Saturday, 31 May 2014

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)



Let's start by addressing the elephant in the room: yes, this film is blatantly 'Yojimbo re-made as a western'.  So blatantly, in fact, that the makers of the Japanese film were able to successfully sue, delaying the release of this movie in the US for three years.  And even when it finally did hit American shores, it got pretty negative reviews.

None of which stopped it from becoming one of the most successful Italian films released to that date.  Probably because, whatever the critics might say, it's a darn fine film.

Whether it's Sergio Leone's visual flair as a director, Clint Eastwood's charisma (he might not do a lot of actual acting in the film, but he can be darn compelling at what he does do), or the iconic soundtrack from Ennio Morricone, there's plenty to like about this film, and it is easy to see why it launched the 'spaghetti western' as an international box office force.

Eastwood plays 'Joe' (likely an assumed name, and the character would later be dubbed The Man With No Name), a drifter who wanders into a miserable little town divided by two rival crime bosses.  Joe (which I am using because it's shorter than the alternative) quickly makes a name for himself by gunning down four men, and turns that notoriety to his own ends by playing off the two sides against each other and escalating the tensions in the town.  His motives for doing so are pretty murky: this is not the clean-cut hero of Eastwood's Rawhide days.

The film boasts lots of well-staged sequences, both of action and of black comedy.  It's by no means a terribly realistic film (though not anywhere near as gonzo as Sabata) but it is consistent to its own tone and conceits throughout, which makes it easy to accept the events on screen.

Quality film-making, and well worth a look.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Invasion of the Astro-Monster (1965)



This is the sixth Godzilla film, which means the box set has again skipped an entry.  Between Mothra vs Godzilla and this film came Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster.  That was the film in which Big G executed his face turn, moving from 'menace to mankind' to 'protector of the planet' when he helped drive off the three-headed dragon monster, King Ghidorah.

To this film then is left the dubious distinction of being the first in the franchise to be really light on the kaiju action.  "Too much time was spent on the humans and not enough on the monsters" is a common complaint about films in this genre.  It's not always a justified one, I think.  We need human characters to deliver exposition and be in peril, after all.  Also, they give a reason for cool spaceships, mecha and tanks to be in the film, and I'm OK with that.  But Astro-Monster gives us a pretty anemic pair of battles, which aren't helped by excessive 'cutesy' stuff with Godzilla.  No-one needs to see Big G start actually boxing mid-fight, nor do they need to see him doing weird celebratory jumping jacks after winning a skirmish.

Anyway, the plot of this film introduces aliens into the Godzilla-verse, when humanity makes contact with Planet X.  The Xians request the assistance of Earth in stopping the rampage of what they call "Monster Zero" (which is one of the film's alternate titles).  They want to bring Godzilla and Rodan (a giant pteranadon) to X to drive off Ghidorah (for that's who Monster Zero is).  In return, they offer the cure for cancer.

I bet you won't be surprised if I spoil the fact that the Xians aren't as friendly as they seem.  Even the characters in the film aren't entirely convinced of the Xians story, but they feel they can't ignore the possibility of a cure for cancer.

In a lot of ways, this film feels like a template for the much later Godzilla: Final Wars, as that too has apparently benevolent aliens with monster controlling powers and a name starting with X.  Final Wars is a lot more fun than this, though.  See it instead.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Best Friends Forever (2013)



This was the first movie project I ever backed on Kickstarter, way back in April 2012.  There were issues with getting DVD production, however, which means that I only recently got a copy of the film.  I bumped it up to the top of the viewing queue because I like to support independent films where I can, and I was hoping it would be good.

And it is pretty good, actually.  Certainly many levels above a film like The Sky Has Fallen.  Which proves a decent film for comparison purposes, since both pictures focus largely on two people, and their interaction as they travel together, with occasional interruptions where they encounter other characters.  They also share a post-apocalyptic edge, though it's much more backgrounded in this movie.

Harriet is a comic book artist who is leaving LA to begin post-graduate studies in Austin, Texas.  She's driving to her new home, and her best friend Reba is coming along for the ride.  Reba's less than thrilled that her BFF is leaving her, but she's loyally doing the best friend thing.

What throws a crimp in their plans (other than a secret Harriet is keeping) is the sudden detonation of nuclear weapons in multiple US cities.  It's some time before either of the women knows this has happened - they somehow miss the mushroom cloud that rises in the distance at one point - but they begin to experience the fallout pretty quickly.

The metaphorical fallout, that is.  If they were in the real fallout, they'd either be very dead or Bethesda would be suing them.

Increasingly perplexed as to the lack of functioning phones and the aberrant behaviour of the few people they meet on the road, the two women press on with the journey.  Sooner or later, however, they're going to discover what's happened, and it is then that their friendship will really be tested.

So it's very much a story about friendship.  Don't go into it expecting a punky action flick.  In this respect, I think the DVD cover is a mistake.  It's a nice picture, but I think it gives the impression of a different movie to the one they actually made.

The cast is all solid, as is the script: you can see this was made by people who understand how films work.  I do think they could have tightened it up in a few places (the gas station scene goes a little long, IMO), but it's funny when it means to be, and only when it means to be.  No unintentional comedy here.


If you're interested in seeing a sometimes darkly humorous story about the friendship between two women who are dealing with the end of the world, Best Friends Forever has you covered.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The Manipulator (1971)



Mickey Rooney is pretty much the main reason to watch this film.  He's on screen for almost all of the 80-some minute runtime.  He plays BJ Lang, a make-up artist from the studio era of Hollywood.  Old BJ isn't playing with a full deck.  He believes himself to be a film director, ordering around a host of underlings as he films his version of Cyrano de Bergerac.  Of course, the 'underlings' exist only in his mind: when they do answer, it's BJ himself providing their voices.

But BJ is not entirely alone in his fantasy world.  He has a leading lady for his film: an actress he's kidnapped and held for some time.  He keeps this young woman tied up in a wheelchair, and rolls her out for Roxanne's scenes.  With considerable reluctance, she indulges his manic demands.

The actress playing the actress (ooh, meta) is not given much chance to shine: her delivery of her lines as Roxanne are pretty bad, but then she has little reason to want to turn in a good performance; just one that keeps her alive.  When she is not being Roxanne, she merely gets to be petulant and whiny until she finally manages to escape the wheelchair (because c'mon, you knew she had to at some point).

Unfortunately, the plot of the film doesn't stretch to anywhere near the run time, and it sags pretty badly after about half an hour or so.  Not even Rooney's manic performance can hold your interest indefinitely when it has so little else to complement it.  If you watch the first ten minutes, you've pretty much seen everything the movie has to offer.

The movie does have pretty nice cinematography, and some suitably surreal scenes when we see what's happening in BJ's mind, but they're a case of style over substance, and substance is something the film is sadly lacking.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Sleeping Beauty (2011)






Sometimes you watch a movie, and it ends, and you're like "what the heck was that about?".  Occasionally that's not such a bad thing, because the film has other qualities: visual beauty, evocative atmosphere, or insane gonzo-ness.

Alas, this film offers none of those three qualities, though it is definitely a "what the heck?" experience.

Lucy is a college student who works multiple jobs and spends her spare time visiting a socially awkward friend who obviously has a thing for her, and picking up casual sex partners at an expensive bar.

The jobs she works are all pretty menial, and Lucy is struggling to make rent (and pay for the drinks at that club, probably).  So when she sees an ad in the student newspaper for a high-paying role in 'lingerie silver service', she calls the number.  $250 an hour is $250 an hour, after all.

Lucy's quite attractive in a porcelain way (as you can see above) and she gets the job.  It soon leads to a new job offer.  This one's a bit more outre though: she will be drugged and left naked in a bed.  Someone will pay to spend time with her while she's unconscious.  She's promised there will be no penetration.  How much she is being paid for this is never specified, but it must be quite a lot.

Anyway, that's the premise.  A variety of other stuff happens after that but frankly none of it seems to go anywhere.  The film is not without good qualities: it is nicely shot, and Emily Browning delivers a good performance as Lucy.  The scenes where is unconscious with her customers are generally as unsettling as such a situation ought to be, too.  But ultimately, we're not given much reason to like Lucy or care about her, and the film doesn't present any particularly compelling questions or plot threads, and the end ... well who knows what's going on there (I understand what happens, I just don't know what the heck it's trying to convey, in having those things happen).
 

Monday, 26 May 2014

Mothra vs Godzilla (1964)



After the success of the original Godzilla, the film-makers immediately spat out a sequel, in which a second creature (identical in abilities to the first) terrorises Japan.  At the end of that movie, the new Godzilla gets buried in an avalanche.  Seven years later, he emerged from under the rubble to battle King Kong, a fight that ended in the Pacific Ocean, with only Kong swimming away, and Big G's fate unknown (the urban legend that Godzilla wins in the Japanese version of the film are untrue, by the way).

Two years after that, the fourth Godzilla film - but the second in this box set - was released.  It begins with a hurricane sweeping the coast of Japan.  The clean-up effort involves a massive pumping rig that will clear away all the flooding.  Amidst the debris, however, a pair of reporters find a strange, scale-like object larger than a dinner plate.  They ponder what this might be, but are soon called away on other business: a giant egg has been seen floating in the sea!

The egg is brought ashore by fishermen, who sell it to an unscrupulous showman who plans to make an amusement park around it.  I'm not sure that an egg, even one 10 metres long, is really that much of an attraction, but perhaps people in 60s Japan were hard up for entertainment.

Two doll-sized women turn up to provide us with helpful exposition at this point.  It seems the egg belongs to their god, Mothra, and was accidentally washed away from its proper home during the recent hurricane.  The reporters try to help them get back the egg, but the showman isn't about to give up his star attraction so easily.  So the doll women return to their island empty-handed.

Meanwhile, the waters from the hurricane have been pumped away, exposing the mud flats below, and who should emerge but Big G himself, apparently recovered from his battle with Kong.  Soon, the giant lizard will be menacing not just all of Japan, but Mothra's egg.  Will we see a Kaiju showdown as the climax of the film?  I think we might!

This is one of the better-regarded Godzilla films, but I honestly wouldn't recommend it to most viewers.  The transition to colour hasn't been kind to the effects, which in my opinion worked better in black and white.  Also, there comes a point where you're like "oh, that's how Godzilla will be defeated but not killed this time, that's quite clever", but then the film drags the process on and on and on until I was seriously considering hitting the double speed button.

For fans of the giant monster genre only.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

The Sky Has Fallen (2009)



I picked this film up through a kickstarter last year, where they were raising money to be able to enter the movie (which was made several years earlier) into festivals and the like.  I've had a fairly good experience with kickstarter movies on the whole, but alas, this does not continue that tradition.

The kickstarter listed two main selling points for the movie.  The first was that it uses purely physical effects, with no CGI.  That's very rare in low budget film these days, as (terrible) CGI has become much cheaper than doing things 'for real', which is attractive when you're on a microbudget, but leads to awfulness like the blood spatters in Killjoy.

The second selling point was the premise.  While it's basically a zombie film, it had a wrinkle or two that sounded like it might do something interesting.  So what were those wrinkles, and did the film deliver on the promise of 'something interesting'?  (spoiler: no it did not)

A sudden and violent plague has wiped out most of humanity.  Some people - what percentage is not said - are immune and thus survive.  Unfortunately for those who did not die, things are about to get worse.  Black-clad figures follow the plague, torturing and killing any living person they find and then reanimating their corpses as zombie killing machines that they use to hunt the next batch of survivors.

It was the second point, much more than the first, that made me decide to try the film.  The addition of a deliberate agency behind the zombies, one that could control the undead and was using them for some purpose, would eliminate one of the common weaknesses of the genre, which is that zombies are more of an environmental hazard or natural disaster than actual villains.

Who are these black figures?  Why are they doing what they do?  What is their goal?  Can they be stopped?  These are all obvious questions arising from the premise, and to be fair, they're all questions the film asks ... it just makes no effort to answer any of them.

What we get instead is two people wandering around a forest, having lots of introspective conversations (which tend to be filmed in a most unimaginative shot-reverse shot pattern), while occasionally being interrupted by clumps of zombies.  They then massacre the zombies in badly-staged fight scenes before going back to introspection.

Some of the make-up is good, and the two central performances are actually technically decent for the most part, but the cinematography and choreography are poor and the script is awful.

Stay away.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Godzilla (1954) / Godzilla: King of the Monsters! (1956)



Godzilla first trashed Tokyo (and conquered the Japanese box office) in 1954.  He was introduced to English-speaking audiences two years later in a heavily edited version of the film.  Both versions of the movie are included in the first disc of this boxed set.  I'm reviewing them together since they are in a broad sense the same film.  We'll start with the Japanese original, then talk about the differences (good and bad) of the US adaptation.

The 1954 film begins with a series of ships being lost at sea under mysterious circumstances.  The authorities are frankly baffled, but they're not inclined to believe the suggestion - made by superstitious island folk - that the mythical monster 'Gojira' (anglicised to Godzilla hereafter) has arisen to punish them.  That is, not until a bizarre 'hurricane' devastates the island, and their relief efforts uncover strange phenomena ... phenomena which culminate in the first appearance of Big G himself.  It's hard to deny a 50-metre tall radioactive monster when it's right there in front of you.

The Japanese people and government, as you might imagine, are quite alarmed.  They immediately take steps to destroy Godzilla by dropping depth charges in the area where he was first encountered.  Surprise surprise, this merely serves to irritate him.

The rest of the film is built around three main threads: the argument over whether it is right to try and destroy Godzilla (and what steps would be justified in achieving that goal), a strident anti-nuclear sentiment, and a sub-plot about a couple who want to try and persuade the young woman's father to cancel her arranged marriage and let her marry the man she loves.  This all ties together because the man she is supposed to marry is a scientist - one who might just have created the very superweapon that can stop Godzilla, if only he can be persuaded to use it.

The selling point of the movie is of course Godzilla's rampage through Tokyo.  For a sixty year old film, it's a pretty impressive bit of film-making all round.  For modern audiences though, it might feel like it takes a long time to arrive.

The US version runs about 15 minutes shorter than the original.  It starts in media res, with Raymond Burr lying in the rubble of a devastates Tokyo, then goes back and tells more or less the same story as the original, except that the anti-nuclear content is drastically reduced and the whole sub-plot about the arranged marriage is removed.  Instead, Burr is a reporter who knows the Japanese characters.  Many additional scenes were shot to give the appearance that he was interacting with the original cast, but it's all work with doubles and clever cutting.

The American version features a lot of voice-over, which I found quite irritating after a while, and it also suffers from an inability to decide whether to dub all the Japanese dialogue into English, or leave it and have a new character translate for Burr.  On the whole, I consider it an inferior film; if you don't mind reading subtitles, you'd definitely be better off checking out the original 1954 release, and seeing the monster that launched the whole Kaiju craze.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Legacy of Blood (1971)







There's a 1978 movie with this title and a very similar-sounding synopsis of IMDB, but I'm not sure if it's a remake of this or not.  The idea anyone thought this worth remaking seems odd, but then again maybe they just thought 'our version can't be any worse'?

This one starts with the reading of a dead man's will.  Or actually the playing of the audio tape on which it was recorded.  Seems the old coot wasn't too fond of his four kids, as his allotment of his estate comes with some pretty odd conditions: they must first spend a week together at his home, and only those who survive the experience will split the cash.  If they should all die ... well, then the servants get the dough.

The estate's worth about $140 million, so the siblings and their significant others (plus those servants) all settle in to meet the requirement.  And of course a week goes by quite peacefully so they all pocket $35 million --

Yeah, you didn't buy that, did you?

So of course we're in for some killing here.  Because that's what happens in movies with a premise like this.  The murders are pretty comical, actually.  Not intentionally so, I am sure, but they're just so artlessly staged that they ended up giving me the giggles.  I won't spoil the details of any of them.  It would rob you of what little pleasure the film has to offer.

Anyway, people are getting bumped off and it's really rather hard to care because they're all kind of obnoxious and the movie keeps interrupting itself with these surreal dream sequence things.  Eventually the cast is thinned out enough that we can move into the end game, and ... well it's about as underwhelming as you might expect, though it is topped with a final cherry of stupidity right at the end that literally had me staring open-mouthed at the screen.

Very nearly transcendentally awful.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Pandorum (2009)




"The Aliens films meet Event Horizon" is a pretty solid - if intrinsically derivative - elevator pitch, and the producers of this film probably had high hopes for a franchise.  As it was, this film didn't do all that well financially.  Possibly because it's not terribly good.

A man awakes from 'cold sleep' on a darkened spaceship.  He stumbles around, trying to get his bearings, confused by the semi-derelict state of the ship, the fact that there was no-one to meet him when he awoke, and the memory-loss we will later discover affects everyone who spends an extended period in stasis.

The man eventually pieces together who he is - Bowen, a flight mechanic - and awakens his superior officer, Lt Payton.  The two men find that all the doors out of their area are inoperable, but Payton locates a still-working console from which he can hopefully guide Bowen through the service ducts and into the rest of the ship.

While crawling through the ducts, Bowen has a panic attack.  Payton talks him down from it, and then then the two exchange one off the clumsiest bits of exposition I've ever seen when they discuss 'Pandorum' a psychosis that afflicts those who spend an extended period in space, and which Bowen secretly fears he is developing.  It's a shame that having set up a good reason for exposition (newly awakened characters who don't know what is happening, and have fragmented memories besides), the script does such a bad job of actually executing it.

Bowen will soon have bigger things to worry about than his mental health, however, as it emerges that large parts of the ship are now the domain of freakish-looking creatures with a taste for human flesh.  Also, the ship's reactor is on the verge of meltdown, which is probably why he was awakened.

Our possibly psychotic hero must travel the length of the ship, dodging monsters and trying to reason with the few human survivors he meets - people who are understandably not in the friendliest of moods - to save the ship and its cargo: fifteen thousand human colonists, locked in cold sleep.

This is not a terrible movie, but it fails to generate much real tension (at least partly because the script has a habit of having Bowen fall off or through things with such frequency that I began to snicker every time it happened), and it doesn't offer much to make it more than its derivative concept.  It doesn't go off the rails as badly as I thought Event Horizon did, but its rails aren't as interesting to begin with.

If SF/horror fusion is your thing, then you might want to check this out.  Otherwise, you can skip it.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter (2012)



The original Watchmen comics featured a parallel story in which a character within the narrative was in turn reading a comic book.  The events of the story he was reading were a parallel of the main plot; intended to contrast, compare and reinforce the themes of the work.  But it was felt that they would make the film too long if they were included in the screen adaptation, so they were excluded from the theatrical release.  Instead, they were turned into a 20-minute animated featurette that you could purchase separately.

This proves a bad choice.

Read as small snippets within a larger narrative, the Tales of the Black Freighter have a certain grim resonance.  Bundled into one single block however, the content comes across as goofily excessive.  Gore and blood and squelchy stuff!  The tone it conveys is not the one intended at all.  The film is also hurt by the decision to render all the comic's narrative text as voice over, which quickly becomes wearing.

Fortunately, at least for a metafiction geek like me, the DVD also comes with a half-hour mockumentary called Under the Hood.  This purports to be an episode of a TV show from within the Watchmen setting, which covers the release of the autobiography of one of that world's first costumed heroes.  It's nicely put together, and several of the minor characters from the film get a bit more time on screen in it, which is quite neat.  Still, unless you're as into this sort of thing as I am, it's probably not worth buying the DVD for it.

But then I suspect this DVD was always intended for the die-hard fans in any case, since the average movie-goer wouldn't know there was a Tales of the Black Freighter to notice it was missing from the film to begin with.  And on that basis, you probably already know if this is something you'd want to see or not.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

TMNT (2007)




It's highly unlikely I'll go see Michael Bay's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, for the fairly self-evident reason that it's a Michael Bay movie.  I did go along to see this film when it hit the cinemas, however, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.  I wish they'd gone on to do the sequel they hint at toward the end of the film.

The film begins in the ancient past, with a Central American warlord who discovered the secret of immortality.  Alas, there are side-effects: his four closest friends are turned to stone, and 13 monsters are released to plague the Earth.  This might seem a strange kind of plot-line for the ninja turtles, but the original comic book featured time travel and alien races, so it's really not that wacky.

3000 years later, the turtles are in something of a rough spot.  Leonardo, the eldest brother, has been away for a year or more trying to learn to be a better leader (how he was intended to learn this isn't specified).  The others are somewhat directionless without him, except for hot-headed Raphael, who has built himself a suit of armour and patrols the city streets as the vigilante 'Nightwatcher'.

When Leo finally returns to the city, he receives a cool welcome from Raphael, who isn't eager to go back to following orders from the brother he feels abandoned them.  Which is a problem, since if ever there was a time for the turtles to be united, this is it: the immortal warlord is gathering the statues of his comrades, and capturing the 13 monsters, in preparation for a powerful magical ritual of some kind.  And he's hired the Foot clan of ninjas, the turtles old enemies, to aid him.

This is a fun, family-friendly romp.  The voice cast is solid, and the animation is pretty good too.  Human character designs are quite exaggerated, in the manner of a Pixar film, though perhaps not quite as expertly.  The monster and statue designs on the other hand are really nice; one of my favorite parts of the film.

Recommended if you have kids to entertain, or a kid at heart yourself - especially if you were a turtle fan as a young 'un.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Watchmen (2009)



So I'm not much of a fan of Zack Snyder.  I liked his Dawn of the Dead remake OK, but you only have to look back a few weeks to see how little I enjoyed 300.  And as for Suckerpunch, well you'd have to pay me - and pay me well - to get me to sit through that mess again.

So I had concerns about Watchmen when I went to see it at the cinema.  At least Suckerpunch was still in the future then, though, or I might not have gone at all.  To my pleasant surprise however, I quite enjoyed the film and subsequently bought it on DVD.

It probably helps Snyder's case that he's working from Alan's Moore's critically acclaimed series, which remains one of the most critically acclaimed comic book stories ever written (though honestly, as Alan Moore comics go, I like V for Vendetta more than Watchmen).  He smartly doesn't deviate much from his source material for much of the film, beyond excising a parallel story that threaded its way through the original comics and would have blown the film's length out to about 4 hours.  That parallel story is available as a separate DVD (which I own) and I believe there is now an 'ultimate cut' of the film that merges the two.  Today, however, I'm just talking about the DVD of the original theatrical release.

The film takes place in an alternate history where costumed crimefighters emerges in the late 30s and early 40s.  They faded out shorly after the end of WW2, but had a resurgance in the 1960s after a true superhuman, Dr Manhattan, was accidentally created.  With Manhattan's aid, the US won the Vietnam War, and came into possession of a resource that destabilized the already tense world political situation.  By the mid-1980s, when the movie is set, the 'doomsday clock' is ticking ominously close to armageddon.

As tensions rise between the USSR and United States, one of the costumed crimefighters is murdered, and - with varying degrees of enthusiasm - his former colleagues begin to look into why.  What they discover will change their lives, and possibly the world.

This is a visually stylish film, of course.  You expect that with Snyder.  But it's also got more substance than his usual fare, and it also boasts very good performances from Jackie Earle Haley and Patrick Wilson, which really helps in anchoring anchoring things.  The soundtrack is pretty phenomenal, too.

If you're into superhero movies at all, and don't mind one that's a bit darker and grittier than they normally are, with some fairly unlikeable 'heroes', this is worth your time.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Single Room Furnished (1966)



This is the last filmed starring role of 50s 'blonde bombshell' Jayne Mansfield.  She would film only a couple of minor roles between it and her early death in a car accident.  This was one of her several attempts to be a 'serious' actress, most of which foundered on the fact that she had a pretty limited range.

The film's adapted from a play, and it shows.  It's almost entirely composed of scenes where two people talk to one another.  In fact, with enough wigs and outfit changes, and a male actor who was willing to crossdress for the opening scene (between a mother and daughter) you could make the entire thing with only two actors, as in the rare cases where a third character is present in a scene, they're not really necessary.

This appears to be a cautionary/morality tale as it is framed around an old man explaining to a young woman that the 'exciting' life of her prostitute neighbour is not the bed of roses she imagines it to be.  This life is shown to us through flashbacks.  So many flashbacks.  There are even two, or arguably three, incidents of flashbacks-within-a-flashback, which makes this film even flashbackier than Highlander.

Mansfield plays the neighbour, and despite being billed as the lead is not only in about half the movie.  She's absent from the framing sequences, of course, and also from a long diversion into another local couple's romance.  I've seen some people complain about said diversion ruining any momentum the film had, but I actually quite liked the two actors in it, and thought their extremely awkward courtship rather sweet.

There's not a whole lot to recommend here: Mansfield isn't an actor who can make her character's tale really speak to the audience, and even if she was, this isn't the script to do it.  The film's also not helped by the cheap sets and uneven quality of the supproting actors. You can safely skip it.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

To Have and Have Not (1944)



This is nominally based on an Ernest Hemingway novel, but only nominally.  The setting, story and themes of the film are very different from the alleged source.

Why so many differences?  Well, one doesn't need to be a cynic (though I am one) to suspect that the basic premise behind the changes to To Have and Have Not is "Casablanca was a big success, so let's remake it".  We once again have Humphrey Bogart as an American in a Vichy colony, adamantly refusing to get involved or take sides.  We once again have a bar as the major setting, though this time he's a tenant of the attached hotel rather than the owner.  We even have the married couple the Allies need his help to sneak past the authorities, but the plot 'cunningly' disguises this similarity by having them need his help to get into the territory, not out of it.

And with that pretty familiar set of ingredients in place, much of the plot is equally familiar: you know Bogart's character will refuse to help these people, then be compelled by circumstances to do so, becoming more and more enmeshed in their cause until he finally transforms into an heroic figure by the film's conclusion.

So if it's mostly a retread of Casablanca you can safely skip it, right?  Well ... no.  You should see this movie.

Why?  Two main reasons.

Firstly, predictable as it all is, it's expertly executed.  The script is full of great dialogue.  These characters may not be making choices that surprise you, but they're delivering some wonderful lines while doing it.  And the the acting is top notch throughout, though I have to say Walter Brennan steals pretty much every scene he is in.  Though that's probably to be expected from a man who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor on three separate occasions.

Secondly, there's the leading lady.  Because To Have and Have Not's one innovation from the earlier film is in the romance.  The love interest is not a former flame he cannot forget, but an enchanting newcomer in his life.  That means that Bogart's character can actually 'get the girl'.  And the 'girl' in question is Lauren Bacall, in her film debut.  There's a reason Bogart & Bacall are an iconic Hollywood couple, and within two minutes of seeing them on screen together, you'll understand why.

Original it may not be, but worth your time, this certainly is.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Spare Parts (1979)



Perhaps watching more than half the films from this box set, plus all those Sci Fi Classics, has finally rotted my brain, but I quite enjoyed this film (which is known as Fleisch in its native German).  It's no masterpiece, but it's a competent enough 'it could happen to you' thriller.  It in some ways reminded of the low key menace of Ida Lupino's The Hitch-Hiker, though the plots are nothing alike.

Mike and Monica are poor newly weds on vacation in New Mexico.  They stop at a cheap motel - $7.50 for the night including coffee - and do what newlyweds do.  Later, they venture outside to watch the sunset.  As they do, however, an ambulance roars up.  Monica takes fright at the vehicle's strange behaviour and runs, while Mike goes to see what the paramedics want.

What they want is Mike and Monica.  The drug Mike and pursue Monica in their vehicle, but she loses them in the desert.  When she later returns to the motel, she quickly realises the owner is in cahoots with the strange ambulance, and escapes on foot.

Running along the highway, she manages to get a lift with a trucker named Bill.  He's initially sceptical of her story, but after a run-in with two supposed paramedics who claim to be searching for a woman who has escaped from the prison hospital, but whose story is less than convincing, he decides to help her find out what's going on, with a little help from his trucker buddies.

My favorite section of this movie is the middle half hour, where Monica and Bill establish a rapport and put a plan into action.  It's nice to see proactive, reasonably smart and thorough protagonists.  The last act probably doesn't quite live up to that, which is unfortunate, but it's still reasonably solid.  The script does neglect to give you a strong statement of motivation for one character's plot-changing decision, but they do hint at it and it's fairly easy to extrapolate.

Not a bad bit of low budget film, on the whole.  Worth a look if this kind of thriller is your bag, or if 'cult 70s German film' is the kind of thing to pique your interest.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012)





Let's begin with the most important thing: I am a huge fan of this show, and the only reason it gets a "mere" Qualified Recommendation, rather than an unqualified one, is that it's got a very unusual form of presentation, and if you're not the kind of person who is familiar with vlogging, you might find it a bit strange.  Of course, you're reading DVD reviews on the internet, so you're probably not someone who will be confused by this format.

For purposes of full disclosure, I should also mention that I know one of the writers, though I wasn't aware she was involved until after I became a fan of the show.

So what is The Lizzie Bennet Diaries?  Well, it's an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, set in the modern day, and presenting Lizzie as a grad student who has set up a video blog as part of an assignment for her media studies degree.  If you're familiar with the source material at all you'll know what comes next: an exploration of the lives and loves of the Bennet sisters, particularly Lizzie's own initially hostile relationship with the socially-awkward William Darcy.

The show excels in a number of ways.  First, in the delicate balance of its obvious affection for its source material with the need to update and alter characters and events for the new medium and the modern setting.  The show establishes its own identity and remains true to its own millieu while still being instantly recognisable as Austen's work.  There are many laugh out loud moments dotted throughout, and the comedic elements are judged well: the show is consistently funny when it means to be funny.  It can also be very touching and even sad at times.  Several episodes manage to juggle humour and pathos with considerable dexterity.

Next is the cast, which is flat out excellent.  This was the second time I'd seen the show and if anything I liked the performances more this time than the first.  When you're initially being introduced to some of the characters - Lydia and Darcy in particular - you probably won't instantly warm to them on your first viewing.  On your second, though, you get to just enjoy what the actors are doing, and appreciate the skill with which they do it.  Mary-Kate Wiles as Lydia, in particular, is given the chance to show some great range.

Third is the sophistication with which the show's creative team engaged with their own "new media" format.  The show ultimately spanned at least five different youtube channels, plus multiple in-character twitter, tumblr and pinterest accounts.  You could simply watch the videos, or dive into all the ancillary elements to your heart's content.  I mainly stuck to the former option myself, but I saw enough of the other parts to be impressed by the scope of what they were doing.  These are some clever folks.

As long as you are OK with the vlog format, in which the characters largely talk directly to the camera, then The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is a skillful adaptation of a rightly-loved classic, and well worth your time.  Best of all, as a web show, it's entirely free to watch every single second of it online.  In fact, you can go right here to do so now.  And you should.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Swallows and Amazons (1974)



Arthur Ransome covered the Bolshevik revolution for the British press, married Trotsky's personal secretary, did a bit of spying for MI6, was suspected of spying for the Russians (he was exonerated, but evidence suggests his wife was smuggling diamonds for the Comintern), personally brokered peace between the Bolsheviks and Estonians ... and then in the late 1920s and the 1930s he wrote a series of wildly successful books for children.  As you do.

This film is based on the first of his novels, and details the activities of the four young Walker children, and the friends they make while holidaying in the Lake District.  There's lots of sailing, camping and 'exploring'.  The third of the children (who has a name that has not aged well over the intervening 80 years) is quite the story-teller and recasts all their escapades in dramatic form.  An encounter with a pike becomes an attack by a deadly shark; charcoal burners become Native Americans, and so forth.

I own all twelve of Ransome's books, and will make no pretense of being unbiased about this movie.  I had a great time with its wholesome, low key holiday fun.  It probably won't be too all tastes: there's no real danger here, no shipwrecks, no desert islands except in the children's make believe.  Of course, the same is true of Bridge to Terabithia, and I thought that was a darn fine film too (one I will get around to reviewing sometime).

Still, a lot of people might find this slow moving, and it's certainly terribly, terribly English, and more than a little 'olde worlde' in its outlook.  So I can't recommend it to everyone, though I am sure it will end up back in my DVD player some time.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Katie's Passion (1975)



I suspect the only reason this Dutch film is in Drive In Classics is that whomever did the English-language version neglected some legal nicety which made it cheap or free to toss in.  Whatever the reason, it's clearly of a different standard to the average film in the pack, even with the poor dubbing dragging it down.  The period costumes and sets are well done, and the film is technically adept; as it should be with Paul Verhoeven and Jan de Bont as director and cinematographer respectively.

In 19th century Europe, poor rural families are forced to travel to the cities in the hopes of finding work.  One such family are the Tippels: dour mother, likeable but not terribly practical father, and their swarm of children.  The two eldest are both girls: the selfish Mina and ebullient Katie.  "You'd have no money problems if you put them to work." a leering stranger tells their father.  Yep, it's that kind of movie.

I suspect I will shock you not at all if I reveal that, after a few abortive attempts to earn an honest living, and the inevitable attendant rape scene, Katie ends up turning to the 'oldest profession'.  In this, she has her first strike of good luck, as the second man she propositions is an artist who would much prefer she model for him than anything else.

Through the artist, she means the pleasant Andre and the handsome if caddish Hugo.  No prizes for guessing for whom she initially falls, nor for whom she will end up with.

Well made though this is, I don't ultimately think I can recommend this.  It's pretty miserable fare, with almost everyone in the movie being petty, violent and cruel.  I'd like to think such misanthropy has a small audience, though it apparently was quite a successful film on release.

Monday, 12 May 2014

200 Reviews

Captain America was my 200th review on this blog.

Unlike after the 100th review, I won't be having a 'part time' week where I only post a couple of reviews: they will continue on a daily basis.  I am, however, giving myself today off, so there will be no review today.

Instead, I thought I would mention a couple of statistics.  Of the 200 reviews, exactly half of them have received the 'Not Recommended' tag, whether that be because they had no redeeming features whatsoever or because I thought the potential audience too small to give even a qualified recommendation.

14 DVDs, meanwhile, have actually got a 'Recommended' tag.  These are:

  • Captain America
  • Cars
  • Casablanca
  • Howl's Moving Castle
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers
  • Life on Earth
  • The Living Planet
  • Pacific Rim
  • Pitch Black
  • Predator
  • [Rec]
  • Reds
  • Return to Oz
  • Spartacus

Good movies (and one TV show) that are worth seeing.  You should check them out!

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Captain America (2011)



You know those pizzas where the extra toppings are just four or five extra types of cheese?  And you're like 'wow that's cheesy' but it's still pretty darn good?  Captain America is that pizza, in movie form.  In fact, it's that pizza with a side of cheesy fries, and a platter of cheese and biscuits to follow.  It's just that cheesy.

It's also very good fun.

It's World War 2 and sickly, scrawny Steve Rogers is desperate to enlist.  Not because he wants to kill Nazis, but because he hates bullies and believes the only way to stop them is to stand up to them.  His health makes his dream impossible, however, until he meets Dr Abraham Erskine, who needs a test subject for a top secret project and is more interested in the character of the man he chooses than his physique.

If successful, Erskine's process will transform Rogers, granting him superhuman musculature and reflexes, a heightened metabolism, and the enhanced neural pathways necessary to handle the changes.  Steve might actually be able to put his beliefs into effect.  But of course, there are enemies who are determined to see Erskine's project fail, and even people on Steve's side who do not understand what he's really capable of.

As I said above, this is a fun two-hour romp.  The script may not be subtle, but it's got heart, and it is helped immensely by good performances.  Leads Chris Evans and Hayley Atwell work well together, and they're ably supported by the rest of the cast.  In their hands, the cheesiness of the material becomes a plus, not a minus.

Well worth your time.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Ben 10, Season 1 (2005)


If we include the various sequel series (Alien Force, Ultimate Alien and the current Omniverse) then Ben 10 hit 200 episodes on 19th April 2014, roughly nine years after it first aired.  Not a bad effort at all.

Watching the first series, there are several obvious reasons why the show launched a successful franchise.  Some of these have little to do with the show itself, but with the marketing opportunities.  While the show doesn't exist solely to sell merchandise - unlike say the old Masters of the Universe cartoon - I suspect that the show's strong built in 'toy factor' plays some role in its ongoing success.

Thankfully, however, the show has plenty to recommend it purely on its own merits, without considering the money-making machine that is your local toy department.  The voice cast is excellent, for one thing.  Tara Strong (best known these days for playing Twilight Sparkle) handles the lead role with aplomb, and is given able support from all of the main cast.

The scripts are also solid.  There's nothing especially ground-breaking in the show - at least in this season; I haven't watched the others yet - but many of the major superhero tropes are employed effectively across the 13 episodes.  And make no mistake: despite the aliens and SF trappings, this is a superhero show at heart.  Which is not surprising when you consider that the creators all have a background in the comic book business.

We have the Origin Story, so vital to every costumed hero.  We have the Lesson In What It Means To Be A Hero (a couple of times, actually).  We have the Conquering Your Fears episode too, and so on.

But then, breaking new ground isn't really what Ben 10 is about.  Telling fun, action-packed adventure tales with a side of exuberant humour is what it's here to do, and it does that admirably.  If you were a fan of shows like Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes and don't mind watching something that's targeted a few years younger, you could do a lot worse than to hunt down season 1 of Ben 10.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973)



Nicholas Meyer wrote Star Trek IV (which I dislike) and VI (which I find tolerable, for a Trek film).  But way before he did either of those movies, his first writing credit was this lurid bit of SF trash, which is sometimes sold as Graveyard Tramps.  This latter title bears no connection to the movie, except that I guess it promises a degree of smuttiness that the Bee Girls title does not.

Nudity and sex scenes do abound in the film, though there's a definite theme of coitus interruptus to the latter, what with the premise of the film being 'men are being murdered by sex!'

I did say it was lurid trash, remember.

Anyway, when a bunch of scientists turn up as stiffs (yes, I went there), the government sends agent Agar (who I guess is named as a nod to B-movie actor John Agar) to investigate.  His investigation isn't terribly efficient, though he does a decent sideline in damsel rescuing when the film takes a wholly unnecessary journey to Rape Town.

It's not spoiling much to say that the plot of this is that there are a bunch of women running around sexing men to death.  The reasons they do this are nominally in the Bee Girl title but frankly the 'science' behind that link is eye-rolling nonsense.  Which puts it more or less on the level of the film as a whole, come to that.

The selling point of this film is pretty much the numerous boob and butt shots.  It's surely not the acting or the script.  If you have a taste for the luridly trashy, or the comically inept (some of the 'sexy' and 'dramatic' scenes come off as unintentional comedy) then this is worth a look.  Otherwise, you can safely skip Meyer's virgin effort.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)



Toy Story was in many ways a very ambitious project: the first fully CGI feature length animation.  But it one important respect it was deliberately unambitious: the folks at Pixar were aware of the then-limitations of the form, especially a certain 'plasticity' to the characters, and deliberately framed the story around characters where such traits would be more easily accepted by the audience.  Human characters were kept to a minimum.

It would be six more years before this film would pioneer photo-realistic human characters and motion-capture animation.  It's a tremendous technical achievement.  I mean sure, you can point to a few shortcuts that were taken: many of the minor characters have helmets that conceal their faces for instance, while of the main cast only one of them has hair too long to be animated as a solid mass.  But these are hardly major criticisms.

Alas, however, there are some major criticisms that can be made of the film, mainly in regards to the voice acting and the script.  I like many of the cast members of this film, but they are film actors, not voice actors, and it shows: the two disciplines use different styles and skills.  While some people can make the jump between forms, that's not generally true of the cast here.

And then there's the script.  I actually don't mind the first half hour of this.  It's exposition heavy and the dramatic action sequences aren't anywhere near as tense as the movie wants them to be but they set the scene pretty well and they give us a very nice second act where everything goes to hell and giant monsters and eating people left, right and centre.  Alas, the film peaks here, and the 55 minute or so mark, and then limps home with a talk-heavy final forty minutes that simply don't sustain the gravitas or tension they aspire to.

Ultimately a flawed film, then, but worth checking out if you have any interest in the technical innovation possible with CGI.  Plus, that middle act is full of monster fun times.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Shock (1946)



I picked this movie tonight because I had limited time and it was short.  At least in terms of actual minutes (70), though it sure felt longer than that while I was watching it.

A young woman is waiting for her husband when she sees a man and a woman arguing in the next building.  The man is asking for a divorce, but his wife isn't co-operating.  Their argument grows more and more heated, until finally the man snatches up a silver candlestick and - off screen - kills his wife.

Because this is the sexism-friendly 40s and she's a woman, the witness promptly sinks into a catatonic state, from which her husband - when he arrives - is unable to waken her.  So he arranges for her to get care from the best psychiatrist in the city.

It's such a shame that the best psychiatrist in the city has anger issues, and a very recently deceased wife ...

As setups go, it's not a terrible one at all.  The film's problem is that having put the young woman in the clutches of the very man she saw commit murder ... nothing happens.  For a long, long time.  The whole momentum of the film just comes to an end for a good 45 minutes, before finally moving into the endgame with about 10 minutes still left in the run time.

Not a film I could recommend, even if it didn't have a creepy sense of apologism for the murderer of the piece.  The script seems us to want to think he's not such a bad guy, he just has a temper, and ... well I hopefully don't need to explain what's wrong with that!

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Monsters, Inc (2001)



I guess there's a chance that someone reading this blog will notice that I gave Cars a full recommendation, but this film - which is generally better regarded - only a qualified one, and wonder what's up with that.  But there is method to my madness, I promise.

I'll start by emphasising that I personally like Monsters, Inc a lot.  In fact, on watching this DVD (the first time I've seen it since it was at the cinemas) I enjoyed it even more than I expected to.  Pixar truly are masters of taking near-saccharine levels of sweetness and inserting just enough tartness to make me not care.

But despite its inventiveness, fun character designs, clever site gags, cute humour, and plot that isn't stolen from a Michael J Fox movie, I just don't feel the film has as broad an appeal as Cars.  I think many people will like this film better, especially young kids and film geeks ... but that there's also a greater proportion of people who will just be left cold by the premise, which is much more overtly kid-focused than the one in Cars.

The basic plotline pits good-hearted monsters Sully and Mike, along with their stowaway human friend 'Boo', a young girl, against the anti-child prejudice of monster society.  There might also be more nefarious things going on behind the scenes, but you'll have to watch the movie to discover what those are.

There are lots of good laughs to be had in the film, and it's easy to get emotionally involved with the characters.  I do think the pacing is just a little off, though.  The Nepal sequence two-thirds of the way through the movie feels like a bit disconnected from the main plot, for instance.  Also, I think the big action climax goes on a little long.  But these are minor quibbles.

Well worth checking out, overall.

Monday, 5 May 2014

In Hot Pursuit (1977)



Most films, when they have a dangerous stunt to do, employ professional stuntpeople in carefully controlled conditions.  In this movie, they get the cast liquored up and have them do the thing for real.

It's important to understand the above when you watch In Hot Pursuit (also known as Polk Country Pot Plane), because it transforms the movie's many high speed chases and many, many crashes from 'ho-hum' to 'holy hell!'.

And to be honest, the movie needs that frisson of 'lives were really at risk' to lift it.  The parts of the movie where cars and trucks aren't smashing into each other (or in one memorable case, through a house) are not terribly good.  There's a lot of scenes of people driving from place to place, or sitting in cars and waiting for other people.

The plot?  Well, such as it is it's mostly a light action film about a pair of not-terribly bright brothers, Oosh and Doosh, who work as drug couriers in rural Georgia.  Every caper they're involved in seems to go awry in some way, likely because most of their colleagues aren't any smarter than them.  The film was apparently inspired by a real life even in Georgia, where a criminal cartel managed to land a DC-4 on a makeshift runway they'd bulldozed out of a forest mere hours beforehand.  The actual DC-4 in question plays a fairly significant role in the film, and is even billed as a cast member.

At the end of the day, however, this is only worth seeking out if you really, really want to see a lot of cars get genuinely smashed into each other.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Cars (2006)




Sometimes movies are reminiscent of other films, and sometimes they just steal another movie's plotline outright and change the setting.  Barb Wire is a post apocalyptic Casablanca with boobs.  And this film is Doc Hollywood with talking cars.

Unlike Barb Wire, however, Cars is a significantly better film than its progenitor.  Not that Michael J Fox's earlier film was bad; it's just that this one does such a great job with all the little details.  The dialogue is tight, the visual humor slick and all but non-stop, and the film's message - while as sugary as molasses and as subtle as a sledgehammer - has a way of worming its way into your heart whether you want it to or not.  It might not be quite on the level of an Incredibles or a WALL-E, but it's still darn fine film-making.

Lightning McQueen is a hot young racecar; the first rookie to have a shot at winning the Piston Cup in his opening year in the competition.  But he's also arrogant, self-centered and more than a little pig-headed.  He drives away almost everyone around him, and then through his own foolishness ends up sentenced to community service in a small town in the middle of nowhere.

Of course, in the manner of small towns in movies, this one is filled with a cast of loveable eccentrics - and a very sleek Porsche 911 named Sally.  McQueen, initially interested only in getting out of town and to the big race, starts to learn some lessons about what is most important in life.  Turns out it might not be winning trophies, after all.

This is a movie that runs along a very familiar track, but it hits the apex of every curve and roars down every straight while it's doing it.  Worth your time.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Voodoo Black Exorcist (1973)



An ancient priest dallies with the wife of his king.  The King discovers their affair, and is killed by the priest.  The lovers are captured; the woman killed and the man entombed alive.  A thousand years later, he is released from his ancient prison and pursues a modern day woman he believes to be the reincarnation of his lost love, while murdering a bunch of people on the side.

When you saw this premise, it was probably in 1999's The Mummy.  But that's also the basic outline of this trashy 70s Italian film.  Don't worry that the later film was copying this one though - they're both basing their narrative off the 1932 film with Boris Karloff.

So anyway, this ancient priest is killed in a voodoo ritual; since this is allegedly happening in the Caribbean, and the religion wasn't there a thousand years ago, this is a historical impossibility, but one can't expect scholarly accuracy in something like this.  His return occurs on a cruise liner, where his sarcophagus is being transported to an exhibit.  I'm not sure that's standard procedure for such things.

The mummy escapes, and prowls the ship.  He manages to temporarily restore his withered features to ordinary appearance and steals some clothes.  Which is about when the movie loses all impetus.  When your ancient evil is limited to poorly choreographed fist fights and predicting the outcome of dice rolls, it's a pretty sorry state of affairs.

You can safely stick to the Brendan Fraser version, instead.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Neverwhere (1996)



If IMDB is to be believed, this is the first screenplay Neil Gaiman wrote.  I've mostly enjoyed his film and TV work, but he was also responsible for the 2007 Beowulf.  Which was ... not good.

Another cause of concern for me was the fact that this was a mid-90s BBC production, which meant its budget was something like £27 and a packet of crisps.

Richard Mayhew is a very ordinary fellow who stumbles into an extraordinary situation when he finds an injured woman in the street.  She insists that she just needs rest, not a hospital, so he takes her back to his apartment.

The next morning, two strange men turn up at his doorstep.  They show him a picture of the woman he's helping, and claim she's their sister Doreen, but Richard - despite not showing a lot of sense in any other part of this life - does not fall for this subtle ruse.  Unable to locate her, the men leave.

The young woman - whose actual name is Door - then sends Richard on an errand to fetch help.  Through this experience, he learns of 'London Below', an entire parallel city beneath the one he knows.  Unfortunately for Richard, by interacting with this other society, he comes under its aegis, and cannot return to his ordinary old life.  He thus joins Door on her quest to locate the person who had her family killed.

There are many things to like about Neverwhere.  The alternate society Gaiman develops is quite interesting (if occasionally quirky just for the sake of it) and there are some good moments of dialogue, but it's definitely something you watch for the potential, not the actual product.  It's hampered by its budget, as I feared it would be (especially in the scene with the Beast of London), there's at least one painfully bad performance, and the lighting is completely wrong.  Literally completely wrong: they shot the footage on video, but with lighting for film, because they planned to use a post-production process to give it a 'film look', and then didn't use the process.  Oops.

So overall, a very flawed effort, but not without some merits.  Given the advances in film technology in the last 15+ years, I'd be interested to see a remake.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Neverwas (2005)



I'm not sure how this movie got the cast it did, but it's a fairly crazy parade of names.  You can IMDB it if you don't trust my word.

The plot deals with Zach Riley, a highly qualified psychiatrist who leaves his high-flying academic career to treat patients at a private institution.  He more or less browbeats the head of operations into giving him a try at the job, explaining his insistence 'I knew someone who came here and didn't get the help they needed.  I want to make sure that never happens again'.

What Zach isn't saying is that the 'someone' is his father, a renowned children's author who committed suicide some years after his stay in the institution.  He's also not saying that he barely sleeps, plagued with nightmares and the guilt he feels over his father's death.

Having landed the job, Zach soon runs into two people who will have a profound impact on his life.  The first is Maggie Paine, the once-tomboy little sister of a childhood friend, who has (in the way such things happen in movies) blossomed into a beautiful young woman.  The second is Gabriel, a patient at the clinic who believes Zach has come to rescue him from 'the dungeon' and return him to 'Neverwas' (the fairy tale kingdom from his father's book).

Clearly, Gabriel is crazy, but Zach can't help be intrigued, especially when he learns that his father wrote to the other man.  Is there more to Gabriel's story than merely deluded rantings?  Will Zach and Maggie make out (spoiler: yes).  Will the answers to these questions help Zach resolve his own psychological problems, and if so, how?

To get the answers to all that, you'll have to actually watch the movie.  Which isn't a hardship, really.  A cast like this really makes a movie hum.  I will say that this film owes more to Terabithia than Narnia, though, albeit translated through an adult lens.  So on that basis you might have some idea of what to expect.