Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Neverland (2011)

Intellectually, I understand the appeal of the Peter Pan character; 'the boy who never grew up'.  The yearning to return to the carefree days of youth, and admiration for his fearlessness and adventuresome spirit.  But the thing about young people is that they're often self-centered, capricious, and even cruel ('innocent and heartless' as the author of the original novel put it).  To my mind, the important part of growing up - as opposed to merely growing old - is overcoming those traits.  Which means that by definition, this is something Peter Pan will never do.

Now admittedly, in that regard he's not much different than a lot of adults.  But those adults are not the protagonists of novels, plays, movies and this TV miniseries.

Neverland is the origin story of Peter Pan.  It begins on the streets of London in 1906, where Peter is part of a gang of street thieves under the tutelage of a Fagin-like character named Jimmy.  1906 is a couple of years after the original Peter and Wendy play came out, but we'll overlook that chronological oddity.

Peter, his gang, and their mentor are all drawn into Neverland by a strange glowing orb that Jimmy was hired to steal.  There they find ice-plains, giant eight-legged crocodiles, and a gang of pirates led by the beautiful but wicked Elizabeth Bonny (Anna Friel, who gives every impression of enjoying herself immensely in this bad girl role).

Many adventures ensue, as Peter must also encounter the Kaw (native Americans), their 'beautiful' princess Tiger Lily, and of course, Tinker Bell.  There's also the small matter of the man who hired Jimmy in the first place.  Though honestly, the explanation of that is some scientific mumbo-jumbo that neither feels appropriate to the overall tone of the show, nor terribly convincing in its own right.

Ultimately, this is a somewhat uneven and episodic affair; I think the best section is probably the opening half hour or so, with the remaining sequences varying in excitement and interest.  None of it is outright bad, really, but I can't help but feel that a lot of it comes across as padding the run time.

Harmless enough, and both Friel and Rhys Ifans are good in it.  Ifans plays Jimmy, whose full name ... well, I doubt I'm spoiling anything if I tell you that it's James Hook, am I?

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Nabonga (1944)

The very first review I posted on this blog was White Pongo, an ultra-cheap 1945 gorilla movie filled with stock footage and horrendous racism.  This movie is like that film, with a bigger budget and less bigotry.  The one African character in this is actually a pretty sympathetic portrayal, for the time.

A thief absconds to Africa with his daughter and a box of jewels, but their plane crashes in the jungle.  Because this is a movie, the daughter immediately befriends a gorilla.

We cut to a decade or so later, when Buster 'Flash Gordon' Crabbe mounts an expedition in search of the missing jewels.  It seems his father was accused of complicity in the crime, and he intends to prove his father's innocence by returning the gems.  Because 'I just happen to have recovered the jewels my father didn't help steal.' is a convincing statement.

Surprise surprise, his interest in venturing into uncharted territory - and the fact that he's a bit of an idiot and tells people that he's looking for the mines of King Solomon - mean that his expedition draws the attention of Unscrupulous Persons.

Meanwhile, of course, the daughter has grown up into a 'beautiful' young women in a leopard skin dress.  Her father vanished sometime after arriving in the jungle, and she has only the gorilla and her gems for company.

This all leads to shenanigans aplenty, as you might imagine.  Though they aren't all that interesting.  And then the movie stops.  It doesn't really actually end per se.  Just stops.

Whether under this (never explained) title, or the alternative one of Jungle Woman, this film isn't worth your time.

Monday, 28 April 2014

River of Darkness (2011)

For the past decade or so, the world's largest pro-wrestling company have been trying to break into the film industry via their own production company 'WWE Studios'.  They've released 20-30 films, which - based on the trailers - appear to be pretty run of the mill, derivative examples of their various types, be it action, thriller, horror or comedy.

But at least those movies look like movies.  Which is more than be said for this production, which 'stars' wrestlers from the second-largest pro-wrestling company in the US, TNA.  The lighting is the worst I can remember seeing for a long time; flat and far too bright, it makes every scene look fake, even the stuff shot on location.  I mean, the lighting in Pathogen was better than this, and that was made by a 12 year old.

While the lighting is the stand-out offender against movie making here, it does face spirited competition from the script and the acting, both of which lie a long way south of 'competent'.  You might expect the pro-wrestlers to be pretty hammy actors, but they really aren't conspicuously worse than anyone else in the film.  'Bad' is something most of the cast aspires to.

Plot?  Oh yeah.  Thirty years ago three backwoods bayou boys were falsely accused of a crime and drowned by the vengeful townsfolk.  Now they're out of purgatory and murdering everyone they can get their hands on.  While the sheriff investigates the murders, and three college students play ghost-hunters, some locals decide to offer a sacrifice to get the undead killers to back off.  It's all pretty standard supernatural-slasher stuff: a dash of Freddy Krueger, a smidgen of Jason Voorhees, and a whole lot of stupid.

I'd have forgiven the film many of its sins if the wrestlers had starting hitting wrestlings moves on each other, a la Blade 3, but no such luck.  Given that 'funky fight scenes' would seem to be the principal reason to hire pro-wrestlers, I'm not sure what the people behind this drek were thinking.  Maybe they were just fans.

If you simply must watch a bunch of people get murdered, you'd be much better off watching one of the Friday the 13ths instead.  I recommend 4 & 7.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Trauma (1978)

One of the problems with cheaply-dubbed police procedurals is never being sure if a witness's unconvincingly delivered lines are intentional, or just a result of the voice actor's limited skills.  This is a problem that crops up a few times in this film, which is something of a shame because by the standards of the cheaply-dubbed market, this is a pretty decent movie.

We begin with a scene where Inspector Di Salvo spots a woman shoplifting and takes her back to his place for some hanky-panky.  Are they a couple playing a sex game?  Or does he routinely do this?  The movie never explains, though given that he leaves her in the apartment when he is called on a case, I'm guessing it was the former.

The case in question is the rape and murder of a 17-year old girl.  Di Salvo begins the investigation by visiting the private school where the girl was studying.  He arrives just as the girls are coming in from sports class, and if you think this sounds like a cheap excuse to have lots of hopefully-legal actresses strip off, you'd be right.

Once the movie has its most egregious peep show segment over, it gets down to the business of the investigation.  It's actually a pretty fun one.  There are all sorts of weird clues, strange events, and further murders, as well as a ten year old girl (the sister of the murder victim) who keeps popping up with odd bits of evidence.  It's convoluted enough to give even a good cop a hard time, and given that Di Salvo's idea of investigation appears to be to burst into people's bedrooms shouting accusations, I'm not sure he qualifies.

The final resolution of the girl's murder is a pretty good one: neatly put together on the whole, and refreshingly non-crazy for an Italian film.

If you don't mind the sleaziness and the bad dubbing, this film (which is also known as Virgin Killer and Red Rings of Fear in English) is a decent way to spend 80 minutes.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Casablanca (1942)

I doubt this movie needs much introduction: it's a multi-Oscar winner, and regularly appears on 'greatest films of all time' lists.  It wasn't necessarily expected to have quite such an impact when it was being made.  It was an A-list movie, with top stars, but there were hundreds of such movies being made every year.

No doubt the film profited by having its release right as the Allies were invading north Africa, but even without that advantage it seems likely that the combination of snappy dialogue, artful photography, and stellar performances would have lifted this film out of the pack.  Bogart is excellent as the wounded and angry Rick, but this is far from a one man show: everyone brings their A-game.

The film is set in Vichy-controlled Casablanca (logically enough, given the title).  This is a stopping off point for refugees fleeing with Third Reich.  It's also the home of Rick, a cynical, hard-bitten American who 'doesn't stick his neck out for anyone'.  Anyone except the woman about to walk through his bar's front door, that is.

Rick will soon find himself forced to choose between love and honor: both things he thought he'd given up for good.  Along the way, he and the other characters will exchange snappy rejoinders, clever patter, and heartfelt speeches.  The dialogue brings the real spark to this film, along with a truly joyous rendition of La Marseillaise.  Darn those French and their actually having an anthem worth listening to!

This is a very good film, and if you haven't seen it, you should.

Friday, 25 April 2014

One-Eyed Monster (2008)

So the plot of this movie is that a male porn star's (notoriously large) penis gets taken over by an alien force.  It then attempts to penetrate every orifice it can find, impregnating the target where possible and killing them where it is not.

You're probably thinking to yourself 'that sounds stupid', and trust me, it is.  But it's also surprisingly good fun.

Part of that is because the cast is a cut above the average for low-budget horror, but a bigger credit has to be given to the script.  It has a stupid premise, and it knows it has a stupid premise ... but it never lets that be an excuse to be lazy.  Characters' actions make sense in the context of the admittedly absurd situation in which they find themselves, and their efforts to stop the monster are logical, albeit contrived.

Stick a different monster in as the threat, and tweak a few bits and pieces around the edges, and you'd have a solid if unremarkable direct-to-dvd horror film.  So why the goofy premise?  Well probably to make it get noticed, to be honest.  'Killer Penis!' is good link-bait for today's online horror movie sites, and in today's post-Sharknado world, the marketing benefits of a truly gonzo premise seem pretty obvious.

So sure, this is a silly and immature film, but so was 300.  At least this one was entertaining.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Howl's Moving Castle (2004)

You should see this film.  It's good.

Okay, with the 'review in ten words or less' out of the way, let's offer a little more context.  Howl's Moving Castle is based - loosely - on the novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones.  The adaptation is from Studio Ghibli, and directed by Hayao Miyazaki.  As such, it's filled with many of Miyazaki's trademark elements: flying machines, an elderly woman who initially appears more malevolent than she is, a pretty but not sexualised young woman in the lead role, anti-militarism, creepy blob creatures, and amusing animal sidekicks all make an appearance.

'Plain' Sophie lives a quiet life looking after her father's hat shop while her more glamorous sister enjoys a much more active life.  Sophie's life gets a whole lot more interesting when she refuses to serve a late visitor to her shop, however.  This is the Wicked Witch of the Waste, who surses Sophie to become an old woman.

Leaving her home, Sophie encounters a living scarecrow (shades of The Wizard of Oz, and it has been argued that the novel was Jones's version of that tale).  This scarecrow leads to her to the eponymous moving castle, which strides beetle-like across the land.  As a consequence, Sophie finds herself as the new cleaning lady for the wizard Howl and his strange household.  All this is set against the backdrop of two countries going to war over a missing prince, and Howl's efforts to undercut the military power of both sides and prevent attacks.

Sophie must learn a few lessons about herself - and incidentally and quite literally mend Howl's heart in the process - or things could get very, very bad indeed.

This film has a strong voice cast, lovely animation, nice design, and a script that's frequently funny, often touching, and occasionally a little scary.  Well worth a watch.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Soldier Blue (1970)

This movie opens with a text scrawl that warns that the ending will be unpleasant.  It does not lie.  But no movie based on the Sand Creek massacre - an event so outrageous it was officially condemned even in the 1860s - was ever going to be puppy dogs and rainbows.  And if anything, the real life events were more horrific.

The movie opens with an attack by Cheyenne on a US Cavalry payroll convoy.  The attackers kill almost all the soldiers and steal the gold.  The only survivors are one young cavalryman and a white woman who was travelling with the convoy.  She has just spent two years among the Cheyenne - not entirely voluntarily.

With no-one to rely on but each other, the pair begin the cross country journey to their original destination.  On the way, the cavalryman is shocked by the woman's profane language and her generally positive attitude toward her recent captors.  She sees their clashes with the US as being mostly caused by white greed, and is scornful of her companion's idealism and naivety.

The duo will of course experience many hardships and difficulties along their journey, both human and otherwise.  And when it finally seems like they may have reached safety, they might just have walked into the most dangerous place of all ...

This is not a cheeerful film.  Nor is it a subtle one.  There's not much subtext to be found here: it's plain old text.  For all that, it's a well-crafted piece of work, with good performances, fine photography, and even the occasional glimmer of humour, before we get to that ending.  The one they warn you about.

If you think you can handle it, this is worth your time, but it's definitely not going to be to all tastes.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Murder Mansion (1972)

So the thing about doing a movie where the plot is complicated and requires the audience to pay attention to follow it, is that it relies on you making the movie sufficiently interesting that you get and keep their attention.  And that's where this film falls down, alas.

It starts off well enough, with an extended dialogue-free section where a motorcyclist and car driver have a game of brinksmanship on the road.  This ends when they spy a pretty hitchhiker and she chooses the comfort of the car.  That quickly turns out to be a bad idea as the driver is a total creep.  At the next diner, she switches to the far less skeezy motorcyclist.

A dense fog sets in, however, and all three characters - as well as a bunch of others - end up at a secluded mansion.  The owner tells them a bunch of creepy stories, then packs them off to their various bedrooms.  You will presumably not be surprised when Bad Things start happening.  What exactly those bad things are, however, will not become clear until very near the end of the film.  Maybe its zombies or vampires or witches or something else entirely.

With a more compelling script, the mystery here might be an engaging one, but for my tastes it just didn't give me the necessary hook to draw me in.  I did like that the end isn't quite what you might expect it to be; it showed a refreshingly 'real' attitude from some of the characters; but that came rather too late to save things.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Sabata (1969)

Clint Eastwood's 'Man with No Name' is the most famous of the Spaghetti western (anti-)heroes, but there were many others.  Quentino Tarantino's favorite is presumably Django, but if I were a betting man, I'd lay money on Robert Rodriguez having a passion for the steely-eyed Sabata.

There are just so many touches and embellishments that evoke a sense of Rodriguez's own films that I find it hard to imagine he never saw this.  From the quirky and quixotic characters to the funky gadgets, I defy you to watch this film and not see a blueprint for Desperado.  There's even a guy with a gun concealed in a musical instrument.

The plot here is simple enough: a bank robbery (featuring acrobats, because why not) is thwarted by the lethal gunslinger Sabata.  He picks up a tidy reward for his actions, but - suspecting there is more to the robbery than meets the eye - hangs around in case there is more money to be made.  This leads to a nice running thread where he quotes the villains a price they have to pay him to go away, and every time they attempt to double-cross him (and it's a lot), the price goes up.

The succession of hitmen hired to deal with Sabata are all memorably idiosyncratic characters, as are the entourage he assembles to assist him.  The two sides engage in a lethal albeit off-beat game of brinksmanship.  To be honest, Sabata never really seems like he's outmatched in any situation, but narrative tension is not really the point of the film.  Giggling at the genius of where Sabata hides his backup weapon is.

Fun stuff; I can see why it spawned a trilogy.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

The Man from Utah (1934)

This is the sixth of the 'Poverty Row' westerns that John Wayne made in the lean years of the 30s, before Stagecoach launched him to stardom.  It begins with a musical number that's a relic of Wayne's ill-fated attempt to be a Singing Cowboy.  I've never really 'got' the whole Singing Cowboy thing, and given Wayne's inability to lip-sync, neither did he!

The plot of this one is pretty typical (so typical, in fact, it would be re-used in at least three other films).  Wayne plays a stranger who stumbles into a bank robbery.  He lends his expert marksmanship to the marshall's effort to thwart the crooks.  I found this a very amusing scene, with Wayne making no pretence of aiming, and instead just wafting his gun in the general direction of 'off screen'.

The marshall, impressed by this stranger's shooting skills, asks him to work undercover at a crooked rodeo.  It seems the men running the rodeos have an uncanny habit of winning them all, with 'accidents' befalling anyone else who might be a challenger.  Since there wouldn't be much of a movie otherwise, Wayne takes the job.

This leads to the usual horse-ridin', pistol shootin', fist fightin', woman wooin' shenanigans.  Wayne has two prospective love interests in this film: a good girl and a bad girl.  No prizes for guessing which one he ends up with.

The film is as slight as it sounds: it clocks in at a scant 52 minutes, and that's after being padded by the musical number, a considerable amount of stock footage of a real rodeo, and a 'fight' scene that occurs in such darkness you can't actually see any of the participants.  Safely skippable unless you have a real passion for cheapo westerns.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Devil's Hand (1961)

A young couple meet in a park and engage in exposition masquerading as stilted dialogue.  She's keener than he is about getting married.  He's suffering from insomnia and has quit his job without telling her before-hand, which I think is supposed to seem out of character but seriously film, we met this guy two minutes ago and he's been pretty flakey through the whole conversation.

That night, our putative hero's sleep is disturbed by dreams of a woman dancing in what is probably meant to be alluring fashion.  This leads to him prowling the streets in affectedly noirish mode, complete with voice over.  He's just missing the rain and the fedora, really.

Anyway, it emerges that he's been targeted by a beautiful witch, who intends to seduce him into her demonic cult, dally with him for a while, and then ... well, the movie never says what happened to her previous 'distractions', but I doubt the retirement plan is very good.

He quickly falls under her power, ditching his fiancee (who meanwhile is rendered bed-ridden by the cult's magical power).  However, he must pass a test of loyalty in order to be accepted into the cult, and while pass he does, the experience prompts him to reconsider his actions.  Of course, any sign of turning against the cult is sure to lead to great danger ...

There's a half decent B-grade thriller hidden in here, with a couple of nice touches.  For instance, I liked that when the protagonist starts to doubt his allegiances, the evil witch character is actually quick to become suspicious of him.  Not for her the usual trope of being pathologically certain of her feminine wiles.

Alas, that half-decent film is wrapped in poor but not so-bad-it's-good acting, a sluggish plot, and some laughably ill-staged 'action' scenes.  It all adds up to a rather tepid experience.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Silent Running (1972)

So, nearly forty years before Avatar was boring me with its "Dances with Wolves In Blue" narrative and blighting the entire movie industry with an obsession for 3D, this film was also doing the whole heavy-handed environmentalist message thing.  Or was it?

Silent Running is widely identified as an environmentalist film, and it certainly has an environmentalist as its main character, but Downfall has Hitler as its main character and it's not like that's a Nazi-friendly movie.

In the distant future, there is no natural biodiversity remaining on Earth.  The place doesn't seemed to be some blasted hellhole, mind you.  We hear that it's '75 degrees all the time' (that's 24 Celsius for those of us on a sane system), that no-one goes hungry, and that everyone has a job.

You'd think that everyone would be happy enough with that, but our main character, Lowell, is not.  He thinks that modern life is insipid and bland and uniform, and aches to restore 'real food' and real parks to the world.  He's been part of a multi-year mission to generate seed stock for just such a project, and has high hopes that they will soon begin the final stage and return to Earth.

Instead, the project is cancelled, and all six of Lowell's meticulously-tended biodomes are slated for destruction.  He goes a little nutty as this process progresses, murders the other three crew, and attempts to flee into deep space with the single remaining dome.

So is this an environmentalist film?  I don't think it's unequivocably so.  It's true that Lowell makes several impassioned speech about the importance of plants and animals and the natural, rather than artificial, world.  But it's also true that the world he is railing against doesn't sound that bad.  And there's also the fact that he ultimately forms a much stronger emotional connection to the robot drones that tend the ship than he ever did to his living human colleagues.  Not to mention that the 'natural' world of the biodome is as artificial as the Earth he hates.

This is a slow-paced film, and one that I don't think actually presents a very clear argument one way or another.  But in some ways, that ambiguity is kind of what made it interesting to watch.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Horror of the Zombies (1974)

Most of you will not appreciate the enormity of this statement - for which you should be grateful - but this is a worse movie than Zombie Lake.

I mean, there are certainly a few ways in which it is better than Lake.  For one thing, the zombie makeup is a bit more sophisticated than a bunch of guys with green paint on them and unpainted skin clearly showing at their collars.

On the other hand, it is really, really dull.  The zombies don't turn up until 40 minutes in, and even then they lurch with such incredible slooooooowness that they'd be hard-pressed to catch a crippled snail.  Fortunately for them, they're chasing people who are stupider than any mollusc ever.

Our movie begins with a model looking for her roommate.  Possibly the missing woman is not just her roommate, based on the dialogue, but the film won't actually go anywhere with that angle.  Her boss tries to brush her off but she's persistent, which leads to her being abducted and forcibly dragged off on a rescue mission for her missing friend.

No, it doesn't make any sense to me, either.

Anyway, the rescue mission discovers an old Spanish galleon near where the missing friend (who was on a boat for ... reasons) disappeared and they go aboard.  Most of the party falls asleep (as I wish I could have done), and the model searches the ship alone.

The zombies wake up and eat her, as they previously did her friend.

This is only an hour into the 90 minute film, mind you, so we just killed the person who appeared to be the protagonist.  The film now focuses on the people who abducted her, and their attempts to escape the doomed ship.  Frankly, I didn't care if they survived and just wanted the film to be over.

This film - also known as The Ghost Galleon - was the third in the 'Blind Dead' series.  I hear rumours that the first two are actually worth seeing.  This is not.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Pandora's Box (1929)

I've seen this silent film described as the tale of "a seductive, thoughtless young woman whose raw sexuality and uninhibited nature bring ruin to herself and those who love her".  I can only assume this synopsis was written by a man.

Personally, I'd describe it as the tale of "a young woman who is brought to ruin because men are jerks".  I certainly don't think she brings ruin to those around her: they manage that quite handily on their own.

Now of course, the authorial intent may have been closer to the first interpretation I posted, rather than the latter.  Certainly the plays on which it is based portray the central female as an incorrigible seducer, taking many lovers while being married.  The film, perhaps for reasons of what they were allowed to portray, makes her less voracious, and certainly less calculating.

Our protagonist Lulu is the mistress of a wealthy newspaper editor.  He refuses to marry her, however, wanting someone more socially advantageous.  She fights for him, however, and wins out.  They marry, but at the reception he finds her sitting in another man's lap (she says it is her father - certainly the guy is old enough) and demands she shoot herself to save him from being a murderer.

Yes.  Really.

Lulu struggles, the gun goes off, and her husband dies.  She's arrested and sentenced to five years in jail, but her alleged father and some other friends spirit her away from the court room.  Alas for her, the men she trusts are much better at losing money than earning it, and keep looking at her to bail them out or advance them loans.  One of them is even willing to sell her to an Egyptian brothel, justifying it because the brothel would pay him 50 pounds more than the police would.

Things go from bad to worse, and every attempt Lulu makes to restore their fortunes simply seems to make the situation more desperate.

This is not a cheerful movie, not one little bit.  But it made a star of leading lady Louise Brooks, and you can see why - she's ethereally beautiful on screen.  It was also very controversial upon release, because the subject matter was considered very racy, and that probably didn't hurt.

Worth seeing if you have an interest in the history of film, but don't expect to feel good about humanity at the end of it!

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Don't Open Till Xmas (1984)

The man who produced this film was also behind such quality-sounding cinematic experiences as Around the World With Nothing On and My Bare Lady.  So I think you can imagine what one of the selling points of this film might be.  Hint: I don't mean the cameo by Caroline Starcrash Munro, even if that was one of my favourite two random moments of the film.

The premise of this film is that someone is going around murdering people who dress as Santa.  You'd think that would be a fairly easy crime spree to end, but apparently 'stop wearing Santa outfits' is not a strategy that occurs to anyone in this movie.  Indeed, at least two police officers will become undercover Kris Kringles, and then Santa Corpses.

Apparently the film had major production issues, and I suspect that the disjointed narrative that ensues may at be partly explained (though not excused) by these issues.  The script ends up being something of a trainwreck, really.  It's certainly got some out-of-the-normal-formula choices in it, successfully subverting a formula requires more than just not following it.

It's something of a shame that the film fails on the narrative front, because some of the actual murder scenes are quite imaginative, and the script smartly puts the more involved and elaborate examples in the middle of the film, rather than blowing all its cool moments in the opening kills.

Basically what we have here is a pretty squalid little movie, attempting to cash in on the mid-80s fad of Xmas-themed horror films.  It's worth a look only if you're interested in slasher films in general and want to see what the British were doing, compared to their more famous American competitors.

Oh, my second favourite random moment, other than Caroline Munro?  Is when a young woman has been kidnapped and chained up by a man she knows is a serial killer.  He gives her food and she asks to be untied so she can eat it.  'Do you promise not to escape?' he asks.  She tells him she does, and the camera zooms in on her crossed fingers, in case we were unsure as to whether she was willing to lie to the psycho.  Gloriously stupid stuff, that.

Monday, 14 April 2014

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

For all the Blood Manias and other schlock I watch, I do make an occasional foray into the realm of well-regarded movies.  This, obviously, is one of those times.

Either an early noir film or a proto-noir, depending on your specific definitions, the film begins with the PI firm of Spade & Archer being contracted to find a woman's missing sister.  Archer ends up with a bullet in him and it's up to Sam Spade to find out who killed his partner and why.

In the course of his investigation, Spade will have plenty of opportunity to display both his quick wits and his quick fists.  Almost nothing he and Archer were told is true, and there are plenty of people willing to do a whole lot more to Spade than lie to him, in order to get their way.  And that's to say nothing of the police, who figure Spade as a good suspect for Archer's murder, or failing that, the murder of a man who might have killed Archer.

Unfortunately for everyone looking to cross Sam Spade, they're facing off with one magnificent bastard, and he's up to their challenge.  A little too up to it, for my tastes.  While there are a (very) few occasions where he's outmanoeuvered, it's never for long and never really feels like he's in much danger.

So there's a certain lack of tension that I feel hurts the movie if you watch it as a thriller, but if you watch it just to see Sam Spade being a Class A jerk to everyone around him and for the superlative performances - Bogart is great, while Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet are even better - then you'll have a fine time.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Blood Mania (1970)

Peter Carpenter's early death cut short his career as an actor and writer.  The sad but honest truth is that this is not exactly a great loss to the film industry, at least if this (the first of the two movies he wrote) is anything to go by.

Carpenter plays Dr Craig Cooper, brilliant medical researcher and consummate ladies man.  He's so dreamy.  Apropos of nothing to do with the last two sentences, it must be nice to be able to write yourself into getting lucky with lots of beautiful women.

That aside, Dr Cooper is also a man with a secret: back in medical school he paid his bills with a sideline in illegal abortions.  That was good for ten years in the big house back in 1970, so he's understandably perturbed when a former accomplice comes a-blackmailing.

Fortunately for Dr Cooper, one of his several girlfriends is an heiress and should be able to front him the money as soon as she inherits.  There's just the small matter of her cantankerous father still being alive.  A small matter she's happy enough to resolve, since in addition to being prone to taking her clothes off, she's apparently somewhat homicidal in her spare time.

Of course, the path of murder for profit rarely runs smooth, and there will be plenty of melodrama - and even a little blood, though hardly enough to justify the film's title - before the credits roll.

This is fairly schlocky stuff, with a goodly chunk of nudity to try and distract from the second rate acting and script.  I think if it was just a little more goofy and gonzo, I might even have given it a tentative recommendation.  Alas, however, it never quite hits the sublime stupidity of something like Andy Sidaris's Hard Ticket to Hawaii.

But don't worry, we'll be getting to Sidaris's gloriously tacky boobfests in good time.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

The Living Planet (1984)

David Attenborough's first Life series, Life on Earth, covered the evolution of living things, starting with the earliest and most primitive forms of life and then advancing through the ages to the most recent (and theoretically most advanced).

The Living Planet instead addresses life by biosphere.  It begins with what was perhaps my favourite episode: an investigation of volcanic and tectonic activity and how those immense forces shape the world in which all known life exists.

We then go on a world tour, starting at the icy ends of the Earth and moving through the boreal and temperate forests to the equatorial jungles.  These are all the kinds of exotic locations you expect of such a series, and we're given an introduction to many strange and interesting forms of life (animal and plant alike) en route.

In the fifth episode, Attenborough takes us to the grasslands, his narration foreshadowing the climactic episode when he references how vital grass is to human existence: rice and wheat are both grasses after all.  It's also the episode with one of the creatures I found most interesting: a type of ant that harvests grass, then feeds it to a fungus found only in the ants' hive.  The insects then eat the fungus, making them the world's smallest farmers.

We move on to deserts, and the creatures of the air, before moving through the aquatic biospheres: fresh water lakes and rivers, brackish estuaries, and oceans, with a diversion into islands en route.  You might think that would just be lots of fish, but considerable time is devoted to marine insects, arachnids, birds and mammals.  The island episode was another favorite of mine, as the isolated populations they house have led to some of the most varied and unusual spurs on the evolutionary path.

The series climaxes with an examination of human habitats: cultivated agricultural land and urban locations alike, as Attenborough explores the only creature to shape its environment as much as its environment shapes it.  He ends with an impassioned and cogent argument for the need for humanity to safeguard the world we live in; an argument that alas seems to have fallen on deaf ears over the three decades since the show first aired.

This is excellent stuff.  Highly recommended if you are at all curious about the world around you.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Lawless Range (1935)

John Wayne churned out eight pictures in 1935, and in all of them his character's name was also John.  At least he wasn't likely to forget it!  If this makes the films all sound rather interchangeable ... well, they were.

This time, Wayne plays John Middleton, who is really super-duper fast at tying a steer, and sure to win big at the state fair.  His steer-tying days are numbered however, at least in this film, as his father has a letter from his old friend Hank, asking for help.  Since John's dad currently has his leg in plaster, it's up to John to ride out and see what's what.

Alas, virtue in the west is a hard road, and John walks straight into a robbery.  He stops the crooks, but gets arrested as an accomplice!  It turns out the Sheriff is less crazy than he looks, as he wants John to pretend to be an outlaw for him, and the arrest was cover for that.  John agrees, and is sent off to try and infiltrate a gang that's been hassling the local ranchers.

This attempt doesn't get very far, and the gang chases John onto Hank's ranch, where gosh darn it wouldn't you know he runs into Hank's pretty young niece?  He holds off the gang while she rides for help, but in the mean time a posse turns up, driving off the gang and arresting John again.  They're prevented from stringing him up by the niece, who he then woos by playing a guitar and singing in a dubbed voice.  Three things this film is big on: horses, fightin', and singin'.  There'll be plenty more of all three before the less-than-55-minutes of this movie are exhausted.

There'll also be plenty more double crosses, misunderstandings, and fortuitous circumstances to get us to our requisite happy ending, but the details aren't sufficiently interesting to worry about.  Suffice it to say that Wayne beats the baddies and gets the girl, probably in much the same manner the other seven Johns be played this year also did.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

The Tournament (2009)

There have been a number of movie variations on The Most Dangerous Game, most of them pretty bad, though that hasn't stopped me from having a soft spot for a couple of them (Turkey Shoot and The Running Man, I am looking at you).

This is a refreshingly good entry in the millieu, anchored by four strong performances at the centre of the film.  It's also aided by the numerous well-executed action sequences, which keep the film's motor humming along.

The premise of the film is that there's a competition every seven years: thirty assassins in a 'there can be only one' showdown, with $10 million on the line.  Frankly, that doesn't sound like all that much money for new certain death, and I'm dubious about the sustainability of killing off 29 of the top 30 assassins so regularly, but let's not quibble.

Each of the thirty participants is implanted with a tracker, so those running the tournament (and betting on the outcome) can see where they are and follow them via CCTV.  The trackers also allow the killers to find one another.  Oh, and if the game ends without a winner, they all explode and kill the remaining players.

This year, a smarter than average assassin cuts out his tracker and drops it into a pot of coffee, which an unfortunate priest happens to drink.  The priest suddenly finds himself being hunted by dozens of trained killers.  If he hadn't already been questioning his faith, he probably would be after that.  Fortunately for him, the first assassin to find him is also going through a crisis of conscience.  She recognises an innocent man, and sets out to protect him through the course of the game.  But of course, the game now sees him as a participant, and there can be only one winner ...

The climax is rather contrived and there's a scene in the middle of the movie where a bunch of guys somehow carry shotguns and assault rifles into a strip bar, but those dubious moments aside, this is a fun action romp.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Breakout from Oppression (1978)

This Chinese thriller is blessed with some truly awful dubbing.  I say 'blessed' because awful as it is, it's kind of amusing in its terribleness.  Cut-price voice actors with hopelessly mismatched accents spout mangled lines with vigor, it not exactly skill.  Compared to the soporifically dull dubbing of The Nameless, it's a big improvement.

Plot-wise, this also seems to be a step up from that other film, though of course there's no guarantee that the English-language plots of these movies is all that close to their respective originals.

Fonda is newly released from jail after serving eight years for the murder of her married lover.  She's been offered a job by the president of a newspaper, though when she arrives at the company the man in question is away on business.  Despite this, the paper's editor has no qualms about finding her a job: probably because he's clearly smitten by this pretty young lady.

Not everything is going to go so smoothly for Fonda, though.  She has numerous flashbacks to her time in prison, and it soon starts to seem like someone has it in for her, as 'accidents' keep happening.  Thanks to the wonders of being the audience, we know who is behind this, and soon enough, also why.  Because the nutty bad guy of this film - though nutty and a bad guy - does actually have a motivation.

Ultimately Fonda will face her persecutor, in a climactic battle that rather reminded me of the original Friday the 13th (though this film predates this one, so if any similarity is intentional - which I doubt - it's on the part of Friday's maker).

This was a surprisingly enjoyable bit of schlock, really.  Not actually good enough that I'd recommend it, even on a qualified basis, but certainly not the worst thing I've watched in this box set.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Crow: Wicked Prayer (2005)

Edward Furlong's career got off to a flying start with Terminator 2 back in 1991, and had a brief resurgence in 1998 after American History X, but personal issues with substance abuse and other legal issues, including domestic violence charges, have seen his more recent roles being in projects like Arachnoquake.  Which to be fair, sounds like exactly the sort of thing I would watch.

Emblematic of his deteriorating career is this, the fourth and thus far final Crow film.  Furlong plays Jimmy, a young man who frankly seems quite the loser but has somehow managed to win the heart of Lilly, the local minister's beautiful daughter.  This relationship amuses me more than it should because Jimmy and Lilly were the name of a former flatmate's dogs.

Alas for the happy young couple, they're about to have a visit from Luc, an old friend turned Satanic cultist.  Luc murders Jimmy and Lilly as part of his plan to become Satan incarnate.  Jimmy, of course, comes back as the Crow, bad-ass undead avenger.  Though frankly Furlong looks rather silly in the gothic make-up.

Anyway, Jimmy hunts for Luc and Luc's gang of thugs, picking them off one by one, but not quickly enough to stop Luc taking on the power of Satan.  Now two supernatural beings will face off in a climactic battle of ... well frankly, of fairly humdrum proportions.  The people behind this film simply don't have the necessary skill or resources to make a one on one fight between two guys very interesting.

This one is memorable only for a goofily over the top cameo from Dennis Hopper, slumming in this film for reasons that entirely escape me.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Orcs! (2011)

"They Will Eat Your Face Off!" promises the tagline, but faces go sadly uneaten in this rather tepid comedy-monster flick.

US Park Ranger Cal has grown rather disaffected with his job.  He slacks off as much as he can, dodging whatever responsibilities his boss tries to send his way.  When he's paired up with trainee Ranger Hobart 'Hobey' Moss, he sees it as an opportunity to push all of his work onto the eager youngster.

Unfortunately for Cal; and for that matter for any living human being in the area; his park sits over caverns filled with bloodthirsty orcs.  Trapped for hundreds of years by a cave-in, the creatures are about to burst free and go on a murderous rampage.  They're pretty good at killing folks, but sadly this mainly tends to happen off screen, or be relatively tame in execution, no doubt due to the limited budget.

Also probably a factor of the budget is the relatively small groups of orcs we see on screen; never more than five or six.  We see larger groups at range where details are less discernible, but not up close.

Anyway, the orcs go on a rampage, and slovenly, lazy Cal finds himself on the front lines of the struggle to stay alive.  Will he rise to the challenge and prove himself to the woman he once disappointed?  It's a movie, so you can probably guess the answer.

This is a reasonably fun little outing with a couple of moments of obvious parody of The Lord of the Rings, but it suffers from a sense of never really getting into top gear.  The climactic struggle against the Orcs doesn't exactly live up to the tension and action of a film like Zulu, you know?

A harmless enough diversion, but it fails to hit the schlocky excesses necessary to really shine.  For that, check out something like Piranha, instead.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Absolution (1978)

Boasting both Richard Burton and Billy Connolly, as well as a couple of talented younger performers, this is a 'Drive In Classic' with a surprisingly strong cast.  They even have a decent, if somewhat melodramatic, script to work with.  Said script comes courtesy of Anthony Shaffer, who also wrote a couple of the better known Agatha Christie adaptations of the era (Death on the Nile, for example), but is probably best known for The Wicker Man.

I'll go on record as saying I liked Absolution better than Shaffer's more famous work.  I think The Wicker Man is a little overrated, overall.  It was probably confronting and disturbing back when it was released, but that doesn't translate too well, 40 years later.

Enough of The Wicker Man, however.  Absolution has Burton as Goddard, a priest teaching at a private boys' school.  Two of his students are the popular and intelligent Stanfield, and the socially awkward Dyson. Goddard finds Dyson's nebbishness hard to tolerate and is often brusque or cold toward him.  Stanfield, meanwhile, is one of his favourites and he hopes the young man will follow his path into the clergy.

Things start to go awry, however, when Stanfield becomes friends with drifter and small time thief Blakey (Connolly), who is camping in the woods near the school.  Goddard tries to forbid the boy from seeing this 'bad influence' any more, but a spirit of rebellion has been ignited in Stanfield: one that will progress through harmless pranks to quite cruel practical jokes and then to ... well, let's just say that it seems Stanfield has plenty of need for the confidentiality of confession.

As Goddard sees his hopes for his protege become fear and loathing of the viper in their midst, he struggles with the fact that his faith and vows are allowing terrible deeds to go unpunished.  Questions of faith were also central to The Wicker Man, and seem to be a theme that interested Shaffer.

I liked this. It's a bit melodramatic, as I said, but it's a well-acted and solidly made thriller.  Worth a look.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

Van Helsing was a real disappointment to me. I'd hoped it would bring the gonzo fun of The Mummy, and expected that it would at least be on a par with The Mummy Returns, but I sorely over-estimated the film in both hope and expectation.

All of which meant that I was a little wary of Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, as it seemed to function on a pretty similar premise (up to and including having a funky crossbow). Fortunately, where Van Helsing didn't seem to know what to do with its premise, and suffered from the vortex of suck that was Kate Beckinsale's performance, this film knows exactly what it is doing. This is not to say that there aren't things I would quibble with. It's a little tiresome that it is Gretel who gets captured and needs to be rescued, for instance (particularly since it happens twice), but the film mostly does a good job of making both protagonists equally competent and dangerous.

The basic plot outline is pretty straightforward: kid-H&G get left in the forest by their father, find the house made of candy, and get captured by a witch. She intends to fatten them up for eating, but when the kids fight back, her spells mysteriously don't affect them, and she's the one who ends up in the oven. The movie then skips on a decade or so, to a point where the grown-up H&G are famous witch hunters, equipped with all manner of goofy weaponry. My favorite of these is the world's most over-engineered crossbow. They're called to an area where witches have stolen nearly a dozen children, and find themselves facing off with an entire coven of hags. Lots of action and violence (with a leavening of comedy) ensues.

This film definitely feels like 'Van Helsing done better'. It's not perfect, but it's a fun bit of over the top action. There's apparently a sequel on the way, and I'll be sure to take a look at that.

Friday, 4 April 2014

300 (2006)

I thought this film pretty mediocre when I saw it at the cinema.  But it was visually stylish and the DVD was cheap, so in a moment of weakness I ended up with a copy.  It's sat on my shelf, unloved and unwatched, since then.  I decided to change that ... well, the 'unwatched' part at least ... after reading the exquisite evisceration of its not-actually-a-sequel on io9.

Re-watching 300 provoked a mild twitter rant, which I shall share with you, because it reduces the amount of time I have to spend on this review :)

Man, when even a cast this good can't make your script work, you might want to think about what that means #300
#300 is not a movie that is orange and teal. It's a movie that is orange OR teal.
Racist, sexist, ableist and homophobic. Bigotry bingo! #300
This scene is basically orcs and a cave troll. At least there are no elves #300
Just an army of Aragorns in bondage shorts basically #300

So yeah.  It's a bad film.  Terrible dialogue.  Repugnant political and social views.  Repetitive (though stylish) fight scenes.  And it wastes so much talent in the process: Lena Headey, Dominic West, David Wenham, Michael Freakin' Fassbender.

Check it out only if near-nude muscley guys are your thing, and you don't know how to work the Googles to find them online.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Fantastic Voyage (1966)

I have to admit I kinda love the gonzo SF of the 60s.  Between this film and Battle Beneath the Earth, there's more inventiveness than you'll find in a dozen post-Star Wars space operas.  Not a lot of sense, it's true, but I can live with that.

It's the height of the cold war, and both the west and the Soviet bloc have developed technology that allows them to shrink matter. 'We can put an army on a teaspoon' our protagonist is told as he is inducted into this secret '... but only for an hour'.

The 60-minute time limit is a nice narrative tool not only because it provides the impetus for the story, but does double duty as the deadline on which our heroes must operate.  And I do mean 'operate'.  A Soviet scientist has discovered how to break the one hour limit and shrink things indefinitely.  He's defected to the west, but Soviet agents injured him in the process.  He's unconscious, with an inoperable blood clot that will kill him.  Or it would be inoperable, if you lacked the technology to miniaturise a submarine and its crew and send them literally inside his brain to do the work.

A medical team is assembled, including the only doctor capable of performing such delicate work, but there are doubts about his loyalty.  The agent who brought the Soviet scientist to the west is brought onto the team to provide security (and to be the outsider who needs everything explained to him, so the audience can get their daily recommended dose of exposition).  And of course, the entire mission will be on a one hour timer.  The team has to be removed by then or they will return to their normal sizes with quite catastrophic (and I imagine rather messy) results.

I do love the fact that in the film, the briefing for this fanciful bit of science fiction is given on an old-fashioned overhead projector.  Science!

Anyway, the team is inserted into the comatose patient, but if you think things are going to go as smoothly as they were outlined in the briefing, then you've never seen a movie before.  Setbacks and complications mean we get quite the tour of the human body, which is abstractly represented in a number of quite interesting and psychedelic ways.

As you might imagine there are some major scientific issues, especially when we get to the action-oriented conclusion.  The novelisation (by Isaac Asimov) apparently addresses many of these, though of course the central impossibility of the miniaturisation process remains.  But fundamentally, this is good, goofy fun.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Spartacus (1960)

Perhaps it makes me a film philistine (Filmistine?) but I'm not a huge fan of Stanley Kubrick. His films are gorgeously shot, it's true, but there's more to being a great director than a keen eye for visual composition. Spartacus is a film Kubrick himself disowned and refused to consider part of his canon, because he did not have complete control of the production. Given my generally ambivalent feelings about Kubrick's projects, this lack of control may be a contributing factor to why I like it.

Kubrick's attitude toward the film is ironic given that it not only established his career as a 'big picture' director, but because he was reportedly eager to claim the screenwriting credit for it. The film was actually written by Dalton Trumbo, a communist who was blacklisted by Hollywood after refusing to give evidence against other possible socialists in the film industry. When discussion turned to who should be credited for the script, Kubrick suggested himself. Star Kirk Douglas found Kubrick's enthusiasm for taking the credit distasteful and instead insisted that Trumbo get the credit in his own name. The move prompted anti-communist picket lines at some cinemas, a protest that collapsed only when the newly elected John F Kennedy crossed one such picket line to see the film. It would subsequently emerge that Trumbo had won an Oscar while blacklisted, under the pseudonym 'Richard Rich'.

I think it's worthwhile knowing about Trumbo's politics, the 11 months he spent in jail and the 13 years he spent having to ply his trade in secret, when watching Spartacus. The film's most famous scene ("I'm Spartacus!") has strong resonance when you consider that Trumbo was blacklisted for refusing to name names. You might even be tempted to draw parallels between the whole concept of a slave rebellion and that of a worker's revolution.

Putting the off-screen drama aside, how's the movie? Well, it's long, and has rather a lot less action than I remember from seeing it as a young 'un, but it lives up to its epic ambitions. The battle scene in particular, when it finally does happen, is very well done. Cast-wise, Douglas is good as the stoic Spartacus, and he's surrounded by talented actors at all levels, though Peter Ustinov outshines them all as Batiatus, owner of the gladiatorial school where Spartacus's uprising begins. My only real complaint is that it is sometimes a little obvious when the 'outdoor' scenes are actually being filmed on a soundstage, but that's a pretty minor quibble.

Renowned films can often be a disappointment, but this one was not. Well worth a look.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Stormbreaker (2006)

This is a film that would love to be 'James Bond for teenagers', but falls short of the mark. For one thing, Alex Pettyfer is no Sean Connery. For another, it follows the Bond movie formula a bit too closely. You've got the opening action sequence, the gadgets exposition scene with a surrogate for Q, a homicidal billionnaire with a private army and a ridiculously complicated plan, and even a burly Asian bodyguard who throws his hat (though not as a weapon). It's just all a bit like eating the same leftovers for the fourth day running. Tasty enough in principle, but a bit unsatisfying.

Which is a shame, because most of the cast is very good. Missi Pyle, Bill Nighy and Mickey Rourke are all hugely entertaining in their roles, and there are nice small pieces from a bunch of other familiar faces (including Stephen Fry as not-Q. I dubbed his character 'QI').

I got this in a double feature with "Spy Kids", because I liked the other film and was mildly curious to see this one. I don't regret having seen it, but while I am sure that "Spy Kids" will find its way back into my DVD player sooner or later, I doubt that will be true of this film.