Monday, 31 March 2014

Jive Turkey (1974)

This Blaxploitation pic begins with the notice that 'This is a true story. Only the names, places and events have been changed'. I'm not sure how 'true' you can be when you have changed the names, places and events, but I suspect the answer is 'not very'.

It follows this up with a gloriously over the top 'conference' between African American gang leader Jabbah and his Italian American counterpart, Frank. Frank warns Jabbah that 'Chicago has a contract on you' and that he has to lose either his numbers business or his life. Jabbah isn't much impressed by this, but pretends to go along, though I suspect that having his bodyguard (a suspiciously tall and powerful woman named 'Serene') murder Frank's bodyguard on the way out may be a clue to his real intentions.

After this fun one-two punch of silliness, the movie loses steam. We get a lot of talking about stuff happening; police raids on Jabbah's businesses and the like; but most of it occurs off screen and the few action sequences we do see tend to be pretty humdrum affairs. The only enlivening note is when Serene returns for a spot of murder by drugging some guys and then beating them to death with her high heels. And even that is better in concept than in execution.

Eventually Jabbah and Frank have things out, in a finale that frankly made me doubt both men's intelligence. Eventually the stupidest one dies, and the movie ends.

The film's also known by the title Baby Needs A New Pair of Shoes, which I guess is a somewhat fitting title since it ties into Serene's method of killing. Probably more fitting than Jive Turkey, really.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Easy Rider (1969)

Perhaps the seminal counterculture film, Easy Rider has a great soundtrack, and some lush, evocative photography. It's also got some really annoying flash cuts, the flimsiest of plots, and an abrupt and arbitrary ending.

I suspect, given the aural and visual strengths of the film, that this was a great movie to get high to and just let the film wash over you. I don't intend to actually test that hypothesis however, so it will have to remain just a suspicion.

Watching the film while stone cold sober, I was still able to enjoy the soundtrack, and many of the well-shot scenes of Americana. The rest of the film, though, fell a bit flat and empty. The plot doesn't really develop past 'Two drug runners go on a motorcyle trip in the deep south and bump into various people as they do so'. It's mainly just a lot of time spent on riding motorcycles and smoking weed, until they get to New Orleans and do some LSD with a couple of prostitutes for a change of pace.

Given that the film is over 40 years old, I can see how it would have created a stir when it was released. It featured a couple of big name actors, top notch music, and excellent technical work. The film looks and sounds like a big budget Hollywood picture, except for the subject matter. The idea that such topics - drugs, free love, and so on - could be covered so openly, and in a more-or-less positive way, by the likes of Peter Fonda was probably pretty mind-blowing.

Today, of course, such matters are much less confronting and unusual in film, and a lot of the movie's emotional power is probably lost because of that. See it only if you're curious about a piece of film history.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Black Hooker (1974)

And the winner of the Tackiest Title award goes to this film. It's also known by the less trashy but also less accurate title Street Sisters.

The advertising posters for this movie asked the question 'What would you do if you learned your mama was a whore?'. The script's answer appears to be 'murder her'. This is a terrible response. I do not approve.

Despite the provocative title and ad campaign, this is not the sleazy skinfest you might expect. There are a couple of sex scenes, but they're both pretty creepy in different ways, and the first of them is frankly quite uncomfortable to watch. Or more accurately, listen to, as it is the dialogue that induces skin-crawling.

The plot is simple: a blond, blue-haired boy is raised by his black grandparents. His mother is a light-skinned African American (and the eponymous hooker) who had a baby fathered by one of her caucasian clients. She's very rarely around as he grows up, having a pretty adversarial relationship with her own parents. The boy's relationship with his grandmother is good, but his grandfather holds his mother's 'wicked ways' against him. Eventually the boy reaches his late teens and falls in love with a local girl, but decides to leave home when she elects to sleep with his grandfather instead (leading to the creepiness of the second sex scene). He leaves home to go to the big city, but his mother spurns him. Then his grandmother dies and they both go back to the house for the funeral. While there, he discovers his mother's profession and throttles her. The end.

I don't normally spoil the entire plot of the movie, but this one was pretty thin, and I figured I'd save you the eighty minutes you'd need to spend watching it. I suspect there's supposed to be some social commentary at work here, but I'm really not sure what it is. Be grateful these people aren't your family, maybe? There's barely a character in the film you'd want to spend time with if you didn't have to.

You can safely skip this one.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Spy Kids (2001)

This is pretty much my favourite Robert Rodriguez film to date. It's just so infectiously fun, with a great adult cast delivering pitch perfect performances for the film (not necessarily 'great acting' in the award-winning sense, but absolutely right for the characters they're playing). Of course, any film with child actors in lead roles is going to sink or swim on the strength of those munchkins. Fortunately, Rodriguez picked well: his leads are likeable and natural on screen, and have both gone on to solid acting careers as they move into adulthood.

The plot: Gregorio and Ingrid Cortez are seemingly ordinary parents who secretly happen to be former spies. When old colleagues go missing, they emerge from retirement to investigate. When they then go missing, and their kids discover the truth about their 'boring' family, it is up to the next generation to step up and save the world from the frankly rather bizarre threat looming over it.

This is a wacky, silly, goofy movie. It's also refreshingly straightforward about it. It fires off jokes of varying levels of maturity with enthusiastic abandon. There's slapstick, poop jokes, puns, sight gags, and a whole lot more. There's also a whole lot of people who just seems to be having a really good time making a movie, and I frankly had a really good time watching them.

Definitely recommended for when you're in the mood for some lighter fare.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Savage Weekend (1979)

Though filmed in 1976, this film proved unable to get a distribution deal until 1979. What changed that it finally got released? I think the answer to that is 'Halloween came out'. John Carpenter's massively successfully film ($70 million ticket sales on a budget of under half a million) arguably launched the slasher genre, and Savage Weekend, though it doesn't hit all the tropes of that sub-genre, is most definitely a slasher movie, and like Halloween, it features a masked killer.

We've got what became the standard slasher premise here: a group of friends in an isolated location carry on with boozing, sex, and other shenanigans, until some whackjob turns up to kill them all. Unlike most slashers, however, the group of friends in this film are adults, rather than teenagers. Two of them are stockbrokers, even. Maybe that was the reason this didn't get a release to begin with: successful studio execs were happy seeing snotty teens get waxed, but not white collar types!

OK, probably not, but it is something a bit out of the ordinary for this sort of thing.

So it's a slasher movie, and you probably know more or less how those go. This one takes a lot longer to get to the killing than most (about 50 minutes), and keeps the overall body count relatively low. None of the 'a kill every four minutes' tempo of mid-80s slashers. It leavens that long opening with plenty of relationship drama and a fair bit of nudity. The latter is more successful than the former, as the female members of the cast have definitely been chosen more for their looks and willingness to disrobe than their acting ability. Not that the men are much better. Well, except William Sanderson (E.B. Farnum from Deadwood) who as usual is solid. Certainly far more solid than some of the photography: there's a scene at one point of the film where the boom mic is clearly in shot for a full minute or so.

So in a technical sense it is a weak film, but Sanderson's performance is good (and he has a fairly central role in the film), and it's definitely an interesting view of the various iterations of the slasher formula that were tried before Halloween really set the mould.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Mutant Girls Squad (2010)

There are three directors credited on this film, and honestly, it does feel a little like it was made by committee. For one thing, it's just a little bit too generic in its over the top gorefest action. I mean, don't get me wrong, if this was the first of this ilk of film that you'd seen, you'd probably think it was pretty crazy and off the wall ... but I've seen both Machine Girl and Robogeisha, which were directed by one of the three men behind this film, and Mutant Girls Squad feels just a bit too familiar after experiencing the first two. The second clue is the explicit three-act structure, which each act being helmed by a different director, and each feeling just a little different from the others.

Rin is a social outcast at school, and her classmates take the opportunity to be especially cruel to her on her 16th birthday. She ends up having to visit the school nurse, who identifies Rin as 'Hiruko', a mutant. The nurse attempts to restrain Rin until the authorities arrive, but the younger woman's hand transforms into a claw and she fights her way free. Circumstances conspire to force Rin into a bloody running battle through the streets, in what is probably the film's most entertaining sequence. Just when it seems that she has finally been brought to bay, Rin is rescued by two more Hiruko, who induct her into their secret army to fight the oppression of the humans.

Of course, nothing is quite as black and white as Rin's new friends suggest, and her basically gentle nature doesn't make her an especially enthusiastic warrior to begin with. Who can she trust, in this strange and mixed up world she's entered?

This is a frenetic mix of massively over-the-top gore, juvenile humour, and deliberate gross-outs. See it only if you have a strong stomach for such stuff, and have either already seen (or cannot get a copy of) Machine Girl or Robogeisha.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

The Fury (1978)

Watching this film quickly put me in mind of Scanners, which appeared three years later and also revolves around people with psychic powers and secret efforts to weaponise them.

We begin the film with Peter (Kirk Douglas) and his son on vacation in the Middle East (do Middle Eastern beaches really allow such skimpy swimming costumes for women? Maybe Persia in the late 70s did, to be fair to the film). Peter's son has 'special powers', which an old special forces buddy wants to study. Moments after Peter assures his son that all will be well, there is a terrorist attack. Kirk Douglas, still sinewy but looking his 60+ years, takes on the gunmen and kills several, but appears to be killed himself. He survives, however, and learns his old buddy staged the attack to get him out of the picture.

A year later, Peter is searching for his son, who has apparently disappeared, and is trying to find another psychic to help him. His search brings him to a teenage girl named Gillian, but Evil Former Buddy also has his eye on her. The struggle between the two men will quickly turn deadly.

This is a Brian DePalma film, which means it is well shot, quite grim, and has some powerful signature moments. Unfortunately, it feels to me like someone should have told DePalma that the pace of the film needed to be tightened up. There are too many pauses in the momentum of the film as the narrative switches back and forth between Peter and Gillian, and it made the movie drag a little for me. At the end of it, I didn't regret seeing it, but I did think I would rather re-watch Scanners, if given the choice.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Escape from New York (1981)

There's little doubt that Escape from New York is a pretty bad film. It's got 'low rent' written all over it, from the nutty premise to the wildly implausible opening narration and on through the utterly incongruous synthpop intro music to the 'George Michael goes punk' appearance of its hero. While Kurt Russell ultimately proves pretty good in the role, the first appearance of Snake Plissken on screen always gives me the giggles. Despite - or perhaps because of - the rampant silliness on display, I like the movie.

So the film begins by explaining to us that an explosion in the US crime rate led to the establishment of the entirety of Manhattan island as a maximum security prison, with a 50-foot high wall around it. Only prisoners go in, and nothing comes out. Because 'turn the most expensive real estate into the country into a prison' is the kind of thing that happens in this sort of picture. No way we could put a prison somewhere it wouldn't require 12 million people to move. Anyway, by means no-one will bother to explain, a lone terrorist seizes control of Air Force 1 and crashlands it inside this little amusement park. The president survives in his escape pod, but is quickly snatched by the criminals and hidden away.

Enter 'Snake' Plissken, ex-special forces operative turned criminal. He was just about to be sent into Manhattan Island prison and now he's offered a deal: rescue the president within 24 hours, and get a full pardon. Snake, having at least two brain cells to rub together, agrees. This launches an amusingly offbeat mission into the ruinous city-prison, where Snake will encounter - sometimes peacefully but more often otherwise - its many zany inhabitants. As a pro-wrestling nerd, Ox Baker's appearance as 'Slag' is a particular treat.

A strong cast really helps this film, with Harry Dean Stanton and Donald Pleasance in particular both doing very good work. Perhaps even more important is the irreverent and rebellious tone that it has. This is most definitely a film that doesn't put much stock in the authorities (unsurprising when you consider that the script was originally written as a response to the Watergate scandal).

Not a sensible film. Not even really a 'good' one, in many ways. But the cast commits to it, the script doesn't take itself too seriously, and it has just the right amount of attitude to strike a chord with a youthful audience. And also with middle-aged nerds, it seems!

Sunday, 23 March 2014

25th Reich, The (2012)

When the best thing about a film is the credits, it can usually be assumed that something has gone terribly wrong with the film-making process. This is such a film.

We begin in 1944 Germany, with some brief CGI shots of the interior of a factory. The last thing we see is what looks like a flying saucer, before the film jumps backward a year to outback Australia, where five US soldiers are looking for two escaped pumas. The film makers choose to convey this with a text scrawl, rather than a couple of seconds of expository dialogue, a clumsy device that made me - justifiably as it turned out - wary.

Anyway, it turns out the puma thing was only a cover story, and the real purpose of the mission was to utilise an experimental time machine to jump back in time 50,000 years. This brings the men into conflict with (awful CGI) marsupial lions, and a swarm of (slightly less awful CGI) mosquitoes where each insect is as big as your hand. But more sinister dangers lurk in the past ...

When you have a movie that includes time travel and nazis, there are two things it is not likely to be: 1. Good, and 2. Boring. Alas, this film manages to be the latter with considerable panache. Lead actor Jim Knobeloch does his best to make the material work, but he's sabotaged by the terrible script, awful pacing, and ropey accents of his colleagues. The pacing in particular is a problem. It takes a long time for anything to really happen in this film.  In this regard it falls far short of Nazis-on-the-moon film Iron Sky.  Whatever that film's other failings (and it had plenty), 'nothing happens' was not one of them.

In this film, when something finally does happen, that thing is 'sexual assault, played for laughs'. So yeah, maybe tedium was better. It's sexual assault of a man (there are no women in the film), so at least it's not as misogynistic as it sounds, but it's still a terrible idea.

Avoid this. If you really, really need to see pulp SF Nazis, Iron Sky is many, many times better.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

I Wonder Who's Killing Her Now? (1975)

It's been suggested that the tediousness of the last few movies I've watched caused me to enjoy this bit of low budget farce more than it deserved. There may be truth in this suggestion. Nonetheless, enjoy it I did.

The film was originally conceived as a vehicle for Peter Sellers, but - somewhat ironically given the movie's plot - his health made it impossible for them to get insurance for him, so he had to be replaced.

After some very Pink Panther-esque credits, we meet Jordan Oliver, a complacent and rather foolish man who had the good fortune to marry a wealthy woman and has been coasting by ever since. His incompetence and dishonesty loses him his job, however, and he has just a month to find a quarter of a million dollars to repay what he stole. He expects his wife to cover for him, but she's tired of his childishness and wants a divorce.

And thus is hatched his nefarious plan to insure her for a million dollars and then have her killed, so he can claim the money. The movie makes no attempt to have his efforts to put the plan in place be even remotely plausible, and that's probably for the best.

Anyway, Jordan hires a hitman, but the hitman sub-contracts the job to a guy who sub-contracts the job to a guy who sub-contracts the job to a guy who ... you get the picture. This proves a problem for Jordan when he learns that the policy is invalid. He immediately rushes off to prevent his wifer's murder, tracking down one prospective killer after another and dragging them around in an increasingly demented ensemble. Meanwhile, multiple efforts are made to kill his wife (my favorite is the shark in the swimming pool).

Who is the final killer? Will they succeed before Jordan can find his wife? Probably not questions that matter overmuch, in the end, in this souffle-light bit of film making, but I had fun.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Fantasy Mission Force (1983)

This movie's ability to turn the utterly insane into utter tedium is really quite impressive. I mean, this is a film with WW2 Japanese soldiers riding 70s muscle cars, chariot style, into battle while dressed like extras from a Conan film, and yet all the scene manages to be is dull.

Plot-wise, we've basically got 'insane comedy version of the Dirty Dozen'. A super-tough military commander assembles a group of misfits for a secret mission to recover four generals who have been captured by the Japanese, and are being held in Luxembourg. No, I don't know why they're in Luxembourg, either. There's also a half a million dollars to be had, which seems to be more what the team is interested in.

Anyway, after a run-in with small time crooks Ellie and Sammy (Jackie Chan, who gets top billing despite his small role), the group next encounters a horde of cannibal Amazons. Their commander is killed in the initial confrontation with the Amazons, but they eventually win free, spend a night playing mah jong with hopping vampires, and then face down the aforementioned Japanese horde in what's probably meant to be a Wild Bunch like finale. Why you'd do that in a light comedy I don't know, but as it totally fails to evoke any emotional response other than 'oh good, the movie's nearly over', it doesn't much matter.

There are many other films with much better - and more frequent - Jackie Chan antics. Movies that also have enjoyable plots. Go watch one of those, instead.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Heaven's Gate (1980)

When director Michael Cimino showed his first cut of this film to the studio bosses at United Artists, it clocked in at a mammoth 325 minutes. Unsurprisingly, they were not reassured by his promise that the final cut would be about 15 minutes shorter, and refused to release a five hour film. Camino then spent about six months cutting it to a 'mere' three and a half hours.

Even at this length - the length I watched it at - the film is glacially slow. I literally looked at the time counter at one point, saw that 43 minutes had gone by, and wondered how a movie could get that far advanced without anything actually happening. You could cut a further hour easily, and Cimino eventually did just that after the initial release leapt into the record books for the size of its box office failure. Even the 2.5 hour 'streamlined' version tanked, with Roger Ebert calling it 'the most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen'. Fair criticism of a movie that assembles so much on screen talent (Kris Kristofferson at a time when he was one of film's biggest stars, Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Jeff Bridges and Brad Dourif, to name just five) and turns in such a boring, flaccid film.

The fallout from Heaven's Gate was immense: Cimino, who had been riding high after two massive successes before this, would direct only a handful of other films, all of which flopped. United Artists was bankrupted and ended up being acquired by MGM. Hollywood's existing drift away from directorial authority in favour of studio oversight was massively reinforced, and the western as a genre was pretty much dead for a decade afterward.

Because this is indeed a western. Specifically a very fictionalised account of the Johnson County War. Why you would play so fast and lose with the actual events without, you know, injecting anything remotely entertaining into the story, I do not know. Instead we're treated to a whole lot of talk about how bad things are going to happen real soon now. Then they finally do happen, and you'd think the movie would get more exciting once it moves into gunfights and battles, but not on Michael Cimino's watch it won't. Swirling clouds of dust and all but nameless characters shooting at each other might be a reasonably authentic depiction of real fighting, but it's lousy movie-making.

The film deserves the financial failure and critical savaging it received on release. I can only assume that a more recent body of critical praise is a cruel joke being played by the critics who penned it.

So does this film have anything to recommend it? Well, the cast is great, even if the material is rubbish. And the photography is gorgeous. Oh, and the film led to the contractual requirement that the American Humane Association be allowed on the set of all filmed media in the US, to ensure that animals were not harmed. So you know, if you consider 'being so egregiously cruel to animals that the film industry had to change its ways for good' a recommendation, then I guess it has three.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Def-Con 4 (1985)

The 80s saw the decline and fall of the Soviet Bloc, and lagging a couple of years behind that, the decline and fall of the nuclear apocalypse film. For my money, these films have always been more entertaining when they forsake realistic depictions of worldwide nuclear war (short form: it's bad), and instead embrace wacky post-apocalyptic societies, mutants, and the like. This is why films like America 3000 and Hell Comes to Frogtown will always have a soft spot in my heart, despite not being very good in a technical sense (the latter movie actually came in a pack with this one. Alas, I have already watched it, so you don't get a review). And movies like Threads, which I am glad I saw at an intellectual level, and was 'better' than those others by most metrics, simply isn't something I'd like to revisit too often.

Def-Con 4, a Canadian addition to the nuclear apocalypse family, doesn't seem to quite know where it wants to fit on the grim-to-goofy paradigm, and the film suffers because of it. The opening half hour or so is - hokey effects aside - a pretty solid effort at a realistic portrayal. Then things get goofier, but don't seem to realise that they have. There are mutants (only a few months after the nukes went off), the strangest earth moving / armored vehicle I've ever seen, and a teenage despot who still wears his school blazer. The film, however, neither embraces the silly or does anything to make these strange things macabre and unsettling. They're just ... there. And the struggles of the protagonists are also more or less 'just there', making it hard to care over much what happens to them.

It's a shame the movie couldn't find and stick to a tone, as the acting is all decent enough and the basic elements could have been forged into something schockily entertaining, or bleakly unsettling. Instead, we just get something vaguely dull.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Chocky's Challenge (1986)

Like the first two Chocky serials, the third is a pretty slow-paced piece of 80s children's SF. Unlike the others, it's not something I can give even a qualified recommendation. The plot's more or less a rehash of the second one, except the pacing's even wonkier and Chocky is more willing to reveal herself to other humans than the children she's working with.

Original protagonist Matthew takes a back seat in this series, with Albertine becoming the central figure. She's joined by three more of Chocky's proteges, including an extremely Caucasian looking girl from Hong Kong and the world's least convincing American. Allegedly he's a Bostonian but I suspect he's more likely to be from somewhere like Brixton.

Anyway, Albertine's blown through university at the age of 14 and is looking for grant money so she can research cosmic energy - the free, limitless force Chocky came to Earth to share with us. As usual, she has to deal with sceptical adults and an evil government conspiracy. Said conspiracy is frankly so inept that it's only a threat at all because Albertine and Chocky spend so much time carrying the idiot ball.

An inferior entry and a disappointing end to the series.

Monday, 17 March 2014

High Sierra (1941)

This was Humphrey Bogart's first outing as a leading man, though he still didn't get top billing: that honour went to leading lady Ida Lupino. Both of them turn in excellent performances in this film, as expected, though I honestly think the movie itself doesn't live up to their efforts.

Bogart plays gangster Roy Earle, back on the street after after 10 years in jail. Earle's release was engineered by his gangster friend Big Mac, and he owes Mac a job in exchange: a hotel robbery to pick up a cool half million dollars in jewelry. Given that this was 1941, when gasoline was 15 cents a gallon (less than 4 cents a litre for those of us in the metric world), that's a big haul. Earle's got company on the job, a pair of young wannabes, and a woman named Marie (Lupino) that one of them picked up. Roy initially wants Marie gone, which is ironic given that she soon proves to be the smartest and most reliable ally he has.

In between getting ready for the job and meeting with Big Mac, who's very sickly, Roy romances a young woman he met on the road. Marie, who clearly has a thing for Roy, isn't so thrilled about that.

Roy's efforts to make good on his debt to Big Mac, and to adjust to a world that's changed in his absence, form the centre-piece of the movie. And if you imagine that everything goes smoothly, you clearly haven't seen many movies.

As noted above, both leads do great jobs in their roles. Bogart effortlessly shifts through many gears as Roy Earle, giving this aging gangster a sense of gravitas. It's easy to see why this role opened people's eyes to his talent. Lupino also knocks it out of the park. If only the script was on the same level, but it's marred by some horribly dated elements, such as a 'comical negro', and by some rather flabby pacing.

This is worth seeing for its significance in film history, and for the bravura performances at its heart, but only overall it's only a so-so movie.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Foxy Brown (1974)

I would probably have liked this movie more if I'd seen it before Coffy. It's a sleazy, tacky bit of blaxploitation starring the dependable Pam Grier and providing the required mix of violence, nudity, 'street lingo' and jive-ass threads to hit all those 70s grindhouse beats.

Unfortunately for Foxy Brown, however, I have seen Coffy. I suspect this was also true of most people who saw this movie when it was first released. It hit cinemas a year after the other film, and presents us with a very similar premise. Coffy had Grier as a woman who sets out to take down the dealers who put her sister and her friend in the hospital. She does this by impersonating a call girl to infiltrate their organisation. Foxy Brown has Grier as a woman who sets out to take down the dealers who killed her boyfriend. She does this by impersonating a call girl to infil ... well, you get the point.

Alas, Foxy isn't just an imitation of Coffy, it's an inferior one. The script is weaker, the action scenes clumsier, and the wardrobe - while impressive - not a match for the sartorial silliness of Coffy's 'King George'.

I mean, if you're in the mood for a sleazy bit of 70s nonsense, this isn't a terrible way to spend an hour and a half. But if you have Coffy to hand, watch that instead.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Cube (1997)

Every now and again an indie film project turns into a cult hit. Cube is one such film. It's very much a 'bottle show' film, with basically only the one set, which gets turned into multiple rooms by changing the lighting and walls panels. Smartly, the script has been written to turn the limited physical environments (and limited cast - only seven people) into a feature rather than a flaw.

The premise is simple enough: a group of strangers awaken in a strange and deadly prison. The facility is comprised of scores of cube-shaped rooms with hatch-like exits on each of their six sides. Many of the rooms contain deadly traps, as well, as the group soon discovers. The film follows their efforts to escape from the prison, a process in which each of them can help, provided they can keep themselves from freaking out. One of the things I like about the film is its treatment of its characters. None of them are as archetypal as they first appear, and each has their moments of being an asset and of being a liability.

This is not going to be a movie to all tastes: it's not high on action sequences, and some people might find it dull or slow. But I very much enjoyed it when I first saw it, back in the late 90s. Even now, watching it with foreknowledge of the plot, I was entertained, though I definitely think it profits from being seen 'unspoiled'. Hence the lack of detail about the plot in this review.

Worth checking out if you don't mind the fact that it has a measured pace.

Friday, 14 March 2014

The Parallax View (1974)

Man, the 1970s are a different world. A world where you can walk onto a plane, and buy your ticket after it's taken off. It's very strange, in our post-9/11 environment, to see something like that in a movie.

In 1999, the movie Arlington Road came out. Despite generally being a fan of Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack, I didn't much care for the film. I found the plot preposterous: 'anyone smart enough to make that plan work is smart enough to come up with a better plan' was more or less my reaction. I like the film even less now that I've seen The Parallax View, which took a similar premise 25 years earlier and delivered it in a much more compelling, coherent and convincing fashion.

Reporter Joe Frady isn't much concerned when his former lover tells him she fears for her life. She's just a drama queen, he thinks, with her tales of all the witnesses of an assassination - of whom she was one - being murdered in turn.

He starts to reconsider when she turns up dead, however, and begins to piece together evidence of a secret conspiracy dedicated to finding and recruiting people with the right temperament to be assassins. His attempts to uncover the truth quickly lead him into danger, but Frady's not a man to give up easily, and he knows this could be the biggest story of the decade. But can one man, no matter how brave and resourceful, really expose a highly organised and sophisticated conspiracy?

This is a really well-crafted film, with genuine tension in many scenes, and some great cinematography. Well worth a look if you don't mind your films being rather on the grim side.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

They Drive By Night (1940)

This film is notable for being the last before Humphrey Bogart made his ascent to leading man status. Here he's still playing second fiddle, in this case to George Raft. Raft would ironically turn down the two roles - in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon - that would launch Bogart's star, and his own career would never truly reach the heights it had before this film.

They Drive By Night also netted a studio contract for Ida Lupino, due to the strength of her performance. She would go on to be something of a pioneer among women film-makers, making the film a watershed in three separate and notable careers. Which is pretty cool for what is ultimately a fairly low key film about the long haul trucking business. I mean sure, there's a femme fatale (Lupino), a fistfight, and a murder to spice things up, but it's also a movie where people are excited about 'federal tax contracts'.

Low-key though it is, it's not dull. There's saucy dialogue with the love interest (not Lupino), loan sharks, comedic spots, and the aforementioned murder, after all. There's also a lot of really solid acting, which never hurts a film. Joe and Paul (Raft and Bogart) are brothers who run a freelance trucking business. They're struggling to make a living, spending day after day on the road, and just when they finally seem to be turning things around, disaster strikes. Paul is injured, while Joe is forced to give up his cherished independence to work for a pay cheque. Opportunity - albeit with some strings attached - might be just around the corner, however.

With the exception of an early scene between Joe and his love interest, where he's a little too pushy for me to feel entirely comfortable, this was an enjoyable flick. Worth a look if you're in the mood for a quieter piece of entertainment.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)

Some comedies operate with scalpel-like sharpness, employing incisive quips, clever word-play, and rapid fire repartee. Screwball comedies like His Girl Friday, for instance.

This is not one of those films.

Instead, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery takes what we might call the jackhammer approach to humour: it uses blunt force and repetition to extort laughs out of the audience. The jokes are invariably the broadest, most blatant and least sophisticated kind possible, but they are pounded and pounded and pounded until they break through the Mediocrity Barrier and somehow become funny. It is, in its own way, really rather clever.

Swinging sixties spy Austin Powers thwarts the latest scheme of his nemesis, Dr Evil, but the nefarious one cryogenically freezes himself and is launched into space for 30 years. Powers also gets frozen, waking up in a very different time to the one he left behind.

Like I said above, none of what follows is exactly high brow, but the film commits so wholeheartedly to its schoolboy jokes, scatalogical references and broad parody that I find it has a kind of manic charm.

It probably also helps the film that the first time I saw it was at the last film of a cinema dusk til dawn session. You'll laugh at almost anything at 3am when you haven't had any sleep.  But even on a re-watch while well-rested, I had fun.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Mad Dog (1977)

One of the surest ways to put me off a piece of media is to include lots of sexual violence. I'll usually give it a pass if such acts are shown as a horrible, vile thing without a hint of eroticism, but that's definitely not the case in this film. We even get soft-focus lenses for one of the rape scenes.

Also known as Mad Dog Killer or Beast with a Gun, this 1970s Italian film comes across as something of a celebration of criminality, to be frank. The actor playing the villain gets top billing, and by far the largest amount of screen time. It's a film about a criminal's attempts to stay ahead of the police, rather than the police's attempts to catch the criminal. Given how inept the police are in the script, this would perhaps have been a good choice, were the criminal in any way the kind of person you might empathise with. But he's just a raping, murdering thug, and I certainly hope that's not someone any of you would identify with.

The plot? Criminal escapes from jail. Does some assault, some killing and some raping. Then does some more raping. And some killing. And some raping and killing. And some killing with a side order of sexual violence. Meanwhile, a police inspector ineffectually chases him. Blind luck puts said inspector in just the right location to deduce the criminal's hiding place, and they have their final face off, where the policeman wins the day.

I did like that having triumphed, the inspector arrests the crook, rather than kill him. That's a nice change from the norm. Overall, however, unless you want to wallow in cruelty, this is one to skip.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Life on Earth (1979)

David Attenborough first appeared on TV screens in 1952, but it was not until nearly three decades later that he began the series of documentaries for which he is most widely known: the Life series of programs.

There have now been nine entries in the Life series. Life on Earth was the first. It's a 13-part series outlining the evolution of different forms of life on the planet, from the very earliest single-celled organisms, through to the modern day. It does this in a broadly chronological order, covering simple creatures like sponges and jellyfish in the first episode, then moving on to the first invertebrates, and then modern plants and insects. From there it dedicates an episode each to fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds. Finally, mammals get no less than four episodes: one for marsupials and early mammals, one for modern herbivores and carnivores, one for primates, and then the final episode is all about a shy and retiring species known as 'humans'.

First off, I'd like to say it's nice to see a natural history show that covers humans in more or less the same way as other animals (well, excepting the 'giving them a whole episode to themselves' thing). Attenborough also takes the time to point out that just because humans are currently the most successful living creature on the planet doesn't mean that we'll remain so. As he notes, evolution is an ongoing process, and we will almost inevitably go the way of the dinosaurs at some point. Not the most upbeat of final thoughts for a documentary, that!

Despite being over thirty years old, this is still a fine introduction to evolution and to the many and varied forms of life that it's produced. Well worth a look if you have any interest at all in the world around you.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

[Rec] (2007)

The only reason not to see [Rec] is if you are pathologically incapable of watching scary movies. I'm not even willing to accept subtitles as a barrier here, given that the film is only 75 minutes long.

This is an exceptional piece of suspense-based film-making. The script is tight, avoiding most of the pitfalls of 'found footage' films. That was a cinematic technique launched by The Blair Witch Project, but I'd say [Rec] transcends the originator. Unlike Blair Witch, this film does not rely on 'what happened off screen'. It shows you stuff, and it does so without losing any impact.

Our main character is TV presenter Angela. Accompanied by her mostly-silent cameraman Pablo, she hosts a TV show focusing on the lives and jobs of nighttime shift workers. Tonight, they're accompanying firefighters. A call takes them to an apartment building where the are reports of a disturbance involving an old woman. Things rapidly take a turn for the dangerous, and then for the truly frightening.

Angela is a great character: she's almost annoying bouncy and upbeat at the beginning. She's also very focused on getting a story, in the manner of reporters in movies and TV shows. A nice change from the formula, however, is that she's a person first and a reporter - albeit a dedicated one - second. She might be committed to making sure there is a record of what happens, but when things go to hell she actively tries to help. None of the usual 'I'm just here for my Pulitzer' stuff.

The film also does a good job with the supporting cast. They're not on screen enough to be richly detailed, but the script gives each of them a couple of key signifiers so that you quickly get a sense of who they are and how they differ to the other people around them. These are not the interchangeable victims of less well-crafted films.

Both thumbs well and truly up.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Machete (2010)

There's a spoiler on the cover of this DVD. It's not a big one, really, and I'd seen the movie before so it didn't impact me personally, but it's pretty poor form nonetheless. I feel a little guilty about including a picture of the DVD above, but you're going to see it if you buy the thing, so ...

Of course, Machete is best known for originating as a fake trailer in the Grindhouse double feature. Ironically, the trailer was more entertaining than the movies it supported. The question is, once turned into a movie itself, how did it work out?

Pretty well, actually. I mean, it's a very very silly movie, but it makes no pretense to be anything else. Danny Trejo monosyllabically stalks through the film, slaughtering bad guys with a host of wildly improbable weapons and bedding women young enough to be his daughter. Or in Lindsay Lohan's case, his granddaughter.

The plot? Well, there is one, I guess. Machete is a Mexican Federale, and a perpetual thorn in the side of drug dealer Torrez. Through a series of convoluted events, he ends up in the US, and is dragged into a political struggle over illegal immigrants. With Machete involved, the political soon turns physical, and the streets run with gringo blood. Also explosions, bosoms and absurdly macho dialogue. It's a fun film. Not a film that will surprise you overly much, but a fun one.

See it if you're in the mood for a manic action movie that's deliberately trying to look as cheap and nasty as possible. It does a much better job of that than Grindhouse did, that's for sure.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Prisoner of Zenda (1988)

One thing that can be said in favour of this animated Australian film is that it does not outstay its welcome, clocking in at a mere 48 minutes.

That's pretty faint praise of course, but it's really all the film deserves. The animation is basic, the voice acting mediocre, and the script both weak and contrived. I mean, it's clearly aimed at a young audience, with its exaggerated character designs, slapstick humour, and black and white morality. But seriously, this came out the year before Disney's The Little Mermaid, which had gorgeous animation, actually funny humour, and ... well okay it had black and white morality as well. But it had a giant octopus monster getting impaled on a sailing ship, and a singing crab. So you have to give it points for that.

Where was I? Oh yes. This is an adaptation of the 1894 novel of the same name, though far from a faithful one. It shares the same basic premise (an Englishman happens to be the spitting image of the crown prince of a small European state, and must impersonate his royal doppelganger in order to thwart the prince's brother), but all the details are changed. The crown prince is given agency in this film, as well as a brain and a fiancee who loves him. The villainous prince has a wife rather than a mistress. She's virtuous and pure rather than a Milady De Winter type, and the film pairs her with our Englishman, rather than following the book's doomed romance (the impersonator and the crown prince's wife fall for each other, but their duty keeps them apart).

Amusingly, I did discover that there was a sequel to the novel, in which it emerges that the crown prince was a bad king and husband, making the victory of the Englishman in the first novel rather pyrrhic, really.

As for this film? Go watch Dave, instead. It's schmalzy nonsense, but it has a good cast and is honestly in some ways a closer match to the original story.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Seeing Double (2003)

One of my dark secrets is that I own S Club's first album on CD. What can I say? I (still) like the infectious bubblegum pop that is 'Bring It All Back'.

That particular song was the launch of the band's career, while this movie was their last project before they announced they were breaking up. It's a breezy, silly affair in which a mad scientist decides to take over the world by cloning celebrities and replacing the originals.  He then intends to use his replacements to influence popular opinions and trends, because 'unlike politicians, people actually listen to celebrities'. Really, the least plausible part of this is that he chose to start with S Club, of all people.

Anyway, when their overbearing manager disappears, the band initially takes this as an opportunity to lollygag about and enjoy themselves. It's only when they see TV footage of themselves in a live performance that they realise they've been replaced. "By look-a-likes. Or robots. Or popbots.". They swing somewhat ineffectually into action and get themselves arrested. Fortunately, they're able to stage a dance-based prison breakout. It's that sort of movie.

There are shenanigans, musical numbers (sometimes without even a passing nod to the plot), shenanigans, G-rated shower scenes, shenanigans, mildly smutty humour, shenanigans, and a stack of jokes ranging from groan-inducing to genuine belly laughs.

Oh, and there are also shenanigans.

So yeah: silly, silly movie. But it makes no pretence to be anything else and doesn't outstay its welcome. I enjoyed it. If you're looking for the lightest of light entertainment, you could do worse. And I have.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Going Steady (1979)

"What would American Pie look like if it was made in 1970s Israel?" is not a question I have ever asked myself. But if I had, this movie would probably be the answer.

Going Steady is the second of the Lemon Popsicle series of films, which stretched from the 70s through to 2001. The films follow the efforts of three young men to ... well, to get laid, frankly. Romance only really seems to matter to one of them, and even he is pretty overwhelmingly concerned with gettin' jiggy with it. So pretty typical teenage boys, unfortunately.

Our cast of near-neanderthals are Bobby, who has a girlfriend but doesn't let that stop him chasing other women; Huey, who is the butt of most of the film's 'jokes'; and Benji, who pursues a classmate, proclaiming his love, but veers into emotional abuse with depressing regularity. Not exactly the world's most appealing bunch, even before you factor in their attempt to trick a girl into a gang bang, and other 'humorous' escapades. I will give credit to Benji for having the world's oddest courting method. After spurning several of his creepily obsessive efforts to get a date, the woman of his dreams finally agrees to go out with him after he eats a wide variety of raw fruits and vegetables.

Yeah, I'm not sure what was going on there, either.

Anyway, this is a formula that's been done many times (nine times just in the Lemon Popsicle series alone), and there's not much notable about this film except its time and place of origin, so you can safely skip it.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Woochi: Goblin Wizard (2009)

If you were to bet yourself $1 that I bought this Korean film solely due to the title, yourself would owe you a buck. So you would profit. And so did I, because this was a really fun little romp. I consider myself fortunate that I did not encounter the DVD under one of the other versions of the title, such as Jean Woo-Chi: Taoist Wizard, as I might not have bought it.

Our story begins when the Archgod sets out to imprison all the goblins with the aid of his magic flute. Said "goblins" appear as animal-headed humanoids with superhuman strength and speed. They're bad news, especially the bunny-headed one. And no, I'm not making up the bunny-headed one. It's kind of adorably malevolent, and was my first clue that this was going to be a fun ride.

The attempt to imprison the goblins fails, due to the incompetence of some lesser, servitor gods. The magic flute is lost, and the archgod vanishes, overcome by the goblin's evil. Sometime later, the servitor gods are seeking wizards who can help them imprison the goblins, one by one, while also hoping to find the flute and keep it out of goblin hands. The apprentice of one of the wizards they meet is Woochi. Woochi is young, brash and very much in love with using his powers for his own entertainment and aggrandizement. If you immediately suspect that a theme of the film will be his need to learn that there are better uses for his powers, well, you've clearly seen at least one movie before.

Anyway, for various reasons the movie has a jump from its 500-years-ago timeframe to the modern day, which is when the action really picks up (not that the movie was exactly dragging before that). Woochi must battle goblins, learn important lessons, save the day, and win the girl. Standard adventure fare, really. Fortunately it's very well executed, with good action sequences (both wuxia martial arts and magical duels), and some actually amusing comedic bits. The very, very end of the film feels like a bit of an unnecessary epilogue, though I like that it shows that Woochi, whatever lessons he's learned, is still a bit of a larrikin.

This was fun, and if you don't mind a two hour film with subtitles, and enjoy light-hearted antics, you should check it out.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Delgo (2008)

After seven years and $40 million in development, Delgo averaged two viewers per session in its opening weekend.

So not so good.

It would go on to recoup less than 2% of its costs, becoming one of the biggest flops of 2008. There are probably three keys reasons for this. First is the animation, which is simply not up to scratch. To be honest, it wouldn't even have been up to scratch in the year development commenced, let alone in the same year as WALL-E hit the screens. Second is the script, which is not terribly good. The basic plot's alright I guess ... not innovative in any way, you understand, but not awful. The details very much let it down, however. The 'funny' parts never even raise a smile, while the 'exciting' parts aren't. In the latter case, that's partially due to the animation, which is too stiff and ungainly to convincingly depict a fight scene.

The third reason the film failed isn't really anything to do with how good it is, but the fact that it was made outside the studio system, and had a small marketing budget. Films made on that basis can be successful, but it's rare, especially on the back of such a large budget.

So, plot: there's an evil wannabe Queen and she tries to engineer a war between the two 'good' races so that she and her totally-not-orcs can swoop in and take over. Brash orphan from good race #1 and tender-hearted princess from good race #2 have to stop her.

I did say it wasn't innovative.

It's really not hard to see why this one sank at the box office. You can safely skip it.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

First Men in the Moon (1964)

I've seen this film a couple of times before, but not for a while. I picked it up on DVD mostly just due to the fact that Ray Harryhausen worked on the effects.

The film begins with a UN mission landing on the moon (the actual moon landing would not occur for another five years after the film was made). Upon arrival, they discover a Union Jack flag and a scrap of paper claiming the moon in the name of Queen Victoria. The reverse side of the paper gives them a clue which they follow to a nursing home in rural England. The elderly man there tells them of the strange voyage he undertook 60-some years before. Frankly, this is a terrible framing device. It has the nice sting of 'oh wow someone was here before!' yes, but it sacrifices any sort of tension as to the fate of two of the main characters of the resulting film. A few seconds of impact to rob the whole film of drama is a bad call.

The old man's tale begins and one thing I hadn't remembered about the film was what a jerk the young version of him was. He lies to his fiancee about his financial situation, then lies to her again so she will put her name on a contract to sell a house he doesn't even own. Nice guy.

The man he's selling someone else's property to is an inventor, and our narrator wants in on the invention in question: a substance that is immune to gravity. The inventor, Dr Cavor, plans to use this to go to the moon. Our narrator intends to go along and somehow make it rich from the journey. By contrived circumstances, his fiancee is also brought along. After some mishaps, they reach the lunar body ... and discover it is already occupied!

There is one set of decent creature effects in the film where Harryhausen's stop motion really gets a chance to shine, but most of the rest of it is guys in suits, and much less fun. There's also rather a lot of talking. Even the climax of the film is basically narrated for us.

All in all, a disappointment.

The Nameless (1999)

This movie is a good example of why I try to watch foreign language films in their original tongue, with subtitles. Because the DVD I have only comes with the dubbed version, and good lord it is awful. It's all flat, uninteresting and largely indistinguishable voices, uttering their lines without any sign of engagement or awareness of what's occurring on screen.

The film begins with with two cops discussing a terrible crime, in the kind of tones in which you would comment on the weather. Actually, that's not true. People sometimes care about the weather.

Anyway, the victim of the crime is a young girl. Her teeth, fingers and other identifying marks have been destroyed. However, a bracelet found near the body, and the fact that she has one leg shorter than the other, seem to identify her. Because the cops in this movie are stupid as well as disinterested. They call the supposed parents of the supposed child, who identify the bracelet as belonging to their child. Case closed!

Five years later, the mother of the 'dead' girl gets a call from her supposedly deceased child. You're shocked, I'm sure. This leads her to begin a long and convoluted investigation, though quite why it's so long I'm not sure, because someone keeps hand feeding her clues. Not that there is anything suspicious or weird about that. No way.

Finally after a lot of dreadfully delivered conversation, the movie limps to an end. It made no sense, but I frankly didn't care by then.

This film won several awards on release, so I can only assume that it's more engaging in the original Spanish. At least the actors probably sound awake in that version.