Monday, 30 December 2013

Once Upon A Time in China (1991)

There are sometimes movies that get widely talked about and hyped, and that you want to see, but you somehow never do. This is one such film for me. I've been aware of its existence since the mid-90s, and have always intended to check it out, but for whatever reason I never did. Even when I bought it on DVD, some number of years ago (I'm not sure how many, but at least three), it sat unwatched on my shelf all this time. If I'm being honest, the fact that it was a more than two hour movie in another language was a factor. I prefer to watch foreign language movies with subtitles, rather than dubbed, but that does have the drawback of requiring me to really focus on the screen. If a movie is in English, I can text friends, tweet rude comments about the film, go grab a drink, or otherwise allow myself to glance away from the screen without pausing the film. Not so, here.

The movie revolves around celebrated folk hero Wong Fei-Hung, who like Sherlock Holmes in the west, has had many many movies made about him, starring many different actors. In this film, Master Wong must deal with arrogant westerners, local bandits, and government officials who are more interested in keeping the powerful foreigners happy than in doing what is right. It's interesting to see a film in which Americans are the black-hearted villains, as they are in this case. They're working with equally black-hearted Chinese, it's true, but the Americans are the ones in charge. The British, as the only other foreigners depicted, as shown as pompous and ineffectual, but not actually malevolent. I am reminded that this was, after all, made in the final decade of British rule in Hong Kong.

The film is widely regarded as a classic example of wire fu action, and it is easy to see why. The climactic battle between Jet Li's character and his principal Chinese adversary is pretty epic. One has to accept the exaggerated athleticism and stuntwork intrinsic to the form, of course, but that's par for the course. It's still very easy to admire for its choreography.

So it's a good martial arts film, but it's also not a film without flaws. It does take a very long time to really get moving, and we're 'treated' to lots of diversions into slapstick humour along the way. Quite possibly, this is a cultural thing where such elements are considered perfectly normal to a Chinese audience, but they fell flat for me. There's also an extended attempted rape sequence later in the movie, which felt like it was being lingered on in a rather unpleasant manner.

I'd have liked this better if it was about 30 minutes shorter (as the sequels are, I note), but if you've a hankering for some wire fu martial arts action, you could do a lot worse than catch the last hour of this.

Twister's Revenge (1987)

There are many goofy ideas for films out there, but few are goofier than 'Herbie, if Herbie was a monster truck, with lots of Looney Tunes style violence'. And yet that is exactly what is offered to us here.

Despite the title, this is not a sequel. Not even to the Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton movie, which if it did happen, I propose should be about their epic quest to find that flying cow. No, the 'Twister' in question is 'Mr Twister', a $200,000 monster truck laden with high tech electronics and computer gear. Three crooks plot to hijack the vehicle and sell the contents, but they're handicapped not only by the fact that they're all extremely stupid, but also by the fact that Twister is intelligent. He can in fact talk, putting him one step ahead of Herbie, though he doesn't bother to do so for the first half of the film.

When their efforts to steal Twister himself come to naught, the crooks instead kidnap the woman who programmed him, intending to ransom her, which leads Twister and the woman's husband on a not-exactly-epic quest to save her. It's more a series of cartoonish pratfalls, all things considered, with plenty of monster truck action thrown in, as Twister flattens cars and buildings alike. All this mayhem is utterly harmless though: blow someone up in this film, and they just end up with a blackened face. It's broadly, deliberately absurd. The climactic encounter of the film sees Twister face off with a main battle tank, in what is merely the most ridiculous of the many ridiculous moments.

A little research online indicates that the film was made entirely without studio support, which makes some of the demolition sequences especially impressive: I guess they bought a lot of old junkyard cars and found some buildings that were slated for demolition. Alas, however, the destructive ambition of the film is not matched in the script department. The film is silly, but not funny, and as they lack any real sense of danger, the action sequences need to be amusing to avoid being dull. You'd be better off checking out Giant Spider Invasion (which at least has the decency to be bad in an entertaining way), by the same director as this, for your schlocky entertainment fix.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Puppet Master 5 (1993)

With the fifth entry in the series, we finally get a Puppet Master film that I can't even give the slightest degree of recommendation. It's sad this entry in the franchise is so weak, especially when you consider that it was originally intended to be the climax and conclusion of the series.

This movie picks up right where the fourth film left off. Or, more accurately, it recaps the whole of the last movie in a pretty extended fashion, bulking out the run time with recycled footage, then picks up right after. Rick from the last film is in police custody, suspected of the murder of the people killed by the Totems, and psychic from the last film is in a coma after the trauma of what happened to them.

Unsurprisingly, the police don't buy Rick's account of killer imps from another dimension, and after finding one of the puppets, charge him with using his 'robots' to commit multiple homicides. Rick's employer ponies up the bail, though, so they let his girlfriend take him back to her place (his own place being a crime scene, after all). Alas, Rick's employer believes that either Rick's story is true - in which case there are amazing things to be found at the crime scene - or Rick created killer robots. In which case there are amazing things to be found at the crime scene. He hires a trio of petty crooks to help him break into the old hotel where Rick was living and find the puppets. The crooks are given names, but there's no point learning them, since they're clearly in the movie to be killed.

The killer in question is Sutekh, the demon antagonist of the last film. Having seen his minions defeated, he now imbues his own spirit into a super-Totem, and enters our world. This is a process that takes forever to unfold, and Sutekh's monolgue as he does it seems to contradict his monologues from the last film, but this series has always laughed at foolish concepts like continuity.

Anyway, Rick decides to go to the hotel to find the puppets as well, with his girlfriend joining him a little later, so that we finally - over 40 minutes into the film - have all the players in more or less the same location and can move into the actual reason anyone would be watching this thing: puppet mayhem.

Alas, the mayhem's an inferior retread of the last film. About the only innovation was making Decapitron even goofier than he was in the last movie. I approve of this innovation, but it doesn't change the fact that this is a largely quite dull film, with long periods of very little happening, and largely lacking the regular set-piece puppet antics that are the franchise's main appeal.

Friday, 27 December 2013

The Devil Has Seven Faces (1971)

Writing a satisfying mystery is very hard. Ideally you want to have enough clues and hints that when you reveal the answers, your audience says 'Oh. of course!', while obfuscating those clues and hints enough that people watching haven't worked it out before your characters do. It's a rough balancing act. Which is probably why many mysteries cheat: they withhold information from the audience, or outright lie to them.

This doesn't automatically make the movie bad. The Usual Suspects cheats its socks off, but it turns that cheating into a feature, not a flaw. The same, alas, is not true of The Devil Has Seven Faces. In this tedious Italian effort you'd be hard-pressed to find a single major character who isn't lying through their teeth - to each other, and to the audience - for most of the movie's duration. This is presumably meant to keep you guessing, but you'd have to care enough to want to guess, first, and the film-makers appear to have left that step out of their plans.

I'm not going to bother with a synopsis at all because it would end up being something like 'A woman lies to a man. He lies right back. Then they both lie to another man, who has contacted them under false pretences. A crime occurs (only not really because it is partly staged) and everyone lies to the police about it. The police pretend to be fooled'.

The only redeeming feature to this movie is the dreadful, dreadful fashion. There are some sublimely hideous outfits to be seen, including one woman who appears to be wearing a quilt as a dress.

Puppet Master 4 (1993)

The fourth entry in the Puppet Master series returns us to the current day. Well, then-current 1993, anyway. It introduces the demon Sutekh, whose magic elixir is the source of the puppets' life. Sutekh guards this elixir jealously. He hates that Andre Toulon managed to learn it, and wants to prevent anyone else from doing so. Which is why he dispatches three of his gremlin-like 'Totems' to murder a trio of researchers who are getting close to the secrets of AI. I really like the design of these Totems, I must say.

Two of the researchers go down easy, but unfortunately for Sutekh, the third has Blade (and ultimately, the other puppets) watching out for him. Said third researcher - Rick - is the real wunderkind of the trio, and also frankly a bit of a douche. I don't think you're supposed to think that of him, but it's really kind of true. Only the fact that he's been unexpectedly saddled with visitors, one of whom is an even bigger ass than he is, saves him from all my scorn. Rick was expecting a quiet night with his girlfriend, but she brought 'friends' with her. Later, she'll make snide remarks about Rick being more interested in his work than in her, but it seems to me like they kind of deserve each other, given that she invites other people to their dates.

Anyway, the four human characters uncover Toulon's box of puppets in the attic, thanks to the psychic hunches of one of the unexpected guests. They reanimate the puppets, who had fallen dormant over time. I'm not sure why this would have happened, given that at the end of the second movie the puppets had enough elixir for 'fifty years', but continuity is not a strong point of the series.

Naturally, the three Totems turn up shortly after the puppets get on the scene, which leads to the best part of this movie: puppet on Totem action. The puppets handily deal with the first Totem (albeit with a three to one numerical advantage), but the spirit of Andre Toulon then contacts them and warns that to achieve ultimate victory, it is time to active Decapitron.

Decapitron. Hee.

With so much of the focus of this film being on the battles between the puppets and the Totems as well as the long, long process required to activate (snerk) Decapitron, this film features less graphic violence than the earlier entries. This makes the 'kill count' feel very light, even though it's not actually far short of that of the first film. I'd even go so far as to say that it changes the tone of the series again: the first two films were comedy-horror, the third was a revenge fantasy, and this is a sort of supernatural action flick. I enjoyed it, and I like the way that the series keeps changing things up, but this is definitely not going to be to all tastes.

Oh, and Decapitron? Is even goofier than his name suggests. But I won't spoil the surprise. For that, you'll have to see it.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Under the Mountain (2009)

I watched the 1981 TV adaptation of Under the Mountain a little while ago, and while googling it, learned of a recent movie adaptation. So I ordered the DVD.

... it occurs to me that this may present a flaw in my plan to watch all my unwatched DVDs.

The movie makes the central characters a little older, which I think is a good idea for letting them get out and about doing things on their own and stumbling into the chase and action sequences. And those are sequences that it gets to a lot more quickly than the TV show did. Of course, they do have only half the running time, so that makes sense. I do think the faster pace is a good thing, though. The TV show was a bit slow in the early episodes.

In broad outline, the plot of the film matches that of the TV show (and presumably the book on which they are both based): slug-like aliens threaten to destroy the world by releasing Cthul -- ahem the 'Gargantua' -- while another, more friendly extraterrestial teaches a pair of twins how to unlock their special psychic gifts and prevent this cataclysm from happening. Many of the details are different, though. The friendly alien has far less power in this than in the TV show, which complicates the protagonist's lives a lot (and removes some of the 'why didn't he just do x?' elements of the plot). He's also not that friendly: he's tired and bitter and doesn't really think humans are up to the task he needs them to do.

This film isn't going to win any awards, but it's a solid enough bit of family-friendly SF/adventure, and I don't regret checking it out. If you were going to watch just one adaptation of the book, this is definitely the one I'd pick. The climax is unfortunately a bit on the weak side, but the rest of it is fun, and it's good to see a film where the protagonists, even when overmatched, are resourceful and brave.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Puppet Master 3 (1991)

Although it is the third film in the series, Puppet Master 3: Toulon's Revenge represents a number of firsts for the franchise.

It's the first to feature Guy Rolfe as Andre Toulon, a role he'd reprise in 4, 5 and 7, as well as appearing in archive footage in later entries. It also marks the first appearance of cowboy puppet 'Six Shooter', who will go on to be one of the iconic puppets of the franchise. In addition to this, it is the first film not to be set in contemporary times. We go back to Berlin in 1941 for this movie, where Toulon is running a rather seditious puppet show. This is not only unwise, given the Nazi regime's lack of humour about such things, it's also quite impressive given that in the original film he died in 1939.

The fourth and most significant innovation however is that this is the first film in the series where the puppets are good guys throughout. In the first two they spent much of the time under the orders of wicked men. In this, they are the tool by which Toulon wreaks vengeance on the Nazis, after the murder of his wife.

The Nazis are after Toulon - and kill his wife - not just because of his seditious show but also because of the elixir that animates his puppets. The Third Reich could use this fluid to reanimate their slain soldiers on the Eastern Front. That's not very good history; 1941 was a year of almost non-stop success for the Nazis in the east. 1943 would make a lot more sense.

A little historical inaccuracy doesn't really alter the basic charm of a movie where a bunch of puppets murder Nazis. Of course, you might be someone who doesn't see the appeal of such a film, in which case this is definitely not the movie for you.

Monday, 23 December 2013

The Last Woman on Earth (1960)

There's a movie called The World, the Flesh and the Devil, in which Harry Belafonte is trapped in mine cave-in, and when he finally gets out, he discovers that the world has ended in his absence. He eventually meets other survivors; first a woman, then a man; and much of the thrust of the movie's script is about how the end of the world changes things (the woman is clearly interested in Belafonte, but since she is white he struggles with the fact that 'people wouldn't approve' of a multi-racial romance, even though there's basically no other people around) and the rivalry the other man feels toward Belafonte over the woman's affections. There's also a 1985 film from New Zealand called The Quiet Earth which has a similar setup: two men and a woman in an empty world, with rivalry between the men over the woman, though many of the other details are different.

I mention these two films because they are both significantly better than The Last Woman on Earth, another cheapie from Roger Corman, which shares the same romantic/sexual triangle. I suspect Belafonte's film may even have been a direct inspiration for this one, as it came out the year after that movie.

In Last Woman on Earth we meet an unethical businessman, his wife and his lawyer. The three of them are combining business with pleasure in Puerto Rico, by way of a scuba dive. While they are under the waves, however, all the oxygen temporarily vanishes from the air, causing everyone but them to suffocate to death. If you're thinking 'I find it hard to believe they are the only people on Puerto Rico who happened to be scuba diving at the time' then you are not alone, but you'll have to accept it as a conceit of the film, I guess.

The film addresses some similar themes to that of Belafonte's (though without the racial angle), but it doesn't do much to make any of the characters likeable, so the squabbles between them really didn't carry much import to me.

Given the existence of similarly-themed, but much better made films, I really can't recommend this one.

Puppet Master 2 (1991)

After the quite pleasant surprise of the first Puppet Master movie, I sat down to watch its sequel. This was the only one of the films that I recall seeing back when they came out. 18-year old me was disappointed by the relative lack of violence and nudity, as I recall. But then, 18-year old me had pretty limited interests :)

The film starts with the puppets pouring some kind of goo into the freshly opened grave of their creator, Andre Toulon. We then switch to a group of parapsychologists who have been sent by the government to investigate the hotel where the first film took place. It seems the deaths there attracted the attention of the authorities, and this group has been tasked with looking into what happened. They're joined in this by an actual psychic, who pretty quickly decides that she doesn't like the feel of the hotel and announces her intention to leave in the morning. Sure enough, she's gone from her room come dawn - but that's because she's been dragged away by the puppets. The parapyschologists are alert enough to think it odd that the psychic left all her belongings behind, and make contact with her son.

Meanwhile, a stranger, bandaged from head to foot, "arrives" at the hotel and claims to be the owner, though he has no proof of this. His behaviour is all kinds of weird and hinky, and no-one much likes him. The team leader in particular is suspicious of him. This is wise of her, because this is the reanimated corpse of Andre Toulon, and he has most unsavoury plans afoot. Plans that are the source of the puppets' murderous onslaught on the government team and anyone else who happens to be nearby the hotel.

Basically, Puppet Master 2 is a re-tread of the first one, with a few changes made - most of them for the worse. There's no clever twist here, and the acting is generally inferior (the guy playing Andre Toulon is a particular offender in this regard, though that could also be the lines they make him speak). It's not a terrible film, for something of this ilk anyway, and I did like the new puppet it introduced, but it definitely suffers by pretty much wholly recycling the climax of the first film in this one.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Puppet Master (1989)

Not many movie series get to the double digits, probably as a result of the steadily increasing costs of producing each film (rare indeed is the sequel that is cheaper than the original). One such franchise, however, is the Puppet Master series, which began its direct-to-video odyssey in over 20 years ago and saw its tenth release (or 11th if you count the 'non-canon' Puppet Master vs Demonic Toys) in 2012.

The original film was a major success on the home video market, which led the the slew of sequels. Production company Full Moon actually attempted to end the series after the 5th film, but video rental companies apparently harangued them until they started making them again. Now there's no doubt that part of the secret to the series' success was keeping the budgets low, but do they have anything more going for them? Well, given that I was able to pick up the first 9 movies in a cheapie boxed set, we're going to find out. :)

So, the original Puppet Master kicks off in 1939, with master puppeteer Andre Toulon killing himself rather than allowing the Nazis to capture the ancient mystic secret he has discovered: how to give life to the unliving. Toulon's decision to use this incredible power to make living puppets suggests he was a bit of an odd chap, but anyone who hates Nazis is OK by me. The film then picks up 50 years later, with a group of psychics each experiencing visions relating to their mutual acquaintance, Neil Gallagher. None of the four could be considered friendly to Gallagher, but such simultaneous visions merit investigation. They seek out Gallagher, only to learn that he has killed himself in much the same manner as Toulon.

Of course, Toulon's puppets soon make an appearance, and they seem to have become quite the macabre and murderous bunch. Maybe 50 years hidden in a wall space made them cranky. Or maybe something more sinister is afoot?

I was pleasantly surprised by this film. The puppet effects are solid, especially given the age of the film and its budget, and their designs quite inventive and evocative. The kill scenes are a bit uneven, but the last couple work very well. The acting is serviceable, though I imagine top-billed Paul Le Mat - a two time Golden Globe winner - was wondering where his career went wrong. The script's solid, too. The opening scene shows a likeably silly sense of humour and does a good job of conveying Toulon's affection for this creations. Later on, the humour turns more malicious, but that's in keeping with the tonal shift. Finally, the film's major twist is a pretty good one, I think.

Fundamentally however, you're either the kind of person who likes the idea of a horror movie featuring 2 foot high killer dolls, or you're not. And whether you are or not is pretty much the determining factor on whether you should check this out.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Blood: The Last Vampire (2009)

Originally an anime film, with a print sequel and serialised animated spin-off, Blood: The Last Vampire was adapted into a live action film in 2009. This version makes significant changes to some details of the plot, but the basic premise is the same: a supernaturally powerful woman seeks out and destroys a hidden inhuman menace whose powers come from the same source as her own.

The action here takes place on a US air base in Japan in 1970. It's quite nice to see an action film with such a specific 'recent historical' timeframe, rather than the more common 'more or less now' that is usually chosen. It's also an easy way to sidestep potential narrative complications like mobile phones, the internet, and so on. Smart call.

The movie does make some less smart calls, though. The action sequences are mostly not as exciting as they're obviously intended to be, and I may have outright giggled at one of them. Your serious business action movie should probably not remind me of Zipang!. I mean, I love that movie, but it's very very very very silly. And yes, I do need all those 'very's. The concluding battle is also seriously over-matched by the fight that comes shortly before it, in terms of dynamism and staging, so the film does just seem to limp home a little, especially after the extended talk-y sequence that comes after the not-so-climactic showdown.

Check this out only if you just can't get enough of supernaturally-themed martial arts movies.

The Terror (1963)

Did you know that Francis Ford Coppola and Jack Nicholson made a movie together? You probably didn't, because it was one Roger Corman's many low budget quickies. Despite the names associated with it, it's best known for the fact that it is filmed entirely on re-used sets from other Corman films.

Nicholson plays Andre, a French officer during the Napoleonic wars, who gets embroiled in a tale of lust, murder, revenge and black magic. Which all sounds pretty exciting, but frankly isn't. This is a pretty dull film, which is a shame because there's the germ of a good idea in The Terror, with the potential for an interesting study of vengeance, and the destruction it causes for all involved. A good concept, however, does little to help a film if it is badly executed and paced, and this one has plenty of problems in that regard. The first hour or so mostly consists of Andre trying to work out what the heck is going on, while everyone else in the film tells him only cryptic remarks, half-truths, or lies. This is probably meant to create mystery, but it mainly induces boredom. Yes, there is clearly a hidden story, but not getting told that story is really rather dull. Then when the exposition drop finally happens, it happens all at once, in a veritable orgy of revelations, none of which have any time to breathe.

With a stronger script, that had the revelations and twists more evenly spaced out, this might have been pretty good. Instead we get a movie full of Andre angrily demanding answers, but not getting them ... until suddenly everyone decides to come clean all at once. A frustrating misfire, in several senses of the word 'frustrating'.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Bathory: Countess of Blood (2008)

In the 'misleading impressions' stakes, the gold winning film has to be Bridge to Terabithia. The cinema trailers portrayed a Harry Potter-esque adventure story, which the film is really, really, really not. There were probably some traumatised kids out of that little bait and switch. It was also a shame since the film - actually a faithful adaptation of the book - was very good.

This film is a solid contender for the silver medal, however. First, there's that title. Then there's the slogan across the top of the DVD box: "Warrior. Tyrant. Lover. Vampire." These pretty much combine to promise a sleazy, exploitative gore and nudity fest, probably involving a dominatrix-like, bisexual vampire queen.

Oh, if only that was the movie this actually was.

It's not that the basic concept of the film - challenging the traditionally accepted account of Bathory as a bloodthirsty murderer - does not have merit. The fact of the matter is that she was a wealthy protestant in a largely catholic country and there were some very powerful men who stood to gain immensely if she was found guilty of such terrible crimes. Alas, the film goes too far the other way. It portrays Bathory as a medical pioneer, a swordswoman capable of besting her chief accuser in combat, and a possible lover of Caravaggio. Quite the woman! It also plays very loosely with history, including the manner of Bathory's actual death. When you're challenging the accuracy of the commonly held version of events, you should perhaps not include elements that are readily determined to be false.

Worse than this, however, it is that it is much too long. It clocks in at a full 140 minutes, and would be much better served if it were around 2/3 of that. There's a lot of tedious bloat here, as well as some elements that feel like they belong in a different movie. It's like you're watching A Man For All Seasons and suddenly bits of Hudson Hawk show up. Both of which are films with merit, but they do not make a good combination.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Resident Evil: Retribution (2012)

After watching the second through fourth Resident Evil films, I ordered the fifth on DVD. My memory of the film from seeing it at the cinema was that it was very silly, but not much more than that. Watching it again proved to be pretty good fun, actually. I remembered stuff as it happened - actually, usually a bit before - which allowed me to just enjoy the ridiculous action sequences without paying much attention to the plot.

The fourth Resident Evil film ended with enemies swarming to attack the heroes. This one resumes at the end of that attack, then goes backward through the fight, in slow motion. We're then treated to a "the story so far" monologue from Milla Jovovich, before we see the action sequence again ... forwards and in normal speed this time. Well, it's a cheap way to pad your film by four minutes, I guess.

Now back in the third film they established that the human villains of the series had sophisticated cloning technology, and this film explores the ramifications of that: we're confronted with a secret base where clones with implanted memories are dropped into staged zombie attacks and the outcomes studied for ... purposes. Initially it was to sell the bioweapons technology, but since the world is now overrun with flesh-eating undead, the purpose of continuing to slaughter clones is less clear. A cynical person might say "It's so they can fake us out by having clones of key characters get killed" or "It's to justify the massive zombie hordes that get slaughtered in this film". It also gives them a reason to have Michelle Rodriguez, Oded Fehr and Colin Salmon return to the franchise though, and I'm ok with that.

Alas, the film also brings back Sienna Guillory, who remains as utterly unsuited to the role of Jill Valentine in this as she was in the second movie.

But you know what, this is the fifth film in a female-led action franchise, in which both the top two credited stars are women, and - for all it's nothing more than a loosely justified series of action set pieces, plus a blatant rip off of the Ripley/Newt subplot from Aliens - that's a pretty cool thing. I look forward to the next time Milla Jovovich jumps around the screen shooting zombies.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Atlas (1961)

Roger Corman was never shy about chasing a buck, and the success of Hercules in 1958 and its sequel in 1959 led pretty quickly to his decision to try a sword and sandal film of his own. The result was Atlas, which unlike most such movies was actually filmed in Greece, where it was set. Well, except for the footage they shot in California.

The movie opens with an evil tyrant besieging a town. He lacks the men to storm the place, but he can eventually starve them out. The defenders know this, and suggest single combat to resolve the issue. Because you can trust evil tyrants to stick to deals like that. He agrees, subject to getting 10 days to find a champion. Then he, his advisor and his concubine Candia head to the Olympic Games, where the tyrant decides his representative will be the winner of the wrestling: Atlas.

Now I'm not sure about the wisdom of bringing a wrestler to a swordfight, but the tryant is determined to get Atlas to fight for him. He puts to use his considerable if rather oily charm, and the flirtatious attentions of Candia (though he makes it clear to her that she is not to get too close to Atlas). Atlas proves something of a philosopher in temperament, and - when assured that his prospective employer has gone to war in a just case (which is all lies of course) - agrees to accompany the tyrant as part of his lifetime study of 'creation and destruction'.

Since this movie is titled Atlas, not "The Guy Atlas Fights", I'm sure you can guess who wins the duel. Although Atlas doesn't actually kill his opponent in what is supposed to be a fight to the death, the besieged town surrenders. Of course, the tyrant's true nature quickly becomes apparent once his victory is won. Atlas soon decides he will have no further dealings with the man. Perhaps more importantly, Candia's interest in Atlas is far more real than feigned, while even the tyrant's advisor starts turning against him as his actions get ever more extreme.

The cheapness of the production sometimes shows through, but Atlas is largely redeemed by Frank Wolff's fine turn as the tyrant, and the sometimes clever banter of the script. Certainly not the worst sword and sandal film I've seen.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Under the Mountain (1981)

I vaguely recall seeing at least some of Under the Mountain when it first aired back in the early 80s. This 8 part New Zealand series was based on a children's novel, and introduces us to an ancient struggle between two alien races, the last stages of which are being played out on earth. On one side are a malevolent race of slug creatures, who fortunately have the ability to shape change, which allows them to spend most of their time on screen as humans with odd complexions. Their transformed selves are quite delightfully old school examples of make-up and costuming. Very Tom Baker-era Doctor Who. On the other side is a single representative of a race that in their natural form resemble a sentient, living flame. He too can take human shape. Convenient for hiding among us, and for budget conscious directors, too!

Stumbling into this conflict come Theo and Rachel, a pair of twins who appear to be in the 10-12 year old bracket. They were chosen as children by the good guy alien to assist him in defeating the slugs and preventing the destruction of the earth. As twins, they are able to unlock telepathic powers similar to his own, and work together to destroy the slugs. The show's in no hurry to tell us all that, though. The first two episodes just focus on general creepiness and cryptic hints of what is to come. Quite why the good guy alien takes so long to explain things to the kids - and then later, when he has no option - to their family, is a bit of a mystery. It seems like a bit of straightforwardness would have made his life a lot easier.

Still, there's little to complain about there. The cast is serviceable - even the kids, which is often the weak point of a show like this - and the pacing though slow and a bit uneven, is not really that far removed from that of then-contemporary episodes of Doctor Who. So it was clearly a reasonably effective model. Still, I wouldn't recommend hunting this down unless you have nostalgic childhood memories of it.

I see there was a movie adapted from the novel in 2009. It's available cheaply on DVD, so I think I will pick it up for comparison.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

The Hive (2008)

This movie appears to be tale of a lone ant freedom fighter, and his heroic struggle to free the hive from domination by an alien intelligence. Or at least, that's the closest to a coherent narrative I'm able to form out of the film I just watched. It seems like the writer (there's only one credited, and he's Oscar nominated, if you can believe it) couldn't work out what story he wanted to tell. We get straight up 'SWARM!' style antics for a while, but then he seems to realise the limits of that kind of action and shifts to hints of genetic mutation and a 'don't mess with mother nature' parable. That merges into a 'first contact' kind of thing as human and ant come together to negotiate for peace (yes, really). Somewhere in the middle of that, though, he gets bored, blows everything up, and says 'ahh screw it, it was aliens'. The plot-ending explosion happens because of the actions of one lone ant, who crawled into the brain of one of the humans characters earlier in the film and has been slowly making him nuttier and nuttier, culminating in 'kaboom'.

So is there anything memorable or worthwhile in The Hive, other than playing 'make up your own story because this movie doesn't seem to have one'? Well, not really, no. It's at its most entertaining when it's at its silliest (such as the scene where the leads are menaced by a giant ant made of ants), and the best acting performance comes from the former Luke Duke of Hazzard County.

Apparently, the film is the 8th in the Maneater series of films (there are 25 in total; collect 'em all!). Which just goes to show that there is a market for this kind of schlock. Sadly, I suspect I am that market, but I honestly don't think there is much in this one to recommend it, even to fans of this kind of thing.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Paradise Canyon (1935)

This film casts John Wayne as a federal agent who is sent to crack a counterfeiting ring. For contrived reasons, he's instructed to do this by joining a medicine show that travels through the area where the authorities believe the bad bills are being made. How he should get the show to let him join isn't said, so it's fortunate that he finds them in a bit of a bind: their motorised wagon has broken down just short of the county border, and the local sheriff is pursuing them (the show's owner, Dr Carter, got drunk and tore up a drug store). Wayne's horse provides the power to get them beyond the reach of the sheriff's authority, and he's able to finagle a job doing trick shooting for the medicine show.

It should come as no surprise that Doc Carter has a comely and available daughter (one who naturally has a lot more responsible attitude than her drunkard, con man father, so she'll make a good match for Wayne's lawman). She'd obviously be the love interest, even if she wasn't the only woman in the cast.

This is another of the more-or-less interchangeable westerns that Wayne made in the 1930s. He engages in horse chases, gun play and fisticuffs, then catches the counterfeiter and gets the girl. The film's only notable elements are Doc Carter's motorised wagon - it's a change from the usual steam trains and horses of the genre - and the off-hand racism ("Before man ever set foot in this country, when only the Indians lived here ...").

Feast (2005)

Horror movies have a set of very recognisable tropes. So do romantic comedies, of course (tropes I generally find just as troublesome as those of horror films, in fact), but for whatever reason it tends to be horror that attracts meta-textual films: works that acknowledge, satirize or subvert those tropes: we're talking films like Scream, Cabin in the Woods and Pandemonium. This is another such effort.

How well does it work? Well, honestly, I think it's at its weakest when it is being most obviously meta. The text boxes when every character is introduced, for instance, which list their traits and survival chances. These do allow the film-makers to introduce characters very rapidly, and they're occasionally amusing, but they really underline that the situation is fictional, and they often come across as trying a bit too hard. Also, the fact is that much of the information they provide could - and often is - revealed in a few lines of dialogue.

Anyway, plot-wise we're talking a Night of the Living Dead style situation: a group of people with varied beliefs and personalities, besieged in an isolated location far from help. Rather than a pack of zombies, however, the enemy here is a small group of monsters: fast, strong and cunning. When Feast plays the siege straight - which it does for much of its run - it's an effective film, with some decently tense sections, and some good action set pieces. However, it does tend to stop from time to insert allegedly comedic elements, and these are much more uneven in quality. Much of the stuff with Henry Rollins character is pretty well done, for instance, but the several "the monsters are horny" sections vary from merely asinine to, well ... rape's not funny, no matter what this movie seems to think.

The missteps are a shame, because 80% of this film is a pretty well done horror flick.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Dark City (1998)

The advertising campaigns for Dark City and The Matrix overlapped in Australia, which didn't seem to hurt their success, but did bring home the many similarities in the setup: a man learns his entire world is fake, controlled by inhuman forces with the ability to change what he thought was 'reality'. He must learn to use the enemy's own powers and overcome them.

The movies do diverge a lot from the common starting point, however, with Dark City taking a much less action focused approach. There's no wire fu or slow-mo gunplay here. Instead we get a more investigative approach, with the protagonist getting hints of the real situation to begin with, and only learning the full truth quite late. This movie also has a different aesthetic, mixing elements of noir and art deco design very nicely.

Setting aside the comparison with The Matrix, however, how is the film? Well, it's pretty good. It's not a perfect film; I think it flags a little at times, the climactic battle is a bit meh, and the real hero of the piece actually appears to be one of the supporting characters. But I like the creepy vibe the film maintains for most of its running time, and the way it looks. There's great set and prop design in this film. It's also got a fantastic cast, though it sometimes fails to do a whole lot with them.

Dark City is worth checking it out if you want to see a visually sumptuous science fiction mystery.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

I rarely notice a film's sound unless it's very, very bad (30th anniversary edition of Night of the Living Dead, I am looking at you), but the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an exception. The discordant, unsettling use of sound - both environmental and musical - is one of the most effective weapons in this film's arsenal, as the tension of sense of wrongness ratchets up throughout the film. Of course, the tight script, solid direction and good performances all help! (especially Donald Sutherland, whose character's unspoken love for the film's leading lady is obvious from their first conversation)

There's probably not much to spoil here, on the story front. There have been four film adaptations of the novel The Body Snatchers, and the 1978 version has probably had the strongest cultural impact of the four. We're talking pod people from space replacing humans, doppelgangers that are physically identical but lack any of the emotions of the original. Once discovered, the aliens attempt to sell this as a positive: all the experiences and knowledge of the original, none of the fears and hatreds. We're talking paranoia and suspicion and hidden enemies who look just like us (no surprise this was filmed in the Cold War). And, of course, we're talking about that ending. Either you know what I mean, or you should be hunting down this movie right now.

An absolute classic, thoroughly deserving of its many accolades.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Ski Troop Attack (1960)

Based on my recent reviews you may have expected today's to be the fifth Resident Evil movie. But I don't actually own that on DVD, as yet, so it's not. Expect to see it sooner rather than later, though, as it has been ordered.

Instead, I sat down to watch Ski Troop Attack, a Roger Corman-helmed WW2 film. Corman also has a cameo role in the film, appearing as the least Aryan Nazi you've ever seen, as they needed a replacement for a cast member who broke their leg. The film traces the actions of a small group of US ski troops, ranging behind German lines in December 1944. The unit has been instructed to stick to recon and avoid engagement with the enemy, an order the patrol commander is determined to follow, much to the resentment of his sergeant. The insubordination of the sergeant and how the lieutenant handles that (and of course, their inevitable grudging camaraderie) is actually the main narrative thread running through the film. There are plenty of other events of course: a firefight with an enemy patrol, a raid on a farmhouse where they meet a German woman who still believes in the Reich's victory, an unintentionally comical abseiling scene. There's also the movie's climactic sequence, during which the expected male bonding takes place: a raid to destroy a bridge over which the German reinforcements are entering the region.

So is the movie any good? Well, honestly the performances are ok, and the script not terrible. On the other hand, its cheapness is obvious, with all the battle scenes being real WW2 footage, and it doesn't tread any new ground. It reminds me a lot of 1930s "Poverty Row" westerns: it's utterly unmemorable, falling short of being good but lacking the distinction of being notably bad either. There are many, many better war movies, and Ski Troop Attack lacks the gonzo touch of Corman's SF and horror films, making it ultimately a very forgettable affair. And that, to me, is an even bigger failing than being truly, memorably atrocious.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)

Perhaps because I was getting smarter, or perhaps because it was in 3D, I didn't see Resident Evil: Afterlife at the cinema. But I did eventually see it (thankfully on a safely 2D TV screen) and picked up the DVD thereafter. It's not a great film (and the end is singularly goofy), but it has some pretty fun action sequences, and demonstrates good form in introducing a cast of characters who run the gamut of personality types and making you feel like most of them could actually die. It's also pretty good at making the actual deaths relatively shocking, which is a positive.

The majority of this film is set in and around a prison, which makes me wonder if someone had read the Walking Dead comics. Quite possibly not, though, as the look and feel of the place, and what happens within it, is very different to the other franchise. The prison forms the middle act, though, with an extended preamble before it, and a shorter (and much sillier) concluding sequence after it. The thematic link throughout the three acts is "Arcadia", a possibly mythical safe haven from the zombie menace. The concept of Arcadia was introduced in the last film, but only delivered on in this one. It's not a bad idea, generally, though it does lead to a pretty silly final battle - very Matrix - an hysterically unlikely Xanatos gambit, and then the most "to be continued" of endings. Evidently they were confident of doing well enough to justify a fifth entry in the film.

This one is worth watching for the progressively ever more ludicrous action sequences of the middle section. They're mostly pretty well-staged, though the obvious "meant for 3D" elements are a tad annoying.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Resident Evil: Extinction (2007)

I really liked the look of the trailer for Resident Evil: Extinction, with the deserted and desert-filled remains of Las Vegas. So despite the disappointment of the previous film in the series, I saw it at the cinema.

And was disappointed.

That didn't stop me buying the DVD when I saw it cheap, but it did stop me from watching it. When I pulled it off the shelf for tonight's viewing, it was still in the plastic wrapping.

So how was it on the re-watch? Not as bad as I remembered, to be honest. It's still a very flawed film, in a number of ways, but it has some pretty good sequences in it too. Unfortunately for the film, one of the biggest flaws is the opening, which puts the viewer off-side from the start. I think the intent of the opening scene is to make the audience say "huh?", with the mystery of what's going on drawing them into the film. The original Resident Evil did this pretty effectively I thought, with the nasty little elevator scene. Extinction, alas, fails to take into account the audience's familiarity with tropes. It's likely most watchers will assume the wrong details about the opening scene - I did - but ultimately this is hand grenade territory: even a missed guess is close enough that it damages the scene's purpose. Compounding this, the movie follows up with an action scene that is supposed to be exciting, but isn't because there is literally no sense that there is any real risk.

Once these mis-steps are out of the way, however - and I do recall them hurting my enthusiasm for the film when I watched it - the movie mostly corrects course. It introduces or re-introduces a bunch of characters, sets stakes for them, and proceeds to make their lives as difficult as a zombie apocalypse ought to be. There are still eye-rolling moments; such as when the old "get bitten by a zombie and not tell anyone" schtick is not only used, but then drawn out for a very long time. However the film does a good job of showing how even a reasonably well organised and capable group are going to lose people in this world.

The "boss fight" of the film is a bit of a fizzer, though, so overall the film has a solid middle with weak start and end.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004)

I very much enjoyed the first Resident Evil film, finding it a thoroughly entertaining blend of zombie menace and over the top martial arts and gun play. So when the first sequel hit cinemas back in 2004 I headed along to see it. And I was pretty disappointed.

Now this disappointment wasn't due to any particular love of the Resident Evil series of computer games, on which the movies are at least nominally based. I've never played any of them, and know very little about them beyond what I've picked up from gaming geek osmosis. This is more or less "they're shooters where you fight zombies, and they've tended to be more and more action-oriented and less and less horror games as the series continues". Which if true, maps pretty well onto the movies as a whole.

The problem in Apocalypse is two-fold, I think. First, they tried to squeeze in a lot of new characters, not an easy task when you only have 85 minutes to play with, and the eventual fate of most of those characters is pretty obvious from the moment you meet them: you know Jill Valentine (played by the woefully miscast Sienna Guillory) will survive, for instance, while the glory-hungry reporter cannot help but be zombie chow. Second, they focused on major action set pieces, dropping any real sense of tension or danger in favour of martial arts fights and explosions. If these were more interesting, the film would probably work better than it does, but they're generally not especially exciting, and the chief 'monster' of the film is a clunky, rather stiff looking brute that fails to generate any sense of menace. I supect this design is a call-back to a creature in the games, and if so, I hope it worked better as pixels and bytes than it does here.

So should you watch this? Well, probably only if you plan to watch the entire franchise. Otherwise, I'd just limit yourself to the original entry in the series.

The Atomic Brain (1963)

Man, in 1963 atomic energy could do anything. Except kill you, of course. All you had to do to avoid that was duck and cover. In that year's Atomic Brain (aka Monstrosity), radiation can somehow be used to transfer minds between bodies. Initial tests put animal brains into human cadavers, but the goal of the unethical Dr Frank and his outright evil sponsor Mrs March is to transfer a human mind into a new body. March wants to be young again, and hires three young women as maids. These are the averagely pretty Anita, the above average Nina, and the bombshell Beatrice. No wonder poor Anita ends up as another animal brain experiment while Beatrice (and her godawful attempt at an "English accent") is ear-marked to be Mrs March's new body.

Even the best laid plans go awry, of course, and misfortune and double-dealing will soon complicate things immensely for all involved, with one particular act of betrayal being pretty darn amusing, actually. This film is utterly schlocky (and Beatrice's accent is truly, truly awful) but I had fun with it nonetheless.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

The Spirit (2008)

I saw The Spirit at the cinema, and found it almost mesmerising in its awfulness. So naturally, when I saw it available cheaply on DVD, I picked up a copy. And then it sat on my shelf, still in the shrink-wrap, until I read the thread "Worst Superhero Movie Evar, What is it?". Several people nominated this film, and that prompted a desire to re-watch it.

So, first things first: this is a terrible, terrible movie. The script ... well, it's hard to imagine that it wasn't written to be a spoof, to be honest. The sophomoric attitude to sexuality, the exaggerated machismo, the cliche after cliche after cliche. If Frank Miller got a dollar for every hackneyed bit of drivel spewed forth in this movie, he'd have the budget to make a sequel. Then there's the direction: Miller takes a fine cast and elicits from them some deeply odd performances. I mean, I kind of love Samuel L Jackson and Scarlett Johansson in this movie, but that's because they seem to embrace the utter craziness of the whole film: Jackson by over-acting as only he can, and Johansson by deadpanning like the deadpanniest deadpanner who ever panned dead. Unfortunately, the Spirit himself is ... well, awful, and both he and Eva Mendes are acted off the screen by the folks playing the younger version of their character. Seriously, in 2 minutes of footage, the younger actors show twenty times the charisma and chemistry of their "grown up" counterparts.

Some people have praised the aesthetic of the film, but I am ambivalent about it. It just seems a case of Miller slathering his (admittedly powerful) Sin City visual style on an unrelated project for no better reason than that he can.

So is there anything good that can be said about the film? Well, as I alluded to in the first sentence: it is (at least to me) so bad it's good. The terrible, hackneyed dialogue, the schoolboy-like attitude to women, the rampant insanity of Sam Jackson's performance ... it's all terrible, but it's not boring. Or at least, I don't find it to be. The movie might utterly fail to make me care about what it passes off as "characters", but it does make me interested to see what depths of stupidity it will plumb next.

And for that roller coaster of awfulness, I salute you, Frank Miller.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Moon of the Wolf (1972)

Made for TV, Moon of the Wolf tracks a Louisiana sheriff's investigation into a young woman's murder. In the course of this he has to deal with the hot-headed antics of the murdered woman's brother, the ravings of her bedridden father, and the fact that his killer demonstrates the ability to rip iron bars out of a brick wall.

The true nature of the killer should be obvious from the title. The sheriff, of course, doesn't have the luxury of knowing that, and spends most of the run time completely oblivious to what's going on.

This is not a bad little film, actually. The identity of the killer isn't hard to guess, but I don't think it is supposed to be. The movie's only drawback is its TV budget. The werewolf (gasp! spoilers!) makeup is pretty terrible. One thing I especially liked is that the sheriff himself refuses to buy into the whole werewolf idea, even when he finally has it explained to him.  He consequently barely features in the climax of the movie. Instead, it is his sorta maybe love interest who confronts the werewolf and (with a small but regrettable dose of deus ex machina) overcomes it.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Near Dark (1987)

Best known these days for Oscar-winner The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow also directed Point Break and Strange Days, two films I don't personally rate very highly but which others seem to like. Before all that, however, she directed and co-wrote Near Dark, a contemporary (in 1987) vampire tale with some western sensibilities mixed in. And again, I don't rate it very highly, though others - I saw it with a group - did.

The film introduces us to Caleb, to whom I felt an instant dislike after he refused to take an obviously distressed woman home unless she gave him a kiss. Since meta-knowledge said the woman was a vampire, I was hopeful she'd rip out his throat for being an ass, but no such luck - she turns him into a vampire, instead. In this version of vampire lore, it seems that feeding on someone without killing them is all that is required to turn them. Given the appetite shown by the bloodsuckers through the rest of the film, it's something of a wonder the south-western US, where this is set, isn't entirely de-populated. Of course, one of the film's many failings is that it doesn't make much effort to have a cohesive vampire lore to it: we see one of them eat ice cream, but when a freshly-turned Caleb tries to eat a candy bar, he vomits it up. Sometimes being shot seems to inconvenience (though not actually harm) them and sometimes it doesn't.

Anyway, Caleb gets introduced to the vampire clan, who aren't thrilled he's been turned but agree he can stay as long as he makes his first kill within a week. Caleb can't do that, however. While he's up for harassing women, and morally bankrupt enough to not object when the others kill, he isn't willing to do any killing himself. What a hero. He only finds an ounce of moral courage when it's his own family on the feeding and/or turning block. He helps them escape, and the movie moves into its final act ... in which it just gets dumber and dumber every minute. Like 'They couldn't be about to do something that stupid ... oh, I guess they can' levels of dumb.

Those who liked the movie felt that it told the 'classic' vampire tale of virtue vs the temptation of evil, but this would require Caleb to have virtue. Screw him, and screw this film.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Queen of the Amazons (1947)

Proudly wearing its 1947 racism on its sleeve, Queen of the Amazons tracks the efforts of a young woman to find her missing fiance.

I bet you can guess who has him :)

Anyway, it's all very straightforward stuff, with the titular queen turning out to be white woman who was shipwrecked as a child. She and the missing fiance have fallen in love, but it all works out OK since the woman who was looking for him has fallen in love with the man she hired to lead the search. Two thirds of the movie's run time is taken up with this search, with the last third revolving around the two groups finally meeting up, and then battling an ivory smuggler who has been mentioned from time to time in the dialgue.

Racism aside, it's not a terrible B-movie, though quite what it was doing in a SciFi Classics box set, I'm not sure.