Sunday, 31 August 2014

Snow Queen (2002)

This DVD was an impulse purchase while standing in a supermarket checkout line.  I knew nothing about the film except that it starred Bridget Fonda, and it was based on a fairy tale that I'd liked as a child.

Frankly, I've had worse reasons for buying DVDs.

As it turns out, this (currently) is Fonda's last acting credit (or so IMDB tells me).  It also appears like it was probably a mini-series in conception at one point.  Or at least, so I interpret its 168 minute run time.

The premise is fairly straightforward: a young couple fall in love, then an evil-doer messes everything up, and only an epic quest can reunite them.  In a nice change of pace, however, the young woman is the one doing the rescuing, and the young man is the hostage who must be saved.  To do so, she'll have to travel through the mystical lands of Spring, Summer and Autumn - few of whose inhabitants are keen to help - in order to reach the realm of winter before her erstwhile love joins the Snow Queen's collection of icicle boys.

This was made for the Hallmark Channel, so it's firmly in family-friendly territory.  There's some mentions of scary stuff ("let's eat her"), and a somewhat ill-advised scene involving the devil that seems tonally out of keeping with the rest of it, but there's no real violence or strong language.  It's mostly just a plucky young heroine sticking to her guns and refusing to be swayed from trying to rescue the man she loves.

The film's not without its flaws: there's a Chinese magician who speaks pidgin English that's meant to be funny but is just cringeworthy (even if he is one of the few unequivocally good people our heroine will meet) and the resolution when the protagonist and antagonist finally square off is somewhat lacking.  Also, the heroine reaches the magical land by throwing herself in a river after her paramour vanishes, which I thought was a very ill-advised plot point.

Oh, and there's a truly dire 'Wet Wet Wet' still love song that gets used several times, and I burst into giggles every time it intruded.  For your entertainment:

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(and yes, that is the whole thing)

On the other hand, this is also a movie with an ice-skating polar bear, and a female protagonist who does stuff.  And those are both things I think we can all get behind.

If you need a family-friendly fairy tale style film which eschews the normal 'princess needs rescuing' archetype, then this isn't a bad option.  I'm glad I picked it up, even with its flaws.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

The Hearse (1980)

Had you been in the room when I saw the name of today's movie, you may have heard me opine that it was going to be dreadful.  It turns out that I was wrong.

I mean, it's not good enough that I'd actively recommend seeing it, but it is on the whole a competently made - if highly derivative - spooky movie.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it's the first movie in this Cult Terror Cinema set that actively attempts to be scary.  I mean, I quite liked Horror High, but scary it was not.

Now as I said, it's a pretty derivative film, and a lot of the 'scares' are things you've seen before if you've watched more than a couple of horror films.  We have the glimpses of things that aren't there, the surreal dream experience, the camera stealthily slinking up behind someone ... all the usual tricks to generate a sense of menace while not actually having anything happen until the end of the film.

To be honest, it's at the end of the film, when the heroine finally works out what's really going on - a long time after the audience probably has - that the movie rather falls apart.  The last 5-10 minutes are a significant tonal shift, and the method by which the villain is vanquished, well ... I can truly say I've seen worse ways ("mock the ghost for being short" springs to mind) but it's not good.

Overall, this is an inoffensive effort in the "haunted house (or is it?)" genre.  I can't recommend seeking it out, but if you watched it alone at night in a darkened room, you'd probably get a few chills out of it.

Friday, 29 August 2014

My Name is Modesty (2004)

This adaptation of Peter O'Donnell's comic strip and novel character Modesty Blaise goes the 'origin story' route.  This is not automatically a bad decision, I guess.  But it is rather obvious and unadventurous a choice for what was intended to launch a franchise of films.

'Intended' being the operative word, because no other films were made.  That's probably because this one isn't very good.

As I said, an origin story isn't automatically a bad idea.  But framing it as a series of narration-heavy flashbacks is.  And that's what the movie does: turning over the entire middle 30 minutes (of a film that only barely lasts 70) to a tedious roulette game where Modesty has to answer questions about her past if the bad guy wins, and the bad guy has to let a hostage go if she does.  Are we supposed to feel tension over the survival of the hostages?  Given that only one of them has a line of dialogue before the bad guys arrive, it's kinda hard.

That lack of tension undermines the whole film.  Only rarely does the movie try to make you feel like Modesty doesn't have the entire situation under control, and even when it does, it does so poorly.  Now to be fair, O'Donnell's character was rarely perturbed in the novels either (I've never read the comic strip), but the novels were schlocky, slightly titillating schoolboy nonsense that never took themselves too seriously.

And that's where this film really falls down, to my mind: it's po-faced and entirely lack in humour, which might be forgivable if it had tension or excitement but it's just flashbacks and two people playing roulette for most of the movie.  The film never ever gets out of first gear on any front - never really seems to make an effort to do so, in most of them - and ends up feeling too long even with its short run time.


Thursday, 28 August 2014

The Creeping Terror (1964)

I've seen some comically bad monster movies in my time, but this has got to be one of the top contenders for the title of worst.  It's staggeringly inept on so many levels that I'm hard pressed to know where to begin.

So I'll begin where the movie does: with narration.  Wikipedia indicates that the movie may have been shot without regard to sound quality, and the dialog was intended to be dubbed in afterward.  That would appear to have been too difficult though - syncing lips with audio is like, effort - so what we see on screen is actors acting, but silently, while a narrator drones on and on and on over the top of them.  It would also explain why some of the few scenes with dialog repeat things the narrator has already said.

Narrator: "Martin was introduced to Dr Bradford."
Guy on Screen: "Martin, this is Dr Bradford."

Now let's talk about the monster.  Or monsters.  Because there are two of them.  However, in a cunning act of cinematic and financial genius, they are (1) identical and (2) never on screen at the same time.  My word, the Machiavellian brilliance of the film-makers is breathtaking!

Anyway: the monster.  It's kind of slug-like.  And clearly a couple of guys underneath a canopy.  Think of a Chinese festival, and the dragons there, but without any of the grace or speed.

Nope, you're still imagining too much grace and speed.  Dial it down from there.


And again.

Have you got to the point where a one-legged man could hop away faster than this thing moves?  If so, you're in the right ball park.  There are literally scenes in the film where people walk away from the thing and are outpacing it.  Not walk hurriedly, or anything: just kinda amble.  Of course, then they find that they're at a door or something and can't remember how door knobs work, so they get eaten.  Good riddance, I say.

Are there any other things I could complain about?  So, so many.  But I'll just mention the last of the film's Trifecta of Things Even More Stupid Than the Rest of the Film.  This is a scene where the helpful narrator advises us that the monster was en route to the local dance hall.  It arrives seven minutes later.  Seven minutes of shots of people dancing, and shots of the monster shuffling across the landscape and nothing else.  Well, there's one line of dialogue that has nothing to do with the plot.  But nothing else.  For seven minutes.

Maybe seven minutes doesn't sound like a lot to you, but try watching seven minutes of credits - a Peter Jackson movie should have you covered there - which is just about as interesting as what's happening on screen in the film during this time, and see how long it is before you're itching to check your phone for messages or to punch yourself in the face for buying this DVD.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go find a steak to put on my eye.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

I wonder what it says about people that we so love to the idea of overt antagonism hiding covert affection?  Western people, at least - I'm not familiar enough with other cultures to make claims about them.  The screwball comedies of the 30s are pretty much built on the concept of verbal sparring that leads to romance, for instance, but they are far from the first example: I doubt Bill Shakespeare was either, but he does show us the theme's been around for at least five hundred years.

There are two relationships that tie Much Ado About Nothing together.  The one that gets the majority of the screen time (and is frankly much more fun) is between Beatrice and Benedick.  The two of them are both avowedly single, and like nothing so much as to engage in running battles of wit, each attempting to out-talk and out-insult the other.  So you know pretty much from the first time they're on screen together that they'll end up as a couple.

I mean, you'd know that anyway, since it's Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in an early 90s movie together, but even if it wasn't, the cues are obvious.

While Beatrice and Benedick's reluctant romance is entirely a thing of comedy (often very funny comedy), the other relationship, between Hero and Claudio, is one of drama.  Honestly, it's mainly drama-filled because Claudio's a big old jerk.  I'm much less of a fan of it than I am of the other relationship, partly because the characters are less developed, most mostly because I don't like Claudio very much.

This is a Branagh film from the 90s, and it has all his trademarks: Shakespeare, Emma T, BRIAN BLESSED, and Richard Briers.  I'm not a huge fan of Briers in most of Branagh's films, but I guess Branagh was as big a fan of The Goode Life as I was, since he kept using Briers in everything.  It's also a fine showpiece of Branagh's skills as both director and actor.  As far as the former goes, he gets recognizable emotions out of Kate Beckinsale, which is no easy task.  He doesn't get them out of Keanu Reeves, but I guess that just means he's not a miracle worker.  As for acting, there's one scene in the film where we need to believe that the jovial Benedick we've seen all movie is also a skilled soldier, and he nails it.

This is a good adaptation of the play.  I'm not especially enamored of the buffoonish constables that form an important subplot, but we'll have to blame the source material for that.  Worth checking out if you want a charming comedy about romance that is not 'a romantic comedy', and don't mind having to deal with Shakespearian language.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Horror High (1974)

When I read the blurb on the back of the DVD box, I thought "Huh, sounds like Jekyll and Hyde meets Heathers."  Then the film started and they were in class watching the film of Robert Louis Stevenson's novella.  So I guess they get points for not trying to hide the source of their inspiration.

So what we have here is your typical 'outcast high school student turns killer' flick, in the vein of Heathers and Massacre at Central High.  It occurs to me that while my generation and the one before it had these kind of films, I'm not aware of any in recent years.  I wonder if that is that simply because I haven't heard of them, or because greater public awareness of real life murder sprees at schools has made the concept toxic?

I found myself liking this movie, despite its flaws.  And it does have flaws: it's obviously pretty cheap, with limited budgets for effects.   The main character's transformation into his "Hyde" self consists mostly of groaning and writhing while facing away from the camera, and once transformed he is mostly kept off camera, or in heavy shadow.  We occasionally see his hands, which have hair on the backs, but little else.

Despite the cheapness, though, they drummed up a solid cast.  Nobody looks uncomfortable on camera, even when delivering the sometimes clumsy dialogue of the script.

The plot?  Well, it's "Jekyll and Hyde as a high school revenge flick".  Loner Vernon is put-upon by his teachers and classmates - with the sole exception of the prettiest girl in class, of course - and his only pleasure is the biology experiment he's conducting on a guinea pig he's named "Mr Mumps".  Vernon's trying to develop a serum to increase the user's strength.  So I guess he's either been reading too many comic books, or he's trying to develop anabolic steroids.  Through a series of contrivances, he ingests some of the serum himself, and well ... those people who've been mean to him won't have long to regret it.

Ultimately, I think the question of whether you should see this film (either under this title or the alternate one of Twisted Brain) comes down to this: does the basic premise turn your crank at all?  If it does, this is an enjoyably cheesy way to spend 90 minutes.  If not, there's nothing here that will overcome that.

Monday, 25 August 2014

The Descent (2005)

There's a 15-second sequence, early in this film, where a great deal of information is conveyed without a word being spoken.  Right there, I thought "The rest of this movie could suck, and I'll be glad I saw it, because that's a mighty fine piece of film-making."

As it happens, the rest of this movie does not suck.  It's actually a very competently made horror film with a strong cast.  Of course, the fact that it's a horror film is part of why it's only getting a qualified recommendation.  As someone whose mother hides behind a cushion when watching the 'tense' bits in action movies, I'm well aware that not everyone is into scary movies!

The other reason that this gets a qualified recommendation is that I think the first half is a much more interesting and scary film than the second half.  Frankly, the arrival of the monsters - because yeah, there are monsters - makes the movie less tense, to my mind.  In the first half, we focus on the friendships and rivalries between the (all female) cast and the dangers and challenges of spelunking: challenges that become much more dangerous when a rockfall blocks the cave behind them and they realize they're not in the system they thought they were.

If the film had just then been about their struggle to get out of the caves, while their interpersonal issues (which were so eloquently and silently established in that scene I mentioned at the start of this review) came to the surface and threatened to break the group apart, then I think I would be raving about this film and telling everyone to go see it.

Instead, we get monsters.  They're neat enough monsters, but after the initial impact of their arrival has worn off, we still have the last half hour of the film to get through, and the scenes of hiding and fighting from them start to feel a bit repetitive, which undermines the tension.  And the ending - either of them, since there are two different ones depending whether you see the US or UK edition - is a bit underwhelming.

Those quibbles aside, however, if you like scary films, you should see this.  It's good.  I just think that if it had gone in a different direction, it could have been great.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Escape from Hell Island (1963)

I'm guessing this was not Fidel Castro's favorite film, as the island in the title is post-revolutionary Cuba.  It's also not my favorite, because it is booooring.

An American boat captain reluctantly accepts a job smuggling some folks off Cuba.  Surprise surprise, it goes awry, and they come under attack by a Cuban patrol boat.  Of course, one American with a tommy gun is more than enough to see off an entire army of commies, so after a singularly unconvincing action scene, he escapes.  There have been some casualties, however, which get him in trouble with the authorities.

More important to the film however is the fact that one of the Cuban refugees is a beautiful woman, played by an actress who sounds like the closest she's ever been to Cuba is filming this movie.  The captain's interest in this attractive stranger earns the ire of her husband, but he's not too perturbed about that.

And that's pretty much it, as far as plot goes, for the first hour of the film.  After reaching the US, the captain meets the young woman in a bar and dances with her, further upsetting her husband.  The woman confides that she does not love or respect her husband, but fears him.  The captain waves this off 'a barking dog never bites'.

This gives the woman the courage to stand up to her husband, and the husband the courage to plot to kill the captain.  It is, however, one of the most ineptly executed plots I've ever encountered on film.  It's also very boring cinema, as it leads to 15 minutes of the captain slowly swimming around his boat, waiting for the other man to lower his guard enough for him to climb back aboard.  The movie seems to be hoping that some obvious stock footage of sharks will be enough to make this tense.  It's  not.

This one is dead in the water.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Survivor (2014)

I generally watch DVDs for this blog in roughly the order I got them.  So the ones that have been hanging around longest will finally get a viewing.  But I make an exception whenever an indie production turns up in my mail.  The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and The Sky Has Fallen are two examples of such productions.  Widely divergent ones, when it comes to how much I enjoyed them.

This is another small company release, in this case one I backed on Kickstarter back in January.  The DVD arrived yesterday, and I sat down to watch it and let you know how it was.  I like to do this with indie stuff since if I do like it, my review might in some small way (very small, given my readership :) ) help the production be a success.

And there are things to like about this film.  The cast is all solid.  The characters they're playing are generally pretty thin, but the actors all deliver their lines confidently and smoothly, with none of the awkwardness you might expect from what is presumably a very low budget affair.  If $40,000 on Kickstarter makes an appreciable difference to a film's budget, we're definitely not talking about the big end of town.

Other things to like: the action is generally well-staged, and the CGI, while obviously CGI, is only occasionally actually bad.  The physical effects are significantly better.  The 'monsters' of the piece aren't that innovative in their design, but the costumes are very well executed.  That's probably not surprising since they have a definite Orcish look to them and the company's done a number of fantasy films in the past.

Finally, I like that the protagonist, Kate (the young lady on the DVD cover) is a competent badass whose gender is never raised an issue in the film.  Now to be wholly truthful, her level of badassness does seem to wax and wane as the script requires; there'll be a scene where she struggles to defeat one enemy, then a few minutes later she'll take out five or six in short order; but she is at least never rendered helpless by being grabbed on the upper arm.

Now obviously the movie has got some flaws too, or I wouldn't have only given it a Qualified Recommendation.  And in fact, I'm probably being a little generous in giving it that much.  The script, you see, is the biggest weakness of the film.  In many parts, it's fine, and it has some inventively conceived and staged action sequences (the scene where Kate is pursued up a cliff by some bad guys comes to mind).  But it also some very clunky exposition / narrative bits that come across more like info dump cut scenes from a computer game than natural conversations or observations from the characters, and there's the matter of Kate's waxing and waning combat skills as well.  Plus there's a moment right near the end that's just laugh out loud silly (you'll know it when you see it, trust me).

But ultimately, I don't regret spending the time to watch this film.  It was better than I honestly expected, and - perhaps a more important indicator - I don't regret having backed another Kickstarter by the same company, back in May.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Women of Devil's Island (1962)

I was excited to sit down for this movie.  Not because I expected it to be good (and I would have been disappointed if I had), but because it was the last film in this particular 50-pack.  It feels like quite an achievement to get through the whole thing.

This Italian film is 13 minutes longer in its original release than in the version on this disc.  It's also apparently a colour film, though you'd be hard pressed to tell it here.  Everything is basically sepia-toned, presumably the result of multiple bad transfers.

Heavy-handed exposition establishes that a group of women are being sent to prison on Devil's Island and that Our Heroine is a political prisoner, not a common criminal like the others.  There's admiring mention of her being noble born, so since the characters are supposed to be French I guess this is pre-Revolution.

Conditions on the island are predictably terrible, with abusive guards running a 'sex for favours' racket, and the women beaten to make them work harder (there's alluvial gold on the island, and it's their job to get it).  The sex is intimated rather than shown; I've seen more skin on a trip to the shops than I did in this film.

Things improve on the island when a new commandant arrives, as he threatens to hang any man who abuses the prisoners, but how long can he remain in control of the resentful officer he has replaced, and what will happen to the women if he does lose his position?  Honestly, it's hard to care very much. The movie does try to deliver a few twists and turns and is a little more inventive than the average 'women in prison' film (possibly because the formula wasn't established yet) but it's simply not very well executed.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Fleshburn (1984)

It's not a good sign when you literally yell at a movie "oh just end already!".

It's a shame that this state of affairs came after I found the first two-thirds of the film tolerably watchable.

A crazed Vietnam vet escapes from a mental institution with a plan to get revenge on the doctors that put him there.  So far, so low rent First Blood.  However, whereas John Rambo was a basically good man who got pushed too far, Calvin Duggai is a certified loon.  He kidnaps the four doctors, steals their shoes, and ditches them a hundred miles into the desert.  Either they'll stay and they'll die, or they'll try to leave and he'll kill them.

So this is clearly not a man for whom we are supposed to feel sympathy.

One of the psychiatrists has some desert survival skills, though.  Duggai knew this, and the other man's ability to help keep the others alive was probably part of his plan to torture them.  The group dig pits for shelter from the sun - the earth a few feet down is significantly cooler than on the surface - crush cactus for liquid, and eventually rig snares for rabbits.  Somehow they manage to skin those, which gives them makeshift shoes so that two of them can attempt an escape while the others remain to try and trick Duggai into thinking they're all still there.

Up until now, the stresses between the doctors, and the survival tricks they've used, have made for a relatively okay experience, as long as one overlooks the occasional bits revolving around Duggai as he lurks nearby, which are ... a bit nutty, shall we say.

But it's not until the escape attempt that the film really goes off the rails.  The ensuing game of cat and mouse between Duggai and the two man 'escape party' is frankly too long and not as interesting as the film makers apparently thought it was.  Then once it finally resolves, there's an unnecessarily long and tedious concluding scene that seems to exist only to make me shout at the TV.

No need to waste your time with this one.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Zombie Honeymoon (2004)

This is my 300th review for the blog.  There won't be a 'skip' day tomorrow, though.  I've decided to save that for the one year blogiversary in about eight weeks.  And now, on with the review.

Zombie Honeymoon begins with newlyweds Denise and Danny bailing on any of that reception nonsense and heading straight off into the sunset to enjoy their life together.  Also, to have sex in the backyard of the place where they're staying, which seems like it would be quite uncomfortable.

Anyway, the next day they're at the beach, when a man staggers out of the water, vomits black stuff all over Danny, and then dies.  I liked this scene.  It's a lot more intense than that summary suggests, and I appreciated that Denise gets in there, kicking the guy and trying to drag him off her husband.  It's good to see a female lead with some gumption.

Danny's body goes into arrest from whatever the black stuff was, and he dies at the hospital.  But then, ten minutes later, he sits up, feeling fine.  The hospital staff are perplexed, but Denise doesn't care how he came back, just that he did.

She'll be rethinking that position a few days later when she finds him eating the corpse of a jogger in their bathroom, but first we get several scenes building the pair's relationship and establishing that they're very much in love.  It's nice to see a film take a moment to deal with a character reacting to not losing someone: often fiction kind of glosses over the stress and horrified "what ifs" that accomplish a near miss.

Honestly, I think this is the best part of the film.  The two leads work well together, and when - in a rush of adrenaline from Danny not being dead - they quit their jobs and apartment and pledge to follow their dreams by moving to Portugal, you'd probably feel excitement for them if you didn't know from the title of the film where things were going to be heading.

But flesh-eating zombiedom cannot be denied, and soon Danny is succumbing to the irresistible lure of human flesh.  He promises Denise he would never hurt her, and when he says he can't live without her, her own pain over his recent death prevents her from leaving.  But as the days go by and Danny finds it harder and harder to remember the events of his life, and his kill count mounts ever higher, Denise has to ask herself if she can rely on his promise.

The zombie portion of the film is not special, and the ending is a little too pat for my tastes (though, reading the story that inspired the script, I can see why he wanted an 'upbeat' conclusion to his tale).

This is much, much better than the average Indie zombie film, and it has good performances, but it's kind of uncomfortably straddling a couple of different genres and it probably isn't going to work for most audiences.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The Lucky Texan (1934)

Every time I sit down for one of the films in this pack that isn't Stagecoach, I cross my fingers that it'll be something other than yet another of the almost entirely interchangeable low budget schlock he pumped out in the 30s.  I hit paydirt with Angel and the Badman, and I hit ... something ... with this, the last film in the set.

There's a fair bit of this movie that's straight out of the poverty row playbook: there's an old timer who needs Wayne's help and who just happens to have a pretty young female relative, there's a crooked businessman who has Yakima Canutt as a henchman, and there's the hero getting arrested for a Crime He Did Not Commit.

But it's like the film took those ingredients and mixed in a big dose of crazy powder.  This is a movie with Gabby Hayes in drag.

Gabby Hayes:

It's also a movie with a Lassie prototype as its principal method of plot development, a Keystone Kops-esque final chase scene (Horse + Car vs Rail Cart), some kid of broomstick-like surfing thing happening halfway through, and a random scene where the purported love interest - who spends all of about 8 seconds on screen with Wayne before they're kissing - pulling faces at a shop window for no apparent reason.

So, while it's certainly not good, I definitely wouldn't say it was 'almost entirely interchangeable' from the other films he did during the decade.

Monday, 18 August 2014

T.N.T. Jackson (1974)

Lukewarm Coffy.

... yeah, I couldn't help myself.

But the influence of Pam Grier's film, which came out the year before this, is pretty blatant here.  T.N.T. Jackson is looking for revenge for the death of her brother, just like Coffy.  And she's going undercover in the drugs scene to do it.  Just like Coffy.  And if her method of revenge is badly staged martial arts instead of Coffy's shotgun and afro-razors ... well, that's frankly to the film's detriment.

To be fair, the film is not entirely without merits.  I like that it has two females with some agency, for instance.  I mean naturally it makes sure they both take their tops off (heck, T.N.T. engages in an entire fight scene wearing only a pair of panties), and it resolves one woman's fate in a way that made me want to kick the writer where it hurts, but at least T.N.T. infiltrates the criminal gang by being tough, not by being beautiful.  But beyond that, I'm hard pressed to think of much to recommend it: the acting is generally poor, the script no more than functional, and the action ... well, Bruce Lee wouldn't exactly have been feeling threatened.

At the end of the day Jeannie Bell is no Pam Grier, T.N.T. Jackson is no Coffy, and those martial arts sequences are really, really not very good.  This will never be more than a pretender to Coffy's crown as queen of the mean streets.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

The Swinging Cheerleaders (1974)

What happens when you make a sexploitation flick and forget the sex?  This movie, it seems.

I mean, there is a little nudity, most of it from lead actress Jo Johnston, who doesn't appear to have ever made another film. And there is quite a lot of talking about sex.  But anyone who came to this film in hope of a boob-fest like the other two movies in this pack was in for disappointment.

Written (under a pseudonym) and directed by Jack Hill, who also gave the world The Big Bird Cage and Coffy, this is the tale of a journalism student who decides to infiltrate the college cheerleading squad and write an expose on this "last bastion of sexual oppression".  Which is charmingly naive about how entrenched patriarchy is.  Also either ironic or insincere, given that this is a sex comedy.

Of course, as our heroine gets to like (most of) the other women on the squad, and also to become intimate with one of the football team (neither he nor she seems to care that he's dating someone else at the time), she starts to rethink her expose.

If you're thinking to yourself "I bet her original intentions are going to be revealed to the rest of the squad at an inopportune time, but they'll ultimately overcome their rift" then congratulations: you've seen a movie before :)

So yeah, this is all pretty paint by numbers stuff, main plot-wise.  I did like that it allows its female characters to be sex-positive, though I very much disliked a scene where two of them more or less nag the one virgin on the squad to have sex.  If she's not ready, she's not ready.


The other thing that was mildly interesting was that every establishment character is to a greater or lesser extent ethically bankrupt ... but the one stridently anti-establishment character is the movie's biggest ass.  Mixed message, or deliberate nuance?  Honestly, I suspect anyone watching the movie when it came out was more concerned by the lack of naked nipples.

Nothing much to see here folks.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

The Star Packer (1934)

Here's a free tip for movie makers: if your film has a shadowy, unseen villain whose whole gimmick is that no-one knows who he is, you should perhaps have more than one character who might actually be him.

This tip comes 80 years too late for the makers of The Star Packer, but when it comes to free advice, you get what you pay for.

This is another of John Wayne's early cheapies (the second last in my collection).  Wayne is a federal marshal sent to investigate the town where said shadowy villain is up to no good.  Taking on the job of sheriff (the post having become abruptly available due to the villain's activities), he repeatedly thwarts the efforts of the criminal gang to do him in.  He also finds time to save a young woman.  Since he spends a good minute on screen with her, and there are no other females in the cast, you can safely assume she's the love interest, though as romances go it's even more perfunctory than most of those in these sort of films.

The secret of Wayne's success is his Native American sidekick (who is not, of course, played by a Native American.  This is the 1930s, after all).  He eventually determines the identity of the villain, which as noted will come as a surprise only if you slept through the first thirty minutes of the film.  From there, we head into the inevitable finale of such movies: lots of guys galloping around on horses and shooting at each other.

I probably sound very dismissive of the film, and that's a little unfair of me.  It's a solid enough release by the assembly line production standards of 1930s "poverty row" film makers.  The cast all do their jobs adequately, and at 53 minutes the movie can't be accused of outstaying its welcome.

Still, ultimately there's nothing especially notable about it, and "pretty good for a poverty row western" still isn't actually good good.  So you can safely skip it.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Slave of the Cannibal God (1978)

Content Warning: some of the stuff in this movie is deliberately gross and shocking, so you may want to skip this review unless you're pretty blase about such things.

This bit of 70s Italian sleaze has at least four different English-language titles (the one above, Mountain of the Cannibal God, Prisoner of the Cannibal God and Primitive Desires).  It also has at least five and possibly six different versions: IMDB lists five cuts, clocking in at anything from 86 to 103 minutes, but the one on this DVD runs only 82.

In the interests of completeness, I tracked down a copy of the 103 minute cut, watched that, and then scanned through the shorter version to see what the differences were.  The things I do for this blog!

Anyway, the film establishes that New Guinea is a wild and untamed land, and that a wealthy woman has come looking for her missing husband.  He trekked out into the wilderness, you see, and hasn't been seen since.  Together with her husband and an old colleague of her husband (plus a bunch of disposable extras) they set off to find the missing man.

There then follows lots of tedium.  The group struggles through wilderness - places that would probably be quite beautiful if shot in a more interesting fashion - while occasionally losing one of their number to traps, crocodiles, or natives in scary masks.

In the long cut of the film, the tedium is interspersed with deliberate shocks: the disembowelment (I suspect for real) of a monitor lizard, and the (definitely for real) consumption of a monkey by a python.

Anyway, when reduced to just the three white-skinned characters (cultural imperialism, ho!), they finally meet some friendly people.  One of whom is a handsome frontiersman to whom the wife immediately takes a shine.  What about her husband, you ask?  Well to be honest she has a different motive for coming out here than she claims.  Her husband is missing, it's true, but she is more interested in the uranium he was looking for than she is in him.

Now with their extra whitey, they press on through more scary mask guys and boring wilderness stuff, until finally, around three-quarters of the way through the film (so 60 or 75 minutes, depending which version you're watching) they get whittled down to two and captured by cannibals.

And then they get eaten and the movie ends.

... oh, if only.  Instead we get either lots more tedium (in the short version of the film) or sleazestravaganza (in the long one).  I'm talking nudity, a cannibal banquet, the (simulated) severing of a penis, unsimulated female masturbation, and (hopefully simulated) bestiality.

And well ... either you want to watch that kind of stuff (in which case go straight to the 75 minute mark and skip the tedious journey that precedes it), or you don't (in which case all the movie has to offer is boredom and occasional moments of unintended laughter when it's especially stupid).

Stay well away.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Spirited Away (2001)

Hayao Miyazaki was the writer/director of Laputa: Castle in the Sky and the director of Howl's Moving Castle, both of which I gave glowing reviews, so you will probably not be surprised that I enjoyed this a lot as well.

Miyazaki conceived the film because he wanted to make a movie that would appeal to a colleague's ten-year old daughter, but that wouldn't feature traditionally 'girl' themes like crushes and fashion and other such things that society dictates are 'feminine'.

The film opens with ten-year old Chihiro and her parents driving to their new house.  Chihiro is less than thrilled about moving, and giving her parents a bit of attitude about the whole thing.  When her father takes a wrong turn and they end up at a deserted complex of buildings in the woods, her agitation increases.

Finding piles of delicious food at what appears to be a market stall, her parents sit down to eat.  They wave away Chihiro's concerns about 'getting in trouble' by promising to pay for the meal.  Chihiro declines to eat, and instead meets a young boy, Haku, who warns her that she has strayed into the spirit world.  She must get her parents and leave as soon as she can.

The warning is too late, however ... when she returns to her parents, Chihiro finds they have been turned into pigs!  Now trapped in the spirit world, Chihiro must find a way to break the curse on her parents (before they get turned from pigs into bacon) and get them all home safely.  How hard can that be?  I mean, she only has to deal with a wicked witch, stink spirits, a ravenous monster, and a dragon.  Nothing to it, right?

If you've ever watched and liked a Miyazaki film before, then you'll like this one.  If you haven't, it's probably not the best introduction.  It's a good film, but it relies heavily on Japanese folk lore in parts, and the narrative structure is not the western norm.  I'd say Laputa is a better place to start as it has a more conventional story-telling approach.  Come back to this one after that.  But do come back.  It's worth your time unless you're one of those 'won't want cartoons' people.

Looking forward to sharing this with my nieces when they're in the 11-12 year old range.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Borderline (1950)

This is the last film in the Golden Crime pack and except for Scarface - which was the reason I bought the pack in the first place - it's the best.

This is at least partly a result of the cast, which is certainly a cut above the average on these discs: Claire Trevor won an Academy award for Key Largo while Fred MacMurray was the lead in smash hit Double Indemnity.  They're a solid pair on which to base this 'romantic crime' film.

Trevor, best known for her bad girl roles, is cast against type as LAPD operative Madeleine Haley, but she settles into the role quite comfortably.  Sent to Mexico to infiltrate the narcotics smuggling operation of Pete Ritchie (played by a pre-Godzilla Raymond Burr), she walks into a feud between Ritchie and another gangster.  Said gangster mistakes her for one of Ritchie's employees and offers her the chance to work a job with his right hand man, Johnny Macklin.  Figuring she can turn Macklin in when they reach the border, she agrees.

Of course, getting to the border isn't going to be easy: the Mexican authorities don't know who she is, and while that would get sorted out in time, having to reveal her identity before the border would mean losing the chance to bust the US end of the smuggling ring.  To make matters worse, Ritchie is gunning for payback, and I do mean gunning.

So Haley's life is already pretty complicated.  She certainly doesn't need anything else to make it moreso.  Which is why it's so annoying that Johnny Macklin is handsome, smart, and - for all he's a crook - seems like a pretty good guy.  The kind of guy she could fall for.

Of course, this is Hollywood, so Johnny has a secret of his own.  You can probably guess what it is :)

There's some genuinely funny humour in this.  Some rather dated men vs women stuff too, but it is a 60+ year old film.  The cast is strong, and the script hums along quite nicely.  There's nothing groundbreaking to it, but I was entertained throughout.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

The Legend of Bigfoot (1976)

Wikipedia calls this a "pseudo-documentary".  Other sites don't bother to gild the lily and call it what it is: a hoax.

Back in the 70s (and even into the 80s) the reality of Bigfoot was something people genuinely debated.  Earnest research teams set out to find it, as well as the Loch Ness Monster.  Without success, of course, since they don't exist.

Or at least, so you might believe until you saw the overwhelming evidence for Bigfoot that is presented here by Ivan Marx.


Sorry, couldn't keep a straight face.

Marx presents himself as an experienced tracker and trapper who initially scoffed at the idea of Bogfoot, but began to believe otherwise when he found a bear with its neck snapped, and strange footprints in the mud nearby.

Looking into the matter, which apparently mostly consists of ranting about Bigfoot while showing footage of real animals, Marx discovered that there were tales of this creature in many areas.  Surely such tales could not have become so widespread without some truth to them?  Well actually, Mr Marx, tales of dragons are found all over the world, and yet I am not in any danger of having my house burned down by a giant flying lizard.

Eventually Marx gets some footage of a guy in a fur suit -- uh, I mean "Bigfoot" -- and his quest truly begins.  By which I mean he shows us yet more footage of other animals while spinning ever more outlandish theories.

Why are there no reputable sightings of Bigfoot (other than his own unimpeachable footage of course)?  Because that's how Bigfoot survives, man!  By hiding from humans!

Why are there almost never any sightings of young Bigfoots (Bigfeet?)?  Because they migrate thousands of miles a year to breed high above the Arctic Circle!

Why have no remains ever been found?  Because they carry their dead with them as they migrate thousands of miles a year and bury them in crevices in the glaciers where they breed, high above the Arctic Circle!

Good news though: Marx's "research" has established that Bigfoot is vegetarian.  Except when it eats fish.  Presumably it snaps the necks of bears for fun, rather than food, then.

You'll see better nature footage in a David Attenborough documentary, and Sir Dave won't subject you to chains of logic like:

  1. A native told me the Bigfoot breed where the moose mate
  2. I went where he said, and saw moose
  3. Therefore, Bigfoot is real


Monday, 11 August 2014

Xena: Warrior Princess, Season 1 (1995)

Xena is one of those spin-offs that becomes a bigger success than the original show from which it was spawned.  I ascribe some portion of that success to it having a slightly less 'sanitised' tone than Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, but I believe there are two more important reasons, the first of which is that it has a much stronger lead actor.

It's ironic then that Lucy Lawless only got the role because the actor they originally cast (Vanessa Angel) was unable to come to New Zealand for filming.  Serendipitous all round, especially since I rate Lawless's charisma and acting several steps above that of Ms Angel.

In case you don't know, Xena made her debut as an evil warlord in Hercules, where she seduced Iolaus, Herc's best friend, and tried to turn him against Hercules.  She failed, of course, but she was back a few episodes later in the season's two-part finale, where she turned away from her life of villainy and joined the white hats.

Response to the character was very strong, and a spin-off was launched, where the repentant ex-warlord travels Greece attempting to make amends for her earlier deeds.  She's accompanied in this by a young woman named Gabrielle.  And now we come to the second reason the show was so successful.  While Herc had Iolaus (and as played by Michael Hurst, he was often the best thing on the show), the two men never had the chemistry that these two did.

And I mean chemistry in several senses of the word, because trust me, this show did not become a sensation in the lesbian community for nothing.

Anyway: Xena and Gabrielle travel Greece, mostly protecting folk from bandits, but occasionally interacting with Amazons, fighting monsters, or brokering peace between warring states.  They also have their first encounters with the wicked war god Ares, the crazed warrior woman Callisto, and the King of Thieves, Autolycus.

Now, Xena is by no means immune to the common flaws of episodic TV: there are some pretty ordinary episodes in here, and a couple of episodes with very similar concepts get slotted in back to back, which does neither of them any favours.  On the other hand, it does neatly sidestep some of them: for one thing, it shows people's reactions to Xena change over the season.  In the first episode, almost no-one believes she is reformed.  Those she wants to help spurn her while her former allies and now enemies are often easily fooled into thinking she's just running some scam.  Later, reactions are more varied.

The more impressive thing though is what they do with Gabrielle.  She begins the season as the 'comedy sidekick', useless in a fight and always needing saving, or otherwise making mistakes that drive the story along.  But over this season she becomes reasonably capable of defending herself with a staff (though of course she's no Xena), and they let her develop as Xena's conscience and foil.  When they argue, there's something close to an even chance she'll be right.

Not that this means she can't sometimes still be the comedy relief.  But I'm okay with that, since Renee O'Connor is a gifted comedic actress (as is Lawless, for that matter).

If you're after some relatively light, fairly family friendly adventure (sapphic subtext not withstanding), this is a good option.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Legion (2010)

"Biblical Terminator meets Night of the Living Dead."

I imagine that's pretty much the elevator pitch I they made for Legion, and to be honest it's not a bad one.  Alas, I think the film makes a couple of missteps and they prevent me from pushing it into the qualified recommendation category.

It does come pretty close to that category, mostly because of its much-better-than-expected cast.  I mean seriously, go check it out on IMDB and wonder what all these talented people are doing in this.

So where do I think the movie falls down?  Well mostly in making the Arnie-in-T2 analogue be the protagonist of the film.  This robs the Sarah Connor analogue of the character arc she needs for us to buy her as the mother of humanity's hope, and it also makes the supposedly climactic battle of the film not terribly climactic.  There are other structural weaknesses in the film, and I'll point at least one more out later, but that's the big one.

We start off with some explosions and possession-type goings on in LA, then head out to the middle of nowhere and the 'Paradise Falls' rest stop.  That's a rather on-the-nose name given the film's subject matter.  It's also the name of the slaver camp in Fallout 3, which amused me.

In any case, we meet pregnant waitress Charlie, rest stop owner Ben, and his son Jeep and fry cook Percy.  We also meet the handful of customers they're dealing with.  And then a little old lady rocks up and - after a few pleasantries - launches a savage assault on them.  You can see this coming, of course, but it's still quite effectively done.

They manage to put the old lady down, which is when a stranger named Michael - who we met in the LA sequence - turns up with bad news.  God's lost faith in mankind again, and instead of sending a flood, this time he's sending angels to possess 'the weak' and turn them into an army to wipe out humanity.  Charlie's son is the only hope humanity has, so they have to keep her and the baby alive.

I kind of like the sly 'meek shall inherit the Earth' thing here, and the fact that the horrid creatures who subsequently attack are actually angels, but it's not really developed beyond that.  Also not really developed is why Charlie's unborn son is so important, or how Michael knows it (I guess he is an Archangel, but still ...).

The film rather loses its way here.  The angels' attack on the rest stop isn't that exciting, and once it is done there's quite a lull while the various human characters make intermittent attempts to be developed enough that we might care if they live or die.  (These efforts mostly fail, since it's laughably easy to work out who is going to make it)

Oh, and Charlie has her baby in like 60 seconds flat.  And women say this childbirth thing is difficult!  They just need to be in a movie and it would be much easier.

Anyway, we move on with a big fight sequence that's entirely pointless since it is between Michael and the Archangel Gabriel and it's Charlie and her son who actually matter, and then pretty much get a literal Deus Ex Machina to end things.

Some promise in the premise, but the film fails in the execution.  A shame.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Alimony (1949)

A writer friend of mine has been known to opine that writing a good ending is one of the hardest parts of fiction, and if movies like this one are any indication, he's definitely onto something.

Which is not to say the film doesn't have problems before that, though I was finding it relatively watchable.  To my mind, the first mistake is in the first minute: it sets up all the actual narrative of the film as having already happened, with one of the characters involved narrating it.  In doing so, it gives you a lot of hints as to what sort of narrative we're going to see (the fall of the scarlet woman).  That rather robs things of tension or dynamism.

Anyway, our narrator is Dan Brown, a struggling composer who lives in a boarding house with several other people, including his girlfriend Linda.  The two are just waiting on Dan to finally sell some music so they can start their life together, when into the house comes Kitty Travers (played by Martha Vickers, who also portrayed Lauren Bacall's younger sister in The Big Sleep).

Kitty sets her sights on Dan when he seems on the verge of a big sale.  Dan, proving himself quite the jerk, ditches Linda and writes a song inspired by Kitty.  But when the sale falls through, Kitty dumps him as fast as he dumped Linda.

Linda, because she is consigned to the 'good woman' box, takes the jerk back.  They get married.  And then the exact same thing happens: Dan makes a sale, Kitty swoops in.  'Jerk' is not really a strong enough word, but I generally try to keep the language on here family friendly, so feel free to insert your own pejorative.

Can you guess what happens when Dan's star starts to fade?  I bet you can.  You might in fact wonder why we needed to have the same mini-narrative play out twice in the film (I sure did), and how anyone would have any sympathy for either Dan or Kitty at this point in things.

The final twenty minutes or so of the movie are about the wicked getting their comeuppance, though it takes some Doppleganger Ex Machina to do it.  Some folks go to jail.  Jerks who ditch their girlfriend/wife not once but twice are unfortunately not among them.

When Kitty gets out of jail, she's learned her lesson, asks for (and receives) forgiveness from those she hurts, and resolves to go back home and live with her father once more.

... like I said, the ending isn't good.

A solid cast made this more watchable than the script deserved, but it's ultimately not worth seeking out.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Prime Time (1977)

1977's Kentucky Fried Movie launched a spate of 'anthology' films: movies comprised mostly of short sketches, with a framing 'feature story' to link them together.

Under the title American Raspberry, this film was produced by Warner Brothers as a low budget entry into the genre (its budget was well under 10% of that of Kentucky Fried Movie, possibly under 5%).  On completion, though, they took one look at it and shelved it for three years.

What rescued the film from the Warner's vault appears to have been the Golan and Globus years at Cannon.  G&G were pretty renowned for buying ultra-cheap scripts and films, sort of like a latter day Roger Corman approach to film, and they'd made teen sex comedies before coming to the US, so puerile junk like this was right up their alley.  And - no disrespect to G&G intended, because the world is a better place for having American Ninja 2 in it - this movie is definitely puerile junk.

The linking story here is that some unknown force has taken over the "TV waves" and is broadcasting a series of "outrageous" skits and parodies.  And I guess, if you find the most obvious and banal efforts to be subversive and edgy funny, you might enjoy this.  But frankly, when the height of your humour is a "sexual deviants telethon" and "let's make a Charlie's Angels parody where everyone is obese", then I'm not going to be much impressed.

There are shows that take being completely inappropriate and turn it into very funny material - I'm a big fan of Archer, for instance - but this is not one of them.

This rot is also sometimes titled Funny America, which is ironic given that it has a skit about 'truth in advertising'.  Avoid.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

There are three reasons not to see this film:

  1. a graphic torture scene
  2. dialogue that is literally drenched in profanity, as well as racist, sexist and homophobic slurs
  3. perhaps unsurprisingly in light of number 2, the characters are almost all reprehensible people

If that doesn't put you off, however, you're in for a pretty good film.  For one thing, the cast is excellent: not a surprise when you feature major roles for Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth and Steve Buscemi; each of whom is reliably capable and entertaining.  The real eye-opened though is Michael Madsen.  It's hard to reconcile the menacing sociopath he presents here with the fumbling, barely coherent performance he offers in Bloodrayne.

The soundtrack is another strength of the film: so many great tracks, and really well used.  You'll never look at "Stuck in the Middle with You" the same way again (no, it's not a sex thing.  Get your minds out of the gutter!).

The other thing that garnered a lot of attention for this tale of a jewelry store heist gone wrong is the script.  Then novice film-maker Quentin Tarantino adopts a non-linear approach to the tale, and omits entirely the actual heist itself.  We only hear, second hand, how things initially went wrong.  It's a bold choice that could have gone horribly wrong, but it works well here.

The script also attracted attention for its dialogue.  It's profane stuff, but it's sometimes very well put together.  Not all of it works - the opening discussion of "Like A Virgin" kinda feels juvenile these days, for instance.  But stuff like Roth's 'commode story' scene?  Really well put together, both in terms of what's being said and how it's being structured.

Not a nice film by any measure, but a good one.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Gangs, Inc (1941)

Perhaps it's just that my standards have been lowered by rot like Gangster's Boy, but I rather enjoyed this film (which is also known by the alternative titles Crime, Inc and - in my opinion, the far superior option - Paper Bullets).

At the outset of the movie, young Rita Adams sees her father, an ex-con, gunned down in front of her.  She grows up in an orphanage, gets a job in a factory, and is more or less making her way okay.  But then her employer starts filling defence orders, and her father's incarceration prevents her from getting the papers she needs to keep working there.

Things go from bad to worse when her good for nothing boyfriend hits a pedestrian while driving drunk and persuades her to take the fall from him.  "They won't send you to jail" he promises.  But of course they do.

Two years later (which the film breezes through in about twenty seconds of screen time), Rita gets released.  She's done playing by the rules, though.  She has a new way of getting by in the world now.  And when papers come into her possession that show her former boyfriend's rich father is crooked, well, those plans get a whole lot bigger.

There's honestly nothing terribly innovative or exceptional about this film, but it's helped immensely by good performances from the leads, and some decent banter.  The script does have a tendency to explain the plot to you, in case you aren't keeping up, but I've certainly seen worse.

The story of Rita's fall, rise, and eventual fall again (because this is the 40s, and criminals aren't allowed to get away with it) made for a pretty decent way to spend an hour, all told.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The Lazarus Syndrome (1978)

This film was made as a stealth pilot for a TV show, and that's probably responsible for a couple of its weaknesses.  The sub-plots that are raised, but then never developed, let alone resolved for instance.  Those were probably intended to be grist for the series.

The basic set-up is that an over-worked, over-stressed middle-aged journalist has a cardiac event and is admitted to hospital.  He proves to be a difficult patient, questioning his doctor's decision that the best treatment is to eat better and exercise more.  Once he accepts that this is the right outcome for him, he becomes more trouble, accusing the head of surgery of being a pill-popper and encouraging a fellow patient - who is in similar circumstances to himself - to request a second opinion when he is told he needs surgery.

Of course, since the journalist is clearly being set up as one of the ongoing leads of the series, there's going to prove to be some truth to his claims.

The journalist and the doctor (who is played by Louis Gossett Jr) have good chemistry together and make their scenes work pretty well, but they can't disguise that the script packs about 40 minutes of action into an 80 minute film, nor that the resolution is entirely too pat and convenient to feel satisfying.  It's definitely a distinctly mediocre affair, and not one I can really recommend.

Oh, and the series this was intended to set-up?  It did happen, but it only lasted five episodes.  Honestly, that's probably five more than this deserved.

Monday, 4 August 2014

King of New York (1990)

Mob boss Frank White walks out of jail and declares war on every other gang in the city.  As you might imagine, this spree of violence upsets the other members of the underworld, as well as the NYPD.

But Frank's onslaught is not merely an attempt to control all vice in the city.  Because while his time in prison did not reform him, it did give him something of an epiphany: he wants to make money from the rich so he can provide better hospitals and schools to the poor boroughs of New York (as well as maintaining his own lavish lifestyle of course; like I said, he's not reformed).

The film doesn't spend a lot of time justifying or explaining Frank's altruistic impulses.  It just establishes that they exist and lets the bullets fly.  It's interesting to see how easy it is to make us root for the man who wants to run the city's narcotics trade.  Even when a group of cops decides to take the law into their own hands and gun Frank down, it's the mob boss and his right hand man (a stellar performance from Lawrence Fishburne) that you root for.

This is a very stylish film.  There's a lot of interesting use of colour; several scenes are drenched in one particular shade, whether it be green or yellow or blue, with only black as a contrast to the dominant hue.  I've only seen one Abel Ferrara film before - the 1993 version of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, which was quite good - but based on this film I'd certainly be willing to check out more.  The cast is uniformly good.  Fishburne is the stand-out, as mentioned above, but you never go wrong with Walken, and I don't think there's a weak link to be found here among the on-screen talent.

This is a fairly bleak film, what with it making you root for someone who is still a bad guy, and with the general lack of unblemished morals on either side of the law.  And there's a lot of violence and bad language.  So it won't be to all tastes.  But if you like your films very hard-boiled, it's a good egg.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Deep Rising (1998)

A year before Stephen Sommers helmed monster-smash The Mummy, he wrote and directed this critically reviled box office flop.

Which I adore.

Deep Rising is not a complicated film.  It certainly doesn't live up to the first word in its title, you might say.  But it's easy to see the prototype of Sommers's later hit in this film.  You've got the same basic trifecta of main characters, the same combination of action, humour and horror (though this film has a considerably greater degree of gore).

An aside: Roger Ebert dismissed this film as 'an Alien clone with a fresh paint job', which suggests that he really needs to re-watch Alien.  Part of that film's power is that it never ever goes for a tension-relieving laugh.  Nor does it have lots of guns.  This film has a stack of both.  It's much, much closer in feel to Aliens, except it has far more humour in it.

Actually, that leads me to a good elevator pitch for the film: 'Aliens meets The Mummy.  On a boat'.  Of course it preceded The Mummy, so that couldn't have been the actual pitch.  But it works for our purposes.

Plot: there's a cruise ship full of rich tourists, and a bunch of mercenaries planning to rob it.  Unfortunately for the mercs (and the crew of the boat they hired to get them to their target), the cruise ship receives even less welcome visitors shortly before they arrive.  They, and the handful of survivors, will soon be in for the fight of their lives.

This is total popcorn cinema, but it's salty, buttery popcorn of deliciousness.  Well worth seeing unless you have an issue with gore, late 90s CGI monsters, or fun.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Gangster's Boy (1938)

Jackie Cooper was nominated for a best actor Oscar at the age of 9, but like many child stars he found the transition to more adult roles quite awkward.  He would eventually experience a career renewal, but the late 30s and early 40s were not a good time for him.  Which probably explains why he's in this tedious chore of a film.

Cooper plays Larry, an honour roll student and star athlete.  He's an all round swell guy, for all he doesn't come from the right side of the tracks, and is pretty much an all round straight arrow.  The only thing he misses from his life is his father, who 'travels a lot' for work.

But after 5 long years, dad's back in town!  Of course, this isn't quite as swell as Larry thinks it is, since ol' pop is a former bootlegger, and the revelation of his shady past soon has the previously popular Larry on the outs with most of his peers and their parents.  This despite the fact that he himself is as Dudley Do Right as you can be.

Of course, Larry's very nobility of character will soon land him in further trouble as he takes the fall for a friend who accidentally hits a cyclist while driving.  The friend is the son of a judge, you see, and the accident might harm his reputation and his future.  By now, Larry figures his own prospects can't get any worse.

I bet you can guess who gets appointed to hear Larry's case, and I bet you can guess how everything gets resolved.  And you will do so much quicker than the seemingly interminable 80 minutes of this film.

Don't waste your time.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Treasure of Tayopa (1974)

This is a movie featuring not one but two narrators, which should tell you right from the word go that it's going to be rubbish.  And with one crazy-eyed exception, it is.

Narrator one tells us the legend of the lost treasure of Tayopa, and the fact that many expeditions - all unsuccessful - have all set out to find it.

We then dissolve to the latest such expedition, being organised by Kathryn Delgado.  Ms Delgado has asked her friend Tom to organise the men for this expedition, and old Tom seems to have interpreted that request as 'hire the first couple of guys you find in a bar'.  One of the men seems okay, if not that bright, but the other - the unfortunately named Sally - is clearly a nutjob.  He's also, thanks to the manic intensity of actor Phil Trapani (in what appears to be his only acting credit), the only entertaining thing in the film.

The group heads into Mexico in search of the treasure, Sally kissing his crossbow as they go (yes, really).  While travelling in the badlands, they come under some low level harassment from the locals.  Sally is riled up with this, and wants to head back and see what the Mexicans are up to.  Or so he says, anyway.  Tom initially resists the idea, but soon demonstrates he's as good a leader as recruiter, and gives way.

As Sally heads back, we cut to the Mexicans, who are debating whether to kill the Americans and take Kathryn, or wait for the Americans to die in the wilderness and take Kathryn.  This planning session is cut short by Sally turning up and killing them.

I'm not sure what the movie was going for here.  I mean, the script's made it clear that Sally is a dangerous loon, but on the other hand he was clearly right to think the Mexicans meant harm to his group, so his attack (while unjustified based on what he knew) was actually probably the best way to keep them all safe.  It's odd.

Now as it happens, one Mexican left just before Sally turns up, and he'll now pursue the Americans for the rest of the movie.  Other than stealing their horses though, he won't actually do anything.  It's remarkably random.  (I have actually seen a review online that says this character will ultimately save Kathryn and 'get the girl', but nothing of the sort happens: either there are two versions of the film or that reviewer got so bored they stopped paying attention and just guessed how it ended).

Ultimately, of course, you know Sally's going to explode.  He assaults Kathryn, leaving her for dead, and murders the other two men.  But Kathryn's not done.  She caves in his head with a rock, and then later does the same to a rattlesnake.  I smell symbolism.  She then guts and eats the snake, in a scene I suspect is genuinely a snake being cut open.  It's a little too convincing to be anything else.  Then she gets rescued by a priest.  The end.

Yeah, I just spoiled the whole film.  It's a public service, since now there is absolutely no reason for you to waste your time with it.