Friday, 31 January 2014

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)

This film is also known as Count Dracula and his Vampire Brides, which is actually the title I saw it under, but the one above is the original and I think a better precis of the plot.

It's the last film in which Christopher Lee appears as the Count, and it's easy enough to see why he didn't return. But we'll get to that shortly. Let's talk synopsis, first. The action takes place in then contemporary UK. A group of very powerful men have taken to visiting a remote home on a regular basis, and a small cadre of the secret service are trying to find out why. They have to be very circumspect however, as one of the men in question could easily have them all fired. It ultimately turns out that the men have fallen under the sway of a cult, and - after a gratuitously large amount of film has been dedicated to the naked woman at the cult's black mass - the investigators turn to Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing for assistance. This is Peter Cushing, joined by Joanna Lumley as his granddaughter. This is Lumly pre-Avengers, alas. If it had been after, they might have had her do something other than look pretty and scream.

Anyway, the good guys work out old Drac's behind the cult. He's using the four men to develop and distribute an incredibly virulent plague to wipe out mankind, in what may in fact be a deliberately self-destructive act (since he'll be wiping out his food sourc). There's lot of running around, badly staged fights, and the inevitable final confrontation between Van Helsing and the Count, where Dracula is defeated in what has to be one of the lamest ways ever committed to film. If I was Lee, I'd have not wanted to be further associated with a character that got punked this badly, either.

So is there anything much to recommend this? Not really, to be honest. If you're a Hammer completist, I guess you might check it out. Other than that, you can safely skip it.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

The Black Hole (1979)

The first Disney movie to not get an 'all audiences' rating is not a success as a work of entertainment. It feels much longer than its 90 minute run time, and not in a good way. This is mostly due to the very talky and static first hour. Oh, the movie tries to enliven itself, with the actors often telling us how dangerous what's happening on screen is, or how weird and creepy, but the film's direction and pacing just lacks any intensity. Even when we get to the last half hour, and the movie breaks out its action sequences, it all feels very stiff and lifeless. Oh look, a row of identical robots standing perfectly still while firing at targets off screen. How exciting.

A few things save the film from utter tedium. The first is the sometimes howlingly stupid dialogue, such as 'Their mission was to find habitable life', and the second is the way it goes utterly bug nuts in the last ten minutes. BUG NUTS. The third is the model of the Cygnus spaceship. It's completely nonsensical, but kind of cool.

They're apparently planning to re-make this film sometime soon. I suspect the new version will have a lot more action, and probably be more entertaining to actually watch. But it won't have a search for habitable life, now will it?

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Big Tits Zombie (2010)

About six years the film industry seemed to suddenly decide that bosoms + zombies = money. We had both Zombie Strippers and Zombies! Zombies! Zombies!  In later years they were followed by Zombies vs Strippers and Kyonyu Dragon.

If that last film sounds out of place, don't worry: the English language title is above, and is a lot more direct about the film's content. Not that it's actually got all that much nudity, despite the two leads being veterans of Japan's adult video industry. But we're revisiting the strippers vs zombies theme once more (with the option of 3D no less, though I watched in 2D as I always do).

Lena is a down on her luck exotic dancer who out of desperation takes a job with a disreputable promoter who's previously stiffed her on money. She's one of five dancers on the job, and they variously squabble, play dice, and lounge about being bored as there is a definite absence of punters in the run-down club they're in. This boredom leads them to investigate a strangely chilly corridor they find behind a pile of boxes (as you do), where they find the Necronomicon and read from it (as you do). And suddenly, zombies. Huzzah! Everything is better with the walking dead.

The strippers react to the zombie onslaught with different degrees of success. This not being the most serious of films, the two leads take katana and chainsaw up against zombie ninjas, zombie samurai, and all sorts of other wacky walking dead. There's lots of not terribly well staged fighting, gouts of CGI blood (and buckets of the old fashioned fake kind), and comedy of varying degrees of success.

One to check out if you're into the more gonzo Japanese films (The Machine Girl, RoboGeisha, and the like). If you don't have a taste for the seriously absurd, however, you won't like it.

Friday, 24 January 2014

100 reviews!

Cherry 2000 was my 100th review for the blog.  I'm going to celebrate by taking a semi-sabbitical this week.  Not a complete break; I'll still post a couple of reviews; but I won't be doing one every day.

Daily reviews will resume on February 1st.

Cherry 2000 (1987)

In the distant year of 2017 (gasp the futurism!) America has fragmented into enclaves of hugely over-legislated urban enclaves separated by apocalyptic wastelands. In one of the former lives a man and his beautiful, robot wife. Alas, a spot of canoodling in the overflowing soap suds from the sink leads to the sudden demise of Mrs Android. With the country more or less in pieces and industry largely at a standstill there is no one with the know how to fix her, and our intrepid hero's only chance is to hire a tracker who will take him into the wastes to find a replacement model.

I am sure you will not be shocked to learn that the tracker he finds is a woman, and that he's ultimately going to fall in love with her instead of the robot, but if you are shocked, then I apologise for spoiling it. But you probably don't even know what a 'movie' is, in that case, so I think I am safe.

The tracker is played by Melanie Griffith, who had not yet had her breakout role in Working Girl when this was made (though if I recall correctly, Cherry 2000 suddenly got a push on home video after the latter film's success). Frankly Griffith and the other lead are the weaker performers in the film, being constantly upstaged by ... well, by the performances of just about everyone they encounter. They're also upstaged by the set and costume design, which is kind of gleefully messed up.

I found this a fun bit of schlock, myself, and liked it more now than I did when I first saw it nearly a quarter century ago. If wackily absurd post apocalyptic action movies are something you like, then check it out. That's probably something of a niche taste, though.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

American Beauty (1999)

When I first saw American Beauty, over a decade ago, I enjoyed it very much. I also knew it would not be to all tastes (I was sure my mother would hate it, for instance, and she did indeed). Sometime in the last ten years I picked up the DVD, but never watched it.

42-year old Lester (Kevin Spacey) is trapped in a loveless marriage, with a teenage daughter whose main emotion toward him is contempt, and a job he loathes. It seems we have joined him just as he decides 'I've had all I can stand, and I can't stand no more!', or words to that effect: he blackmails his employer into a severance package, starts buying dope from the kid next door, and gets a job slinging burgers. Meanwhile, his wife and daughter are also experiencing big changes in their lives.

I'm now pretty close to Lester's age now, rather than the late-20s I was when I first saw the film, and that definitely changes my perspective of the film. I sympathise more with the daughter's contempt for her father at the start of the film, and I had a more negative reaction to the characters in general than I originally did. While Lester makes a lot of positive changes in his own life, for instance, he's also kind of a douche to his wife and child in the process. Not that Lester's alone in having his bad points: pretty much every character in the movie is deeply flawed in one way or another.

I'm glad I rewatched the film, and I enjoyed it, but I suspect that if this had been my first viewing (say I'd caught it on TV or something), then I would not liked it enough to want to buy the DVD.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Pitch Black (2000)

An accident in deep space sends a starship hurtling toward a planet. As the two-person crew struggles to land safely, one of them wants to jettison the cargo - cryogenically frozen passengers - in order to improve their chances. She's stopped from doing so by her colleague, however. The ship crashes, with about a dozen survivors in all. These include the crew member who wanted to drump the passengers (but not the one who saved them), and also a dangerous criminal named Riddick.

At first, the planet on which they've crashed doesn't seem too bad. Their biggest worry is Riddick, who quickly gets free. Unfortunately, appearances can be deceiving, and they've picked a very bad time to land on this particular planet ...

Pitch Black was the first of the the three movies that cemented Vin Diesel as an action star (the others being XXX and The Fast and the Furious, which came out shortly afterward). It's a very fine science fiction thriller, with an excellent cast, decent effects, and a solid script. Frankly, it's the best Alien film of the last twenty years. Not that the hostile lifeforms in this movie are all that like everyone's favorite xenomorphs, other than their aggression, but the structure and feel of the film is quite similar.

This is a well-crafted, tense thriller with characters who grow and evolve in interresting ways over the course of the film, and whose actions are believable and consistent within the context of the film. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Streets of Fire (1984)

Walter Hill once said 'Every film I've done has been a Western'. That's certainly true of the wonderfully entertaining Streets of Fire, a film in which I could definitely see a young John Wayne having the lead role. This 1984 offering merges then-contemporary culture with 1950s bobby soxers, over the top action sequences with musical numbers, and hyper-stylised dialogue with a plot that's been pared down to the bone. I loved almost every second of it. I'm very sad that the planned sequels never happened: the film was a commercial failure at the time of its release. Sad, but not surprising. This is a movie with a very distinctive, non-standard look and feel and if you like naturalistic dialogue and acting you're going to have issues with it.

Rock diva Ellen Aim is kidnapped by biker gang 'The Bombers', who as a group look like they came straight out of The Wanderers. Ellen's former flame Tom Cody is summoned back to town to rescue her. Tom's as tough as they come, albeit a bit of a douche, and - along with Ellen's manager and a tough as nails, two fisted sidekick - sets out to do just that. People get beaten up, things explode all over the place at the slightest provocation, there are many scenes very reminiscent of Hill's earlier film The Warriors, and we cap things off with a big rock and roll number. As you do.

Look, just see it. You may love it like I did or hate it and think its failure was hugely deserved, but I doubt you'll be ambivalent about it.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Laputa: the Castle in the Sky (1986)

These days Studio Ghibli is one of the best known names in animation, but in 1986 they were just releasing their first feature: Laputa: the Castle in the Sky. I'll get the basics out of the way first: if you enjoyed any of the other Ghibli films, you'll like this one too. It's got the same heart and feel as their later works, even if the animation is a lot less sumptuous (it's still technically sound and well designed; just not as lush as the more recent stuff).

This film also features a lot of the motifs that will commonly appear in films directed by Hayao Miyazaki; themes of flight and flying machines, reverence for nature (and villains who do not value it), an elderly female antagonist who proves more sympathetic than she first appeared, and a young female protagonist. However, although Miyazaki repeats themes, he's generally good about making each film have its own identity, and Laputa doesn't feel like a retread of his other works (nor a mold from which they are cast), despite the elements they share.

Originally conceived in Gulliver's Travels, the island of Laputa floats above the surface of the world, all but inaccessible. The film tracks a young woman, who unknowingly possesses the key to uncovering the flying realm. Various forces want her, and her key, for varying reasons. With the help of a young man she meets, she has to try and prevent Laputa's secrets from falling into the wrong hands. It's a fairly straight-forward family adventure concept, but it's the execution that elevates the film. This is a solid idea, expertly developed and delivered, and - despite being fully two hours long - never dragged or felt tedious to watch.

Glad I finally got around to seeing it!

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Avalon (2001)

There have been several films where characters develop/play virtual reality games, only to begin to question the reality of their own lives, or indeed the definition of 'reality' to begin with. Japanese/Polish co-production Avalon is one such film. It's also frankly not one I enjoyed very much.

Main character Ash is one of the top players of illegal VR game 'Avalon'. Unusually, she plays solo, rather than in a team. She was in a team in the past, but the group disbanded for not terribly clear reasons that are never actually resolved (several different explanations are given). Ash hears rumours of a 'secret' level to Avalon, beyond the 'Class A' level she is already on, and attempts to find out how to get to it. She's aided ... for certain definitions of the term ... in this by former team-mate 'Sunder', and a mysterious stranger.

The film's title, and a lot of the dialogue, references Arthurian legend, but the connection to the actual plot seems pretty arbitrary and tenuous. A lot of the film seems pretty arbitrary and tenuous, though. Considerable time is spent on a scene where Ash cooks dinner for her dog, only to discover that the animal is missing ... if indeed it ever existed. We have a scene where Ash buys books of Arthurian legend, and a later shot that shows the pages of at least one of the books are all blank. What does this mean, and why should we care? The script doesn't seem to have answers for either of these questions.

This is a visually stylish, but ultimately boring movie. Not recommended.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Desperado (1995)

I only own Desperado on DVD because it came in a two pack with El Mariachi, which I at that time I hadn't seen. I'd already watched Desperado back when it first came out on home video, and hadn't been that enthused. I've enjoyed much of Robert Rodriguez's work in the time since then, though, so I figured I would give it another try and finally watch my DVD.

I'll start us off with two deeply unsurprising observations: the first is that Rodriguez has a strong visual style, and a knack for absurdly over the top action sequences. The second is that Steve Buscemi steals every scene he's in.

It was probably the absurdist, tongue in cheek elements of the film that a much younger (early 20s) me didn't appreciate. Middle-aged me was pretty darn amused by them, though. So I had fun watching this a second time; certainly more than the first. I liked the moral ambiguity of the protagonist and of his love interest, and the gleefully sociopathic tendencies of the villain. Add in the rocket-launcher guitar case, and I had a good time. Probably the only thing that got a reaction other than was probably intended was the sex scene: I found it more goofy and silly than erotic.

This is a revenge melodrama with a strong dose of black comedy to liven it up. It's full of brooding and snarling and histrionic declarations. It's in no way a realistic or sensible film. But if you're in the mood for a hyper-stylized action flick that doesn't take itself at all seriously, then book yourself a date with the Desperado.

Killjoy 3 (2010)

I was rather surprised by Killjoy 3. It actually appears to be a movie. Not a good movie, you understand, but it's recognisably constructed in the accepted manner of a visual narrative, rather than a disjointed bunch of stuff someone just happened to point a camera at. It also clearly enjoyed a greater budget than the last film: Killjoy's hair doesn't look like it's about to fall off at any moment, the people on screen actually appear to be actors, and the sets don't look like they were dressed with cast-offs from a garage sale.

The film starts with someone summoning Killjoy, who introduces his three new sidekicks. Probably inevitably, one of them is a sexy female clown. However, the man who summoned Killjoy sneaks out on the demon without specifying a target for vengeance. For ... reasons ... this seems to leave Killjoy & Co trapped together in a pocket universe.

We cut to four college students, house-sitting for a professor of theirs (want to guess who the man in the opening scene was?). They find a bag left on the porch, and open it to reveal a strange mirror. Inevitably, one of them tampers with it, and gets drawn into Killjoy's realm. Mentally, that is. His body remains in the real world, which allows the others to 'wake' him, saving him from the demons' attentions. Killjoy's created a link to the place now though, and they soon find they can't leave the house. Fortunately, they seem to have some knowledge of Killjoy and his methods, which - especially once the Professor turns up - prompts them to try and beard the demon in his lair.

How that attempt plays out comprises the last act of the film. This is a far from perfect movie, but it has its moments. The efforts of one character to escape the house were smarter than the average horror movie script normally allows, and there are a couple of genuinely surprising moments. Still, unless you have a passion for bottom of the barrel horror schlock, you can safely skip it.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Killjoy 2 (2002)

Both wikipedia and IMDB list the budget of Killjoy 2 at $30,000. That ought to give you some idea of what end of the movie-making pool we're wading in, here (hint: it's the end where the little kids have been peeing).

The movie kicks off with two cops arresting a guy. It seems he refused to give them some info they wanted, so they frame him on a drugs charge. Will these cops ever appear again in the film, or the false nature of the accusations play a part in the narrative? Of course they won't. That would require competence, something we won't be seeing in this film's script.

After that scene, we join two different cops, who are preparing for a 90 day community service project with young offenders. Said offenders include the guy from the opening, as well as four others. They head off into the 'wilderness' for their project - repairs and restorations of a state facility - but wouldn't you know it, the van breaks down en route and they are forced to go in search of a telephone (there being no cell phone reception where they are). The first house they find is home to a shotgun-wielding nutter, who seriously injures one of the young people. The second house they find has a voodoo priestess in it (... of course it does). She doesn't have a phone or a car, but she does attempt to assist the injured boy with her magic, which prompts one of the other characters to relate her own knowledge of the occult: i.e. recap the plot of the first movie.

For ... reasons ... two of the kids then decide to summon Killjoy to heal their injured friend. Because 'murderous demon-clown' is what you think of when you need the world's biggest band-aid, I guess.  It turns out Killjoy is more interested in doing harm than healing it. Shocking, I know.  He whittles the group down one by own, never showing an ounce of vulnerability (nor, despite the script's many stabs at it, an ounce of humour). And then one of the characters throws holy water in his face, and he dies, and the movie stops (I refuse to dignify that by calling it an 'ending').

So yeah, it's pretty much dreadful on every front, though it did alert me to Debbie Rochon. Ms Rochon plays one of the cops, and has an IMDB listing of over 200 roles, all of which appear to be for projects of this sort of quality. I admire that kind of dedication to a career.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Predator 2 (1990)

I saw Predator 2 at the cinema when it came out, wasn't much impressed, and haven't watched it again since. I only own it on DVD because the cost to buy a twin pack of both films was all of $2 more than buying the first one by itself.

On a re-watch, I think my 1990/91 appraisal of the film was too harsh. It's by no means a good film, but the flaws it does have shouldn't make me overlook the good elements. These include the switch to an urban environment (something Arnie apparently disliked, and part of why he didn't sign on), and some of the hints at Predator lore, such as the idea that they deliberately choose, or are drawn to, sites of conflict.

The film posits a then-future 1997 where law and order has more or less broken down. The cops are overworked, underpaid and outgunned by the criminals they're chasing. Downtown is a war zone, with 24/7 media coverage of the ongoing bloodshed, and the mayor of LA has more or less fled the city. Frankly, it's all very RoboCop, right down to the costume design and the garbage littering the streets. Also straight out of RoboCop are the films several attempts at humour: attempts that are invariably a bad idea. The humour works in Verhoeven's film because despite the violence it contains it is first and foremost a satire. Predator 2 tries to have it both ways, being a 'serious' action movie for most of its length, but still going for laughs. The two very different tones jar badly against one another in almost every case, with only Bill Paxton actually managing to be amusing when he is supposed to be. But then, he's pretty much playing 'Hudson Mk 2', so it's a familiar role for him.

Into all this chaos comes the Predator, and it's up to Danny Glover to stop him (or at least, it is after the Predator kills a cop ... I rather like the fact that before that, Glover wants to work out what is going on, but isn't anywhere near as hell bent as finding whatever killed his squad mate).

Some of the action sequences in this are pretty good, and you get to see a very young Adam Baldwin in a supporting role, but it's definitely a mediocre movie, let down by an inconsistent idea of what it wants to be. Still, it is better than I remember it, and if you like the dystopian air of RoboCop, you might like this too.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Predator (1987)

Obviously, I've seen Predator several times before. I was a teenager when it came out, after all. But until recently, I did not own it on DVD.

For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past 25 years, the plot of this one is simple enough: an elite special forces team are sent on an extraction mission into hostile territory, only to find themselves the hunted, not the hunters, when an alien on 'safari' chooses them as its next prey. Equipped with a camouflage field and powerful weapons, the creature picks the soldiers off one by one, until the ultimate showdown with Arnie, who is at the height of his action movie epoch here.

If that all sounds like total B-movie schlock, it is. What makes Predator shine is the perfect casting, the tight script, and the even tighter direction. John McTiernan was just a year off making Die Hard, which is perhaps the 'perfect storm' of action movies, and he does a great job with the material here. From the gonzo gung ho glory of the special forces team's initially successful mission, to the panic of their first encounter with the Predator, and the growing desperation as their numbers are whittled away despite their skill and best efforts, this film gets it all right. These soldiers are portrayed as soldiers: tough, resilient men who know how to defend themselves, but who find themselves confronted by an enemy for whom they are not prepared. In some ways, it can be seen as a mirror image of Die Hard: Hans Gruber and his gang are smart and organised, but they aren't any more ready for John Maclane than Arnie & Co are for the Predator.

This is a great action film. Highly recommended.

Monday, 13 January 2014

The Creeper (1977)

For the first half of The Creeper (aka Rituals, which appears to be the better known title), my reaction was 'I have seen this movie before. It was called Deliverance, and it had better acting'.

As it turned out, however, that's not an entirely fair appraisal of the movie. Which is not to say that the movie doesn't owe a huge debt to the better known film. It features a group of city slickers (all doctors, in this case) who go for a camping holiday in the wilderness and find themselves the targets of hostile attention from the locals. But the development is very different. Deliverance begins its conflict with the most confronting scene of the film, then dwells on the question of whether the protagonists' fears - and their violent actions as a consequence of those fears - are justified self-defence or the same savagery they have just experienced. This film begins with a relatively low-key element - the theft of their shoes - and then escalates from there. It also focuses on the stresses of the men's escape trek, both physical and mental. The wilderness of this film is far more a threat than the wilderness of Deliverance, lacerating their feet, besetting them with bee swarms, and half-drowning them in the river. The interpersonal conflicts between the group are also quite different, and for most of the film they simply aren't in a position to use violence against their persecutors.

So my initial assessment of the movie wasn't a fair one, but is it a good movie? Well, it's OK. The lighting is a real problem, though. It's often very dark and hard to see what's going on. I also thought the concluding sequence was quite underwhelming. The film seems to lose its way in the final 20 minutes. The film's at its strongest before that, when it deals with the men's physical and mental deterioration in the face of their difficult journey.

In the end, you're still better off watching Deliverance.  Squeal for me, piggy!

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Killjoy (2000)

Killjoy is a terrible movie. The writing is terrible on every front: terrible plot, terrible characterisation, and terrible dialogue. The acting is ... well, it's not all terrible, but a significant chunk of it surely is. The effects - in particular a shooting scene about halfway through - are so laughably awful that they transcend terribleness.

Despite all this, the movie had one eye-opening aspect for me, which I'll get to shortly. First a quick summary of the plot. Killjoy begins by introducing us to Jada, her best friend Monique, and the socially outcast Michael. Michael obviously has a thing for Jada, who seems to have sympathy for him, but who warns him off before her boyfriend turns up. Said boyfriend of course arrives, and Michael gets beaten down.

Michael responds to this by attempting to summon a murderous demon, thereby eliminating any sympathy he might have won in the opening scene. The spell apparently fails, and Michael's not going to live to regret that. A year later, however, a murderous clown appears on the scene, and begins a killing spree that resembles nothing so much as a cut-price, less funny Freddy Krueger. Soon, even Jada is in the firing line.

You probably managed to read those two paragraphs without getting confused, but don't worry if they were too much for you: forty minutes in, the film has a character do a scene by scene recap of everything that's happened so far. Seriously.

So what's the eye-opening aspect of the film? It's that none of the characters are white. Or more accurately, how quickly I noticed the lack of white characters: we'd only seen three of them. I can pretty much guarantee that if the first three characters in a movie were white, I would not notice the lack of other ethnicities. It goes to show the lack of diversity in most films' casting and how unconsciously we absorb it and are affected by it.

So that was an interesting thing to experience. But good grief, I wish it could have happened with a better movie.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Chocky's Children (1985)

While the first Chocky was directly adapted from a John Wyndham novel, the sequels are original to TV.  Doctor Who alumnus Anthony Read (who these days is a successful author in the print realm) developed the plotline, using the characters Wyndham had created. There's a clear change in the material as a consequence, though not a jarring one. As a recap: the original series had 12-year old schoolboy Matthew being contacted by an alien intelligence (the eponymous Chocky), and experiencing some strange changes in his behaviour and physical abilities as a result. I bet you could easily write an article about how it's all a metaphor for puberty, if you wanted.

In any case, whereas the original mostly revolved around the question of 'what is happening to Matthew?', Chocky's Children deals much more with 'how would the authorities react if they found out about an alien contact?'. There's a much greater sense of tension and menace throughout the serial, with the first episode establishing that Chocky's visit may have had unexpected effects of Matthew's mind, and that a shadowy and unspecified cabal has him under surveillance. Matthew has no idea of any of this, of course, and merrily sets off on a holiday at his aunt's. Even when he encounters his neighbour Albertine, who possesses an uncanny mathematical skill, and lives on a property with a windmill that Matthew has been drawing for months - despite never seeing it before - young Matt is far from unsettled. In fact, the discovery of an emergent psychic link between them immediately turns his thoughts to Chocky. Albertine, unsurprisingly, isn't too pleased by the idea that her mathematical skills stem from another entity, rather than her own abilities, but pretty rapidly, that becomes the least of their worries. The parallels between them are far too obvious for Matthew's watchers to ignore ...

While much more a thriller than the family drama-focused original, Chocky's Children does feel like a pretty natural extension of the story. It features some nice scenes, as well, especially when Matthew's aunt is battering people into submission with the force of her politeness. The pacing of the serial is perhaps a little off: the end feels a trifle rushed, and perhaps a few sequences earlier on could have been trimmed to give the climax more room to breathe, but on the whole this is a solid bit of kids' TV programming.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Pacific Rim (2013)

Heck yeah.

I love this movie. Every GIANT FRICKIN' ROBOT VERSUS GIANT FRICKIN' MONSTER moment of it. This is a film that sets out to deliver an action-packed tale of oversized mayhem, and goes so with the whimsy and joy that is so often lacking from blockbuster films. Pacific Rim's failure at the US box office, when the latest tedious Baysplosion extravaganza is printing money by the truckload, is a huge shame.

Now it's not a perfect film. It's been suggested that it would be improved if Mako Mori was the protagonist. There's some merit in that, though unfortunately we still live in a time when the leads in action movies tend to be handsome, buff white guys.  And given it sticks within that mold, I think it does a pretty good job of giving us a flawed and conflicted but ultimately very likeable and sympathetic lead.

It could also be said this is not an especially nuanced or subtle film ... at least not in the dialogue. There's a lot of clever non-verbal stuff though. You get a sense of characters from the colours they wear and the way the move, even if they barely speak on camera.

This is two hours of big damn heroes taking on big damn bad guys, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance, and at the end of it, I wanted more.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Puppet Master 9 (2010)

The rubbery continuity of the Puppet Master series gets stretched once more by the ninth entry in the series. It is set just after Andre Toulon's death by suicide ... whatever year that was. It's WW2 in any case, and polio-survivor Danny is frustrated that the illness' s effects on his health make him medically unfit for military service. Thus when he discovers the aftermath of Toulon's suicide, and sees a pair of Nazi agents leaving, he takes the dead man's puppets so as to keep them out of the Reich's hands.

The Germans haven't gone home, though. They join forces with Japanese agents who are also in the US, and plot to destroy a munitions factory. This being a movie, it just happens to be the one where Danny's girlfriend works. Naturally he stumbles across this fact, and sets out to do his bit to protect his country ... by unleashing killer puppets, as you do.

Arriving seven years after The Legacy, and more than a decade after the last entirely new Puppet Master, this is definitely one of the weaker films in the series. Full Moon's budgets and inventiveness continue to atrophy, and that shows through clearly on screen. The script is tedious throughout, achieving mediocrity in its best moments while clunking badly in many other places. The acting is sub-standard, with the woman playing the leader of the Japanese saboteurs being painfully bad. The cheapness of the puppet effects remain obvious and problematic. They barely move on screen, and entirely lack the 'liveliness' that made them so enjoyable in the earlier movies. The franchise is definitely a shadow of its earlier self by this point, even though there are two more films after this, one of them an 'official' sequel and the other a 'non-canon' crossover with the Demonic Toys franchise. I don't have much hope for the former, but the latter might actually be silly enough to be fun.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Day of the Panther (1988)

The phrase 'Australian Martial Arts movie' is not one that engenders high expectations, but this film was directed by trash-meister Brian Trenchard-Smith, who was also responsible for the gloriously tacky Turkey Shoot. So as bad as the film was likely to be - and it's pretty bad - I at least had hopes it wouldn't be boring.

Trenchard-Smith fulfilled those hopes quite admirably. After kicking things off with a delightfully lame 'mystic ceremony' of the Panther Kung Fu sect, he launches straight into the first martial arts sequence, and thereafter inserts only the bare minimum of talky stuff needed to justify the next bout of punchy-kicky antics. This is a director who knows the movie he's being paid to make, and delivers it.

The plot, such as it is, is your standard 'they killed my partner' revenge story. In a nice change of pace, we actually have an extended action sequence involving the partner who dies, establishing her as a pretty tough and resourceful fighter, who is eventually overcome because she has to face the big bad while already wounded and exhausted by his minions. More films should give this kind of attention to the hero's dead friend: too often the audience is given no reason to care about the dead person than that the protagonist does. Not so here. The one weakness of this scene, honestly, is that it's a more interesting and varied fight than any of the ones that come later.

This film lacks the craziness that makes the final twenty minutes of American Ninja such a wonderful example of 80s camp, but that lack aside, it's actually a much better put together film. Fun trashy nonsense, packed with the pastel suits you'd expect of the period.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Puppet Master 8 (2003)

You're probably familiar with the idea of a 'clip show': an episode of a TV program which is three-quarters recycled footage, strung together by a much smaller amount of new material used as a framing device. it's a common device to ease the burden of TV production.

Puppet Master: the Legacy is a clip movie. It sports maybe 10-15 minutes of new footage, in which a mercenary attempts to uncover Toulon's secret of eternal life. Her investigation provides the excuse to re-use substantial chunks from most of the previous 7 films (all except 1 and 5, unless I missed the snippets from those).

The film was released four years after the previous film, and a screen at the end dedicates it to 'all the fans who have made the Puppet Master films such a success'. A cynic - and I am one - might suggest that Full Moon were looking for the cheapest possible way to gouge some more cash out of the franchise.

Unsurprisingly, this is not a film I'd recommend. Even the lacklustre 5th film is a better option than this.

Monday, 6 January 2014

The Cheerleaders (1973)

Once upon a time, all a movie needed to spawn multiple sequels was to feature five or six attractive women who were willing to take their clothes off a lot. Or at least, so I surmise from The Cheerleaders. This is nominally a comedy, if one considers sex farces to be humorous. Every moment of the plot - such as it is - is focused on getting one or more of its female cast out of her clothes.

The titular (pun wholly intended) cheerleaders are the secret of their football team's success: they wear out the opposing teams with marathon sexual antics the night before the match, allowing their own team to easily emerge victorious. Alas, one of them got pregnant from these shenanigans, which leads to virginal Jeannie joining the team. Naturally most of the rest of the film involves the many attempts to relieve her of this allegedly embarrassing condition, with 'comical' results that range from just plain creepy (a sequence where the entire football team chases her through the showers) to almost amusing (a Scooby Doo-esque opening doors sequence).

Anyway, when the day of the big game comes, Jeannie still hasn't managed to get lucky. She gets one last opportunity, and the chance to be a hero, though, when it emerges that one of the opposing side wasn't 'nobbled' and is fully capable of playing.

I shall refrain from off-colour remarks about 'taking one for the team', as that would be descending to the level of the film, and we wouldn't want that! :)

The only possible reason to watch this movie is the nudity. Neither the acting nor the script is good enough to merit your attention. For those with a penchant for 'vintage' erotica only.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Puppet Master 7 (1999)

The seventh Puppet Master film again takes a new approach to the series, with WW2 Andre Toulon (played for the last time by Guy Rolfe) in 1944 telling his puppets about his first experiences with the 'elixir of life', back in 1905. His younger self is played by Greg Sestero, who is best known for appearing in The Room, a film I unfortunately have not been able to locate on DVD.

The earlier setting means a whole new set of puppets are used in this film. They have a simpler, more rustic look than those of the earlier films, though in many cases they share thematic links: there are obvious parallels for Blade, Tunneler, Six Shooter and Pinhead.

As usual for each new entry in the franchise, continuity gets re-written: Toulon's date of death is pushed back to 1945 (six years later than in the first film) and the account of how he learned of the elixir is totally different than in the second film of the series. To be honest, Full Moon seem like they'd mostly prefer not to acknowledge Puppet Master 2 ever happened: perhaps because it has Toulon as the bad guy, whereas every other film in the franchise has portrayed him as heroic.

Anyway. what we get here is the tale of how Andre met his wife, how she interrupted the attempted murderer of the sorcerer who knew 'The Secret' and how that sorcerer then taught Toulon. Sukhet's minions make an appearance once more, though this time they are human-sized rather than the Totems of films 4 and 5. This was probably done for budget reasons. Also obviously an aspect of the budget is the crudity of the puppetry effects. I wish this film and number 6 had benefited from the better effects of the first five films: they certainly deserved it more than the dullness that was Puppet Master 5.

One fun game to play while watching the movie is 'what accent are they using now?'. Several of the actors appear unsure where their characters are from, or are just unable to maintain an accent consistently, with the woman playing Andre's future wife being a particular culprit.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Nemesis Game (2003)

It seems to me that media that promises some secret, revelatory truth most often ends up a jumbled mishmash of nonsense, masquerading as meaning. This joint Canadian/UK/New Zealand production is one such piece of media. It posits the existence; or at least, the belief in the existence, of a mysterious riddle game where, if you solve enough of the puzzles, you'll be taught The Design: the pattern and rules that explain all the seeming chaos that is existence.

Into this game comes Sara, a young woman who survived a car accident that killed her mother, and who hopes to understand why. On the edges of her search are her sleazy classmate at college, the comic store owner she's been playing puzzle games with, a murderess, and Sara's father (who's a cop).

The involvement of a murderess might give you or I pause, but not Sara. Even after her sleazy classmate meets a violent end, she continues to pursue this purported mystery. I suspect she needs conselling, myself, since her behaviour throughout the film is fairly irrational. Not that she's alone in that.

The main strength Nemesis Game has going for it is a solid cast who commit to the frankly silly script like it makes some kind of sense, and almost make the film watchable. If the final five minutes weren't so terrible, they might actually have succeeded.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Puppet Master 6 (1998)

Full Moon Entertainment intended Puppet Master 5 to be the end of the franchise. They stuck to that intent for four years, which is a lot better than the Friday the 13th people managed. Eventually, however, the decision was made to restart the series, and the sixth film, subtitled Curse of the Puppet Master, emerged.

The gap in production had both good and bad implications for this film. Good, because the script here seems to have recovered some of the verve that was entirely missing from the 5th movie. Bad, because Full Moon had lost their distribution deal with Paramount in the mean time, which significantly reduced their budget. The surprisingly-good-for-a-budget-movie puppetry effects of the previous films are absent from this one (or appear only via archive footage), with much more simplistic - and cheaper - techniques in use. Sadly, this makes the puppets seem far more ... well, like ordinary puppets, rather than the living ones they are supposed to be.

The story this time follows 'Tank', an orphan with a gift for wood carving. He's hired by the seemingly benign Dr Magrew to carve the 440 pieces needed for a new puppet, one that will live, just as the Blade, Pinhead and Leech Woman live. How the living puppets of Toulon got into Magrew's possession is something of a continuity conundrum, since that means this has to be set before Puppet Master 2, but the puppets were supposed to be hidden in a secret wall space for all that time. Continuity: still not something the series is going to pay any attention to. Anyway, Magrew has a beautiful daughter, and she and Tank starts to hit it off. Which saddens the Doc, since the final piece of the new puppet will be Tank's soul. Oopsie.

This film delivers plenty of schlocky fun during its length, though I did find myself really missing the better effects work of the earlier films. Still, if you are in the mood for something bombastically silly, but with a dark edge, this isn't a bad option.

Black Mama White Mama (1973)

This is the first of two 'women in prison' films that Pam Grier and Margaret Markov did together. Grier plays a gangster's moll, sent down for possession, who needs to escape before her boyfriend realises she stole $40,000 from him (it was 1973; that probably seemed like a lot of money). Markov is a political prisoner; a revolutionary who needs to escape in order to finalise a weapons deal for her guerrilla group. The two take an instant dislike to one another, and thus inevitably end up chained together when they finally get their shot at freedom. If that sounds suspiciously like the premise of 1958's The Defiant Ones, well, that's only because it is. This is a 'women in prison' film, after all. Nudity and catfights are more important than originality. (Markov and Grier's other such team-up, The Arena, rips off the first half of Spartacus)

Original in its premise or not, this is a pretty decent little film. It's certainly not shy about what it is, with lashings of bare breasts (especially at the beginning), the inevitable lesbian warden, and multiple catfights between the leads. But once Grier and Markov actually escape, about twenty minutes in, there's a pretty solid story being told. The script puts no less than four separate groups on the women's trail, each with their own agenda and motivation, and also throws plenty of obstacles in their way. Not to mention the whole not liking each other and having different destinations in mind for their respective escape attempts. The two women prove pretty resourceful, though. Sure, the film frequently has them rely on their looks to get ahead, but they also come up with some clever plans, especially when some tracker dogs are on their trail.

At the end of the day, you're either going to be the sort of person who is interested in this sort of 70s exploitation film, or you're not. If you are, though, this is definitely one of the best.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

The Frankenstein Experiment (2011)

Also sometimes titled The Frankenstein Syndrome or The Prometheus Project, this is an above average low budget horror movie, the inspiration for which should be obvious from its title. It stars Tiffany Shepis, who is kind of like a modern day Linnea Quigley, except she's better at that actual 'acting' part of the job.

I feel the film undercuts itself with its structure, which positions most of the film as Shepis's character giving the FBI a statement about what happened. I think the tension would build better if we simply saw events unfold as they happened, rather than seeing some of the outcomes before hand. It'd also free up the 10 minutes spent on interview scenes to focus on character development and interaction. I suspect they framed it this way because it results in a very punchy opening scene, but I think the movie overall would be stronger with a lower-key, more understatedly creepy opening, and then a slow building of tension. A more chronological approach would also avoid silliness like having characters in a flashback having further flashbacks. That's a crime I haven't seen committed since "Highlander".

Still, eight bucks and eighty minutes that I don't regret. Worth checking out if you're interested in a modern reimagining of Mary Shelley's famous work.