature's weakness and defeat it.

This is a very poor film, with the only entertainment being just how badly staged, edited and acted some of the scenes in it are.  There are much better schlockly films out there: watch them instead.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon (1964)

Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon has a lot of moving parts. There are a trio of villains who work together but also vie for dominance amongst their troika, scheming and double-dealing among themselves and with others. There is also a fourth villain whose rivalry with the primary troika means he is Herc's ally until his sudden and inevitable betrayal. And there's an extended "I am Spartacus" sequence with a group of female captives, as the villains attempt to determine who among them is secretly their queen. Just in case that's wasn't enough, said queen also happens to be Herc's lover. An uncharitable viewer might think that all these shenanigans were an attempt to minimise Herc's role in the film, since he is a bit crap. And I guess I am that viewer.

Hercules in played by "Rock Stevens", the manliest of manly stage names for Peter Lupus, who would go on to minor stardom as Willy Armitage in the original Mission: Impossible series. I suspect he worked better in that show than he did in this, since there he was a member of a team (specifically, the muscle) rather than having to shoulder the burden of the lead role.

In any case, all the extra-curricular activities of the plot aside, this is an unambitious, by the numbers sword-and-sandal film. It can't even muster up the enthusiasm for an ill-conceived monster costume. And what is a Hercules film without a monster fight?

This is also one of four consecutive Hercules films in my "Sci Fi Classics" box set. So I'm going to be watching a lot of this sort of stuff for a while. Here's hoping that the others have more to recommend them.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Starcrash (1978)

Some people don't like Starcrash. These are people who worry about the unimportant aspects of filmmaking. You know, minor stuff like "acting", and "writing", and "sanity". It must be a very sad existence these people lead.

Like many science fiction films of the later 70s, this US/Italian co-production really, really wants to be Star Wars. But whereas other films were willing to limit themselves to ripping off the opening shot and the general space opera feel, Starcrash takes a much more vigorous approach to imitation. We have a protagonist with a sky-themed name. We have a space smuggler. We have a missing prince(ss). We have a "comical" robot sidekick. We have a mentor figure with psychic powers and a light saber (seriously, they don't even try to disguise it). We have an apocalyptic doomsday weapon. We have our heroes engaging in a desperate attack on the enemy space station as the climax of the movie.

We also have some of the most hysterically bad sets and costumes, often be-decked in a garish array of colours. Seriously, at times the only thing more purple than the dialogue is the visuals. The movie also sports two of the most hysterically awful space battles in the history of film. And a giant robotic amazon. With nipples.

Seriously, if you have any kind of appreciation for bad films, you owe it to yourself to see Starcrash.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Mesa of the Lost Women (1953)

There's a surprising amount of critical analysis of Mesa of the Lost Women on wikipedia. Of course, given the movie's title and budget it's surprising the film attracted any such analysis. Possibly it got the attention because former child star Jackie Coogan (who would later go on to be Uncle Festus) appears as the villain.

Anyway, criticial analysis of such items as 'the meaning of the watch' aside, what we have here is a pretty plodding affair, despite its claims of 'deadly beauties' and 'deformed dwarves'. The plot's typically nutty low-budget 50s SF: the evil Dr Aranya (Coogan) has discovered a way to splice spider-traits into humans. In women, this creates seductive beauties who can regenerate lost limbs; in men, it turns them into dwarves. Aranya plans to use his experiments to conquer the world, and isn't shy about telling anyone who happens along what his plans might be. Of course, when your plans are:

  1. make monsters
  2. ?????
  3. profit!

you're probably not the most sensible of chaps. Amusingly, the writers have Aranya refer to spiders as both 'insects' and 'hexopods'. Because nothing says 'genius' like not knowing how many legs a spider has!

Not surprisingly, Aranya's plans don't go over so well with sane persons, and efforts are made to stop him. Not that much effort is actually needed, as the entire troop of villains are over-powered by three people.

The film does get points for having a male lead who is actually compassionate and caring toward his love interest, though. Those are depressingly rare traits in leading men.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Reds (1981)

Contrary to popular belief among my friends, I do occasionally watch 'quality' films. Reds is Warren Beatty's Oscar-winning biopic of John Reed, not the Bruce Willis action movie about retired spies.  Though I have seen that film too, and it was pretty good.

Reed was the US journalist who wrote Ten Days That Shook the World, a first person account of the Bolshevik revolution. An avowed socialist, Reed would ultimately die in Russia and be buried in the Kremlin.

Though Reed is the nominal subject and protagonist, I felt the film more truly seemed to revolve around his wife, Louise Bryant, also a journalist and also present in Russia during rhe revolution. Her character is the one who seems to grow in strength and self-belief over the course of the movie.  She begins as something of a talented but directionless dilettante, but matures into a skilled writer and a person who is willing to undergo considerable hardship and danger for what is important to her.  Reed also experiences life-changing moments, but I found his story felt less personal; more an everyman tale of the socialist experience in the early 20th century.

Diane Keaton turns in an excellent performance as Bryant, and is superbly matched by Beatty as Reed, and Jack Nicholson as playwright Eugene O'Neill.  All three were deservedly nominated for Oscars for their performance, though none of them won (Beatty did pick up Best Director, though).

I do feel that at 195 minutes, the film is longer than it needed to be, and some of the pacing choices are not what I would have done. But this is a well - and lovingly - crafted film about a turbulent and important time in the world. Well worth a look if you have the patience for it.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

The Lost Jungle (1934)

Attempts to turn non-acting celebrities into box office dollars have been happening pretty much since Hollywood began.  Clyde Beatty was a famous animal tamer of the early 30s, with an act that could include up to 40 lions and tigers at the same time, and the film industry smelled the chance to make a buck.

Released as both a serial and a film, The Lost Jungle was the second of Beatty's celluloid adventures, and it's pretty much entirely dedicated to showing off his work with the big cats. He spends inordinate sections of the film's short run time with whip and chair in hand, putting various beasts through their paces. Ironically, the amount of time he spends in such pursuits is a plot point in the film, when his fiancee tires of always coming second to the animals and leaves with her father on an extended biological expedition.

The purpose of this expedition is to find a legendary island that served as the origin point for all the animals of Africa and Asia.  This award-winningly bad bit of science is doubtless an excuse to have both lions and tigers running around in the same location.  In any case, the expedition succeeds in its goal of finding the island ... by being shipwrecked on it.

News of his fiancee's disappearance finally distracts Beatty from his animals and he finagles his way onto the dirigible that is sent out to rescue the lost expedition.  But a storm blows up and the airship crashes!  I bet you can't guess where ...

This is a very light bit of film-making, with the story existing purely as a mechanism to move Beatty from one animal taming set piece to another, and you're only likely to enjoy it if such sequences appeal to you.  They don't to me, I have to say.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Five Children and It (2004)

I bought Five Children and It in Bangkok airport, while waiting for a flight home after attending my sister's wedding.

I made the purchase solely on the strength of reading the book as a kid.  Edith Nesbit's novel wasn't as resonant a part of my childhood as say Swallows & Amazons, but that I remembered it at all, some 25 years after reading it, qualified it for a look in my mind.  Especially when I was paying for it in Thai baht :)

How is the adaptation?  Well, it's a solid enough children's movie. It doesn't break any new ground artistically, and Freddie Highmore is nowhere near as likeable as the filmmakers seem to think, but Kenneth Branagh is clearly having a blast as 'crazy uncle Albert', easily stealing pretty much every scene he's in. Eddie Izzard's turn as the voice of 'It' is a bit, well ... "it's a bit 'it and miss", you might say :) ... but he too seems to be having fun.

Plot-wise, the movie drops some of the darker elements of the novel, as well as some of the culturally insensitive ones, such as the portrayal of native Americans and the Roma.  It also adds some First World War elements to the tale, which were wholly absent from the book, what with it being released fourteen years before the war began.

Decent enough family entertainment if you have 5-12 year olds around.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Laser Mission (1989)

Laser Mission (aka Soldier of Fortune) is one of the films Brandon Lee made that are not The Crow. And it's awful. Truly, sublimely, terrible. Whether it be Lee's complete inability to deliver a line; the incongruous cold war plot line for a film made in the year the Berlin Wall fell; the insane motivations and actions of the villains; the presence of a massive desert and safari lodge in what is meant to be Cuba; or the tuneful-but-utterly-unfitting soundtrack, this film delivers gloriously entertaining ineptitude on every trashtastic front.

It's also totally not a science fiction film, let alone a"Sci Fi Classic", unless one stretches the definition of science fiction until it is meaningless.  There's a some waffle about using lasers and a stolen diamond to make a bomb, but everything else is low-rent James Bond all the way.  Lee plays Michael Gold, a secret agent sent to rescue a scientist named Dr Braun (Ernest Borgnine, in his post-Airwolf "may as well appear in any old rubbish" phase) from the KGB.  Along the way, he teams up with Braun's daughter, whose principal qualification for spy shenanigans appears to be "has a lot of cleavage".

This is a bad, bad film ... but I found it to be bad in a delightful way.  If the idea of a bombastically stupid 80s spy movie appeals to you, you should check it out.

The Trail Beyond (1934)

The first 8 minutes of The Trail Beyond feature enough exposition for an entire film, plus a shooting, a fistfight, and a lost treasure map. That kind of pace is necessary when your film only runs 54 minutes, and most of the last 10 are horse chases.

After the financial failure of his "big picture" (the similarly named The Big Trail), Wayne spent almost the whole of the 30s making "poverty row" westerns like this one.  He himself estimated he appeared in some eighty such pictures, or roughly one every six weeks, until a little film by the name of Stagecoach catapulted him to stardom.

The Trail Beyond is not going to catapult anyone to stardom, or to anything more than a small pay cheque, really.  But it's a competently-enough put together little film for the main part.  There's a bit too much reliance on telling, rather than showing, and characters sometimes act more in the interests of the plot than common sense, but it breezes along fast enough that this mostly doesn't matter.

So anyway, Wayne punches and shoots bad guys, gets the girl, and saves the day.  It's pretty much exactly the movie you'd expect, though in a nice variation from the norm, the (few) native American characters in the film are good guys.

There's nothing really wrong with this film, but it also doesn't have much that makes it stand out from the dozens of similar low-budget westerns made in the period.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Alien Infiltration (2010)

As I'm a fan of both They Live and Hell Comes to Frogtown, it's pretty safe to say I'm a Roddy Piper mark.  So it was a very pleasant surprise for me when he popped up as a gun-toting preacher about twenty minutes into Alien Infiltration (aka Alien Opponent).  The movie as a whole turned out to be a pleasant surprise, in fact.  I'd bought it for the very simple reason that it was $8, including postage.  Cheap DVDs are my kryptonite.

The premise of the film is as simple as it is goofy: to inherit her husband's considerable estate, a young widow needs his body as proof of death.  Alas, an alien spaceship has crash-landed in the junk yard where the dead man's body can be found, and the extraterrestial is willing to use force to ensure it is left alone.  So the woman offers a cash reward to anyone who can kill the alien, triggering a wide variety of pretty nutty characters to turn up and try for the prize.

Alien Infiltration is fully aware of its B-movie status, and is quite happy just delivering gonzo fun.  Some films that set out to be schlocky end up being very tiresome, but this one avoids that trap pretty well, helped along by the enthusiasm of the cast and the fact that the script throws a few curveballs at you.

If it has a weakness, it's that it's perhaps ten minutes too long, and the "didn't see that coming moments" tend to be in the first two-thirds of the film, but Alien Infiltration is well worth a look if you're in the mood for what might be summed up as "a deliberately absurdist inversion of Predator."

About Tags / Labels

This post is just an overview of the tags (or labels, as blogger likes to call them) I will be use here.  If you don't care, you can skip it :)

I'm going to use three types of tags:

Info Tag
The vast majority of posts on this blog will be DVD reviews.  On the rare occasions - like this one - where I need to post something else, the post will have an "Info" tag.  These posts will still relate to the blog, they just won't be actual reviews.

Recommendation Tags
Every review will have one (and only one) of the following three tags:
Recommended: I enjoyed the DVD, and recommend you seek it out and watch it.  Tastes vary, and there is always a chance you won't like something I recommend, but if a review gets this tag - and there won't be many that do - then I think the chances of that are relatively slim, or that the film or show has enough merit that I ought to give it the highest accolade (and for this blog, that's this tag).
Qualified Recommendation: I enjoyed the DVD, or I saw some element or feature of it that makes it worth seeing, but I feel the film's appeal is limited in some way; most often because I think you really need to be a fan of a certain genre or subgenre (such as "zombie films" or "slasher films" to enjoy it).
Not Recommended: There probably are people who will enjoy this film, but I was not one them, and I did not see other merits to recommend it.

Alphabetical Tags
Single letter tags from A-Z.  Every review will have one or more of these tags, based on the first word of the title, ignoring "The", "A" or "An".  So The Snow Creature has an "S" tag, for "Snow".
DVDs with names starting with a number will be tagged based on how the number is spelled as a word; Five Children and It, when I get to it, will be tagged "F".
Where I am aware a film has multiple titles, such as Assignment: Outer Space (a.k.a Space Men), I will use the tag appropriate to each title ("A" and "S" in this case).

Monday, 21 October 2013

Assignment: Outer Space (1960)

We return to the land of the Sci-Fi "Classics" with a cheapie Italian film.  Like many Italian films in the English-language markets, it is known by a couple of different names: it's listed in this boxed set as Assignment: Outer Space, but was also known as Space Men (Wikipedia has it under the latter title).

Sometime in the future, humanity has spread to the stars.  This isn't an especially glamorous future, however, as the work is hard and dangerous.  Our protagonist is a journalist, sent to do a report on the living conditions of the astronauts.  He quickly butts heads with the mission commander, who is none too pleased to have an interloper aboard.  The journalist's interference in a shipboard emergency, where he saves a life at a prodigious financial cost, exacerbates the antagonism.

Once we get past setting up the two men's rivalry, the plot of the movie is pretty straightforward: an out of control rocket, radiating a deadly energy field, is on a collision course with Earth.  The vessel the journalist is on is the only one with any chance - however slight - of stopping it.  The bulk of the latter half of the film is taken up with the crew's various efforts to save humanity.  if you've already formed a suspicion that the journalist will be terribly heroic and win the captain's grudging respect, then you're not going to be surprised by anything this movie throws at you.

However, between the ultra low-budget effects, the earnestness of the script, and the actual presence of a recognisable character arc - a rare thing indeed in Italian SF - this film manages to rate a cut above the average for this boxed set.  It's still only worth tracking down if you have an interest in this kind of thing, but it's definitely a better way to occupy your time than say Adventures of a Teenage Dragon Slayer.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Age of the Dragons (2011)

"Moby Dick, but the whale's a dragon" is the kind of elevator pitch I can get behind.  Which is why it's such a shame that this is the movie it led to.

So, even if you've never read the novel or seen an adaptation, cultural osmosis has probably given you the bare bones of Moby Dick: White Whale, Captain Ahab, obsession, death, yadda yadda.  Age of Dragons more or less follows this precis, but it changes quite a few of the specific details, almost invariably for the worse.

I'll start with the positives, however, so you can skip the grumpiness later.  There are a handful of things to like about this film: the introduction of the protagonist is a nice riff on how it's done in the book; I thought the re-imagined Pequod (their vessel) looked pretty cool, and the adaptation of the scene where sharks attack the whale carcass into bandits trying to steal their cargo was a good way to keep the concept of the scene without expensive effects.

Now for the moaning:  Man, screw every other thing this movie does.  The re-writes to Ahab's character are dreadful. Vinnie Jones is horribly under-utilised, despite being twenty times more charismatic than the lead. And then there's Rachel.  Good grief, Rachel.

Moby Dick the novel has no female characters.  It does, however, have a ship named the Rachel.  The film turns Rachel into Ahab's adopted daughter and the protagonist's inevitable though entirely unconvincing love interest.  She's also one of the worst Faux Action Girls I've ever seen.  Her introduction is solid enough: she's shown to have authority over the crew, and sees off three would-be ruffians in short order, but thereafter her whole narrative purpose is to be a damsel in distress.  She gets captured by bandits, nearly raped by one of the crew, and repatedly reduced to a possession for the men to squabble over.  Screw you, movie.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Adventures of a Teenage Dragonslayer (2010)

Sometimes, the best thing about a movie is its title.

Adventures of a Teenage Dragonslayer begins with its finale, then flashes back to the start of things. The last time I saw a film do something like this, it was the Josh Kirby ... Time Warrior! series, and trust me, that's not somewhere to be getting your film-making cues.

Once the movie proper starts, we meet our protagonists playing in the sewers.  They run into the local bully squad, and we get one of the most cringingly bad attempts at writing high school kids that I've ever seen, delivered by a cast whose acting is more or less on a par with the quality of the dialogue.  It was enough to drive my flatmate from the room, all by itself.

But I stuck it out, since I wasn't getting back the five bucks this stinker cost me.  The plot - when it isn't being diverted by such hilarity as the phonemic similarity of the words Bart, butt and fart - revolves around an ancient battle between two dragons, one good and one evil.  For reasons too stupid to explain, the mechanics of this battle are being accurately depicted in a collectable card game.  The favorite card game of our protagonist, as it happens (shocking, I know).

I could tell you more, but honestly this movie has already taken more of my life than it deserves.  Its only marginally entertaining moments are when Wendie Malick is hamming it up as the evil vice principal.

One to avoid.  Even for five bucks.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Phantom from Space (1953)

I promise my next review won't be from this collection of "Sci-Fi Classics".  I make no promise the film will be any better than the ones I've reviewed so far, but it will come from another source.

For now, however, we continue the so-called "classics" with Phantom from Space.

The first word of the title is a hint of how this low-budget effort solves the problem of expensive alien effects.  Their extraterrestial invader is invisible!  No doubt someone, somewhere, thought this was a stroke of budgetary genius.

For much of the film, the alien's invisiblility is figurative; it simply does not appear on-screen, and we are instead 'treated' to lots of scenes of the human characters standing in rooms discussing its actions and whereabouts.  They're able to track it because the spacesuit it wears is visible.

Eventually, however, the alien is cornered.  It removes the suit and uses its natural power of invisibility to escape not just detection but also costly makeup and costuming! The movie does actually have a semi-decent answer why it didn't do that earlier: the alien is used to a very different atmosphere than our own, and can survive for only an hour or two without the gas tanks on its suit.

That weakness means that the creature can't stray very far from the suit, however, and when the humans discover that, the alien's fate is sealed.  The film tries to go all Day the Earth Stood Still on its eventual death, with the humans pondering if the creature actually had hostile intent, but it's all pretty ham-handed and not very convincing.

This alien isn't worth the trouble needed to see it.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

The Snow Creature (1954)

Imagine trying to make try to make King Kong while possessing neither money nor talent, and you've got some idea of what The Snow Creature is like. It's most memorable feature is that all the "Sherpas" speak Japanese.

The plot, such as it is, involves an expedition to the Himalayas. For "Science!" no doubt. Said science must soon take a backseat to superstition, however, when the chief "Sherpa" gets word his wife has disappeared. He blames the yeti, and when the europeans in charge of the expedition tell him there's no such thing, he turns guns on them to force their cooperation. By the time they're in a position to recover control of the group, they've seen enough to convince them that these supposedly mythical creatures may in fact exist.

So the humans track the yeti, which lives with its family in caverns above the snow-line (why did it kidnap a human woman when it had a mate? Because the script said so, that's why). They capture the beast, accidentally killing its relatives as they do so, and ship it back to the US to study it. There's an amusing sequence at the port when immigration officials arrive and impound the creature. If it's intelligent, you see, then it's an illegal immigrant! The scientists insist it is just a beast. I wonder if Their Hubris Will Be Laid Low?

While they're waiting for an expert to come study the creature for signs of intelligence, the creature demonstrates them pretty clearly by making its escape. Unfortunately, it's not smart enough to leave the movie entirely, and so a massive yeti-hunt gets underway to find it. After an interminable amount of padding to stretch the film's run time, the authorities manage to work out that a cave-dwelling creature just might be hiding underground. What follows is an "exciting" hunt through the sewers, before the beast is finally brought to bay.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

White Pongo (1945)

White Pongo chronicles the "adventures" (I use the term loosely) of a safari searching for a fabled white gorilla. It has two aspects of value, other than its amusing title.

  1. it offers a good overview of the techniques of microbudget studio filmmaking in the post-war period;
  2. its script serves as a reminder of how pervasive and accepted overt racism was at the time (seriously: the leader of the African bearers on the safari is named 'Mumbo Jumbo', while the movie blithely states that white gorillas are more intelligent than ordinary black-furred ones)

You will notice that neither of these aspects is "good writing", "good acting" or "is enjoyable to watch".  The film feels a lot longer than its 71 minutes of actual run time, probably because so little actually happens.

There's a 10 minute version of this, too.  I suspect that it is no more interesting, but it does have the merit of saving an hour of your time.

Mission Statement

I love stories, whether they be oral, visual, or textual.  I indulge this love in many ways.  I play roleplaying games; I read lots of books (and have a massive pile still to read) ... and I buy many, many DVDs.  Some because they sound interesting, and some ... well, some because they were cheap.  I find it very hard to walk past a movie for $2.

As a consequence, I own way too many DVDs that I've never actually found the time to watch.

It's the first worldiest of first world problems, I know ... but it's mine, and I need to own it.

So this is my mission statement: to whittle down that darn pile of unwatched DVDs!

I'm going to achieve that mission by taking DVDs down off the shelf every night and watching at least one movie (or two episodes of TV).  And to keep myself honest, I'll then post about them here.

These may be films or shows I've seen before, at the cinema or when broadcast, but I must not have ever watched the DVD copies before.  This means that when I rewatch my Babylon 5 DVDs, for instance, they won't count, but my copy of Voyage of the Dawn Treader is fair game, because I haven't watched the film on DVD yet; just on the big screen.