Friday, 28 February 2014

Revenge of the Cheerleaders (1976)






So for whatever reason the Cheerleaders Collection has this as its second entry, even though it was made later than the movie they have in the third spot. Not that there is any continuity between the films in any event, so I guess it doesn't matter all that much.

The eponymous revenging cheerleaders are top of the roost at Aloha HIgh school. They date all the best looking boys, cheer their basketball team to win after win, and are generally allowed to run things by the completely inept administration. However, the cluelessness of the principal and his staff is no accident: an evil businessman plans to get the school closed so he can redevelop the site. The girls and their wacky hijinks, such as drugging the school inspectors, inadvertently play into his hands. Thosee hijinks also - and I am sure this will surprise you - involve getting naked a whole lot.

So far, so stereotypical teen sex comedy. I mean sure, the dance numbers that pop up from time to time are a bit out of the ordinary, but other than that we've got a lot of familiar story beats here, right down to the hard-ass new principal (an ex marine, of course) who kicks the girls off the squad. Temporarily, anyway.

And then, in the last half hour or so, a truly wondrous thing happens: utter insanity. The climax of the film includes a chase around a giant statue of a dinosaur, a secret underground base, and a frickin' quicksand bunker on a golf course. I mean seriously, it's almost worth just seeing the last act of the film because it seems like they took some of the those drugs they had their characters use.

Hell, even the hard-ass new principal turns out to be a good guy. Talk about subverting genre expectations.

Ultimately, of course, it's a trashy film with bad acting and a flimsy script to justify lots and lots of naked boobies. Check it out only if you're eager to witness the madness of the ending, or the lashings of nudity, or because you just really, really want to see a very young and very lanky David Hasslehoff play a character named 'Boner'.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

The Hole (2001)







When this film was released, Thora Birch got top billing and the biggest pay packet. One of the other two main female roles, meanwhile, went to a novice actress getting her first substantial part. Her name was Keira Knightley.

Given the relative paths of their careers since then, I think the billing might be reversed if they were to make another film together. Birch, for whatever reason, seems to gravitate to small budget projects and independent horror movies. Movies like this one, come to think of it, though I'd like to think there's a world of difference between The Hole and a 2008 film she was in that is best described as "Hostel on a train" (and which was not-so-imaginatively titled Train). Given her abilities as an actor - the only thing I remember her even being bad in was the D&D movie, and well, who was good in that? - it's a shame she hasn't had more success. Though maybe she's perfectly happy with the career she has, and prefers to avoid all the attention she got in the aftermath of American Beauty.

Anyway, this film begins with Birch's character, Liz, staggering out of the woods, dirty and half-catatonic. We soon learn that Liz is one of four private school kids who have been missing for a couple of weeks. Where they have been, why they were there, and what happened, are of course all questions the police want answered. Given Liz's condition, they hand her over to a psychologist. The efforts of this doctor to engage with Liz and discover what occurred will form the spine of the film. This is a mystery/thriller, so I'm not going to say any more about the plot. I'll instead commend the film's cast, who all do well in their roles. I'm pleased to have just checked IMDB and learned that all six of the actors in 'core' roles are continuing to earn roles on a regular basis.

I liked this a lot. If you're at all into thrillers, and don't mind a bit of darkness, plenty of bad language, and some nudity (boy bits as well as girl bits, so at least there is something for everyone), then you should check it out.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Six Degrees of Helter Skelter (2009)



This is one of those movies I own because it came with a pack that included a movie I actually wanted (in this case, The Hole). It's a documentary on the Charles Manson murders, but it's one that's been produced by one of those 'gruesome history' tour operators, so it definitely goes the populist approach. There's lots of 'behind this gate is the property where ...' and 'we're here in this street on the actual anniversary of the murders'. When the film isn't operating as a cinematic version of one of the production company's tours, though, it's quite interesting. Manson was a deeply messed up guy, with some deeply messed up beliefs. That's obviously pretty common knowledge, but I was not aware of his theories of the approaching racial war (I guess these days he'd be a conservative pundit on talk back radio *rimshot*), or that he was twice arrested for unrelated crimes before the police finally connected his 'family' to the murders they had committed, or that he spent some time living in the house of one of the Beach Boys.

Given its subject matter, and its over-fondness for trivial stuff like pointing off screen and saying 'everything went down just around the corner', I certainly wouldn't recommend this movie to a wide audience. It's definitely a film where all you have to do is describe the subject matter for most people to know if they'd be interested in it or not. For my case, it had just enough information to make me interested to know more, so I can perhaps come to some kind of understanding as to how he was able to have people commit murders for him (the actual acts of violence were usually carried out by other people, at his order). So on that level, it's a success. Hopefully the 800-page book now sitting on my wishlist (simply titled Helter Skelter) will give a more in depth analysis than the film was able to do.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Unexpected break

Unforeseen circumstances mean I won't be able to post reviews today or tomorrow. Normal service should resume on Wednesday.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Eliminators (1986)



Movies like this one always make me question my three-level rating system. Because as much as I enjoyed Eliminators, it is unquestionably a terrible film. The plot is nonsensical, the script hamfisted, the acting wooden when it's not rabidly gnawing the scenery, and the effects laughable.

But it's squarely in "so bad it's great" territory, at least for me, and so I kinda want to give it a qualified recommendation. But well ... see above, so it doesn't get one.

The film opens with swirling intercuts of Roman soldiers and a plane crashing, then we switch to a laboratory where a scientist with Evil Hair and his Asian Lackey are madly twiddling dials and pressing knobs (not a sexual euphemism). They bring back a device of some kind, containing 'the mandroid'. Said mandroid (a cyborg, basically) has a Roman shield with him. The experiment was a success! They have discovered time travel!

Evil Scientist decides the mandroid is excess to requirements now, and orders 'it' destroyed. Asian Lackey doesn't carry through the order though, and eats a bullet for his defiance. As is the way of things, however, he has time to send the mandroid in search of 'Colonel Hunter' before he dies. The Colonel turns out to be Denise Crosby (Tasha Yar from Star Trek The Next Generation), who is working on a recon robot. Said robot looks like a re-purposed kid's toy, and is the best actor in the film.

Anyway: shenanigans! Exploding cars! Redneck bar fights! Denise Crosby swimming for very little narrative reason while braless and wearing a white t-shirt! Secret ninja fishing techniques! One of the goofiest battle sequences ever put to film! This movie has it all. And what's not to love about that?

The Arena (1989)




There's an episode of the TV show Babylon 5 where a human fighter wants to take part in an alien MMA tournament. It's widely regarded as one of the worst episodes of the show. I mention it now because (a) the premise of this film is very similar and (b) they both starred Claudia Christian (though her B5 character wasn't a focus of the episode in question. Maybe she'd learned her lesson by then).

It's never a good sign when the box blurb doesn't match the actual movie, and Arena is such a film: the DVD cover claims no human has won the tournament for 1000 years, while in the movie it's only 50. It's not really an important difference, but attention to detail is a thing that is good, y'know?

Anyway, our nominal hero is a tall blond guy with an awesome six pack and a frankly fairly unlikeable personality. But we're supposed to like him anyway, as he whines about how the fights used to be about something, but now no-one will give him a shot. Fortunately for him, though, he gets into a fight at his work and punches out a listed fighter in the tournament. That leads him to be offered a contract, but he turns it down because he just wants to go home.

That'd make for a pretty short movie though, so he runs afoul of a local gangster - who also happens to manage the arena champion, of course - and signs up with the manager who previously offered him a contract (said manager is played by Claudia Christian, who is honestly not terribly good in this. Thankfully she's a lot better in B5). He proves a real contender (you're shocked, I'm sure) and comes in line for a title shot. Of course, the gangster from earlier isn't about to let his champ go out there without a few dirty tricks to help him out (even more shocking!).

Will Beefy McHuman triumph against all odds? Well, duh. Will you care? Probably not.

This one is worth checking out only for the alien costumes (which are sometimes quite inventive) and the parade of TV SF faces (in addition to Claudia Christian it also features the actors who played Quark and Gul Du'Kat on Star Trek: Deep Space 9).

Friday, 21 February 2014

The Wrestler (2009)



As a professional wrestling fan, I was always going to go see this film, even if the reviews hadn't been good.

An aside: yes, I know pr-wrestling is 'fake' in the sense that the results are pre-determined. The events of every movie I've reviewed in this blog were pre-determined. There are plenty of valid criticisms to be made of pro wrestling (the attitudes towards women and non-white ethnicities, for instance) but having scripted results is not one of them.

Right, that done, let's talk about the movie. The Wrestler picked up great reviews, both from film critics (for the script and Mickey Rourke's performance), and from people within the professional wrestling industry. The latter group praised the film's authenticity. Unsurprisingly, this made me even more keen to see the film. I saw it at the cinema, found it very well done (if not exactly fun) and picked up the DVD. Which I then never watched, because this is not the world's happiest movie, and you need to be in the right frame of mind to see it.

Randy "The Ram" Robinson was a massive wrestling star in the late 1980s, but twenty years later he's working a menial job, living in a trailer (when he can make rent), and wrestling in small local federations. A heart attack after a particularly brutal match (and all the insane things they do in the movie are things that people in these 'hardcore' feds really do inflict on each other), leads him to reconsider his life. He hangs up his boots, tries to strike up a new relationship, attempts to reconnect with his daughter, and to get his life in order. But the lure of the ring is strong, and Randy wouldn't be living in a trailer if he was the kind of guy who made good decisions, so his success or otherwise is very much in doubt ...

As noted, this is not the world's happiest film, and it certainly won't be to all tastes. But if you are at all curious about the behind the scenes of pro wrestling, or want to watch a meditation on what drives a man to risk his life for something that seems quite frivolous, then this is a well made and very well acted film. Good stuff.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

America 3000 (1986)





This is the greatest post apocalyptic SF film ever to be written by a man who also wrote a Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling movie.

Which sounds like faint praise, but I honestly like this movie - probably far more than it deserves. It's so very, very eighties. Massive hair, massive hair rock, references to commies and Reagan, and a 7 foot tall ape man with a boombox. Oh and of course the 'war between the sexes' is front and centre. It's translated quite literally here, with the relatively civilised and organised Frells (women) against the brutish Plutogs (men). However, the status quo is about to change when young Plutog Korvis stumbles across an ABC book and begins to educate himself and his friends.

Oh, and then he finds an ancient US bunker, stocked with all sorts of technology and weapons.

Fortunately for everyone, Korvis is an idealist, who wants to find a peaceful way forward, in cooperation with the Frells, rather than unleashing the grenades and automatic rifles he's found. Or as he puts it 'Neggy more machos, neggy more toys, neggy more seeders' - which are the three categories of Plutog slaves the Frells keep.

Of course, not everyone is as keen on the idea of detente as Korvis, and there will be a spanner or three thrown into the works of Korvis's plan before all is said and done. There's even a surprisingly well-executed battle scene at one point.

It's all very goofy and silly, and makes no pretense to be anything else. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Che: Parts 1 and 2 (2008)



Che Guevara was an Argentine Marxist who rose to fame as one of the leaders of the Cuban Revolution. He's also the subject of Stephen Soderbergh's 4 hour (!) biopic, Che. The project initially started out only covering the end of Che's life, after he left Cuba to take up a guerilla war in Bolivia, but Soderbergh felt that the script lacked context that could only be gained by also covering Guevara's Cuban experience. Hence, monstrously long movie of longness. In Spanish. So if four hours of subtitles isn't your thing, you can skip this review right now.

The film comes in two parts (subtitled The Argentinian and Guerilla) which cover Guevara's involvement in the Cuban and Bolivian revolutions, respectively. You can get the parts separately or together in a two-disc set. I did the latter. Watched back to back, they do a good job of depicting the similarities and differences between the two conflicts. They also do a good job (especially the second) in depicting the hardships and stresses of guerilla warfare.

Where the parts (again, especially the second one) are less successful is in producing a coherent view of events. I've recently read a biography of Guevara, so I was able to follow events OK, but I think that anyone who just sat down to watch it without that background might find it a bit disjointed. The first part also plays a lot with the chronological order, jumping between pre-revolution, post-revolution and mid-revolution events. Despite this non-linear approach however, I felt it was easier to follow and enjoy than the latter part. That may also be a factor of the tone, though: the second section is considerably more grim than the first.

These were quite interesting films about a very interesting figure in 20th century history. They're quite a commitment though, and won't be to all tastes.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The Time Guardian (1987)



Rarely has an actor been so miscast as Tom Burlinson is in this film. Every hackneyed movie tough guy line he utters sounds utterly false and forced, thudding leadenly out of the screen. During marketing before the film came out, he said 'I've never played a role like this before', and good grief, it shows.

Burlinson is the eponymous Time Guardian ('Time is the only thing he won't waste!'), whose home city travels through time as a way of avoiding the fallout of the Neutron Wars. Alas, they're pursued by evil cyborgs who are also able to travel through time. This is all conveyed through a text scrawl. And narration. And character dialogue. And oh god I get it they're time travellers chased by evil cyborgs shut up movie.

For reasons, Burlinson has to come to contemporary Earth and bang a sexy geologist. I mean, that probably wasn't actually his mission brief, but it's the only thing I actually saw him accomplish. But then, being useful is not something people in this film seem terribly interested in. They're very committed to doing the stupidest thing possible in the circumstances, though. In fact, it would be fair to say that almost none of the events of the film would happen if someone on screen wasn't being utterly incompetent.

This is gloriously, hysterically awful, and probably counts as a low point of the careers of almost all involved. I say 'almost all', because Dean Stockwell is in this, and he lives by a different standard.

Check it out only if you want to hurl mockery at the screen for an hour and a half. Of course, if you do want to do that, it's perfect.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Priest (2011)



If I said 'wuxia vampire cyberpunk western', you'd probably imagine a movie more exciting than this.

Not that Priest is terrible, or even boring. It's just a bit pedestrian. I lay some of the blame for this at the feet of Paul Bettany, and/or the director. Bettany's performance is extremely stoic, depicting a man who is very tightly controlled, methodical and practical. That probably seemed like a suitable characterisation for the role, but it makes it hard to really care about the man or empathise with him. They were probably going to laconic badass, but they only managed half of it.

The film begins by telling us that there have always been two races; humans and vampires; locked in an unending war. I somehow missed that while I was growing up, but then I did always have my head in a book. In any case, humanity eventally won the war when they developed the Priests, super duper fighters who could defeat the vampires in hand to hand because ... well, the movie never really explains where the Priests got their superhuman speed and strength. Out of a cereal box, maybe. The vampires were defeated but not destroyed: instead they were resettled on 'reservations', a term for what are clearly prisons that was no doubt deliberately chosen for its resonance with the old west.

Of course, some time after the war ended, the vampires are ready for a second round, and this time they have a secret weapon (Karl Urban, once again doing his best to elevate a film to watchability). They kidnap Bettany's niece as their opening gambit, and he sets out to get her back. Or kill her if she's been infected.

The film's call-backs to the wild west are numerous and obvious: we have hoverbikes as syberpunk horses, the railroad playing a significant role in the narrative, even a travelling snake oil salesman. It's shame more wasn't done with that. But then 'It's a shame more wasn't done with that' is something of a theme for the film. For instance, it sets up a nice parallel between the opening fight and the climactic battle, then fails to properly follow through on it.

I'm also disinclined to like the film's subtext that self-denial is the key to strength/goodness while the pursuit of pleasure is the hallmark of evil.

Dodgy subtext and 'didn't quite get there' elements aside, this is a harmless enough bit of SF movie fluff. If the four word description in my first sentence appeals to you at all, you'll probably find it a tolerable way to spend 90 minutes. You're not likely to find anything very memorable here though.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Pathogen (2006)







Somewhat unusually, I bought the Zombie Girl DVD for the extras. Specifically, for this extra.

Zombie Girl, you see, is a 2009 documentary about the making of the movie Pathogen, and in an unusual turn of events it is the documentary you have to buy in order to get the original film as an extra, rather than the documentary coming as an extra on the film.

But then, Pathogen is not your typical zombie movie.

I mean, in many ways it's very much what you'd expect: an accident at a medical research facility leads to a mysterious contagion. As authorities flail ineffectually, hordes of flesh eating zombies take to the streets in search of succulent human snackage. An ever dwindling group of uninfected try to stay ahead of the undead munchies.

What isn't typical, however, is that Pathogen was written, directed, produced, shot and edited by Emily Hagins while she was in middle school. Now to be honest, the movie shows the youth of its creator with its clunky script and technical deficiencies. But seriously, she was twelve years old when she started making it (13 by the time she actually got the film finished). There aren't many 12 year olds who could put together a feature-length film, I'm thinking.

So yeah, by all standard metrics this is a bad film: the acting is clearly being done by amateurs (with one exception you'll spot pretty easily); there are many continuity issues around what time of day it is; the dialogue sometimes becomes inaudible, etcetera and so on. But I don't care. Hagins's enthusiasm shines through it all, and I had a blast watching this.

PS: The Zombie Girl documentary itself is pretty good, and I recommend watching it before Pathogen itself. Also the Q&A from the world premiere is pretty interesting, though I suggest you save that until after seeing the film.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

David and Goliath (1960)




I bought this DVD from Amazon Marketplace back in 2005, while I was living in Boston. It's being able to say things like 'I bought this in 2005 and still haven't watched it' that prompted this reviewing malarkey.

My motivations for purchasing the DVD were simple: first, it was very cheap. Second, it featured Orson Welles as King Saul, which I thought might be interesting to see.

Mostly, it wasn't. The actor playing Goliath was a pretty impressive fellow, but other than that this was memorable mostly for David not being a very likeable chap. His 'great wisdom' is demonstrated in the film by his ability to find loopholes in the wording of contracts, while he quickly forgets the girlfriend he had at home when faced with a beautiful princess. Of course, the biblical David had eight wives, so I guess we should be happy this guy is only two-timing.

Anyway, the plot of the film just kind of meanders through a simplified and considerably re-ordered version of the earlier chapters of David's old testament adventures, a re-ordering that I am sure was undertaken to move the fight with Goliath to the end of the film. Sadly, the fight itself is not worthy of the time taken to get to it.

Not much to recommend this one, but at least the version I saw was only 90 minutes; if IMDB is to be believed the original release was 20 minutes longer.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Tank Girl (1995)



Like Chronicles of Riddick, I saw this film when it hit the cinema, was ambivalent about it, and haven't seen it since.

Unlike Chronicles of Riddick, re-watching it did not make me want to scream abuse at the TV.

This is not to say that Tank Girl is a flawless film. Or even a good one. Lori Petty isn't up to carrying the film (or really, convincingly being the title character), casting Malcolm McDowell is pretty much admitting your movie is going to be trashy, and Ice-T is hopelessly miused as a mutant kangaroo. So it's a failure, but it's a pretty unique and idiosyncratic failure, and I can respect that.

I guess the biggest question I have about the film is 'who the hell thought spending $25 million on this was a good investment?'. I mean, it's not like the character had the cultural penetration of a Superman or Batman. You almost certainly hadn't heard of her unless you were heavily into comics, and as potential audiences go that is (a) too small to support a film and (b) comprised of the people who are generally most critical of comic book movies. Couple all this with the fact that the script is basically utterly insane, and that the film-makers threw in animated sequences, musical numbers, juvenile humour, and just about anything else that seemed like a good idea at the time, and you have a movie destined to lose twenty million or more and take down the magazine in which the comic was published in the process.

Though in the long run the film's failure hasn't hurt the character, who is still in print, or her creators, one of whom went on to form the Gorillaz.

So yeah, this is a crass, anarchic, frequently very silly movie. If you liked the comics, you'll probably hate it. If you don't know the comics, you'll probably think it's stupid. But you'll remember it.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Chronicles of Riddick (2004)






I saw this film back when it hit the cinemas. At the time I thought it pretty ordinary. Ten years later, watching it again, I realised I was wrong. This film is not pretty ordinary.

It's dreadful.

There are many reasons I say this, from the fact that the film is 20 minutes too long to the fact that all of those twenty minutes (and many of the others, for that matter) are completely pointless within the context of the story, and generally just exist to 'be cool'.

But let us just focus on two of the problems: first, the lack of any kind of compelling antagonist. The 'big bads' are the Necromongers, who are basically Space Necromancers. Pretty much everything in the movie is a Space version of some Fantasy Trope. Alas, they're boring and bland and largely faceless. Only Karl Urban and his wife get much actual screen time, and since Urban's character is not the actual leader of the Necromongers, he's clearly not actually going to be a real threat. The leader is given very little actual screen time, and while we're supposed to be impressed by his semi-magical powers in the climactic battle with Riddick, I'm mainly impressed by his inability to actually kill his enemy when he has all the tactical advantage. The secondary villain is a complete chump, who exists only be totally be punked at every turn. Not exactly compelling on either front.

The second problem? Jack-who-is-now-named-Kira-for-no-good-reason. Man, screw this film and everything it does with that character after the first two minutes she's on the screen. Just awful awful awful all the time, with a topping of utter terribleness. Even if the remainder of the film was good, I'd hate it just for this.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Land of the Minotaur (1975)



I blame The Exorcist.

I blame it for the many talky, tedious horror movies that oozed out in the 70s after the aforementioned film's massive success. Films that aped the obvious themes and style of their progenitor, but understood none of what made it work.

This is one of those films. It features a secret cult of Minotaur-worshippers (why do they worship a bull-headed man? who knows). These folks like to kidnap tourists and sacrifice them. The film starts with one such sacrifice, which comes across mostly as rather hokey. About the only interesting idea in it is that the actual killings are conducted by a girl of about 12 years age.

After this, a new group of tourists wander into the firing line, despite the efforts of a local priest to warn them off. When his young friends vanish, the priest calls in a private investigator (who singularly fails to successfully investigate pretty much anything for the whole film, or indeed achieve anything), as well as the girlfriend of one of the missing folks. Her role appears largely to be 'wear very short shorts'.

Lots of desultory 'scary' or 'gothic' scenes follow, most of them quite tedious when they aren't goofy, before a splash of holy water saves the day.

Yawn. Give it a miss.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Battle Beneath the Earth (1967)


I loved this movie far more than it deserves.

In 1960s Vegas (and boy do we get a lot of footage of the strip in a desperate attempt to disguise the fact that this was filmed in the UK), a crazy man is ranting that 'they're down there, like ants!' while pressing his ear to the ground. So naturally the cops arrest him and pack him off to a sanitarium.

However, crazy guy has friends in the military, and he persuades one of them to come see him, where he expounds a theory that enemy forces are digging their way beneath the United States in preparation for a sneak attack. The friend doesn't buy it ... at least until strange seismic events start happening in exactly the places crazy guy said they would.

It's investigating time! And sure enough, rogue Chinese elements are burrowing under the US with a plan to stick nukes ... well, everywhere. So begins a subterranean war, and more deliriously crazy antics than you can shake a stick at. Seriously, this is a movie where the vital tool for jury-rigging a nuclear bomb is a freaking Allen key.

Utterly insane cold war wackiness. Check it out if you think Roger Moore's Bond movies should have been goofier.

Monday, 10 February 2014

The Devil's Whore (2008)



I suspect this miniseries was deliberately given its title to be provocative. It was in fact judged 'too much' for the US DVD release, where it was re-titled The Devil's Mistress. I suspect this says more about marketing people than the American people at large, however.

First things first, this has a crazy good cast: go IMDB it and stare at the talent involved for a moment. Unsurprisingly, it's wall to wall with solid to excellent performances, which are ably augmented by the excellent set and costume design.

Plot-wise, it's a fictionalised account of the English civil war (the one in the 1640s, not the earlier War of the Roses or even earlier Barons' Wars of the 13th century). It purports to be the true account of the life and times of Angelica Fanshawe, who did not actually exist. Noble-born Angelica is a free spirited believer in social justice. She is also member of Charles I's court, at least until her husband is executed for failing the King in battle. Destitute, she falls in with Levellers - for the time political radicals who believe in crazy things like letting every adult male have a vote (not adult women of course, that would be considered ludicrous for another 250 years). Angelica finds the Levellers' beliefs much more in keeping with her own. She also finds one of their leaders quite dashing, and becomes his bride.

Alas, being Angelica's husband is a dangerous job and she's twice-widowed by the halfway point of the mini-series, which provides the pretext for her to move through several of the other political and religious movements of the period, such as the Diggers and Ranters. Most of the questions and conflicts of the era are depicted fairly accurately, though it is as noted fiction, so there are plenty of liberties taken in the details.

If you're in the mood for an upscale historical melodrama, this is a good one.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

The Ultimate Warrior (1975)



When you're directing Enter the Dragon in 1973 and Gymkata in 1985, it's fair to say that something has gone wrong with your career in the mean time. For writer/director Robert Clouse, that 'something' probably wasn't this film, but ... well, it's certainly no Enter the Dragon, despite featuring fairly big names Yul Brynner and Max von Sydow in the cast.

In the far future of 2012 (tee hee), economic disaster and a succession of crop-destroying plagues have led to complete social collapse. New York is in ruins, though the Twin Towers are conspicuously still standing.  The city is populated mostly by scavengers and gangs. Chief among the latter is the crew led by 'Carrot', which is an unfortunate name for a villain, I think. Fortunately, the actor playing him has plenty of physical presence to compensate.

One of the few enclaves of civilisation is run by a man known as 'the Baron' (von Sydow). His son-in-law is a botanical genius who has developed plague-resistant seeds. Their community is slowly dwindling though, and cannot survive in NYC. So the Baron hires an outsider (Brynner) to lead his people out of the city and to a place of safety.

Alas, not everyone in the commune has the Baron's calm rationality, and the ever present menace of Carrot (a sentence I find hard to type with a straight face) is wearing heavily on the small group. Will someone crack under the pressure? Wiill hope for the human race survive? You'll probably answer both of those questions correctly unless you've never seen a movie before.

This was a mildly interesting bit of film history but not one you need to seek out. Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior has a similar premise and much more enjoyable execution.

The Crater Lake Monster (1977)



The eponymous monster is easily the best thing in this film. Not that this is saying much, you understand. But the stop motion sequences are solid, and while the full-size effects aren't of the same standard, they're certainly a step above the acting, the script, or the laughable 'meteor' sequence.

Things start promisingly enough, with lots of excited babble about the greatest discovery in the history of science (perhaps it could mean actual advances in the field of science!). This excitement stems from some Native American cave paintings, thousands of years old, which feature a plesiosaur. Needless to say, these are some of the least authentic-looking cave paintings you've ever seen. It's quickly followed by the equally inauthentic meteor mentioned above, which prompts further excitement. Two scientific discoveries! Two, ah ha ha!

Inexplicably, the excitable scientists (and the sheriff who has been helping them) now disappear from the movie for most of the next 45 minutes, so we can follow around two men of limited intelligence who are renting out boats to holidays makers on the lake. Said holiday makers end up dead or traumatised by monster attacks, but precious little time is actually devoted to those sequences, with the film makers instead focusing on the 'funny' antics of the would-be entrepeneurs.

The sheriff and scientists finally reappear in the movie when the former engages in the world's dullest shootout near the lake's edge. His criminal adversary ends up as monster chow, and the film stumbles aimlessly toward its lacklustre conclusion. Poor not-Nessy deserved better than this.

Friday, 7 February 2014

High School of the Dead (2010)



This is the fan serviest fan service that ever served fans.

Now generally, fan service annoys me. It feels dishonest to me (not to mention juvenile and sexist). It's basically the creators of the work admitting that they don't think their product is worth viewing on its own merits, so they threw in some pandering to try to keep you interested

In Highschool of the Dead, it's still juvenile and sexist, but it's so gleefully, unrestrainedly over the top about it, so blatant and absurd, that I cannot help but feel a grudging admiration. It also doesn't have that whiff of dishonesty to it. Fan service pretty much is the product. There are at least twelve instances in the opening credits.

The plot? Oh yeah. Takeshi is on the roof of his high school, moping about the girl who dumped him to date his best friend, when the zombie apocalypse happens. Takeshi, his ex, and four others (three of them beautiful women, surprise surprise) must stay alive in the chaos. Fortunately our hero is a born survivor, the other guy is a gun expert (from playing computer games), while most of the women are as improbably deadly as they are improbably buxom. They spend the twelve episodes of the show flashing their panties, falling out of their tops, and slaughtering zombies by the truck load.

I mean, come on, this is a show where the line 'You used my boobs as a brace for an AK-47!' is perfectly sensible. How can I not love it just a little?

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed (2004)



In video games, the second entry in a franchise is often an improvement on the first. The best elements of the original are refined and expanded; the worst elements revised or removed. This is not often true with movies, however.

Which is one reason that Monsters Unleashed is such a pleasant surprise. It's funnier than the first, and when it resorts to fart-based humour it does so for plot-related reasons, rather than just because they figure there will be eight year olds in the audience. It's also a better Scooby Doo film, being tonally a better match for the source material, having monsters that genuinely feel like something off the show and better developed red herrings for who the bad guy might be. It also features the greatest use of a Bon Jovi song in cinema history.

This is a breezy, fun film that genuinely seems to like its source material (unlike the first, which mainly seemed to mock it). I was never a huge fan of the TV show myself, but going the send-up route when you do an adaptation is often a risky move, and the first movie fell a little flat in that regard. I consider this a marked improvement on every front. I'm not sure why it got negative reviews on release. I do understand why it was a box office disappointment, though: I doubt many people expected all that much of it after the first one.

Worth a look if you have fun memories of the original TV show, or are in the mood for some childish fun.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury (2004)



Ostensibly created to link together Pitch Black and its tonally very different sequel, this 33-minute animated feature actually takes care of that in its last sixty seconds or so. The balance of the film is a bunch of set pieces, separated by Vin Diesel being all laconically bad ass. If I were 16, I'd probably have loved it. As an old man of forty, it's a bit more meh. Some of the fight scenes are quite well constructed from a technical perspective, but the tough guy talk doesn't work nearly so well. At least the repeating characters from the first film were all voiced by their original actors: I do appreciate that. I also liked that one of the secondary characters, having basically been used as a hostage throughout it, finally got to contribute at the end (though I didn't much like the way that contribution was then framed by the narrative, afterward.  It makes sense in the context of the film that follows ... but I have major issues with that context).

I got this as part of a set with the movies that bracket it (Pitch Black being the thing in the pack that I really wanted), and on that basis I don't regret picking it up. I wouldn't really recommend buying Dark Fury on its own merits, though. It's stylish, but lacks substance (which is how I remember the movie that followed, as well).

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Scooby Doo (2002)



It doesn't matter how bad a movie he's in, Matthew Lillard makes everything better.

Not that this is actually an utterly terrible movie. It's not great, by any stretch of the imagination, but it has excellent casting in all four of the key roles and some fun set pieces in the script. Also a fight scene that's straight out of a professional wrestling match, for which I can forgive a lot.

We open with Mystery Inc solving their latest case, and Fred taking all the credit. Velma (who is tired of being pushed aside) and Daphne (who is tired of being kidnapped) quit the team. And so does Fred, because he's a bit of a douche. Only Shaggy and Scooby stick together, because 'friends don't quit'. Two years later, all five are summoned to holiday destination 'Spooky Island' to solve a mystery. Initially, each attempts to do so alone, but you know that sooner or later, they'll end up teaming up to beat the bad guy and rip off his latex mask.

I think the movie missteps in trying to be a subversion/deconstruction of the old TV show, but doing so in the most obvious and banal of ways. Playing with the formula is a tactic much more cleverly employed by the current Scooby Doo, Mystery Incorporated cartoon - which also benefits from Matthew Lillard's talents.

So yeah, go watch the new cartoon. This is not terrible (and the sequel, as I recall, was actually pretty good - I'll watch it soon and let you know). But Scooby Doo, Mystery Incorporated is excellent.

Monday, 3 February 2014

A Man for All Seasons (1966)



This movie was sitting on my wishlist for a while. Then it came up in out superhero rpg campaign, and I figured that meant I really ought to buy it.

There have been two film adaptations of Robert Bolt's play. This is the earlier (and I suspect better) of the two, with Paul Scofield - who played the role in the original stage production - appearing as Sir Thomas More.

Sir Thomas is an important man in Henry VIII's England. A personal friend of the King, he's also one of the lead candidates for the role of Chancellor when the incumbent dies. When that comes to pass, he does indeed get the role ... and that's when everything starts going wrong.

Henry, you see, wants a divorce, and the Pope won't give it to him. So the King passes a law proclaiming himself head of the church in England, so he can grant himself a divorce. More, a devout Catholic, does not recognise this as a valid law ('If the world is round, and the King passes a law that it is flat, would it be so?'). He resigns, and refuses to swear an oath confirming the King's command over the church. His conscience forbids him from doing so. On the other hand, he does not speak openly against it, hoping that by his silence he will protect himself and his family. The ever-escalating efforts of the King and his agents to force More to swear the oath make up the latter part of the film.

This is a sumptuous film, with excellent performances from the key players. It's a bit too white-washed in its depiction of More for my taste, though. His refusal to swear the oath, and the price he paid for that decision, are historical fact. He was indeed a man who stood by his convictions. But one way in which he stood by those convictions - a way the film does not acknowledge - was in ordering the execution of six Protestants during his time as Chancellor. Had the film shown the less admirable aspects of More's convictions, I would have appreciated it. As is, it feels like Bolt took the easy way out in his characterisation, and to me that robs the film a bit.

Still, if you want to see clever dialogue, beautifully delivered, this is a fine bit of movie making.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Country Blue (1973)






The main problem with Country Blue ... other than the uneven acting, sometimes lethargic pace, and occasionally inaudible dialogue ... is that it's a movie about such fundamentally unlikeable characters. Lead character Bobby Lee (possibly a reference to Robert E Lee) Dixon is an extremely stupid young man with a chip on his shoulder and ambitions of being a bank robber. Freshly released from jail for knocking over a convenience store, he plans to rob a bank and abscond to Mexico with his girlfriend.

The bank robbery doesn't go all that well, turning up only $1500, and the escape attempt leaves the ersatz Bonnie and Clyde back in their home town, where they grab another car and set off once more. Bobby robs a gas station, and then the two of them stop by a lake for an extended nookie session. Way to be on the run, guys. Discovering that the manager of the bank tricked them about how much money was on the premises, Bobby insists on heading back to rob the place again, rather than continuing to Mexico as originally planned. As you might imagine, this doesn't go so well.

At the end of this overly-long (108 minute) film, I was left wondering why I was supposed to care about the characters. It's not like they had any redeeming features. If the film was more obviously meant to be a farce, or a comedy of any kind, then it might have made more sense as it would mean you're supposed to laugh at them, but that does not appear to be the case.

An odd film, indeed.