Friday, 31 October 2014

Push (2009)

It belatedly occurs to me that this was probably not the most apropos choice for my Halloween review.  Oh well.

This movie has a couple of things going for it.  Alas, the script is not one of them.

Push is a bubble-and-squeak movie, with story and cast of characters that feel like they've been pilfered from other bits of media.  Now sometimes, this "throw some leftovers in a pot and fry 'em up" approach will work (with food as well as movies).  And sometimes you get lumpy slop that leaves you with a vague feeling of indigestion (with movies as well as food).

The basic premise is simple enough: there are psychics among us.  These include Watchers, who get glimpses of the (possible) future; Movers, who are telekinetic; and Pushers, who can plant memories and take control of your actions.  There are other kinds as well: some of which frankly don't seem much like psychic phenomena.  "Screaming really loudly" for instance, looks a lot more like a plain old mutant superpower.

As if so often the case in these kind of things, there are secret government organisations trying to control those with powers, as well as keep them from public knowledge (though frankly the mutants - I mean "psychics" - are about as subtle as the immortals in Highlander, so only wilful stupidity on the part of humanity can explain how they're not front page news).

Anyway, the US government's secret agency, 'Division', has discovered a drug that boosts the powers of those into whom it is injected.  Unfortunately, it also tends to kill them.  So they're understandably a little annoyed when the first person to survive the injection manages to escape.  She makes her way to Hong Kong, where a former boyfriend and a rag-tag group of other psychics try to help her stay one step ahead of the many people hunting her.  Will they succeed?  Frankly, you probably won't much care.

The two positives I mentioned several paragraphs ago are the cast and the location shooting.  The film has a fantastic ensemble, though it does very little with them.  The script either fails to earn its characters' arcs (such as with Dakota Fanning's character) or doesn't bother to give them one (such as with Ming Wa's).

Meanwhile, the choice to shoot entirely on location gives the film's depiction of Hong Kong a depth and richness that is often absent from movies using substitute locations.  Also, a film set in Asia with mostly Asian people on screen most of the time: what a concept!

Alas, the strong cast and strong "sense of place" can't overcome the fact that the story is a tedious mish-mash of recycled ideas.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

End of the World (1977)

A haggard-looking priest (Christopher Lee) enters a diner and asks to use the phone - it's an emergency, and he needs to call the authorities.  The cook says of course he can, but when they venture to make the call, everything starts exploding.  The cook dies, and Father Lee, looking defeated, trudges into the night.  He comes to a small church, where he is greeted by ... Christopher Lee!  Dun dun dun.

I've just described everything interesting that happens in this movie.  Well, unless you consider it interesting that Sue Lyon, who played Lolita in the 1962 film of the same name, is in this tedious little bit of nihilism.

The basic plot hereafter: a scientist has two things going on in his life: messages from outer space, and a renewed sexual passion for his wife.  What the latter has to do with anything is frankly unclear, since it never really comes up again, but the messages actually matter for the plot.  The scientists tries to work out who is the intended recipient of the messages, and after a false start, he locates the small church from the start of the film.

The above takes about half the movie's run time, and I've frankly made it sound more interesting than it actually was.

Anyway, the aliens who have taken over the church capture the scientist and his wife (since she has accompanied him on his investigation).  They kill the priest - who they've kept alive thus far for reasons that aren't explained - and threaten dire things to the wife if the scientist does not steal something for them.  This is all explained as part of a dense wall of technobabble not even Star Trek would dare offer up.

After attempts to escape fail, the scientist agrees to help the aliens.  After he does, they reveal that this has allowed them to complete their plan: which is to blow up the Earth.  Why? To prevent our horrid diseases wiping out the galaxy.  They then bug out through their interstellar travel device.

(No, I don't know how Earth diseases are getting to other planets.  The movie certainly isn't going to tell us.)

Now, in another film, this would be when the scientist unveiled his clever plan to thwart the aliens and save the day.  In this one, however, he watches the world start being destroyed and then persuades his wife that they may as well follow the aliens and hope they'll be given refugee status on the other side, or something.  Because, you know, it's not like they'll be carrying those horrid Earth diseases with them.

So it's a stupid, nonsensical film.  I could forgive that if it wasn't boring, but it is.  Give it a miss.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)

Ferris Bueller is not an intrinsically sympathetic character.  He's really got no hardship in his life to overcome: he's smart, handsome, popular, and has a gorgeous girlfriend and loving, wealthy parents.  It makes his early whining about not having a car of his own rather hard to take.

At heart though, Ferris is not a bad person.  He genuinely cares for his girlfriend Sloane and his best friend Cameron, and while he's pretty self-entitled about a lot of stuff, he does step up for others when it's needed.  That ability to be selfless - however little we get to see of it in the film - is what sets him apart from his antagonist in that film.

That antagonist is Ed Rooney, Dean of Students at Ferris's school.  Young master Bueller, you see, is respected by his peers - they look up to him in a way they don't look up to Rooney, and the older man is determined to catch Ferris in one of his many escapades and tear down what he sees as an usurpation of his authority.

And boy, does Ferris get up to escapades.  The film revolves around him faking an illness so as to have the day off - the ninth time he has done so for the semester.  His plan is to get Cameron and Sloane and indulge in a day of hijinks in downtown Chicago.  This is a plan that Rooney is determined to stop, as is Ferris's sister Jeanie.  She's also more than a little fed up of how everyone buys into whatever cock-and-bull story Ferris feeds them.

This is a frequently funny teen comedy with a charismatic cast (quite what happened to Matthew Broderick's career I'm not sure: he went from a series of commercial hits to a series of critically acclaimed roles, and then ... well, probably Godzilla had something to do with him never quite achieving true stardom).  About the only reason to dislike it is if you dislike Ferris.  As I said, he is a rather self-entitled individual, and his smugness early on can be a bit off-putting.  I'm sure some people watching the film will want to see him get his comeuppance.

This is probably also not a film that is best seen as an adult (or at least, not as an adult who has forgotten what it was like to be a teen).  All grown ups depicted in the film are basically ineffectual, and many of them are as full of themselves as Ferris is.

The film was deservedly successful on release, and I enjoyed re-watching it tonight.  Worth your time if you are in the mood for some light comedy.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Embryo (1976)

When movies with recognisable casts turn up in these boxed sets, it usually means the production company failed to maintain copyright, or sold the rights very cheaply due to financial troubles.  If wikipedia is to be believed, this is one of the former cases.

The film stars Rock Hudson (admittedly past the prime of his career, but fresh off a series of successful telemovies), and Barbara Carrera (whose fame was still ahead of her).  Hudson plays a scientist who finds an injured, pregnant dog and manages to save one of the premature puppies with an experimental serum that rapidly speeds the developmental process.  The pup soon grows to full size, allowing him to pass it off as the now-dead mother, but reverts to normal aging when he stops administering the drug.

The scientist then decides to try the drug on a human subject.  Not out of scientific hubris, as is normally the case in such films, but because he hopes to help save children that would otherwise die due to miscarriage or premature birth.  His deceased wife experienced several unsuccessful pregnancies, and he wants to prevent that from happening to other couples in the future.  He arranges to acquire a fetus that was born too premature to survive, and administers the drug to it.

Unfortunately, he should perhaps have paid more attention to his dog's behaviour before he tried this on a human.  While he has noticed that the animal seems unusually intelligent, he's not realised how smart it is, nor that it's got a heightened sense of aggression.  We, the audience see it kill a smaller dog in a scene that is unintentionally comical because it's so clearly not a real animal being savaged.

In any case, due to differences in the human and canine reproductive systems, the scientists finds that his test is too successful, and the fetus develops to young adulthood in the space of a few weeks.  However, he finally manages to halt the process with the application of a dangerous drug.

Of course, the echoes of Frankenstein are pretty obvious, and - pure as his motives may be - he's "tampering in god's domain".  So everything is eventually going to go horribly, horribly wrong.  Which is sadly where the movie falls apart.  It can't seem to decide if it wants Victoria (the scientist's creation - I did say the Framkenstein echoes were obvious) to be sinister or sympathetic, tries to have it both ways, and fails to really achieve either.

A bit of a squandered opportunity, I'm sad to say - the opening forty minutes or so (fake dog giggles aside) was pretty good, but it lost its way after that.  I did like the supporting performance by the mom from Alf, though.  She was fun.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Project A (1983)

Where the Once Upon A Time in China series are action/drama films with some ill-fitting comedy sequences, this is a flat-out action/comedy of the sort that would lead to Jackie Chan becoming a huge star in Hong Kong, and then throughout the world.  If you've ever seen a Chan film, you know more or less what to expect: imaginative and highly choreographed fight scenes with a broad, slapstick sense of humour and frequent uses of every day items - chairs, tables, and whatever else might be found in the area - as props and weapons.

Those comedic kung fu action sequences are really the selling point of Chan's films, with the plot just proving an excuse for everyone to get up to wacky martial arts hijinks.  Project A delivers pretty well on its core attraction.  There's a particularly fun bicycle chase/fight near the middle of the film that I think is the stand-out set piece, but the action rarely slacks for long and is almost always infused with a healthy measure of physical comedy.

Ultimately then, the plot of the film is just a frame work for delivering the many, many action sequences.  Still, it's serviceable enough: Chan plays a member of the Hong Kong coast guard during the age of pirates (the movie is not specific about the exact year).  The coast guard's not doing so well at its job, leading to a fierce rivalry with the police, who think the naval organisation is a waste of money.  This rivalry dominates the first half of the film, giving plenty of opportunities for each side to (try to) one-up the other.

The main plot finally gets rolling when Chan's character quits the force due to rising frustration with the bureaucratic meddling that prevents him from actually catching bad guys.  This brings him into direct conflict with the hired goons of local businessman Chau, who is working with the pirates, as well as into a reluctant partnership with Fei, a friend/rival with a larcenous streak.  Much mayhem will ensue before the climactic battle with the pirates can finally unfold.

There's nothing terribly deep or complex about Project A, but there's not trying to be.  If you've enjoyed other Chan films, you'll like this one.  If you've never seen one ... well, if you imagine the physical comedy of the old silent films (such as those of Buster Keaton), mixed in with martial arts, you should have a rough idea of what to expect.

I had a fun hour and a half with this.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Doomsday Machine (1972)

At the outset of this movie, a spy sneaks past guard dogs by throwing a cat over a wall and waiting for them to chase it.

Goofy nonsense like that is why I watch these boxed sets.

The spy discovers that the Chinese have developed a super-weapon that can destroy the planet, and will use it in 72 hours.  Because they have a death wish, I guess.  Given that one of the characters in the film refers to them as "chopstick jockeys", I don't think that the film-makers were interested in depicting the Chinese as anything more than a plot device.

The US reacts by amending a planned mission to Venus.  Instead of 7 men, the crew will now be 4 men and 3 women; a last ditch effort to save humanity if the Earth is destroyed (hence the movie's alternative title, Escape from Planet Earth).  I'd make some comment about seven people being too small a population base from which to rebuild, but this is a movie where Venus is apparently considered safe for human habitation, so it's a tad redundant to worry about scientific plausibility.

Anyway, the ship sets off, with most of the crew unaware of why the sudden change in personnel has occurred.  Two of the women know, and one of the men - I shall call him Old Guy; with the others being Young Guy, Boss Guy, and The Sex Offender - works it out pretty fast.  The others will soon be on the same page as well, when they witness the destruction of the Earth in an effects sequence largely recycled from other films.

The ship continues toward Venus, with the crew pairing off: Boss Guy with Blonde Woman; Sex Offender with Brunette Woman; Young Guy with Russian Woman.  Unfortunately, the destruction of the Earth is causing the ship to be bathed in radiation.  If they stick to their original timetable of 4 months for the voyage, they'll all be sterile by the time they get there.  The only hope is to make it in two months.  And the only way they'll have the fuel for that is if the crew is reduced to three!

The computer is tasked with determining who should survive, but the Sex Offender manages to get himself and Brunette Woman killed off when he tries to live up to his name, and Young Guy and Russian Woman sacrifice themselves to save the ship from a malfunction.  So the question becomes moot.

And up until now, the movie has actually been terrible but kind of fun to watch.  The tacky sets, weird multi-coloured lighting, and goofy writing being quite enjoyable (favourite moment: the artificial gravity acts up, causing a ham salad to float in the air.  Nothing else.  Just the ham sandwich.  Pigs can fly!).

The enjoyment is about to end, however.

You see, most of this movie was filmed in 1967, but the production was never completed for some reason (probably money).  The rights and footage were purchased four or five years later and an ending produced.  Because why let a little thing like "not having the original cast or sets" stop you?

Adrift in space, Young Guy and Russian Woman spot a derelict Soviet vessel (which had been mentioned earlier in the script).  They enter it, and their spacesuits magically gain opaque visors, in a futile attempt to conceal the fact that the actors have changed.  It's a cunning illusion that works well ... provided you can overlook that they completely different voices (including the woman having no Russian accent), that the suits are a different colour, or that they are the same size now when the woman was clearly smaller than the man, before.

But you know, I would be willing to forgive that as a necessity of the circumstances, if it let to an ending that continued the film's inept charm.  But it does not.  Instead ... well, it would literally have been better to have them crash on Venus and choke in the poisonous atmosphere, instead of what actually happens.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

30 Days of Night (2007)

This is a good horror film.

Really, in terms of whether you should see it or not, that's all you need to know.  Either you have an interest in the horror genre, and should.  Or you don't, and shouldn't.  But just in case you feel like you need more information to make a decision, I've blathered on at some length below.

First things first, the plot: Barrow, Alaska is battening down the hatches before the onset of deep winter, when the sun won't rise for 30 days.  Unfortunately for them, this phenomenon has drawn the attention of a cabal of vampires, which plans to use the month of darkness to indulge in an orgy of feeding.  The townsfolk will soon find themselves in a battle for their lives.

Now I've been to Barrow, where this movie is allegedly set.  And just like for the purposes of the movie you are going to need to accept that vampires exist, you're also going to need to believe a lot of stuff about Barrow that isn't true.  It doesn't really experience a month of complete darkness, for instance.  Even on days when the sun doesn't rise above the horizon, there is some light.  It's also a lot larger than the film's depiction, and contains a lot more native Alaskans.  Really, the only one of these inaccuracies that irks me is the white-washing of the cast.

Potentially more problematic are some unanswered questions in the script.  How did the vampires get to Barrow?  How do they plan to leave?  (There are no roads leading out of town, a fact the film does get right)  Why do they hang around for the full thirty days, when they pretty much wipe out the town in the first 24 hours?

Those quibbles aside (and you could probably come up with explanations, the movie just doesn't do it itself) this is solid stuff.  The film, which is based on the comic of the same name, introduces the characters effectively, setting up who they are and giving us some reason to care about the upcoming carnage.

Once the vamps arrive we head into the standard survival horror kind of thing: outmatched humans try to stay alive against an enemy for which they're simply not prepared.  The film executes this much better than average, however.  We don't get the usual "idiot ball" antics of such films (people do irrational things, sure, but they're believable irrational things).  There's also some nice subversion of a couple of the more common tropes of the genre.  I'm a sucker for a subverted trope.  I was also pleased with the absence of fake outs and "jump scares".  This is a movie that keeps the menace looming, rather than going for a cheap "gotcha" moment.  I'm not sold on all the details of the last ten minutes, but thematically it works pretty well so I can live with it.

With a solid (if too whitebread) cast and a strong though not flawless script, this is, as I said several paragraphs ago, a good horror film.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Death Warmed Up (1984)

I've long maintained that Michael Hurst was the best thing in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, so I held out some hope this film might be decent.  Or at least entertainingly bad.  Alas, it was not to be.

The movie begins with a young man (Hurst's character, also named Michael) sprinting through trees and then dashing into a hospital.  A nurse makes a comment to him about his father winning an award, so we have a bit of context as to why he's there, but not for his frantic speed.

Michael's just in time to see his dad get roughed up by a nutty colleague, but the latter man stops when he sees Michael watching them.  Dr Punchy then tracks down Michael and suggests the youngster take a shower.  Michael agrees, in the first of the films many "Buh?" moments.

Anyway, the Doc assaults Michael while he's in the shower, but not in the way you might be thinking.  He shoots him full of drugs and then brain washes him to murder his parents, an event that takes place in blood-soaked slow motion.

Now these events will be used as Michael's motivation, later in the film, to track down and kill Dr Punchy McBrainwasher.  But given how laid back he generally is about his revenge, I suspect it was really done so they could start the movie off with some gore.

Anyway, it's text scrawl time, because just writing your plot on the screen is easier than actually making a movie, and we jump at least seven years forward (the movie is fuzzy on exactly how long it has been).  Michael, his girlfriend and another couple are going to the island where Dr Punchy McBrainwasher has - though of course they don't know this yet - become Dr Punchy McBrainwasher, Lord of the Zombies.

Though really, they ought to work it out.  One of the sailors on the ferry they're taking is grey.  That's not normal.

A lot of nonsensical stuff follows, including a cringe-inducing scene with a supposedly Indian character, and a beach sequence where the bulge in Hurst's swimming trunks needs a credit all of its own.

Oh and there's tunnels from World War 2 and nurses who look like they're at a fetish bar and crazed biker mutants and zombies and medical orderlies with super taser things and Michael finally remembers he hates Dr Punchy McBrainwasher and stabs him a whole bunch of times.  Then he acts like an ass to his girlfriend, gets himself electrocuted, and the movie ends.

The 80s, man.  They were frequently a stupid decade for film.  Sometimes endearingly so, but this is not one of those times.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Once Upon A Time in China 2 (1992)

When I reviewed the first Once Upon A Time in China, my main complaints were the length, the unfunny attempts at humour, and an uncomfortable degree of sexual violence.  I'm pleased to say that the sequel entirely avoids two of these pitfalls, and mostly avoids the third (the humour thing).  While it's not a flawless film, as I'll discuss shortly, I enjoyed it more than the original.

The film is set shortly after the first Sino-Japanese war, which was a humiliating defeat for the ruling Qing dynasty.  The territorial losses included Taiwan, while Korea, long a Chinese vassal, was transferred to Japan's sphere of control.  Public outcry within China was immense, and is represented in the film by the fanatical White Lotus Sect.  This group is modelled on the Boxers, who believed that magical charms could protect them from bullets (that didn't work so well for them in real life).

The high priest of the White Lotus however, really does seem to be immune to bullets, as he demonstrates in an extended sequence that begins the film.

We then switch to our main characters, in the main unfunny comedy sequence of the film.  They're headed to Canton, where the White Lotus are based, for a medical symposium.  Main character Wong Fei-Hung is a doctor as well as a master of kung fu.

Now based on all that you're probably expecting the White Lotus to be the main adversary of the film, with a climactic battle against the High Priest to end the film.  But you'd be wrong.  The White Lotus are going to be the main threat for most of the movie, but there's an entirely different villain still to be introduced.

One of the other doctors at the symposium, you see, is Sun Yat-Sen, who would ultimately lead the overthrow of the Qing.  He's lauded by the Chinese Communist Party today as "the Forerunner of the Revolution" and his enemies are not nationalist organisations like the White Lotus, but the corrupt Qing regime.  A cynical man (and I am one) might suggest that political motivations had a significant degree of influence on the plot.

Other than the awkwardness of a final enemy who is not even introduced until halfway through the film, however, this is a well-executed bit of wire-fu, with the usual inventive fight scenes of that genre.  And it also has comedy scenes that actually manage to be funny, at times, which is a big step up from the last film.

Definitely worth a look if martial arts action is at all your thing.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Day the Sky Exploded (1958)

I expect a measure of misogyny from near-60 year old films, but this one turns it up to 11 when it has the hard-working female scientist overhear her male colleague make a bet he can 'warm her up', and still fall for him.  Oh, and for bonus points it gives her a nervous breakdown halfway through the film when she can't take the pressure, so he gets to be a big strong shoulder for her to cry on.  Ugh.

The pressure arrives from your typical end of the world crisis.  A space mission goes horribly awry and accidentally sends a massive meteor in the Earth's direction.  How does it do that?  Science.  That stuff will kill you.

We get to see the mission in question - in fact, the film spends an inordinate amount of time on it.  The actor playing the astronaut on the mission acts in a very strange manner while speaking with ground control.  I figured at the time this would be a plot point, but it just seems to have been an odd acting/directorial choice.  Or maybe there was some exposition that got cut that put the blame for mission failure on space sickness.

Whatever the case may be, we finally get imminent doom.  Everyone frets about how going out into space has caused this disaster.  Oh, and also how to save the planet and so on.

Eventually finally some bright spark comes up with an innovative concept.

Brace yourselves ...

"Let's nuke it!"

Uh huh.

Look, I know nuclear weapons were less than 15 years old when this film came out, but apparently the film-makers have never met a human being, or they'd know that "let's blow it up" is pretty much our number one response to ... well, most things, really.

So as the world is wracked with earthquakes and tidal waves from the imminent doom (DOOM!), the scientists frantically try to run the necessary calculations to target the giant rock of destruction.  Calculations!  Those are exciting, right?  (No)

The actual impact of the missiles on the meteor is a surprisingly nice piece of low tech effects work, but it does not save the tedium and sexism that comprised most of the movie before it.


Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008)

As a kid, I liked the novel of Prince Caspian pretty well, but when I re-read it in my early 20s - and worked out that Aslan = Jesus - I noticed that not a lot actually happens in it.  The bulk of the book is taken up with the Pevensie children's long journey to actually meet Caspian.  In their 1989 adaptation of the series, the BBC didn't even bother to do a separate adaptation of Prince Caspian - they just merged it into the same serial as the third book.

Fortunately, the movie takes a different approach.

Now, I know some people 'on principle' dislike films that make significant changes from the books they're based on.  I take a more open-minded approach.  Books and films are different media and what works in one may not work in another.  Changes aren't necessarily good - I'm happy to talk your ear off about changes I dislike in Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Two Towers, for instance - but they're also not necessarily bad.  And in this case, I think the film-makers make good choices.

First and foremost, I like that they inject a lot more action into the film.  We get to see - rather than hear about only in brief summary - the engagements between the Narnians and their enemies.

I also like that the film works in a low-level romance between Susan and Caspian, an inclusion that many howled about.  To me, this works well as a nod to the fact that Susan and Peter are growing up and moving beyond Narnia.  It's also a bit of a raspberry toward the fate that C S Lewis ultimately bestowed upon Susan in the books.  Which is something from the series that I hated, because it's reactionary, old-fashioned misogynistic claptrap.  So anything that seems to run counter to it is OK by me.

The plot?  A year has gone by since the Pevensie children were in Narnia, and they are struggling to adjust to life in our world.  Fortunately, a wind blows up and whisks them back to Narnia.  But time does not pass at the same rate there, and over a thousand years have gone by since they were last in the land.  It is now overrun by Telmarines, human invaders from another land.  Recently, however, a resistance army has formed under Caspian, a Telmarine prince who does not share his people's normal hatred of the non-human peoples of Narnia.  It is Caspian who has summoned the Pevensies, by blowing on the magic horn Susan received in the first book.

Like the first film, this movie profits from strong casting.  Peter Dinklage is excellent as Trumpkin, the grumpy but good-hearted dwarf who is the first more-or-less friendly face the kids encounter.  It also helps that the script is strong, with a good leavening of humour among the action and drama, and a fine judgment of how to use characters.  It's a tribute to the script that Asterias the Minotaur, a secondary character who gets almost no dialogue, can become such a recognisable element of the cast.

Overall, I think this is probably the strongest of the three Narnia films released (or released to date, at least: there are rumours a fourth film might actually happen). I thoroughly enjoyed re-watching it, and if you don't mind some fantastical elements in your adventure yarns, you should check it out.

Monday, 20 October 2014

All the Kind Strangers (1974)

A photojournalist sees a young boy walking along a back road with a heavy bag of groceries.  There's nothing for miles around, and concerned for the boy, he pulls over to speak with him.  The golden-haired moppet has apparently never heard of stranger danger, since he happily accepts a lift.

It's the adult who should be wary, however, for he's stumbled into a rather macabre situation.  It'll take him quite a while to twig to that.  While kindness prompts him to drive the boy home, he becomes increasingly exasperated as they head deeper and deeper into backwoods country.  When they eventually reach the house, he wants to move on straight away, but the boy cajoles him into coming inside.  There; he meets the other six children and the woman they call mother, though he knows from earlier conversation that their actual mother is dead.

When he goes to leave, he discovers that his car won't start, and he's forced to stay the night.  And it's only then that he discovers that the children are orphans, and the lengths to which they will go to secure replacement parents ...

So this is a pretty goofy premise, but the movie does a surprisingly convincing job with it.  The "kids" range in age from about six to sixteen or so, but there are seven of them, and that - coupled with the large, intimidating and well-trained dogs they keep - means that they can actually generate a sense of menace.

The film is also helped by a couple of strong performances.  The actors playing the kids are all refreshing non-annoying (they are creepy, but in a good way).  The adult actors meanwhile - Stacy Keach and Samantha Eggar - are rock solid.  Keach is good as the bluff photojournalist who for a long time can't quite come to grips with his situation.  Eggar meanwhile must portray a woman who has been held by the children for some time, and nicely conveys a sense of barely contained panic through her brittle veneer of cheerful domesticity.

A well made little film and a good demonstration of how to generate suspense and a sense of menace in a film without resorting to overt violence.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Muppet Treasure Island (1996)

Unless you're the kind of stick in the mud who refuses to watch a Muppet movie, you should check this out.

That's the precis of this review, but if you want more detail, you can keep reading, I guess.

Adapting Robert Louis Stevenson's famous (and oft-filmed) novel, this movie really gives it the full Muppet treatment.  That means comedic songs, pop culture references, and high farce abounds.  It is by no measure a subtle film, but the gags fly so fast and furious that you're unlikely to have time to care.

For the two people in the English-speaking world who don't know the story: a young orphan discovers a treasure map and has the great good fortune to find men of wealth willing to put their trust in the authenticity of said map.  That stretch of the ol' suspension of disbelief is courtesy of the original tale; the movie lampshades the improbability heavily.  Of course, this is a movie in which a frog captains a sailing ship, so improbability is not really a concern.

The orphan - Jim - becomes friends with the ship's cook, a one-legged sailor known as Long John Silver.  I honestly assume I'm wasting my time with this summary, but just in case: Silver is not as bluff and hearty as he appears, though he may also not be quite the cad and scoundrel you'd expect of a man who plans a mutiny.  Many shenanigans will ensure in the competition for the treasure.

This film makes lots of changes to the details of the story, of course.  It's rather necessary, what with the need to get Miss Piggy on screen in a story that originally has no significant female characters.  It's rather heavier on the slapstick and humour than the original as well, as you might imagine.

You probably know what to expect from the Muppets themselves, so how is the human cast?  Well, there's a bit of stunt casting with Billy Connolly and Jennifer Saunders playing small roles at the beginning, but the only two human roles of any size are those of Jim Hawkins (played by a then-youngster whose singing voice isn't really up to the task, but who is otherwise sound) and Long John Silver (played with scene-chewing excess by Tim Curry, who looks to be having a great time, and is hugely fun to watch).

Random aside: about the only person I could imagine being a better Silver is Brian Blessed, and I have now discovered he did indeed play the character back in 1986's Return to Treasure Island.  I may need to see if I can find that.

Anyway: this is a fun family film, and it ought to win a few laughs out of you.  I very much enjoyed it.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Counterblast (1948)

Five years after its original release, this film was purchased for cinema distribution and re-titled The Devil's Plot as a sneaky way to conceal from audiences that it was a film that had already been sold (under the title at the top of the page) for TV broadcast.  Not that this has anything much to do with the movie itself, but it's an interesting anecdote.

First things first: this film isn't exactly short on implausibility.  In fact, I found it almost endearingly far-fetched at times.  But within the confines of its unlikely premise and even less likely plot, it's well-acted and fairly engaging.  Well, except for the moments when I was shouting abuse at the screen for a dreadful romance sub-plot.  Apparently in 1948 the way to a woman's heart was to tell her to give up her plans for a career and focus on the only thing that would make her really happy: looking after a man.  (I really wish it seemed like the two characters having this conversation were joking, but I saw no sign they were).

So yeah, I may have uttered some harsh words at the TV when that happened.

Anyway: shortly after the end of the Second World War, a group of German officers escape from a POW camp in the UK.  Three are re-captured, but the fourth - a biochemist nick-named "The Beast of Ravensbruck" for his terrible experiments - eludes the authorities.  He achieves this due to the aid of a frankly implausible circle of spies who are apparently still operative in the UK despite years of counter-intelligence work and the fact that the war is over.

His allies tell him that the price of a trip to South America is that he complete the biological weapon on which he was working when the war ended.  This is a vaccine for the entirely fictitious "cardiac plague", which we're told is even more deadly than pneumonic plague.  That's a weapon because they can use it to immunise the German people, then unleash the plague on the rest of the world.

Of course, he needs facilities to do this, so they have him murder a doctor who has recently returned to the UK from Australia, and impersonate the dead man at his new facility.  This he does, with sufficient skill that he even fools a young woman who met the real doctor when she was a child.  I guess the (largely bald) real doctor still had his hair back then.

But of course, not everyone is as convinced by his act as that young woman, and it may be only a question of time before he is discovered.

Trust me when I tell you that I haven't mentioned some of the goofiest plot points in my precis above.   On the other hand, Mervyn Johns is very good in the main role.  He's a monster, but he's just sympathetic enough that you keep rooting for him to rise above his own horrible nature.

Does he?  Or do the authorities find him?  I'm not going to say, but I'll give the film this: it has a splendidly apropos ending.

Friday, 17 October 2014

The L Word, Season 1 (2004)

Pilot episodes are tough.  Not only do you need to tell a decent story, but you also need to introduce your cast, communicate to the audience what your show is going to be about and why they should watch it, set up your initial conflicts, and deliver a conclusion that's both satisfying but leaves them wanting more.  Now sure, a movie has to do all that too, but most movies (at least nowadays) are longer than even a double-length TV episode.  Plus movies tend to have smaller main casts, so there are fewer characters to introduce.  And of course, movies don't need to set up longer term plot lines while they're doing all this.

I mention this because, whatever bad decisions the show might make later - and believe me, in its six season run, there are plenty - The L Word delivers a cracking pilot.  It introduces the nine(!) main characters, sets up an immediate story hook for each of them (and longer term hooks for most), establishes most of the main locations it will use, and make it very, very clear what the show will be about: sudsy melodrama and lots of sapphic sex.

If that sounds like lesbian Melrose Place to you, then you're as old as I am.  From the tagline on the DVD cover, I suspect "lesbian Sex in the City" was the actual target mark.  But I've not seen the latter show, so I can't say how similar they actually are.  If you like, you can think of it as Game of Thrones, except with lots of lesbian sex and the conflict generally being limited to verbal/emotional confrontations rather than physical violence.

In the manner of such shows, there are too many plot threads running at once for me to give a summary of the season, so I'll just call out what I think are the two main arcs for this season.  The first revolves around Bette and Tina, who are trying to have a baby together while failing to address some pretty fundamental issues with their relationship.  The second involves Jenny, a young woman who has just arrived in LA to live with her fiance, Tim, but who soon finds herself drawn to Marina, the beautiful owner of the local coffee shop.  Both these arcs are packed with craziness, sex and melodrama, and play an important part in many of the events of the season.

The L Word season 1 is sudsy, sexy nonsense.  It definitely won't be to all tastes, but if you're looking for a show about impossibly beautiful people screwing up their lives with bad decisions, it's a good example of the type :)

Thursday, 16 October 2014

One Year!

I started this blog a year ago.  I've managed over 350 reviews in that year, an achievement I'm quite proud of.  There'll be no review today, but I do have a couple of things to share.

The first is a change to the review schedule.  I'll continue daily updates for the rest of this month, but from the start of November I am going to switch to a Monday-Friday routine. Reviews will continue to go up at about 1am Blogger time, which I believe is the Pacific timezone in the US.

I'm making this change to give me a bit more flexibility in what I watch.  Right now for instance, TV show DVDs are tough to fit in since they require a lot of time investment compared to movie reviews.  Having two free days a week will make it easier to include more of them (and I have a lot of unwatched TV show DVDs).

After this change, I will occasionally post bonus reviews on the weekends: these will be for DVDs I have previously watched, but not reviewed for this blog (so I can finally do a review of the first Resident Evil movie, for instance).

The second thing I wanted to share are a couple of links to worthy review sites.  

The first site is 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting.  "El Santo" has a long history of reviewing genre films of all kinds, and while I often disagree with his opinion of the films in question, his reviews are always very comprehensive.  My research technique is to generally to google the film's title and look for IMDB and Wikipedia links.  If a 1000 Misspent Hours link pops up as well, I know someone far more dedicated has already done the research for me.

The second site is Horror Movie A Day, which inspired the daily schedule of this blog.  Reviewer B.C. now updates only once or twice a week, but pumped out over 2500 horror movie reviews on a daily schedule before adopting the slower update rate.  Like El Santo, he provides more comprehensive reviews than I do, with lots of additional information.  His focus is (as you can tell from the site's name) on horror films, but if you're at all interested in that genre, you should check it out.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The Nightmare Never Ends (1980)

Some months ago, I reviewed Night Train to Terror, an anthology film largely comprised of excerpts from other movies.  Which is why I had a strong feeling of deja vu ten minutes into this film: it's the source material for Night Train's third segment.

This version, of course, is a full length film in and of itself, but frankly the experience is not improved by extending it.  Whoever constructed the later anthology movie has actually done a pretty good job of pulling what out might charitably be called "the best bits".  They also added a bunch of so-bad-it's-good stop motion scenes which elevated the camp factor quite nicely.  This full version (which can also be found under the title Cataclysm) lacks those cheesetastic bonus sequences and is an hour longer for little discernible benefit.  Unless "watching Faith Clift mangle every single line she's given" gives you as much pleasure as it does me, at least.  Because my goodness, I haven't seen such bad delivery since the last time someone sent me something via UPS.

So what's the film actually about?  Well frankly it's one part Omen rip off and two parts a hot mess, but I'll try to summarise.  Devout Catholic Claire (the aforementioned Faith Clift) is married to equally devout atheist James.  I'm not sure how devout she can really be if she's married to a guy writing books called "God is Dead" but sure movie, whatever you say.

Claire is troubled by bad dreams, which a Las Vegas clairvoyant - always a source of good advice, I am sure - tells her have something to do with the Nazis.

Meanwhile, an elderly Jewish man attempts to persuade the police to arrest a wealthy playboy named Olivier, whom he insists was a Nazi.  The man he's accusing couldn't have been any more than a toddler during the war, however, so the police pay the accusations little mind until the accuser turns up dead.

Olivier, of course, truly is the Nazi guard.  We'll later see pictures of him stretching back to the 1870s, in all of which he appears to be in his late 20s.  He has goat-like feet as well, as we will also see.  Because he is the devil's agent, sent to Earth to ... well, if he has a specific agenda they never really explain it.  He's just kind of generically evil.

Eventually, of course, we're going to get to a showdown between Claire and Olivier.  Which is frankly unintentionally comical in its execution.  But then, Faith Clift's on screen in it, and as noted above she's pretty much the definition of unintentional comedy.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Jack the Ripper (1988)

At the beginning of each part of this miniseries, a voice-over informs us (in rather self-important tones) that it is the result of meticulous research and unprecedented access to official files.


That description can be applied to both the voice-over claims and the show as a whole, as it happens.  The claims to authenticity can be quickly dispelled via the magic of Google, but even if they couldn't, the fact that the show tells us the Ripper was a 70 year old stroke victim ought to give you an idea of the quality of 'research' on show here.

Many fictional accounts of the Ripper murders have had similarly implausible explanations of the culprit's identity, but they have the decency to present themselves as fiction, rather than purporting to be the 'true' story.

So if you're looking for 'the real story' of the Ripper murders, you're going to be disappointed.  But with that set aside, if you just watch it as a period murder mystery, is it any good?

Frankly, no.

As a case in point, one of the issues faced by the investigator in the film is that there seems to be an active effort to thwart him.  Crime scenes are ordered cleaned immediately, before he can inspect them, hearings called before he can assemble evidence, and so on and so forth.  Clearly some conspiracy against him, but why?  Is it rivalry within the police force?  Seems unlikely, since it starts before his rivals even know he's on the case.  Is it a conspiracy to protect the culprit (a person of considerable importance)?  That relies on a network of people who know who the murderer actually is, and the film makes no attempt to make that plausible.

This coaxed a few laughs out of me when it became especially absurd, but they were not laughs the film intended to inspire.  Not good on any level.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Werewolf Woman (1976)

Well, this is a nasty little bit of sleaze.

The opening scene is a nude woman gyrating in a ring of burning branches, with a couple of close-ups of her pubic hair to make clear that she really, really isn't wearing any clothes.  She then transforms into a werewolf.  Or more accurately, into a nude woman covered in fur.  A bunch of torch-bearing villagers turn up, and while she manages to rip the jugular out of one of them, the others capture and burn her.

Then she wakes up screaming.

Oh yes, we have begun with a dream sequence.  Through the power of exposition, we learn that this is Daniella, a woman who was raped at the age of 13 and now lives a mostly solitary life.  Oh, and she is obsessed with the tale of an ancestor of hers - to whom she bears an uncanny resemblance - who was executed as a werewolf.

Anyway, Daniella has some deeply mixed up attitudes to sex.  After watching her sister and brother in law make love, she lures the latter outside and murders him.  She then collapses into a catatonic state.  Taken to a clinic, she will soon kill and kill again, usually as a result of some kind of sex happening.  This is a movie with a lot of that.  I don't think there's a woman with a line of dialogue who doesn't get at least partially naked.

The police figure out that Daniella is committing the murders, but aren't able to locate her.  Mind you, these are the kind of cops who have theories like "Her ancestor's spirit is possessing her and compelling her to kill these people", so I'm not sure they could find their own backsides with both hands and a map.

Eventually - ugh - the film has Daniella get raped again, this time by a pack of three men.  She later murders them all, and then the cops finally locate her and arrest her, and the movie ends with the mystifying statements that (a) "the names have been changed" and (b) "no resemblance to real persons is intended".  Those are pretty contradictory, if you ask me.  Not that you did.

So this is pretty sleazetastic, and the whole werewolf angle doesn't go anywhere, so unless you're really, really keen to see naked women, and don't know what the internet is, you should skip it.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

It would be unfair to say that the problem with this film is Bill Pullman, but he is certainly a problem with it.  Part of the success of a horror film depends on conveying the characters' fear to the audience, and portraying terror - or indeed, any human emotion - is not something Pullman does very convincingly.  He's far from the only issue with this film, however, but we'll get to that.

After experiencing strange visions in a trip to the Amazon, botanist and anthropologist Dennis Alan is sent to Haiti to investigate the so-called "zombie powder" to see if the formula can be discovered and exploited as an anaesthetic.  He teams up with a local doctor - who naturally happens to be an extremely attractive woman, and with whom he'll soon have a thoroughly unconvincing romance - to look into the matter.  Alas, they quickly fall come to the attention of the local police chief, who is also a powerful black magician, putting both their lives in danger.

So other than Bill Pullman's typically mediocre performance, this is a film with several flaws, most of which can be summed up in four words: the script is bad.  It's bad on several levels.  Firstly from a simple technical perspective, it employs quite a bit of narration to explain events.  This is rarely a good plan in a film, and it is especially unwise to have the protagonist of a horror film deliver past tense narration.  Talk about undercutting the tension.

The second issue with the script is that Dennis Alan is frankly not a very likable person.  There's a scene in the middle of the movie where he was being tortured, and mostly I just felt like he kind of deserved it.  This was presumably not the intent.

The biggest failure of all, however, is that it's just not scary.  There's one scene early one that's a little skin-crawly, as it involves being buried alive, and another later with a spider crawling on Alan's face while he's paralysed, but these are two brief moments, and they're rather unambitious.  I mean, "a big furry spider on your face" is not exactly an inventive or especially interesting way to make your audience feel creeped out.  And it has nothing much to do with the voodoo themes of the film.

A very disappointing effort from director Wes Craven, of whom I generally expect better.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Warriors of the Wasteland (1983)

This a film that desperately wants to be Mad Max 2, but ends up being more Mildly Irritated Harold.

The Mel Gibson film (known as the Road Warrior in the US) came out two years before this, and the parallels are obvious.  The world has been devastated, and in the post-apocalyptic wasteland left behind, a gang of leather-clad men terrorizes and kills anyone who tries to rebuild.

Unlike the Great Humungous's black clad minions, however, these are The Templars, a pseudo-religious society who believe their mission is to bring about the end of mankind and return the Earth to an un-populated state.  Their plans are about to hit a snag, however.  Scorpion, who was once a member of their organisation, returns to the region and thwarts them from killing a young woman.  Then - with the help of the bow-wielding warrior Nadir - he fights off a Templar reprisal attack.

Why Scorpion returns to the area, given the pre-existing bad blood between him and the Templars, is something you might think the movie would explain, but it really doesn't.  Revenge or heroism would seem to be obvious options, but neither is really supported by what we see.  I think we're supposed to forget about it among all the vehicular mayhem and gunplay.

But alas, that's where the movie falls down.  Because the gunplay sequences aren't very interesting and the vehicles ... well, despite what the film makers seem to think, sticking perspex bubbles on your car doesn't make it look cool and menacing.  The visual design of the whole film is (apparently unintentionally) camp, frankly, culminating in Scorpion's clear plastic body armour:


Plot-wise, what this doesn't steal from Mad Max 2 it takes from Martial Arts Films 101.  Bad guys do bad things.  Good guy beats some of them up.  But then boss bad guy defeats him.  Good guy undergoes training montage and then gets his revenge.

Not even Fred Williamson's typically larger than life turn as Nadir can save this film (which you may also find under the title The New Barbarians) from being a snooze-fest.

Friday, 10 October 2014

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)

As I kid, I was a big fan of the Narnia books and read the entire series at least three times. Giant talking Lions!  Wicked witches!  What was not to love?

Of course, I was completely oblivious to the Christian themes that permeate the work.  I certainly can't lay any blame for that on author C S Lewis - it's far from subtle.  But then, I also didn't twig to the fact that the heroes of The Borribles were assassinating the Wombles, so maybe I was just a really obtuse child.

Where was I?  Oh yes.  The film adaptation of the first Narnia book.  (And yes, it is the first.  I know Magician's Nephew is set earlier, but it was written later, and is clearly written for older readers, so don't be giving me that Harper Collins chronological order nonsense.)

In case there's someone who doesn't know, this is the tale of four children from London who discover a wardrobe that is also a doorway to another world: the fantastical realm of Narnia, full of fauns and talking animals.  Alas, Narnia is also a land locked in eternal winter ("but never Christmas") by the malevolent power of the evil White Witch.

As is the nature of such tales, however, a prophecy foretells that the Witch will be overthrown.  In this case, by "two sons of Adam, and two daughters of Eve".  So the Witch is understandably eager to find the children and do unpleasant things to them.  In this she is initially aided by one of the four, Edmund, whose jealousy of his siblings blinds him to Witch's evil.  His treachery puts the Witch's wolf pack on their trail, and thus the other three children must flee to meet Aslan, the rightful King of Narnia.  And also the Giant Talking Lion I mentioned earlier.

After an encounter with Santa Claus, whose presence shows that the Witch's power is waning, the three reach Aslan.  With his help, Edmund is freed, but the Witch invokes her rights under the Deep Magic, exacting a terrible price in exchange.  Fortunately, Aslan has some tricks up his sleeve.

... okay, look.  At the risk of spoiling it for you: Aslan dies for Edmund's sins, and is reborn.  He doesn't even wait three days to do it, just until the next morning.  I did say the Christian themes were kind of obvious.

That leads us into the end game of the movie, which I may as well spoil too: the good guys win.

This movie is a pretty faithful adaptation of the book, though it "actions it up" a bit.  The script is solid and the effects top notch, but I think it profits most from strong casting choices.  All four of the kids - but especially the youngest boy and girl, on whom the greatest burden falls - turn in good performances, and Tilda Swinton is an excellent choice for their wintry nemesis.

If you don't mind the hammeringly obvious Christian themes, and aren't the sort to turn up your nose at "fairy tales", then this is well worth a couple of hours of your time.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Beast of the Yellow Night (1971)

Shortly after the end of the Second World War, an evil man sells his soul to the devil in order to save himself from death.  He spends the next two decades being wicked.  Specifically, his consciousness occupies the bodies of other people on the verge of death, and then he tempts the people they know into succumbing to their evil impulses.

Twenty years of this is enough to weary even the most hardened of villains however.  Finding the wife and brother of his latest vessel to be decent people, he attempts to persuade the two of them to cuckold him and run off together.  But of course, being decent people, they refuse.

The devil, however, is not amused by this sudden bout of ethics and curses his minion.  At times of stress, our 'hero' (such as he is) will transform into a strong, savage beastman, and go on a rampage of violence.  If he gets back to doing his job, presumably this will stop ... but that means harming a woman he has come to care for.  And meanwhile, the police are starting to link his new identity to that of the killer stalking the streets ...

To be frank, this is not a terribly good film.  The three main actors are okay in their roles, but some of the secondary cast are pretty darn wooden.  Of course, with the dialogue the script offers up, it's an uphill battle for even the competent cast members.  I mean, can you imagine delivering the line "As far as you're concerned, I am and can only ever be whoever or whatever you think I am." and making it seem, well ... like it makes a lick of sense?

The conclusion of the film is also poor.  I think I can see what they were going for, and points I guess for not having some expository conversation to explicitly state it, but it comes at the end of a fairly flaccid ten-minute chase.  Though it is enlivened in the last two minutes by the film-maker's flagrant disregard for occupational health and safety.  "See that burning field, you extras?  Go run around in the flames for a bit, okay?"

Of course, being "not terribly good" puts this a cut above most low budget 70s fare, and financially I believe it did pretty well for distributor Roger Corman.  Certainly, it led to his producing a series of films in the Philippines during the 1970s.  Which means it is at least indirectly responsible for giving the world Black Mama, White Mama.  And I have to give it at least a little affection for that.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Tenebrae (1982)

To Italian audiences, "giallo" is the term for any thriller or suspense film.  In English-speaking markets however, the term more narrowly applies to a breed of Italian thrillers, principally from the 1970s and 80s, which feature gruesome murders, stylish camerawork, and often discordant music.

Looming large within this body of work is the name of Dario Argento, whose career as a writer and director encompasses over 40 stylish - albeit not always terrible coherent - films over the last fifty years.  Critical reception to his movies has declined sharply since the mid-90s, but there's no doubt that the peak of both giallo films in general and Argento's career in particular runs from the mid-70s to the mid-80s.

I first became aware of Tenebrae because it was included in the Drive-In Classics box set I own.  However, after enjoying the first ten minutes and doing some googling, I decided not to continue watching it at that time because the version in that set was the heavily-edited US release and I wanted the full "Argento Experience".  The difference in run time between the two versions, in case you were wondering, is over 15 minutes.

The film's premise is simple enough, and honestly a bit like that of Castle (though nothing else about it is): a successful mystery writer is informed by police that a young woman has been murdered, and pages from his latest book stuffed into her mouth.  He's only eliminated as a suspect because he was in a plane when it occurred.

When the murders continue, they seem to become more personal to the author himself.  And he is also catching glimpses of his former fiancee, who should be half a world away.  Are the two series of events related, or merely a coincidence?

This being an Argento film, the answers are rarely simple ones.  They do, however, hang together fairly well when they're finally revealed.  This is one of those movies where things that seem a bit "off" when they happen actually make more sense once the truth comes out.  It's a nice change from films which throw in a twist for the sake of "surprising the audience" and then retroactively make no sense.  I can see why this is regarded as one of the strongest Argento movies from a narrative perspective.

This is a film packed with gruesome murders (none of which, ironically, are anywhere near as scary as a scene where a young woman is chased by a vicious doberman), and also with a fair bit of pretty gratuitous nudity, so it certainly won't be to all tastes.  But if you don't mind (quite) a bit of sleaze in your suspense, it's a solid option.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Attack from Space (1964)

So when I said I'd have to face more Starman movies sooner or later in this pack, I was kind of hoping it would be later.  But there is only one film in the box between Atomic Rulers and this one, and it's a movie I've already seen (The Alpha Incident, a not entirely terrible low-rent Andromeda Strain).  So we now get the third of the four mash-ups of the Super Giant series.  I'm not sure what happened to the second one - you'd have to ask Mill Creek's compilers that.

As you might expect, this film is dreadful, but I am happy to report that it's a significantly more entertaining form of dreadful than the first one.  I'd much rather watch something that leaves me goggle-eyed in wonder at its awfulness than something merely bad.

And boy, does this movie bring out the goggle-eyes moments.

We begin with the Starman intro.  Council of Peace on the Emerald Planet yada yada.  Terrible threat to the galaxy tiddly-dee.  This time it's the Superians, an evil alien race bent on universal domination.  And naturally, they're going to start with Earth.

Meanwhile, in a secret rocketship base in Japan, a malfunction forces the head scientist to order a new part.  There are none on hand you see, because the part is supposed to be incapable of burning out.  How does he arrange a replacement for this vital component?

He sends his teenage daughter and pre-teen son to the corner store.  Yes, really.

As it turns out however, all the parts were recently purchased!  There will be more in stock tomorrow, but the kids decide that somebody buying up all these doodads is suspicious and they follow the guy - who leads them right into a Superian trap!

The Head Scientist and his chief assistant are then blackmailed into coming to the Superian base, where we learn that these would-be universe conquerors need the doctor's rocket engine for their ship.

Seriously guys, you have cool uniforms and I dig the fact that you have men and women in your army, but if you need the help of 1960s Earthlings to make a working spaceship, conquering the Universe might be a big ask.  Maybe just conquer Hoboken, instead.

Anyway, the Doctor hands over the engine to save his kids' life (in a nice change of pace, they're not all brave and stoic and beg him to not let the aliens kill them).  He refuses to help the Superians build more ships though, so they brainwash all the captives.

At no point throughout the rest of the movie will the four show the slightest sign of actually being under mental domination.  I guess Superian brainwashing is about on a par with Superian rocket engines.

Of course, eventually Starman is going to swoop in to save the day, leading into a looooong and occasionally very silly sequence of technobabble and fisticuffs.

Comically bad.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Rock 'n' Roll High School (1979)

Apparently this film was originally intended to feature Cheap Trick, but a schedule conflict forced a different band to take centre stage.  I suspect that conflict may have been 'Cheap Trick finally having a hit record in the US'.  But I also suspect the film is the better for featuring a more no frills band like the Ramones.

The movie tells the story of Vince Lombardi High, an exaggerated version of every troubled high school in cinema history.  There aren't just boys smoking in the bathroom; it's literally impossible to see in there due to the miasma that fills the room.  The new principal, Ms Togar (Mary Woronov from Death Race 2000, which automatically makes me root for her) isn't just a strict disciplinarian: she's an out and out lunatic.  And so on and so forth.

Togar's chief adversary is "Riff" Randall.  Riff's a huge fan of the Ramones, and with the technical assistance of her brilliant best friend Kate, she's always up to hijinks of one kind or another.  Togar can't abide Riff's refusal to follow the rules, and Riff has no time for Togar's strict regulations.

As I watched the first ten minutes of this film, I rolled my eyes at a lot of the jokes, with their obvious "standard motifs turned up to 11" vibe.  But the film's strength is its commitment to those jokes.  It keeps coming back to them: turning them up to 12, then 15, then 20.  A running gag involving testing the effects of rock music on lab mice, for instance, grows steadily more and more absurd while being treated as ever more pedestrian and normal by everyone involved.

So this did manage to worm a few laughs out of me, and at the end of it I feel pretty well disposed toward it.  It's a very simple movie, with a broad sense of humour and a heavy reliance on tried and true themes of teenage rebellion to win the hearts of its intended audience, but it does what it does pretty well.

The problem of course, is that "what it does" is something a lot of films do.  This film's attempt to stand out comes from trying to tie into the fanbase of a rising rock band (though the Ramones never did quite turn their cult status into true chart success), and whether or not you're going to be interested probably comes down to whether you're the kind of person to throw up the horns for Sheena is a Punk Rocker or not.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Atomic Rulers (1964)

This film, the title of which is sometimes extended with the suffix "Of The World", is mashed together from the first two Super Giant short films.  Super Giant was the first Japanese celluloid hero, with nine theatrical outings in the late 1950s (each presumably as part of a larger bill, since they were each less than an hour long).

So to get the obvious out of the way first: this is dreadful.  The original films were probably pretty hokey to begin with, but the addition of piles of narration and terrible English voice acting certainly doesn't help any.  Nor does a script of immense stupidity.

Nuclear tests on Earth are causing dangerous radiation to spread to other planets (we need to find this radiation - given how fast it reaches other solar systems, it's got no time for Einstein or that relativity thing).  The Peace Council of the Emerald Planet ... that's these guys:

Resolves to send an agent to Earth to prevent humanity from destroying all life in this part of the universe.  This agent is Super Giant, though he is renamed Starman, here.  Starman is made of steel (despite appearing entirely human) and gifted with a device that lets him fly through space, detect radiation, and speak any language.

Coming to Earth, Starman tangles with the evil nation of Meropol, whose agents have smuggled nuclear devices into every country on Earth and plan to take over the world by holding it hostage.  For reasons that aren't explained, the Meropol bombs will only work with a control device nearby, and the bad guys are smuggling this into Japan as the movie begins.  Starman immediately senses it because for some reason it is highly radioactive.  Given that it is not a bomb, I have no idea why.  Anyway, he tries to get it - a task that should be easy given that he's super strong and immune to bullets.  He does manage to do so, but he's frankly a bit of a twit and manages to lose it again.  Saving the life of an allegedly cute child might have factored into this, but I'm not inclined to give him much credit on that front.

There's lots of supposedly ruthless baddies leaving their enemies alive, and comically bad fight scenes, before totally-not-Superman wins the day and flies back to his home planet.

Alas, they made three more of these mash-ups and at least two of them are in this box set, so I have more of this drivel to face in the future.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

The Killers (1946)

In 1927 Ernest Hemingway wrote a short story in which a pair of hired killers browbeat the occupants of a diner while waiting for their target - a boxer known as the 'Swede'.  The victim never shows, so they leave.  When one of the diner customers goes to warn the Swede, the other man refuses to take action, saying there is nothing to be done about it.

This film uses the short story as its opening ten minutes.  We then meet an insurance agent who has come to pay out on his company's policy for the man; a minor matter it seems until he discovers that the beneficiary is a hotel maid whom the deceased knew for only a few short days.  Her account of the Swede's suicidal emotional state at the time - the result of a woman running out on him - plus some belongings of the dead man that nudge at a memory somewhere deep in his subconscious - set the agent on an investigation that will span the rest of the film and cover money, murder, triple-crosses, and all the other wonderful seediness of a solid noir thriller.

Films that start at the end and work back can sometimes lack tension since you know the outcome, but this one cleverly seizes on what you don't know.  Sure, the Swede is dead, but why?  As our protagonist moves from witness to witness, piecing together the story, we learn more and more of what occurred before, with the script doing a good job of letting the layers peel away with satisfying regularity without the revelations being obviously telegraphed.  It's good work.  Good enough that I have no intention of spoiling any of the details.

This film made stars of both Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster, and it's easy to see why: both are good in their (surprisingly limited in screen time) roles, and they're surrounded by a solid cast working from a strong script.

If you enjoy a good mystery, and don't mind it being a little less action-packed than modern films tend to be, then you should check this out.  It's also one to look up if you have an interest in the history of film.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Alien Species (1996)

The way these 50 pack movie sets work is by finding movies that they can turn a profit on when selling them for 40 cents each.  It's not generally a good sign then, when a movie less than twenty years old turns up on one of these.  Sure, you occasionally get the adorably dreadful gem like Laser Mission, but most of the time you get ... well, this film.

Two tech heads kick off the movie, tapping away at keyboards and spouting a lot of blather than amounts to "aliens are coming and we're all gonna die".  They resolve to call "the professor".

We then cut to a small town sheriff's office, where two deputies are about to take a pair of prisoners to a different facility.  The two prisoners can be broken down as "the mouthy jerk" and "the quiet one", and a similar split exists for the deputies.

En route to the facility, the deputies encounter a trio of civilians who've had a car accident.  Two of these are young women, while the last is the aforementioned professor, though it will take us some time to learn that as the deputies spend a considerable amount of time refusing to help the civilians (which is probably correct procedure, to be fair).  However, an alien attack on the sheriff's office causes him to order them to pick up the stranded folks, so they do so.

We get a couple interspersed scenes of CGI spaceships attacking humans in between all this.  I hear the recent Star Trek films feature a lot of CGI lens flare.  Maybe J J Abrams was a fan of Alien Species, because these guys love it too.  The CGI is surprisingly non-terrible for a cheap 1990s film.  The live-action shots of an "alien" are rather less impressive.

Anyway, the prison transport gets buzzed by an alien ship and crashes, so all seven of the passengers have to get out.  Not wanting to be attacked by the strange flying craft, they head for a nearby cave.

Which of course turns out to have been turned into a "hive" by the aliens.  Why, when they have perfectly good ships?  Well, I suspect the actual answer is "because caves are cheap and don't require much effort in set design, plus the murky lightning helps hide the deficiencies of our effects".  But let's just go with "because plot".

We now switch back to the two techies, who watch their home town get trashed by aliens.  The male decides to go look for the Professor while the female decides to go get her cat.  If I were feeling generous, I'd say this was a lame attempt at an Alien reference.

Female techie successfully rescues her cat, by the by -- and is then never seen in the film again.

Meanwhile, the main cast gets whittled down by the alien monsters in the cave.  Mouthy convict and mouthy deputy go first in fairly humiliating style, surprising no-one, then quiet deputy and the professor also bite it.  Quiet convict and the two women eventually escape however, and then immediately bump into male techie.  This leads to the denouement of the film, which ... well, Independence Day also came out in 1996, so if you've seen that film you're already seen the end of this one (though the end of this one is even stupider, amazing as that may seem).

If IMDB is to be believed, a video cassette of this film makes an appearance as a prop in a gay porn flick.  Frankly, that's more recognition than Alien Species deserves.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Doctor Who, Season 1 (2005)

I have been fairly dissatisfied with the new Doctor Who since series three.  It's had good moments, but the bad has in my eyes outweighed the good.  That made me wonder if my fond memories of the first two seasons were somewhat rose-tinted (heh, "Rose"-tinted).  Hence I cracked open my boxed set of the series one to see how it held up.

The first thing I'd like to mention is how much I dislike the packaging of this series: it's grossly inefficient, taking up about eight DVDs worth of space on my shelf, and no doubt inflating the BBC's already jacked-up asking price.  It can be a pain to get the darn thing closed, too.

That said, and for those of you who have been living under a rock; the Doctor is an alien hero who travels through time and space fighting the good fight, usually with an attractive young human woman as his companion.  I've leave the uncomfortable implications of that last part alone, since this is a family-friendly show.  In season one, the companion is Rose Tyler, a working class Londoner whom many Who fans hate for some reason.  I'm not sure why.

So other than having packaging, how is season one?  Pretty good, on the whole.  The cast is strong, for one thing (not that I have any complaints about the acting in the later seasons, either, to be honest).  Christopher Eccleston does a bang-up job as a Doctor whose madcap antics mask terrible pain, and Billie Piper is thankfully a much better actress than she was pop star.

But it's the writing where I have issues with more recent Who, so how does that hold up?  Well, some episodes better than others to be honest.  I think I actually liked the double-episode Empty Child / The Doctor Dances even better this time around, for instance, and I know my opinion of The Long Game has improved from re-watching it.  On the other hand, Dalek, which I liked a lot, is now somewhat tainted by all the lesser Dalek-episodes that have followed and re-trod the same "these are the enemy so monstrous they can make the Doctor a monster as well" motif.

(Daleks are the Doctor's number one enemy: think of homicidal flying trash cans with lasers, and wonder why it was that as a child, they sent me scurrying behind the couch)

Where this series shines, I think, is that it manages to balance the silly and the scary pretty well.  Sure, we have fart jokes, but the show gets points for making those actually plot-relevant, and for knowing when to use them and when to focus on "scary monster time".  That's a balance I think the show doesn't do so well, any more.

So overall, this is solid family-friendly SF adventure.  It's a bit silly and a bit wacky, and it sometimes doesn't quite gel, but more often than not it does.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Alien Contamination (1980)

That's right, we're starting a new 50 pack of cheapo movies.  I bet you can't wait.

On reading the DVD sleeve synopsis of this one - "ship is found filled with alien eggs, the crew dead, their organs having exploded out of their bodies", I thought to myself "someone saw Alien, didn't they?".  And if Wikipedia is to be believed, that is literally what happened, for this is one of those Italian knock-offs, like Zombi 2 was to Dawn of the Dead.

In this case, the man responsible for the film is Luigi Cozzi, who was also the brains behind Starcrash.  Which, in case the name isn't enough of a hint of what it is ripping off, has a frickin' light saber in it.

Sadly however, this film will show little of the gonzo absurdity of that sensationally silly film.  It seems Cozzi's producer wanted to do less Science Fiction, more James Bond.  Apparently it didn't occur to him that this was an odd decision when Alien is your starting point.  Though honestly, I would watch Bond vs Xenomorphs.

In any case, the ship I mentioned turns up, with everyone dead.  A team sent into investigate has only one survivor: a Brooklyn cop.  He's then spirited away by 'Section 5', a secret government body set to deal with such strange cases.

The cop's story of killer green eggs reminds the agent leading the investigation of some interviews she conducted with the first astronauts to return from Mars.  Because of yeah, humanity has been to Mars, did we forget to mention that?  One of the astronauts reported seeing something similar, but he appeared emotionally distraught and his colleague - who is now deceased - denied anything of the sort had been encountered.

It's off to see the still-living astronaut, for the necessary info dump.  I also assumed it would set up a love triangle between the three leads, but honestly the two male characters seem more flirtatious with each other than with the woman.  I don't think that was actually the script's intent, but it's true nonetheless.

The conflicting visions of the director and producer render this a fairly anemic film.  It fails to satisfy either as a Bond-style investigation/action film, or as a science fiction one.  There are a few moments of unintentional comedy, and some extremely bloody effects (it was actually banned for a while in the UK as a "video nasty", though frankly that seems an overreaction: this is no Mountain of the Cannibal God), but they aren't enough to save it from being fairly dull stuff, overall.