Saturday, 29 November 2014

Flash Gordon (1980)

Flash!  Aaaaah aaaaah!  Saviour of the Universe!

Professional footballer Flash Gordon meets travel agent Dale Arden when they are the only two passengers on a small plane.  After the two flirt with all the subtlety of the superheated hail that suddenly starts pouring from the sky, they will find themselves transported on an interplanetary journey to the realm of Mongo, where the tyrannical Emperor Ming rules with an iron fist.  They'll encounter hawkmen and lizardfolk; cyborgs and sexy princesses; poisonous wood beasts and electrified clouds.  They will, in other words, show us a jolly good time.

First things first: if you're looking for nuanced performances, complex characters, cutting edge special effects (even for the time), or just a script that's too classy for dialogue like "Flash, I love you, but we only have 14 hours to save the Earth!", then you're in the wrong place.

If however, you want:

  • A thumping Queen soundtrack; or
  • Ming the Merciless living up to his sobriquet; or
  • More camp than the entire Butlins chain; or
  • BRIAN BLESSED hamming it up as only he can; or
  • A heroine who is smart enough to put on her heels only after she beats up the bad guy; or
  • A movie that is positively gleeful in its gonzo excess
Then this might be the film for you.

As for me?  Good grief, I love this campy, silly, goofy movie.  7 year old me, seeing it soon after release, was not so impressed.  Though I did think Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed) was pretty awesome, which just goes to show that even seven year old me occasionally got things right.

Flash!  Aaaaah aaaaah!  He'll save every one of us!

Friday, 28 November 2014

The Lost World (1925)

Released just thirteen years after the book, this silent film is the earliest screen adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel.  It is also the first American feature film to use model animation as a primary effect.  Said effects - which include numerous dinosaurs - were produced by Willis O'Brien.  O'Brien would go on to do the effects on some film involving a giant ape, as well as becoming the mentor of a fellow by the name of Harryhausen.

The original version of the film was 106 minutes, while the version on this DVD (and freely downloadable at runs a mere 68 minutes, but what I saw pretty accurately matches the movie's synopsis on wikipedia; so either not much of note was cut, or that synopsis was based on this version of the film.

The film uses the same basic premise as the book: infamously hot-tempered scientist Professor Challenger organises an expedition to the Amazon in search of a plateau filled with supposedly extinct creatures.  He's accompanied by a skeptical colleague, a big game hunter, and a journalist.  The film also adds a young woman - the daughter of a vanished colleague of Challenger's - so as to shoehorn in a romance subplot.  Said subplot is pretty thin (but might be better fleshed out in the longer version), but at least the young lady doesn't become a damsel in distress, so let's count it as a win.

In any case, the expedition makes it to the plateau, witnesses all kinds of dinosaurs as they forage, hunt, fight and stampede away from a volcanic eruption, then returns to London with an Apatosaurus they've managed to capture.

The Apatosaurus gets free, of course, and smashes and crashes its way through London before falling into the Thames and swimming away.

You may have noticed that my synopsis of the film is all about dinosaurs, and not much about people.  There's good reason for that, as O'Brien's stop motion effects are most definitely the focus and primary attraction of the film.  This movie's effects were as transformative for their time as those of Jurassic Park nearly 70 years later.  Everything else: the romance subplot, the menace of a rather ineffectual 'apeman', and so forth, is just a sprig of parsley on the side of the plate: the meal is in the monsters.

If you have an interest in the history of film, this is worth seeing.  Even 90 years later, O'Brien's effects are impressive.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Zombieland (2009)

I was reluctant to see this film because I had been disappointed by Shaun of the Dead.  I know that statement's probably going to trigger howls of disbelief - the latter film is pretty highly regarded in geeky circles.  I found it to be one half very funny comedy, and one half pretty decent zombie flick, but overall somehow less than the sum of its parts.

Eventually some friends persuaded me to give this movie a go, and as you might have guessed from the fact that I went on to buy it on DVD, I rather enjoyed it.  It's by no means a perfect film, you understand: I think the introduction of the two female characters is pretty weak, for instance.  I don't want to spoil details, but let's just say that for two supposedly smart ladies, they have a really dumb plan (it won't be the only time, either).  Also there's a section involving a 'surprise' guest star that feels a bit indulgent (though admittedly some of it is quite funny).

The 'quite funny' thing is important.  While I don't think Zombieland elicits as many laughs in its first half as Shaun of the Dead does, it sure as heck elicits a lot more in the second half.  Zombieland never forgets that it's a comedy, and even if not every joke hits home, it slings out enough of them that some are sure to land.

Columbus - so dubbed because that's where he is trying to get to - is a neurotic shut in whose survival in the zombie apocalypse can be traced back to his extensive list of Rules, such as 'always double tap'.  Don't be stingy with bullets, he tells us in voice over: better to use an extra round and be sure a zombie's dead than have it munch on your ankle.  He has some 31 of these rules, and given that they've kept him alive for two months, they've obviously got some merit to them.

Now, Columbus himself credits his survival partly to the fact that he was pretty much alone in the world before the zombies came, and his lack of ties made it easier for him to adapt, so he admits it's a bit out of character for him to buddy up with the stranger.  Yet this is what he does when he meets the zombie-killing maniac Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson, apparently having the time of his life).  Their duo will become a quartet later, and if you think that in the course of all this Columbus is going to avoid Learning An Important Lesson About What It Means To Really Be Alive, then I have some swampland you might be interested in buying.  It's a pretty minor addendum to the film's main agenda, though, which is bucketloads of zombie-fightin' hijinks.

This is well worth a look if you're interested in a zombie flick that doesn't take itself as seriously as so many of them do.  The cast is strong enough to cover most of my - relatively minor - quibbles with the script, and you should walk away from it with a smile on your face.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The Lost City (1935)

Mill Creek actually claim this as two of the 50 films in this pack, presumably due to length.  As a compilation of a 12-part serial (pretty much without cuts, as far as I can tell), it runs nearly three and a half hours.  I'm going to treat it as just one film, though.  Partly because it's clearly intended to be viewed as a single narrative, and partly so I don't have to write two reviews of this piece of junk.

Strange electromagnetic phenomena are wreaking havoc in the world, but handsome and dashing young electrical engineer Bruce Gordon traces the source of the disturbance to an isolated part of Africa.  I'll just mention that Flash Gordon made his newsprint debut the year before, and leave you to ponder any parallels between the two.

Gordon heads off to deepest, darkest Africa to uncover what's behind the disasters.  There he uncovers the Lost City, ruled by Zolok, Last of the Lemurians.  Zolok proudly proclaims his people's mastery of all things electromagnetic, but it seems the most marvelous creations in his possession are actually all the work of a Dr Manyus, whose obedience Zolok ensures by holding the Doctor's daughter hostage (do you smell a love interest for Gordon?  Of course you do.).

As an aside, it's worth noting that the actor playing Zolok appears to be more hammered than Michael Madsen in Bloodrayne in at least one scene.  This would not be surprising, as he was regularly arrested for alcohol offences during prohibition.

Anyway, the good guys escape from Zolok and his minions around the 60 minute mark, and spend all but 20 minutes of the remaining two hours blundering around the jungle encountering various people who want to co-opt Dr Manyus's inventions for their own ends.

What are those inventions?  All sorts of nonsense, frankly.  Manyus can transform ordinary men into giants, and black men into white (oh yeah, there's some major, major racism in this: "That sounds like a white girl's scream!" being one of the more absurd examples, with bonus misogyny added in for good measure).

Eventually - and I do mean eventually - they end up back at the Lost City, overcome Zolok, and save the day.

Dull stuff.

So dull, I need a pick me up.  Only one thing for it.


Tuesday, 25 November 2014

After Dusk They Come (2009)

In addition to having three titles of its own (the one above plus The Tribe and The Forgotten Ones), this film also has a remake.  Yes, a remake, despite only coming out in 2009.  The remake was released a year later, and is variously known as The Lost Tribe or Primevil (sic).

Apparently the reason for the rapid remake was that the production company was unhappy with this version of the film, though that didn't stop them from authorising a DVD release (the fact that it features Firefly's Jewel Staite and some guy from the Twilight films may have influenced their decision).

Ironically, the remake actually has a lower IMDB rating than this film, suggesting that the producers - though smart enough to realise that this isn't very good - weren't smart enough to work out what went wrong.

Here's a hint for them: it's the script.

What we've got here is basically The Descent, if it (a) didn't have an all female cast and (b) was not very good.  As with that film we have a group of holidaymakers with some simmering tensions between them; we have an accident that leaves them stranded in a place they're not supposed to be; and we have a degenerate race of semi-humanoid monsters that hunt them.  Heck, the hunters even share the 'functionally blind and hunt by sound' schtick of the ones from The Descent.

The faults of the film are many, and they start with the fact that four of the five holidaymakers are deeply unlikable.  Even the fifth (Staite's character) is less sympathetic than they intend her to be, though once put next to the others she's so clearly the Final Girl she may as well have it tattooed on her forehead.

This of course leads to a complete lack of tension in the film, since you know exactly who is going to die and frankly you're largely looking forward to them not befouling the screen any longer.  Pretty soon we're down to just Staite's character, which leads into a tedious and unconvincing boss battle with the 'alpha creature'.  Spoilers: Staite wins.

Unless you're just really, really keen to see Kayleigh from Firefly in a low rent creature feature, skip this one: it's not even so bad it's good.

Monday, 24 November 2014

House of the Living Dead (1974)

It's rarely a good sign when a movie has multiple titles, and this one has at least four.  The one above, plus Curse of the Dead, Doctor Maniac and Kill, Baby, Kill.  Ironically, any of the latter three titles are a better fit for the movie than the one I saw it under, which makes it doubly-confounding that House of the Living Dead is apparently the original title.

There's the kernel of a solid enough made-for-TV period thriller in here ... like a kind of "Downton Abbey with Necromancy".  Which is a thing I would watch.  ITV, get on that would you?

Alas, the execution in this film falls far short of the potential.  The fault lies squarely on the script.  It's true that some of the acting - at least from the secondary characters - isn't the best, but not even great delivery could save the clunky and unconvincing dialogue that gets trotted out here.  I mean, we're talking about a film where the police are convinced by the very impressive logic of "I can't explain how I know, I just do".

Filmed and set in South Africa, the film concerns itself with the master of a plantation and his fiancee, who is newly arrived on the ship from Britain. Now, our leading man has a near identical brother who recently suffered a terrible accident and "never" leaves his room, where he conducts strange scientific experiments.  "Never" is in inverted commas because he's actually frequently seen out and about in the fields or prowling the house at night, despite the claims of his brother and mother that he doesn't do so, and their refusal to let anyone into his room to see him.

If you give that precis more than a few moments' thought you'll probably work out the film's main twist, though as I was watching the film I got distracted by the "strange medical theories" and "unnatural experiments" that kept getting mentioned, leading me to expect a slightly different revelation.  Those elements actually turned out to be almost irrelevant to what was going on though.  In fact, you could eliminate all the intimations of supernaturalism and mad science and still tell practically the same story (you'd have to make like one tiny change to the film).  And that's probably the biggest headscratcher of all.  Bringing those elements in probably put off a lot of people who would have watched a straight-up period piece, while those they might attract would be disappointed with how little they actually mattered.

Ultimately, we get a talky, clunky melodrama with only a few hints of the macabre.  Skippable.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Resident Evil (2002)

I like this film more than it probably deserves.

However, it is a film that I think deserves to be liked.  It may have relatively modest goals as a piece of art, but it approaches them with gusto.  And yes, I just described a Resident Evil film as art.  Deal with it :)

The film opens with what appears to be the theft of helix-shaped vials from a laboratory. On their way out, the thief intentionally breaks one of the vials. A short time later, havoc descends upon the facility.  The doors seal everyone in, and the various security measures turn into deathtraps.

We then switch to Milla Jovovich, who is unconscious in a shower.  With Jovovich's inevitable nude scene out of the way, we can then get on with the plot: her character (Alice) can't remember anything, and swiftly becomes even more baffled when she is accosted first by a cop and then by a team of heavily armed commandos.

The commandos provide the exposition to both Alice and the cop: the estate Alice was living in is a cover for a secret underground research base.  Alice is part of the security detail.  It seems the computer controlling the base has run amok and murdered everyone inside.  The team is here to find out what happened, and they're taking Alice and the cop in with them.

So isolated base with which contact has been lost, totally not space marines going to investigate, and a couple of non-marines along for the ride?  The similarities to Aliens are pretty obvious, and if you're figuring the facility is now overrun with monsters and almost no-one is going to make it out alive, well ... duh.

The similarity to James Cameron's film aren't going to end there, in details as well as theme, but in my opinion Resident Evil does enough to establish itself as more than just "yet another Aliens knock-off".  And I say this as someone who has seen a whole lot of Aliens knock-offs.

Strengths of the film include the uniformly solid cast (though the always reliable Colin Salmon doesn't get enough screen time for my taste) and the relentlessly driving soundtrack.  It takes a lot for me to really notice a soundtrack - unless it's terrible, as in say the 30th Anniversary edition of Night of the Living Dead - but the music from this film definitely sticks with me.  It also doesn't hurt that the script just plays it straight: there's none of the sly winks at the camera that tend to plague many zombie films.

If you want a zombie film that has more the tempo of an action movie, check it out.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Fury of the Wolfman (1972)

While on an expedition in Tibet, a man is bitten by a yeti and, as you might expect, becomes a werewolf.

... okay, so you probably didn't expect that, because it is pretty nonsensical.  But such is the origin story of the lycanthrope in this tale.  And trust me, there's precious little in this film that isn't similarly illogical.

Fury of the Wolfman is apparently the fourth in of 12 Spanish films dealing with a werewolf named Waldemar Daninsky.  The movies aren't a series, though: at least not in the sense that they share a continuity.  Daninsky's biographical details change from film to film, for instance, and dying at the end of one entry doesn't stop him being in the next.  It's a bit like how the new Spider-Man movies have nothing to do with the Tobey Maguire ones, despite them both being about Peter Parker, except that in these films, the same actor plays the lead throughout.

Anyway, this movie's version of Daninsky is a scientist, studying the effects of certain emissions on the human brain, and he hopes to use this technology to control his condition.  Unfortunately for him, his research partner has far more sinister (and believe it or not, stupider) plans for their work.

Upon discovering that his wife is having an affair with one his students, Daninsky wolfs out and murders them both.  Then, horrified by what he has done, he electrocutes himself to death.

Except it turns out that a werewolf can only truly die at the hand of a woman they love.  I wonder if that's only romantic/sexual love?  If it is, then a gay male or straight female werewolf would be immortal.  Or maybe the 'love' part is what matters, and not the gender of the lover.  In any case, I guess it is a change from silver bullets.

Since Daninsky isn't really dead, his research partner is able to revive him.  She's an ex-lover of his, but her motives are not friendly.  She wants to add Daninsky to the army of mutants she is breeding in her castle (because of course she has a castle).  She intends to release these creatures to cause havoc and prove her power.  Frankly, that this is the best idea she could come up with for what is effectively a mind control ray is a bit pathetic.

Will Daninsky be able to break free of the evil Dr Wolfstein's control?  (Yes, really.  Her name is Dr Wolfstein).  And more importantly, will the movie give you a reason to care?  (No it will not).

Production on Fury of the Wolfman was apparently something of a trainwreck, and what ended up on screen is similarly mangled.  You should skip it, though I confess to a kind of morbid interest in seeing one of the other entries in the series, Werewolf vs The Vampire Woman.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Romeo and Juliet (2013)

As part of its 2013-14 season, the Curio Theatre in Philadelphia decided to put on a production of Romeo and Juliet.  Their theme for the season was 'gender', and in keeping with that they swapped several of the major roles to be women; including Romeo.

As you might expect, there was controversy about this.  I wouldn't be surprised if that was a desired outcome, frankly.  Good way to get the GLBT-friendly to turn out for your show, and to make sure people are talking about it.

The theatre also filmed one of their performances, and funded the editing and production of a DVD via Kickstarter.  Which is how I got a copy.

So first off, I need to acknowledge the issues of filming a theatrical performance, and how they negatively impact the DVD.  Because they do affect the viewing enjoyment, in my opinion.

The DVD was put together by filming a single performance.  They had multiple cameras, but inevitably they must sometimes use the best shot they got, rather than the best shot possible.  It's only once or twice that things actually swim out of focus, or anything really blatant like that, but we don't always have a great angle or lighting in a shot.

The sound is also problematic - more so than the visuals really.  Lines can sometimes be indistinct.  When you're already dealing with the need to parse Shakespearian English, that can be something of a burden.

Finally, the fact of the matter is that the actors are performing for the audience in the theatre with them, not the audience of the DVD, which creates a bit of a disconnect at times, and makes the acting itself come across as - if you'll forgive the use of the term given the context - stagy.

Other than these largely unavoidable issues, how is the show?  Well, it's a bare bones production of Romeo and Juliet.  Sets are near non-existent, and they've used modern day costuming.  Story-wise, you know what you're going to get.

Cast-wise, other than Romeo, Tybalt (who kills Mercutio) is also played by a woman, and Juliet's parents are merged into the single role of her mother.  I'd expected them to switch over more roles than that, to be honest.

The play limits its amendments for the cast changes to swapping over pronouns.  A charitable reading of this would be that it shows how little basis there is to our expectations and assumptions regarding gender.  If the narrative isn't impacted by the change, what does that mean about the gender structures with which we've all grown up?

A more cynical reading, of course, is that they were just courting controversy with the casting decision.

I'll choose to believe the more charitable interpretation, but ultimately, this is just the familiar tale with a very minor tweak in concept.  I don't feel it offered a different enough experience that I could recommend it.  Though a woman (especially if she were a lesbian) might feel different, since then the change would be much more personally significant to them.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Alien Zone (1978)

A travelling salesman leaves an evening of adulterous sex to return to his hotel.  He gets turned around, however, and ends up in the wrong place.  Seeking shelter from the rain, he's taken in by a friendly mortician.

A little too friendly actually, as the fellow insists on recounting the sordid lives and deaths of the four corpses in his workroom, despite the salesman's obvious discomfort at the topic.

Yes, my faithful readers (my stats indicate there may be as many as 6 or 7 of you now!), this is an anthology film.  Unlike the gloriously awful Night Train to Terror, it doesn't appear to have been put together by cannibalising other films, but we can't have everything I guess.

So the big weakness of this movie is that three of the four anthology tales are kind of rubbish.  I mean, one of them is literally "guy murders some women, films himself doing it, and when he's caught he gets executed because of the evidence he himself recorded".  And when I say literally, I mean literally.  There's nothing more to it than that.  No twists, no character development, no much of anything.

The only one of the four that's any fun is the tale of two gifted detectives.  Their false joviality toward each other "oh ho ho, how droll that the papers ponder which of us is more brilliant" while loathing simmers beneath is quite nicely performed.  You can probably guess how it ends from just being told the set-up, but there's enough black humour and snarkiness in it that it's actually quite watchable.

As for the framing story of the adulterer, well I bet I'm not spoiling anything if I tell you he won't survive the night.  I do think that the film might be a little too obtuse about the identity of the mortician, though.  My read on him was that he was Death (which explains how he knows about events only the dead people experienced), but he could just be a rather fanciful fellow who likes to ride in ambulances.

Anyway, apart from the 10-15 minutes of detectives being snarky, this is entirely skippable, so I can't recommend it.

(And no, I have no idea why the film has the title it has; the alternate title of House of the Dead makes a lot more sense, though it's certainly not as wondrously awful as the Uwe Boll film of that name.  Which reminds me, I can do that as a weekend review now.  Yay!)

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

WALL-E (2008)

If you don't like WALL-E, you have no soul.

Okay, maybe that's a little harsh.  You probably aren't human, though.  You should double-check you're not a reptiloid from Arcturus B, or something like that.

So this is a Pixar movie, and if there's anyone who knows how to structure a film, it's the Pixar crew.  In the first half hour of this one, they take a pair of robots, each of whom can't speak more than about two words, and manage to tell a charming little romance story between them.  I've seen plenty of films that couldn't do it so well with a pair of humans, triple the time, and three thousand times as many dialog options.

The romance - while it remains the most satisfying arc of the film - is largely a pretext to explain why WALL-E, a clean-up robot that's been single-handedly trying to tidy up the abandoned Earth for 700 years, would run off into space in pursuit of EVE, a second robot who has recently arrived on the planet.

As we and WALL-E will discover, EVE came to Earth to see if it was fit for humanity to return.  And when she finds a single, somewhat bedraggled looking plant in WALL-E's possession, the answer is "yes".

The remainder of the film switches more to an action tempo, as EVE, WALL-E and a handful of the humans on the ship attempt to initiate the return to Earth, while other forces conspire to prevent them.

Both segments, of course, are laden full of the usual Pixar humour, and there were several moments that prompted me to laugh out loud, while the film as a whole left me with a smile on my face.

Could I nitpick?  Sure.  There are a couple of plot points that don't really make sense, even the loose and goofy definition of "sense" that this film embraces, but you're likely to be having too much fun to even notice them.

It's not quite The Incredibles, but WALL-E is a fine film, and well worth your time.  Unless you're a reptiloid.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Good Against Evil (1977)

This film was the pilot for what looks like it would basically have been "The Exorcist: The Series", only with a sillier name.

Jessica Gordon is a 22 year old woman who seems to lead a charmed life.  While in design school an anonymous benefactor arranged for her to have her own show, for instance, and she now earns her living doing what she loves.  It's almost like she has a guardian angel.  Or a guardian fallen angel.

Jessica, you see, has been earmarked as the consort of the demon Astaroth, and he is the one ensuring her smooth and orderly progress through life.  Well, except for the fact that any man she shows an interest in quickly meets a sticky end.

It's probably no surprise then that she is initially very unwelcoming of the advances of Andy Stuart (played by the wonderfully-named Dack Rambo).  He wears her down though, with tactics we're meant to find romantic but which in this more modern age veer rather more toward 'stalkery'.

When an attempt to deal with Andy in the same way as Jessica's previous paramours fails, Astaroth decides to simply hypnotise her into forgetting the last two years and whisk her off to the other side of the country.  And then to make sure Andy is distracted, he possesses the daughter of a former lover and makes her have an accident.  Andy rushes off to help the woman (a young Kim Cattrall), but the joke's on Astaroth since in the process he meets a priest who recognises the signs of demonic activity.  Together, they free the possessed girl, and then drive off in search of Jessica like a 1970s version of the boys from Supernatural.

Which, now that I think of it, is something I'd watch.  "Starsky and Hutch, Demon Hunters" sounds like a pretty cool elevator pitch.

This however is a fairly forgettable little film, and it is easy enough to see why the series didn't get picked up.  There's just not much intensity to it, and Astaroth's machinations are rather impractical given the advantages he has.  The film makers also have a very inflated opinion on the scariness of the average black cat, to the point that the 'dun dun dun' ending involving one gave me a fit of the giggles.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Zipang (1990)

Imagine if Indiana Jones was a swaggering, not-terribly bright bandit from the Shogunate era, and you've got an idea of what sort of film Jipangu (as it is known in the original Japanese) is going to be.

Jigoku is the swaggering bandit mentioned above, a braggart and scoundrel but - in the manner of movie heroes everywhere - not entirely bad underneath it all.  With his entourage of kooky sidekicks, he stumbles across a magical sword that can unlock the door to the mythical Land of Gold, Zipang.

Alas for Jigoku, there are literally hundreds of bounty hunters after him.  And the small matter of an army of ninja who want the sword.  On the plus side, at least if you ask Jigoku, one of the bounty hunters is Yuri the Pistol.  He's rather flattered to be chased by such an attractive young woman.  Even if she is only after his head.

Yes, of course they're going to end up together.  Zipang may be a pants-on-head crazy movie with NinjaCam binoculars and people punching out their own rib cage to make a weapon, but it's got fairly traditional story beats under all the nuttiness: boy meets girl.  Girl tries to kill boy.  Ninjas and evil gods attack.  True love wins out.  You know, typical stuff.

I'm not going to go into detail about the film's plot, or all the wacky hijinks en route to the conclusion.  I do want to call out the neat design though.  There's a segment where the entire cast of good guys and bad guys converges on a massive, spiralling staircase several hundred feet high, and the whole scene looks and feels like they really are on such a construction.  It's very well done.

As for whether I'd recommend the film?  If you were at all intrigued by any of the above, you should see this movie.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Idaho Transfer (1973)

There's the kernel of a decent film in here.  Certainly, I found the first half pretty intriguing.  Unfortunately, it suffers from a couple of pretty major flaws, and they sink it pretty thoroughly in the second half.

But let's talk about the premise and plot first, before the problems.

A secret research project - ostensibly tasked with attempting to discover a way to transmit matter - has accidentally stumbled across time travel.  Specifically, they can jump to a point 56 years in the future.  I'm not sure how they know it's 56 years, given that they're unable to find anyone alive to tell them, but they do.

So yeah, they're a bit anxious about the whole 'no living people' thing, as you might imagine.  They've scanned the radio channels without success, and travelled far enough to check out a couple of local towns, but both were abandoned.

The project team's reaction to this is to keep their discovery secret and attempt to restore the human race in the future.  They plan to do this by recruiting teenagers (anyone over 20 who goes forward suffers kidney failure within days or weeks at most) and sending them into the future to be seed stock.  In the mean time, they keep the authorities in the dark about what's going on.  Why is not explained, but this is the early 70s so scepticism about 'the man' was probably just assumed.

Anyway, the project gets shut down - probably due to them not showing any results and giving the higher ups the run around.  About a dozen of the teenagers manage to escape to the future, however.  That brings us to around the mid-point of the film, where it seems to be setting up for an exploration of this strange future world: presumably a tale of whether they discover what happened, and so forth.

The film's not going to play out like that, though, and it's here that its two biggest flaws really start to undermine it.  The first and most obvious is the rather ham-fisted eco-moral of the ending.  I mean, I think the evidence for climate change is overwhelming, and that resource scarcity is going to be a big problem for humanity, but this still made me roll my eyes.

The second problem is the main character.  I don't know if you've seen the article on "Pixar's 22 rules" of writing, but one of them is:

You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

The main character of this film fails to try.  Some of her failure is understandable - she goes through some rough stuff - but it makes it very hard to care much about her travails when the script gives you no reason to like her or root for her success.

An interesting start unfortunately comes to nothing, so I can't overall recommend this.  A shame, since it started quite promisingly.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Hard Ticket to Hawaii (1987)

Andy Sidaris was an Emmy-award winning director of sports television coverage who subsequently decided to give writing and directing movies a try.

The bulk of these movies feature a fictitious law enforcement agency (given the name 'L.E.T.H.A.L.' late in the series) that appeared to be almost entirely staffed by nude models.  I guess it was harder to find female actors willing to go topless than it was to find Penthouse Pets willing to try to act.

What this means is that most of the series feels rather like what you'd get if you asked a supremely hormonal teenage boy to write a James Bond film.  There are lame one-liners, horrible racial stereotypes, random NINJA WEAPONS, and of course, boobs as far as the eye can see.

Hard Ticket to Hawaii, however, is a whole 'nother level of lunacy.  It's Sidaris's sophomore effort and it is jam-packed with "why is that happening?" moments.  I don't just mean in terms of the character's actions - though there are plenty of those - but also in terms of film structure.  For instance, the only explanation I can give for the near three minutes of scenery porn we get early on, with the movie's theme tune playing over it, is that it was filmed as the credits sequence ... but then they came up with a 'better' idea for the credits and just left the other stuff in because hey, it had been shot already.

Then there's the subplot about the TV coverage of a sporting event.  This occupies a good ten minutes of screen time and appears to connect to the main plot only via the fact that one of the agents sleeps with one of TV presenters.  I won't even mention the ways that their 'date' violates the laws of space and time.

Then there's the contaminated killer snake, the hysterically unsexy sexy talk ("I just want to suck the polish right off your toes"), and the greatest drive by shooting ever committed to film.  Seriously, it is a thing that must be seen to be believed.

What makes this film so much fun though, at least for me, is that it shows absolutely no indication that any of this is supposed to be camp or goofy, even when it is at its most silly.  There's something charmingly naive about it, despite its sleaziness.

Check it out if the idea of the most cheesetastic, uber-80s bit of nonsense appeals to you.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The Disappearance of Flight 412 (1974)

I'm generally pretty antipathetic toward narration in movies.  So it's ironic that I think this film would have been improved by adding more narration.

Not as much as eliminating the narration entirely, mind you, but improved nonetheless.

You see, this film uses narration as a means to give it a documentary style feel.  Which is not an immediately terrible idea when you're doing a "secret government conspiracy!" type of thing.  Pitch it like it really happened and you can generate some sense of outrage over the treatment of the men in the story, and/or some creeping anxiety about the machinations of clandestine organisations.

Heck, in the 1970s - when there were still people actively looking for the Loch Ness monster, and a bunch of supposed Bigfoot sightings - you might even have found an audience willing to accept such a 'docudrama' at face value, even when the subject matter is UFO-related conspiracy.

So the flaw with the use of narration in this film isn't that the script doesn't commit to it.  Too much of the movie plays just like any other bit of celluloid fiction.  Throwing in some sombre voice over and the occasional time/date stamp doesn't make it feel more authentic.  It just draws attention to the parts that aren't done that way.

The film also lacks a satisfactory ending.  Having witnessed a UFO (on radar, anyway), an Air Force crew is whisked away to a secret base and subjected to a lengthy debriefing that's intended to persuade them their equipment was faulty.  Those that go along with this get promotions.  Those that don't get dead end posts.  The end.

There are much better uses of 75 minutes.  Go watch some Minecraft videos or something, instead.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Mutant Vampire Zombies from the 'Hood! (2008)

One thing the zombie genre absolutely, positively did not need was the addition of rape.  Especially rape as comedy.

Want to guess what this film's addition to the flesh-eating oeuvre is?


Starting with something that annoys me far less, you might notice that the title of this review and the title on the DVD image above are different.  A cynic might think the makers of this film were trying to cash in the success of the Spierig Brothers' (far superior) Undead.  Certainly, the box title is only a skin deep change: the film's credits still refer to it by the title at the top of the post.

The original title is also a lot more reflective of the film's tone.  It's mostly playing the genre-aware card pretty hard.  It's no accident that it gets compared to Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead in the image above - if you think of it as their sleazy, lazy younger sibling, you're on the right track as to the sort of tone it has.

I tend to think that this is a shame, because from time to time there's a pretty good zombie flick peeking out between the not-as-funny-as-it-thinks humour and unnecessary rape stuff.

Because yeah, let's talk about that.  So the film's zombie apocalypse comes about because of a sustained solar flare.  Anyone not adequately protected from the radiation expelled becomes a mutant, in an agonising state of impending death that can be slowed by consuming the uncontaminated blood of those people who were deep underground or otherwise shielded from the flare.

The flare also makes gasoline not flammable anymore.  Because reasons.

Anyway, in addition to the whole blood-drinking thing, the mutations cause the zombies to lose their inhibitions, so we get rapist zombies.  Which would be bad enough even if it wasn't played for laughs, but the film doubles down on this terrible idea by doing exactly that.  It leads to a lot of very juvenile, unpleasant stuff.

Go watch the Spierig Brothers' film instead.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Shadow of Chinatown (1936)

The Googles tell me this film was originally a 15 part serial.  Perhaps if served up in bit-sized chunks, it would be more interested and less disjointed.  It would still be howlingly sexist, racist, stupid and badly acted.

Now if one is feeling charitable, one might be inclined to make allowances for the first two problems, given the film's age.  The last two are inexcusable in any era, however.

Bela Lugosi plays a Eurasian mobster, hired by another Eurasian in order that they can wreak their "revenge on the white and oriental races", who they both hate.

Yes, I realise the preceding paragraph makes no sense.  The film does not.

Anyway, Lugosi's character isn't just a mobster.  He's also a world-class mesmerist and an expert in electronics who plants tiny bugs everywhere so he can overhear his enemeis' plans.

Which probably makes it all the more embarrassing for him that he's going to be defeated by the worst version of the "intrepid girl reporter" archetype I've ever seen (also the worst acted), and some offensive Chinese stereotypes.

There is nothing to recommend here.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

The Faculty (1998)

Needing a palate cleanser after Invasion of the Pod People, I decided to fire up a good "Body Snatchers-esque" film.  You didn't get the review right away since it is a DVD I have seen before.  But now Saturday has rolled around, and I can tell you that The Faculty is great fun.

This Robert Rodriguez-helmed film has a crazy good cast.  Don't take my word for it: go look at the IMDB page and goggle.  Coupled with a smart and genre-savvy script from Scream scribe Kevin Williamson, the film's an entertaining romp.

Herrington High is your typical movie high school.  Jocks rule the roost and the teachers are a dysfunctional and disillusioned group on the whole.  Things are about to change, however.  As they do when an insidious alien parasite is taking over everyone in a position of power.

Stumbling into this overworldly menace come six high school students: most are outcasts or misfits, ranging from persecuted nerd Casey to rebel without a cause Zeke and new student Marybeth Louise Hutchinson (never just 'Marybeth').

One of the things I like about the film is that the characters' actions feel relatively plausible given the crazy situation they find themselves in.  They try to enlist help, acknowledge the parallels with popular media (including Invasion of the Body Snatchers itself), and act to protect themselves as best they can in the circumstances.  They mess up from time to time, but never in a way that makes you scream with frustration at how stupid they are (which is definitely a welcome change from Invasion of the Pod People, where the protagonist was criminally stupid).

If you enjoy a bit of science fiction with mild horror themes, and are young enough to remember the feelings of isolation and disassociation that are common among teenagers, then you should check this out: it's a smart and clever little film.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Shoot 'Em Up (2007)

I first became aware of this film about five years ago, when a work colleague at the time mentioned this "terrible" DVD she'd watched on the weekend.  I took that as a challenge, and borrowed the film from her.

On the following day...

Me: "You did realise it was a send-up, right?".
Her: "Oh ... I wondered if it was supposed to be funny or serious."
Me: "He stabs a guy in the head with a carrot."

The carrot killing happens about three minutes in, by the by, and is probably the 10th or 11th clear sign that this is not a film that is meant to be taken seriously.

A guy sitting at a bus stop sees a hitman chasing down a pregnant woman.  He intervenes and kills the assassin, then the dozens of other goons that come running in later.  In between massacring bad guys by the truckloads, he helps the woman deliver her child.  Alas, she dies shortly afterward, courtesy of the hitmen's leader (played with manic glee by Paul Giamatti).

Our hero - he calls himself "Smith" - takes the child to a prostitute who specialises in nursing fetishes (i.e. she is lactating).  The bad guys are hot on his tail though, and soon, he and his lady friend and the bub are on the run once more.

This is a hugely silly and over the top film, from the deaths by vegetables to the monotone one liners to skydiving gunfights.  If you watch it in the manner it is intended, it's huge fun - or at least I found it to be - but if you like your action a bit less gonzo or your humour in any way more sophisticated than "how can we top the last ridiculous set piece now?", then you probably won't enjoy it.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Evil Brain from Outer Space (1964)

I initially mis-typed the title of this film as Evil Bran from Outer Space, which is a movie I would now like to see.  I mean, the tag-lines write themselves: "Let's get roughage!" or "Do you have the fibre to withstand this alien terror?"

Alas, what we actually get is a Starman movie.  Only instead of being cobbled together from two episodes of the Japanese serial Super Giant, this one is cobbled together from three.  Three standalone episodes at that (the others were made from two-parters), so it is even more disjointed and random than usual.

On the plus side, it's the last of the Starman movies in this set.  So we won't again have to endure his overstuffed codpiece or the interminable fight scenes that the show loves so much (especially bad in this movie since they have three episodes' worth to inflict on us).

The plot: evil alien brain tries to take over the Earth.  The Peace Council of the Emerald Planet sends Starman to protect it.  Since it's hard to engage in badly-staged fisticuffs with a disembodied opponent, the brain has a horde of mutant servitors.  Most of these, conveniently enough "are disguised as human beings".  Which has the dual benefits of saving the production company money and us from too much of this:

Anyway, Starman battles evil-doers, interacts with the inevitable "cute" children (one benefit of merging three episodes is that only one set of kids get used, so they're a comparatively small part of the film this time) and saves the day.

Unless you're desperate to learn what Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers would have been like if it was made fifty-odd years ago, you can skip it.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Invasion of the Pod People (2007)

If you're the kind of person who actually reads this blog, you won't need me to point out the Invasion of the Body Snatchers connection here.  And indeed, this is a "mockbuster" from The Asylum, who run a presumably successful business based on making cheap knock-offs of high profile films.  In this case it was Nicole Kidman's The Invasion.  Which makes this one of several Asylum films based on blockbusters that - financially, anyway - were anything but.

Even by The Asylum's low standards, this is a poorly made film.  I'm used to often wooden acting and poor FX, but the dialogue in this is sometimes near inaudible.  I'm willing to forgive technical flaws like that in a film like Pathogen, since it was made by a 12 year old.  In a movie that IMDB estimates costs $750,000, it's a lot less excusable.

This version of the basic Body Snatchers formula transfers the 'action' to a modelling agency, where agent Melissa notices a change in the behaviour of the people around them after they receive gifts of strange-looking plants.

Said plants are literally lumps of raw ginger stuck into pots, by the way.  They don't even bother to paint them or stick weird growths on them or anything.

Part of the horror of the Body Snatchers is that the aliens exhibit an absence of fear, anger or hatred, presenting an almost tempting vision of peaceful coexistence for those who "join" them.  This film seems to be eschewing that when it starts: instead the pod people replacements exhibit opposite personalities: nasty people turn nice, and vice versa.  They also exhibit supercharged sexuality, leading to a rather tacky lesbian orgy scene.

The whole "opposites" thing gets dropped later, with the usual "join us and live a better life" thing being trotted out.  Though maybe in this case the attraction is supposed to be the supposedly sexy times.  Who knows?  There's not much indication the writers do, as the script lurches to its lackluster conclusion.

In addition to uneven acting, pandering script and inaudible sound, the film suffers from a protagonist who is so willfully stupid you'll probably be cheering for the alien invaders by the time the movie ends.  One to avoid unless you really love terrible mockbusters.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Eternal Evil (1985)

The idea at the core of this film actually has the potential to be pretty creepy, but that potential is squandered by the clumsy and obvious way it is revealed, and by the fact that it happens way too early.  You spend the rest of the film waiting for the cast to catch up with what has now been obvious for over 30 minutes.

Originally titled The Blue Man, and re-named later to make the horror themes more obvious to potential viewers, this is the story of a disillusioned film-maker whose career has sunk to directing commercials after the failure of his films.  Searching for something to give him meaning in his life, he meets a 'new age' woman who encourages him to try astral projection.  He'd flirted with the concept earlier in life but not really pursued it.  Now, he throws himself into it more fully, and soon finds himself undergoing vivid out of body experiences.

If only the people around him wouldn't keep dropping dead.  A friend, his father-in-law ... it's certainly enough to get the police interested him, though they are at a loss to explain how he might make someone's heart burst from the inside.

But when people keep dying around you, it's natural that you start to worry you might be responsible.  Are there deadly side-effects to these astral journeys he has been undertaking, or is something more sinister afoot?  Since the answer to that question is the movie's only real point of note, I'll not reveal exactly what's going on.  Suffice it to say that I wish the idea had been used in a better film.

Ultimately, this film is a bit too static, and just not tense enough to pass muster.  The main emotion it inspires is frustration as you wait for the plot to finally get the characters to the climax you've known was coming for a good half hour.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Once Upon A Time in China 3 (1993)

Despite this DVD set billing itself as the Once Upon A Time in China "Trilogy", there are actually six films in all.  These are the only three that I own, though, so it's effectively a culmination of the series for me.

So how is it? Well, honestly ... exhausting.  I like martial arts action, but - with a few welcome exceptions for the continuing romance between lead characters Wong Fei-Hung and Peony - this is pretty much bell to bell fight scenes.

Now don't get me wrong: the fight scenes are well-staged and pretty inventive.  There's an ongoing theme of Lion Dance combined with Kung Fu that adds lots of colour and props to many of the fights, for instance.  And a fight where Wong Fei-Hung has his shoes greased in oil that's also quite clever.  But for my tastes, they went on a bit too long, and there were just too many of them.

The plot has the dowager empress declare a kung fu competition, in the hope a display of martial prowess will invigorate the nation against the encroachment of foreigners.  Now Wong Fei-Hung himself has little interest in the competition - he thinks it's frivolous to fight for money or fame.  But many other martial artists don't share his opinion, and we'll soon meet the nefarious Chiu, who will stop at nothing to win.  Chiu will be our primary villain, though not the only one - there's a need for evil foreigners, after all.  The Once Upon A Time in China films definitely have a measure of political content to them.

I liked that this includes a satisfying progression of the relationship between Wong and Peony, and some of the action sequences are very impressive.  But unless you're a committed fan of the wire fu genre, you can safely give it a miss.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Battleship (2012)

I decided to celebrate the first day where I'm not actually scheduled to write a review by ... well, by watching my favourite film of 2012 and writing a review of it :)

At least one critic would tell you that my enjoyment of this film indicates that I am part of the "less demanding audience", but I don't think that's at all accurate.  Battleship is certainly a film with a very specific aesthetic, and its mix of weapons grade hokum and undiluted testosterone will not appeal to all viewers, but it's a movie that commits 100% to its own premise (however silly that premise might be), and for that I salute and applaud it.  Too many films make 'safe' choices.  This one is not afraid to be gonzo.

It's not that the film has a particularly original arc, you understand: Alex Hopper is a hot-headed and impetuous young man with little direction in his life.  His drunken antics one night compel his brother to force him into the navy: where Hopper's hot-headed and impetuous nature soon has him on the verge of being cashiered.

Fortunately for his career - and his chances of marrying the admiral's daughter - Earth's about to be invaded by aliens, and Hopper will end up leading the battle against them.

So yeah, nothing especially innovative.  Where Battleship is out of the ordinary is the wholehearted way it leaps into the story.  This is a film where it is not enough to have a montage.  It's gotta have a montage that runs for the entire run time of AC/DC's "Thunderstruck".  It's a movie that goes to significant lengths to have a naval battle play out like an actual game of Hasbro's "Battleship".

This is not to say that there aren't some subtler things at work in the script.  I won't spoil anything, but let's just say that there are a couple of interpretations to how events on screen play out, and the movie never definitively establishes which is true (apparently the novelisation lacks this ambiguity, but I've not read it).

Ultimately this is a BIG, (perhaps not-so-)dumb action film with a commitment to being as over the top as it can be in terms of the action and humour it portrays.  It's not going to be to all tastes, but my word I have a great time watching it.