Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Savage Beach (1989)

This is actually the fourth Andy Sidaris film, but for some reason the box set has it in the third slot, so I decided to watch it next.  That will cause some minor continuity issues, but given that Rodrigo Obregon plays ten different characters across ten different Sidaris films (and dies in most of them), I don't think continuity is really a major concern.

The film opens with a group of four female agents - all provocatively dressed of course - staging a covert investigation of a dockside warehouse.  Why they sneak in when they have a warrant I couldn't tell you, but it illustrates the blithe lack of concern for logic that will permeate the whole script.

Following the traditional (at least in Sidaris-land) topless hot tub celebration of a successful drugs sting, two of the ladies - returning 'stars' Dona Speir and Hope Marie Carlton - are tasked with flying a planeload of emergency medicine to a distant island.  Distant and remote.  Distant and remote and in the middle of a massive storm.  Did I mention that it was the middle of a massive storm at a distant and remote location? Because the film sure will.

"The Marshall Islands are less than seventy square miles of land in five thousand square miles of ocean." we are informed in one of Sidaris's little info dumps.  Sometimes his movies come across like wikipedia with boobs.

Anyway, while the ladies prepare for their flight (and inevitable crash landing on the distant and remote shores of Savage Beach), we get introduced to a group of US military officers who are assisting the Philippine government to recover some treasure stolen by Japanese forces in World War Two.  Except that the Philippine representative is actually a communist insurgent, and one of the two US guys is an imposter.  Dun dun dun!

Anyway, assuming you have a couple of brain cells to rub together, you've probably figured out that the two groups are going to end up on the same island, along with the communist insurgents.  Oh, and a Japanese survivor.  Because of course there is a Japanese survivor.  He'll be popping up from time to demonstrate that he has a katana, before running off again.

I mean that pretty literally.  There'll be two characters talking, then "Hey, look at my Katana!" *run away*.

So obviously this is all nonsense, with gratuitous nudity attempting to cover for the goofy plot points, hysterically awful dialogue, and terrible acting.  But it is kind of fun nonsense, at least partly thanks to Hope Marie Carlton.  She's no better an actor than anyone else, but whereas they seem all too aware of how bad both they and the film are, Ms Carlton appears to care not one whit.  For her complete lack of self-consciousness, I salute her.

I can't really recommend this to anyone who isn't an aficionado of truly trashy movies, but if you do fit into that group, you may just find it delightfully stupid.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Severed Arm (1973)

A man receives a parcel in the mail.  It turns out to be a severed arm, which I expect would be perturbing for anyone whose surname is not Frankenstein, but which is doubly troubling for him.

You see, as we will learn through the magic of flashback-o-rama, five years earlier he was the leader of a group of six men who became trapped in a cave-in.  After an extended period where their food and water became exhausted, he persuaded the others that they would have to chop off the arm of one of their number and eat it as a way of staving off starvation.

Of course, no sooner had they disarmed (rimshot) their screaming victim than they got rescued.  Oops.

Needless to say, the mutilated man didn't react too well to all this, and has spent the last five years in various mental institutions.  Now however it seems he has been released to his family.  And if the parcel is anything to go by, he's got revenge on his mind.

Our lead and his four other friends gather to discuss their options, but don't really come up with anything better than 'keep an eye out for one-armed would-be killers'.  Which given that their number includes a doctor and a policeman is not very impressive.

Anyway, one of them soon ends up getting his own arm hacked off, which prompts the lead and the cop to try and find their victim-turned-persecutor.  They don't have much luck in this regard, but they do meet his daughter and persuade her to help them try to find her father before he commits any more crimes.

You would think, sometime between recruiting the daughter and the point where all three of his other friends have ended up dead, that our lead (who is a writer, no less) would consider the idea that the young lady isn't as friendly as she appears.  Because Oh Em Gee, she's totally in on all this hacking and murdering.  Sorry if I just ruined the movie for you (spoiler: I'm not actually sorry).

The acting in the film is serviceable enough, and there's a kernel of genuine creepiness to the bad guys' master plan.  Alas, the script's not exactly spine-tingling and the kill scenes - while certainly not the worst I've seen - are not well staged.  The film's also very dark a lot of the time.  That all adds up to a fairly dull movie that doesn't give me any real reason to recommend it.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Dark Passage (1947)

It takes effort to make a Bogart & Bacall film not work, but Dark Passage manages it.  This is entirely the fault of the script, which careens from one extreme contrivance to the next with such blithe disregard for plausibility that I felt like renaming my suspension of disbelief "Rice Krispies" for the way it snapped, crackled and popped.

Convicted murderer Vincent Parry (Bogart) escapes from jail.  He flags down a passing motorist, but when the guy realises who Vincent is from a report on the radio, Parry knocks him out.  As Vincent is changing into the other man's clothes, a young woman names Irene (Bacall) comes along.  She addresses him by name and promises to help him.  With few other options, he goes along with the plan.

It turns out that the Irene's father was also sent to jail for murder, where he died.  She believes both her father and Parry were innocent, and wants to help him.  Why was she in just the right place to do so?  She just had a feeling that morning that she should go out and paint some landscapes near the prison.

Uh huh.

Don't expect the subject of Irene's father to ever come up again, by the way.  It's just a pretext for her interest in Vincent's case.  It's not going to lead to a conspiracy or anything interesting like that.

As far as contrivances go though, we're only just getting started.  It's going to turn out that Irene knows a woman named Madge very well.  Madge in turn is an ex-paramour of Vincent's, and was the main prosecution witness in his murder (she testified that his dying wife claimed Vincent killed her).  San Francisco is a small town, it seems.

But like one of those annoying "do not send any money!" TV spots, there's more.  Because when Vincent takes his leave of Irene, he immediately runs into a taxi driver who (a) recognises him, (b) doesn't want to turn him in, and (c) knows a plastic surgeon who can give Vincent a cut price black market face job.

Uh double huh.

The movie isn't done with this kind of silliness, but I think I've done enough to illustrate my point about how implausible it all is.

So is there anything to like about the film?  Well, it's quite stylish early on, especially as much of it is shot from Parry's point of view.  We will in fact never see Bogart's face (except in newspaper articles) until after he's had the plastic surgery.  Sadly of course, this means that the most memorable thing about the film can be traced back to the technical/budgetary issue that they didn't want to have Bogart in prosthetic makeup for the first 40 minutes.  Bacall's performance is also good - especially when she has to do the usually verboten thing of talking directly to the camera (since it is a stand-in for Parry).  Bogart on the other hand, is a bit subdued.  Probably appropriate for the character he's playing, but I miss the edge that he has when playing a character like Philip Marlowe.

Not even Bogart and Bacall's chemistry can make this one work.

Friday, 26 December 2014

Radio Ranch (1940)

Phantom Empire was a twelve part serial released in 1935.  It was the first starring role for Gene Autry.  Autry would go on to enjoy a 20-year career of playing himself on screens large and small alike.  I mean 'playing himself' quite literally: of his 99 acting credits on IMDB, I spotted only one where his role had a name other than his own.

Now it happens that Autry was also the original 'singing cowboy', a Hollywood phenomenon I have never previously understood, and which - after finally seeing Autry in action - I still don't.

This film is a cut-down version of the serial, and is sometimes also found under the title Men With Steel Faces.  Autry stars as a ranch owner who also runs a regular 'wild west radio show' with the help of his friends and a bunch of local kids who call themselves the 'Junior Thunder Riders'.  The show seems to be pretty popular, though it seems Autry is really bad at negotiating contracts.  As the film will tell us several times, if he ever fails to perform a live show, he will lose both his radio gig and the ranch.

Not that there is any risk of him missing a show, of course.  I mean, it's not like there is a secret subterranean civilisation nearby, whose Queen wants him dead, or anything.

Oh wait ...

Yes indeed, the secretive Munarians lurk below nearby 'Thunder Valley'.  Their Queen is deeply concerned by Autry's success and the fact it might bring other people to the area, so she wants him dead.  Because you know, a popular star vanishing overnight would attract no attention whatsoever.

Autry's life will also be complicated by unscrupulous treasure hunters who are looking for the Munarians.  But he does at least have his buddies and the kids to back him up.  I'm sure that will help when he's locked in the Death Room.  Or possibly the Room of Death.  The Queen seems fuzzy on the name.

This is a very light and silly bit of froth, galloping along as fast as the horses that naturally enough play a big role.  Much like Purple Death From Outer Space a few days ago, I enjoyed watching it (though frankly I could have done with less singing from Autry: he wasn't especially good at it, as far as I could tell).  Of course, also like Purple Death, I suspect that if you care about things like "acting", or "scripts that make sense", you won't appreciate it quite so much.

Now if you'll excuse me, I must dash - if I don't get back in time I'll lose the show and the ranch!

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Die Hard (1988)

I've seen this film before, of course.  It's hard not to when you used to be flatmates with a guy who has written about ten thousand words on why Die Hard is "Perhaps the greatest action movie ever made, a masterpiece of narrative structure".

I only got a copy of the film on DVD fairly recently though, which is why this year I get to follow my ex-flatmate's annual ritual of watching the film for Xmas.

I'm not going to bother delving deep into the metaphors and symbols that underlie the film's action.  Follow the link above if you'd like to drive down that little rabbit hole.  Instead, I'm going to turn my brain off completely and just enjoy the action spectacle that Die Hard delivers.  Because it is indeed a meticulously crafted work, steadily escalating the stakes and the set pieces before its inevitably explosive finale.

Of course a solid narrative structure isn't enough by itself to make a film great.  Competent sure, but not great.  They thing that elevates this Big Dumb Action Movie above the crowd is the thing that elevates most great movies: not being dumb at all.

Because you see, while everyone - good guys and bad guys and in-betweeners alike - makes mistakes in Die Hard, the movie always gives them good reasons to do it.  Not necessarily rational reasons, but emotional reasons can be just as powerful when they're convincingly played.  Too many films act like they think that if we're willing to accept a human being surviving the explosions and bullets and who knows what else, then we're willing to accept them not acting like a human being.  Die Hard does not make that mistake.

The film's also not hurt by John McTiernan's taut direction, the charismatic performance from Bruce Willis as the film's flawed but symapthetic protagonist, or Alan Rickman's scene stealing villain.  The film's only real weakness is an unfortunate subtext about gender politics.  Alas, that's the 80s for you.

I'm not going to do a synopsis: it's 99% likely you already know the plot, and on the rare chance you don't, you deserve the chance to see it unspoiled.

Unless you're one of the rare people who simply can't abide the 'unrealistic' action set pieces (and such folks do exist), then Die Hard is absolutely worth your time.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Malibu Express (1985)

So Malibu Express is the first film Andy Sidaris made.  But it's not the first one that I chose to watch from this DVD set.  The reason for that was pretty simple: Hard Ticket to Hawaii is way more fun (I've actually seen all his films before; I just haven't watched my DVDs yet).

On re-watching this film however, I found my decision also made more sense from a thematic perspective.  Hard Ticket is pretty much the 'archetypical' Sidaris film, while Malibu Express is a bit of an outlier in his catalogue.  I mean sure, it's like all the others some ways - having a nonsensical plot, atrocious dialogue and masses of gratuitous nudity, for instance - but there are some significant differences.

Whereas most of Sidaris's films feature an ensemble cast of men and women working for a secret government agency, you see, Malibu Express focuses solely on Cody Abilene.  Cody's a private investigator: basically think of a blonde Magnum P.I., except not very good at his job, and even more irresistible to women.  And I do mean irresistible - there are points in the film where even Cody gets fed up of women throwing themselves at him.

Cody gets hired to investigate a wealthy family who may or may not be involved in selling computers to the Soviets.  Or at least, knowingly shipping them to "our so-called allies, who then sell them to the communists".  His method of investigating seems to mostly be to just hang around the house under a flimsy cover story, sleeping with any hot ladies that happen to pass by.  While Raymond Chandler is credited with the advice "When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand", I suspect Sidaris would have phrased it as "When in doubt, get some boobs on the screen".

Ultimately, despite the amount of time he spends bedding women, Cody more or less stumbles into what's going on, allowing the film to have some "action" sequences.  To be fair to Sidaris, the fact that I need to put action in quotes appears to be mostly deliberate: the film really hammers home that Cody can't shoot worth a darn, and the bad guys he encounters are even less competent than he is.  On the other hand, they go on well after the comedic value of "these guys are all useless" has been exhausted.

Eventually, Cody "solves" (for certain definitions of the term) the mystery, leading to a Poirot style "I've gathered you all here today ..." sequence.  Even in this, Sidaris manages to work in some cheesecake.  Frankly, any faint hint of actual titillation is well and truly gone from the film by this point: the incessant barrage of boobs having just reduced me to a fit of giggles with every more and more contrived excuse to trot them out.

As nonsensical as Hard Ticket to Hawaii, but a good deal less fun to re-watch, Malibu Express is not a film I could recommend unless you're a 13 year old boy with no access to the internet.  In which case, how are you reading this review?

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Purple Death from Outer Space (1966)

First things first: the year on this is very misleading.  Purple Death from Outer Space, you see, is one of those serials-turned-into-a-movie, and in this case the serial in question was Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, from way back in 1940.

Flash Gordon means goofy stories featuring goofy rocket ships, goofy sets, and even goofier monsters.  In other words, it's something I am predisposed to like.  And I did like this.  I mean, it's in no way good, but it has a kind of silly charm to it.  At least to me.

People across the world are dying from a strange contagion, the only symptom of which is a purple mark on the body.  Because this was the third Flash Gordon serial, there's little doubt about what might be the cause, and it's off to Mongo for Flash, Dale and Zarkov.  Sure enough, Ming - previously believed dead - has returned and once more rules his own world with an iron fist while plotting to destroy Earth.

Ming apparently hasn't heard that 'loose lips sink ships', and mentions in the hearing of one of Flash's friends that the only antidote for his Purple Death is the substance Polarite, which can be found in the icy realm of Frigia.

Sophisticated naming conventions are not a thing in Flash Gordon.

So the rest of the movie is occupied with Flash & Co trying to get the Polarite while being menaced with a cliffhanger every ten minutes or so - this is after all adapted from a serial.  Flash gets reported dead on at least three separate occasions.  He's like Mark Twain on steroids.

So the plot is unsophisticated, the acting hammy (without the deliberate camp of the 1980 film), and the effects mostly giggle-inducing.  But like I said earlier, it's kind of fun despite all that.  There's just something about seeing a group of second-rate actors uncomfortably spouting cliched dialogue while wearing silly costumes that makes me smile.

You, on the other hand, might be a sane person.  In which case you can probably skip this.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Spasmo (1974)

Giallo films are often more about style and mood than coherent narrative, and Spasmo definitely follows that trend.  There is a plot, and it is eventually going to be explained, at least for the most part.  But the keyword there is "eventually".  First, you have to get through 70+ minutes of characters acting in what seems to be a nonsensical and inconsistent manner.

For my money the payoff - though it is effective - isn't worth the frustration of the majority of the film.  Maybe it would be different if you watched it with the foreknowledge that yes, all - well, most of - this weirdness is going to be explained.  All I can say is that I watched it without that certainty, and found it rather hard going for much of its length.

The spoiler-free synopsis - given the film's reliance on the 'reveal', spoilers would negate any reason to see it - is that a fellow named Christian meets a young woman on a beach.  He initially thinks she is dead, because of the way she is lying, but it turns out she is not.  He pursues her in a somewhat stalkery way, but she seems to welcome the attention.  She just has one requirement to sleep with him: he has to shave his beard.

While he is in the bathroom doing this, however, a man with a gun assaults him, making strange accusations.  Christian fights the guy, the gun goes off, and the would be assailant is apparently killed.  Not knowing how to explain this to the police, he and the young woman flee the scene.  From there, they encounter several strange individuals, whom Christian feels are shadowing him or otherwise have sinister motives.  Compounding the mystery is that when Christian returns to the bathroom where the fight happens (he needs to recover a necklace he left at the scene, as it could identify him), the attacker's body is gone.

So lots of weirdness is clearly going on.  And I haven't even mentioned all the female mannequins people keep finding: they've been hung, or stabbed, or otherwise "murdered".

If you want to know what's going on, and why, you'll need to see the film.  I can't promise you'll find it actually worth it, though.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)

You don't often get kids' films that run 140 minutes.  And to be honest, you could probably squeeze this film down under two hours if you really tried.  The intermission gag for instance - while hysterically funny in my adult eyes - takes up two or three minutes by itself and I'm betting that as a kid I found it far less amusing.  Still, the run time never felt like it was dragging to me, so probably the effort of squeezing it would not be worth it.

Eccentric inventor Caracatus Potts lives in a windmill with his equally-if-not-more eccentric father and his two children.  Mrs Potts is presumably dead - the film never comes out and says that, but in 1968 one did not have divorcees as the heroes of one's films - and Caracatus rather lets the two cherubs run wild, a fact that comes to the attention of well-to-do local lady Truly Scrumptious when she nearly runs them over.

Yes, her name is Truly Scrumptious.  It's that kind of story.

Truly and Caracatus have the kind of snark-filled first meeting that is movie code for "love, true love".  Sure enough, they are soon heading off for a picnic - the two children in tow - in a motor car that Caracatus buys and repairs.

It might surprise you to know that I just summarised the entire first hour of the film.  It might seem like not much has happened, but trust me it actually has - this is a very busy film, with a ton of plot.  Caracatus Potts is not the kind of man to just have the money for a car - even a wreck he had to rebuild.  I just thought we should get to the part where the title character - yes, the car - makes an appearance.

At the beach for the picnic, the kids have just asked their father for a story when a sailing ship comes into view.  Caractus immediately recognises the vessel, for it is none other than the personal yacht of Baron Bomburst of Vulgaria.  Bomburst is a petulant, acquisitive fellow who immediately wants Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for himself.  Can Caracatus and Truly protect the car from the Baron and the children from the merciless clutches of the Childcatcher?  Will they find lots of excuses to sing and dance as they do so?  Will Benny Hill of all people turn up in a bit part?  You'll have to watch it to find out.

I think that the most successful kids' films all contain two important ingredients: the first is whimsy.  A sense of wonderment and a willingness to go in odd little diversions.  The second is menace: there needs to be a credible threat to make the whimsy (and presumed triumphant ending) really 'click'.  Consider films like Wall-E or The Lion King and you'll see scenes both whimsical and dark.  Chitty Chitty Bang Bang delivers whimsy in spades, as you'll see from about five minutes in, and as for menace, well ... there's nightmare fuel aplenty once the story gets to Vulgaria itself.

This film is probably a bit too out there for many people, but I thoroughly enjoy it.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon (2008)

As is probably evident from the title, this film focuses on the Three Kingdoms era of Chinese history.  That was also the era in which The Battle of Red Cliff was set.  However, whereas that film revolved around a single battle (in fact, the battle that began the era), this one traces the career of one of the most famous generals of the period.

One thing the two movies do have in common though is that neither of them really gelled for me.  For this film in particular, that's a little bit of a disappointment.  You see, there's a lot to like here, and in two important areas I think it definitely outshines Red Cliff.

The first of those two areas is simple enough: the 'bad guys' in this film are not idiots.  They don't fall blindly into every stratagem the protagonists employ, which is a nice change.  Now it's true that the overall tone and plot of this film allows a lot more freedom for the antagonists to be competent, but still: thumbs up for capable adversaries.

The second area is the battle sequences, which to me feel much more visceral and dynamic than those of Red Cliff.

In terms of this film's strengths, I should also take the time to mention the performances, which are excellent.  It might seem a little odd to praise the actors in a film where I don't understand a word of the dialogue, but it just goes to show how much of the art of acting is in body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice.  I might not understand a word Sammo Hung is saying, but I know exactly how his character is feeling, even when those feelings are quite complex.

So why didn't this film gel for me, given the things I liked?  Ultimately it comes down to the script: although it has competent adversaries and thematic consistency going for it, there are several details that don't work for me, and it has a rather episodic feel to it: it comes across more like a series of vignettes that happen to share the same characters than a cohesive narrative.

The theme I mentioned may also not be to all tastes: despite some pretty 'yay war' dialogue - speaking of the honour of death in battle, and suchlike - it seems to me that the core of the film is 'war is futile'.  No character who pursues something by military means - whether their goal be to finally win peace for the land, or to attain personal glory, or to conquer their enemies - succeeds in their ambition.  It's not the cheeriest of films, it must be said.

Lots of things I liked here, but it is somehow less than the sum of its parts.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

The Phantom Creeps (1939)

Like several of the films in this set, The Phantom Creeps began life as a serial.  The need to cut roughly three hours of footage from the run time in order to render it film length explains - though it certainly does not excuse - the disjointed narrative, one-dimensional characters, and abrupt scene transmissions.

First things first, though: 'creeps' in the title is a verb; something I did not realise until about halfway through.  In other words, this is a movie about a phantom that creeps around, not a gaggle of creeps that are phantoms.  I would have preferred the latter, but then I would also have preferred that this was good.

Anyway, we have Bella Lugosi as Doctor Zorka, a brilliant researcher who has developed several deadly new inventions, including an eight foot tall robot and an invisibility belt (hence the 'phantom' thing).  Zorka's wife and colleague attempt to persuade them to hand his discoveries over to the US Government.  However, the not-so-good Doctor recognises the responsibilities of being born with a name like 'Zorka' and instead proposes to become a supervillain.

Well, okay, he doesn't phrase it like that, but his motives are 'wealth and power', he's going to go on a rampage of destruction for no clearly defined goal, and he has what amount to technology-based superpowers.  Give him a set of tights and he'd be right at home in Gotham City (appropriately, since this was made in the same year that Batman debuted in Detective Comics).

So there's lots of running around and gadgets and evil spies who can't hit a target from ten feet away and other such tomfoolery as Zorka attempts to do whatever it is he is attempting to do and a fairly inept group of government agents (plus, of course, An Intrepid Girl Reporter) attempt to stop him.

I wish this was as fun as its fairly goofy premise and execution would suggest.  Heck, maybe in its original form it was.  Lugosi certainly seems to be enjoying hamming it up.  In this form, however, it's just a bit of a humdrum mess, and I definitely can't recommend it.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Black Scorpion (1995)

In the 1990s, superhero comic books attempted to grow their audience out of the "for kids" enclosure.  Alas, they chose the most immature means possible: a large escalation in the violence and ruthlessness of all characters, but especially the "heroes".  It would take until the 21st century, and a shift in media to movies, before someone twigged to the idea that superheroes could be for everyone if you just told good stories with strong characters.

Black Scorpion then is very much a product of its time: we have a leather-clad vigilante in what's more or less a BDSM outfit, who thinks very little of killing the criminals she encounters.  On the other hand, 90s comic books tended - with a few notable exceptions - to be pretty joyless affairs, full of hard people making hard choices, usually with gritted teeth.  This film, on the other hand, feels more like Knight Rider if you replaced Michael Knight with a dominatrix and gave the show a big injection of sex and violence.  It's even got the magic car.

The film starts in 1975, where a father tells his young daughter the story of the scorpion and the frog.  In the unlikely event you've never seen a movie or TV show that references it, here's the tale:

A scorpion asks a frog to carry her over a river. The frog is afraid of being stung during the trip, but the scorpion argues that if it stung the frog, both would sink and the scorpion would drown. The frog agrees and begins carrying the scorpion, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog. When asked why she would doom them both like that, the scorpion says "it's my nature".

The father - who is a policeman - then rushes off to chase some criminals in a scene that is transparently meant to evoke Starsky and Hutch.

Twenty years later, the daughter is a cop working undercover to catch a serial killer who is murdering prostitutes.  The operation goes awry because she tends to take too many risks and her partner tends to be over-protective.  Her mood is already pretty bad then, when her father gets murdered.  She threatens the perpetrator with a gun, gets suspended, and decides it is time to take the law into her own hands: thus, the Black Scorpion is born.

The cops of course are not too thrilled by the deadly vigilante on their streets, and our 'heroine' must fight crime while dodging her former colleagues.  But of course, every superhero needs a supervillain, and unknown to her the armored figure of the Breathtaker is lurking in the shadows, with his army of ... well, no.  I'm not going to spoil what he's got an army of.  Suffice it to say that (a) it ties into his name and (b) is hysterically gonzo.

This definitely won't be to all tastes, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  There is apparently a sequel, as well as a TV series.  Not sure if I will be able to track them down, but I'll try.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Piranha Piranha (1972)

First things first: this movie sometimes chops the repetition in its title, but it should definitely not be confused with the 1978 Piranha.  The latter film is a fine little monster movie I'll be reviewing here soon enough (and probably also the 2010 remake of the same name at some point).

This movie on the other hand, isn't really about killer fish at all.  One does make an appearance in the opening credits, and they have a small cameo near the end, but the title actually refers to the name of one of the human characters.

The plot here is pretty thin.  A trio of westerners go to Venezuela to do a photo-article on the diamond trade.  There are two guys and a woman.  The woman's vehemently anti-guns, to the point where she harangues one of the guys when he uses a pistol to shoot a snake that's dangerously close to her.  Her attitude to firearms will be brought up often enough by the script that you'll quickly realise it is a Plot Point.

The three travellers meet Caribe, a local hunter, who offers to show them around.  He proves pretty knowledgeable about the area, though there's definitely some testosterone issues between him and one of the original two men.  And he's a tab too fond of killing things to be entirely balanced.  But the group either don't notice that or persuade themselves that this is just his way and nothing to worry about.

Hint as to whether they're right: Caribe is what Piranha are called in Venezuela.

So eventually Caribe flips out, rapes the woman (off screen, thankfully), and hunts the men.  He kills one and has the other at his mercy, but in the fight he happens to have dropped his gun.

If you have been paying attention to this review, you can probably work out who kills him and how.

This film is let down by the clumsiness of the script and the mediocre acting (especially from the guy playing Caribe, even though he gets top billing).  Well really, 'let down' is probably the wrong expression since that implies that there were other elements that were better.  There really aren't.

A very pedestrian affair.  Not worth your time.

Monday, 15 December 2014

The Big Sleep (1946)

This is a very good film.

As insights go, if you know anything about movies, that's about on a level of "water is wet".  Even if you aren't familiar with The Big Sleep's esteemed position in the history of crime cinema, there are plenty of clues you're in for something special.  You've got one of the greatest directors of the era.  You've got one of the greatest screen couples of any era.  You've got a script by Faulkner from a novel by Chandler.  It would take deliberate sabotage for this film to not be good.

There are no saboteurs to be found here, however.  The cast is uniformly strong, while the script pairs a solid enough plot with dialogue that is justly famous to this day.  Whether it's Bogart grilling a suspect or having history's dirtiest conversation about horse-racing with Bacall, the film is never dull when folks are talking.

Plot-wise, I don't want to say too much.  Private Investigator Philip Marlowe is hired by the wealthy General Sternwood.  Ostensibly his job is to quietly handle a spot of blackmail of Sternwood's younger daughter.  There's a whole lot more than that going on, of course, but part of the fun is seeing it all develop on screen, and I have no intention of spoiling it.

I like this better than The Maltese Falcon, probably because I liked Marlowe better as a character than Sam Spade.  There's a bit less bastard in this magnificent bastard, and a bit more decency.

Unless you're one of those people who refuses to watch black and white films (in which case you have my condolences) you should definitely check this out.  Excellent stuff.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Panic (1982)

Italy has produced talented film makers, but it's better known for producing cheap and lurid bits of gonzo sleaze.  Now that's certainly not a product on which the Italians have a monopoly, but - rightly or wrongly - when you say things like "giant mutant guinea pig", my immediate reaction is going to be "Italian film".

Alas, Panic (or Bakterion as it was originally known; or Monster of Blood if you're from the US) doesn't really have much more than the guinea pig to offer when it comes to 'gonzo', and it's pretty light on 'sleaze' too.  That just leaves 'cheap' which it certainly has in spades.  And hey, Roger Corman built his sixty year career on 'cheap', so it can certainly work as a strategy.

The basic plot outline is simple enough: a secret experiment goes awry, transforming both the subject of the test (the guinea pig) and the scientist performing it, into mutated monsters.  The pair get away unnoticed in the confusion, and the facility's owners do their best to gloss over the incident.

The authorities aren't buying it though and call in Captain Kirk (yes, that's really his name) to investigate the accident.  Kirk will soon find himself pursuing a serial killer, as the mutated scientist rampages around murdering folks and drinking their blood.  Normally, I'd expect the kill scenes to be big gore fests (they certainly would be if Dario Argento was making this movie) but this film tends to 'cut away' in the attacks.  Which given how static and uninteresting most of the rest of the film is, means that there's not much to alleviate the boredom.

Other than this guy, I mean.  We're supposed to be looking at him through a manhole in this picture.

Oohs a cute widdle giant mutant guinea pig then?

Alas, other than this one moment of unintentional hilarity, there's not much to recommend here.  The script's hamfisted, the acting poor (to be fair, most of the dialogue is probably dubbed in in post), and the action non-existent.  Not worth your time.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

The Battle of Red Cliff (2008)

It would be pithy, and not entirely inaccurate, to summarise this film as "the Chinese 300".  Like that film, it focuses on a historical battle where a tyrant's massive force is outwitted and outfought by a far less numerous enemy.  Like that film, it is highly exaggerated and romanticised, with little regard for what actually happened except at the most elementary level.  Like that film, it frequently relies on the bad guys being colossally stupid.

Fortunately, there are ways in which the films differ.  Red Cliff features more colours than just orange and teal for instance.  And it has more than one significant female character. Admittedly, it has only two, but they get to actually have a significant influence on the course of events.  That is alas somewhat undermined by one of those 'woman gets held hostage as a way to control her man' scenes, but at least she puts up a decent fight before it happens.  No just grabbing her upper arm to render her helpless.  It's also far less racist.  But then it would kind of have to be.

That's not to say the film is without flaws.  It's not well paced, for one thing.  The original Chinese release was five hours long in two parts; the version I saw is 'only' half that, but it still drags in several parts: mostly the battle sequences.  These are supposed to be epic and dramatic but to my eyes they come across as extremely contrived and sometimes rather goofy.  Also, as mentioned above, the bad guys do a lot of really, really dumb things, continually stumbling into the traps laid for them by the heroes.  It's hard to take them seriously, they're so inept.

The plot?  Well, like I said it's more or less the same premise as 300.  Cao Cao, nominally the 'Prime Minister' of the Han Empire, but actually the real power, browbeats the Emperor into authorising him to invade the lands to the south.  Cao Cao intends to unify all China under his control and - so his enemies believe at least - make himself emperor once he has done so.

Unfortunately for Cao Cao the lords he has chosen to attack are each served by a man of incredible intelligence, skill and daring.  These are the master strategist and natural scholar Kongming, and the able general and fearsome warrior Zhou Yu.  These two will continually outmaneuver him in the ensuing campaign, culminating in an initially spectacular but ultimately overly long and rather tiresome battle.

I really wish this movie had worked better for me, because I think there are things in it to like, but ultimately it didn't quite come together.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

How Awful About Allan (1970)

When Allan Crawley carelessly leaves out some painting supplies, they cause a fire which leaves his father dead and his sister Katherine disfigured by her efforts to save the older man.  Allan himself emerges physically unharmed, but his guilt over the events leaves him with psychosomatic blindness.

Three months later, Allan's doctor has helped him to conquer some of his guilt, and his eyesight has returned enough for him to make out blurry shapes and colours.  Enough at least that the doctor believes Allan should leave the hospital and continue his recuperation at home.

So Allan returns to the house, where Katherine is still living.  The room where the fire occurred is still boarded up, but the rest of the building seems intact enough.  On the other hand, money has become very tight, and Katherine informs him they need to bring in a lodger (sidenote: the characters always say 'roomer' rather than 'lodger', which I continually parsed as 'rumour' every time I heard it).

Allan's not keen to have a stranger in the house - especially one he can't even see - and he's even less happy about it when the stranger appears to have very odd habits.  The man keeps the door to his room locked at all times, and only comes in and out in the middle of the night.

That's soon going to be the least of Allan's worries however, as a strange shadowy figure periodically appears to haunt him.  Is his guilt about the fire now manifesting in a new delusion, or is there actually someone stalking Allan?

Honestly, the weakness of the film is that the answer to that last question is pretty easy to work out.  I mean, the exact details of what's going on aren't clear, but you won't be spending much time thinking this is all in Allan's head, and frankly you'll probably figure out the principal culprit early on.  It's not like the film really gives you a lot of options for who it could be.

So while the performances are solid (especially for what was made as a TV movie), How Awful About Allan isn't going to present you with much in the way of mystery.  It also, after the reveal is finally made, has a laughably silly epilogue sequence.

Not a film you need to seek out, unless you're a passionate fan of either Psycho's Anthony Perkins (who stars as Allan) or of TV soapmeister Aaron Spelling (whose company produced it).

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Monster: Humanoids from the Deep (1980)

There are some pretty obvious similarities between this film and the one I reviewed yesterday.  Both feature horrific creatures spawned by science gone awry.  Both feature 'teenagers' venturing to aquatic locations they don't know are dangerous.  Both have quite a lot of talky bits to pad out the run time between monster attacks.  Both even feature lead actors who were probably wondering how their career ended up in this schlock.

There are two significant differences, however.  The first is that this film is considerably better executed.  The second is that it has a whole lot more sleaze.

That sleaze was actually the subject of considerable controversy among the cast and crew. Producer Roger Corman, whose guiding principle has always been "what will make money?" felt that to get a "yes" for this film, it needed more raunchiness, so he filmed additional, highly sexual scenes after the main photography was complete.  The director and lead female actor both asked for their names to be removed from the film after seeing the final cut, but their requests were refused.

Putting aside the fact that Corman could be rather a jerk (which will not be news to anyone familiar with his career), how's the film?  Well for me, despite my general antipathy toward sexual assault as a plot element, Humanoids is so flagrant in its sleaziness and so blatant about its formula, that I find it hard to dislike.  It might be cynically exploitative, but at least it is honest about that fact.

So yeah, this is very much a boobs 'n' blood kind of film; perhaps the only movie I've seen that is more aggressively so is 2010's Piranha 3D.  Which I will review here one day, I am sure.  If you're simply not going to be entertained by a very deliberately exploitative film, you should skip it.  I certainly wouldn't blame you for feeling that way.

If you can look past that issue though, there's actually a well-crafted monster movie in here.  The influence of films like Jaws and Alien are obvious, but those certainly aren't bad movies to draw upon.  I like the design and execution of the Humanoids, and their attack sequences are staged effectively.  Their origin story and motivations are also sufficiently gonzo that I have a soft spot for them.  Finally, the film is smart enough to include an amusing subversion of its own tropes at one point, which provoked an outright laugh of pleasure from me as I was watching.

If you're in the mood for a trashtastic creature feature, this is worth catching.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Night Fright (1967)

My first thought on seeing the title of this film was to wonder if it was a cheapie knock-off of mid-80s vampire flick Fright Night, but it's actually nearly 20 years older, and also far goofier.

The film starts with a familiar trope: two college kids making out at lover's lane get murdered by an unseen assailant.  Before they get around to being killed, though, they find time for some exposition about a rocket crashing nearby.  Golly, could the two be related in some way?

B-movie stalwart John Agar is the local sheriff.  He decides to close the lake where the kids go to make out, but also decides not to tell them why.  I bet that plan goes great, Johnboy.

So, to spoil the film's big reveal: the murderer is a gorilla that NASA sent into space to study the effects of cosmic radiation.  As justifications for your monster being a guy in a gorilla suit and a funky mask go ... well, it is one.  Which puts this film at least one step ahead of Robot Monster.

So anyway, the monster roams around the woods - always at night, so the shortcomings of the costume are less obvious - while the Sheriff tries to find it (given the nature of the wounds on the first two victims, he does know it is an "it" of some kind).  In parallel to this we get a pretty tiresome teen drama about some wholesome young man and his wholesome new girlfriend, and his possibly-jealous ex and her bad boy beau.  Possibly jealous ex is also the younger sister of the sheriff's own girlfriend (who looks a good twenty years younger than the mid-40s Agar).  So there's a whole lot of talky talk going on in between the sporadic monster attacks.  Talky-talk like:

"But... but seriously, have you... have you ever thought about... oh, sometimes when I'm alone I think about things that we don't know about... about the sky and the earth and the air and the wind... or even this leaf."

Dialogue for the ages, that.

This was a very cheap production, something that is clear not just from the hokey nature of the monster costume but also from the extensive amount of padding: we get several long sequences of Agar walking around the forest, and of the college kids dancing (which reveals that the director was particularly enamored of one extra's backside), both of which serve to eat up time.  The latter sequence also shows up the movie's lack of concern with continuity, as the twilight dancing scene is intercut with other events that were clearly filmed in the middle of the day.

I actually had fun watching this because (a) the stuff with the teens is so badly done and (b) the monster only ever attacks people when they're in cars (though it will chase them if they leave the vehicle), which led me to conduct a theory that it was just acting out its anger against being sealed in a tin can and blasted into space.

Unless you have a taste for some really goofy low budget schlock though, you can skip this.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Mistress of Atlantis (1932)

It might surprise you to learn that not only did Atlantis exist, but it never sank beneath the waves of the ocean, and can in fact still be found in the depths of the Sahara.

Admittedly in 1932 that premise probably seemed a lot more plausible, what with the lack of detailed satellite images of the area, and so on.  Which is how we get this film, where two soldiers from the French Foreign Legion stumble across the hidden civilisation while attempting to survey an ancient road.

The two men are separated, and the one who is serving as our narrator meets two further 'guests' of the Atlanteans: a decidedly quirky Russian and a morose Swede.  Both these men talk in glowing terms of Antinea, the Queen of the city, and when our 'hero' (for want of a better term) is summoned into her presence, the Swede is so upset he instigates a fight.

After that is resolved, the soldier is taken to Queen Antinea (Brigitte Helm, who also starred in a little film called Metropolis).  She doesn't answer his questions about his missing friend, but does offer him a game of chess.  If he wins, she will let him go free.  He eagerly accepts, but she soundly trounces him.  Smart lady, to have become so good at a game that wasn't even invented until 9000 years after Atlantis allegedly passed out out the knowledge of ordinary humans.

The soldier returns from his meeting as smitten by the Queen as the Swede was.  So smitten, in fact, that when he learns the Swede has committed suicide, he doesn't seem to stop and consider that this sort of obsession might be more than a little unhealthy.

Alas for him, his interest is not requited.  The Queen is more taken with the other soldier - possibly because he is the only man who doesn't fawn over her.  She may over time find his resistance irritating rather than intriguing, however, and that will be quite bad for his health.

The main problem with this film, for me, is that having set all this up, it then seems in no real hurry to do much with it.  The version I saw was 77 minutes, but felt quite a lot longer, possibly because the plot (a) is largely recounted as a flashback within a framing narrative, and (b) comes to a halt a couple of times for some rather random-seeming diversions.

Some people may find the film's dreamy, somewhat disjointed pacing to be intriguing.  I did not.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)

This is the third and to date last of the Narnia films.  It was a (deserved, in my opinion) success at the box office, but the franchise has since then been caught up in the legal tangles that often afflict licensed properties.  I'm going to assume you're familiar with my earlier reviews of the series for the purposes of this one.  So if you aren't, now might be a good time to check them out.

The film begins with Edmund and Lucy staying with their odious cousin, Eustace Clarence Scrubb, whom as author C S Lewis memorably put it "very nearly deserved" his name.  Eustace has always mocked his cousins for their stories of Narnia, and is outraged to be dragged along on their latest adventure with them.

As you might surmise, Eustace has the most prominent character arc in the film, as he learns to become a Narnian Hero.  He's not alone in having an arc, though: the movie does a pretty decent job of providing them to Lucy, Edmund and King Caspian (as he has now become) as well.

The original Dawn Treader novel is something of a travelogue-style story.  The only linking theme is the search for seven lost friends of Caspian's father.  The movie introduces an active evil force to oppose the adventurers, which can only be overcome by gathering the swords of the missing men.  Some Narnia purists objected to his change, but I think it is a smart one: books can get away with being less focused than a movie, generally speaking, and creating an evil to face gives the characters additional motivation to persevere in the face of the dangers they encounter.

Even with a linking thread, the movie feels quite episodic: the characters visit the island of slavers, the island of invisibility, the island of gold, and so on.  Plus there's the whole 'Aslan is Jesus' thing to squeeze in.  The movie makes an effort to rotate the focus characters in each section, which helps make them each seem worthwhile, but there feels like a bit too much content squashed into the run time.

Still, it's not as "KITCHEN SINK!" as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and it has the advantage of much more likable characters, so I thoroughly enjoyed it.  As always, the effects are excellent and the singular strength of the series - fantastic casting of the children who are the main characters - continues with the actor chosen to play Eustace.

I hope we get more Narnia films - some progress is apparently being made on that front - but if this ends up being the last, it would be a solid conclusion.

It's also my 400th review on here, and a pretty cool way to hit that milestone.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Maciste in Hell (1925)

The Italian film industry has never been shy about aping success, and so the Steve Reeves' Hercules films inspired a flood of sword and sandal imitators during the 1960, including over 20 starring the hero "Maciste".

When I fired up this DVD I expected one of those movies, but this is actually one of the original, silent era Maciste films.  Again, there were over twenty of these, with Maciste in Hell being one of the later entries.

Maciste is a tremendously strong and virtuous man, a combination which deeply concerns the forces of Hell.  They send one of their most expert agents to tempt Maciste into wickedness.  In this case, being an 'expert' seems to consist of dressing like you've just tied a woman to some train tracks somewhere, and blatantly offering "gold, pleasures or power" in exchange for becoming an ally of Hell.

Unsurprisingly, this approach meets with little success.  The demon does come up with a better plan though, as he targets Maciste's young cousin Rosabelle and her child.  Maciste saves the boy but ends up in the underworld as a result.  Initially, that just gives him the chance to beat up a bunch of demons, but things change when he meets a couple of female denizens of Hell.  There's bad girl and a good girl (yes, even amongst demons there are good girls, it seems).  The good girl warns Maciste not to kiss any woman in Hell, but ten seconds later he's making out with the bad girl.

Maciste is strong, not smart.

This turns Maciste into a demon, just in time to lead an army in an Infernal civil war.  Because being really strong makes you a good general, I guess.  Not that you really need to be much of a tactician when you can beat up a hundred enemies by yourself.

Will Maciste escape Hell?  Of course he will, eventually.  The film's not going to let it happen easily, though.

Much as with Lost World, the main selling point of this film is the effects.  While they're not the technical marvel of the other movie's stop motion, they are very ambitious for the era, with some immense sets and some cool ideas.  The plot's rather more disjointed than that other film, though, and Maciste's frequent melees aren't as interesting as say Allosaur vs Triceratops, so overall I can't recommend it.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Coraline (2009)

I missed Coraline at the theatres, so picked it up on DVD ... and then didn't watch it for five years.

On the plus side, this is the last DVD that I purchased prior to 2011 and still hadn't watched, so this blog is having its desired effect (when I started, I had stuff dating back to before 2007).

So this is based on a Neil Gaiman novel, and having seen the film, I think I'll track down the book.  I suspect I will like it more.  Not that I hated the movie, but from a glance at wikipedia, the most significant changes it made were among my least favorite elements.  But we'll get to those in a bit; first, a precis.

What we have here is a dark modern fairy tale (from Neil Gaiman?  What a shock!) filmed using the same techniques as A Nightmare Before Christmas.  I have to say though that I like this film's visuals much more.  I think they're significantly more inventive, with some great details in the design work.  I found this film a pleasure just to watch for the visual aspect alone.

Coraline is a young girl of maybe 12 years of age who is rather discontented with her parents.  They're always working, and her mom in particular interacts with her only to forbid her from doing fun things, or to tell her to stop bothering them.  I mean sure, sometimes adults are busy, but Coraline's mom isn't very nice about it.

So it's probably not surprising that Coraline is unhappy, especially as they've recently moved and she doesn't know anyone.  Which is why she's so pleased to discover a secret, magical door that leads to a world where her parents are warm and funny and very attentive.

Of course, it's the way of such things that the seeming wonderland has a darker side, which Coraline will discover soon enough.  This leads into the final act of the film, where she has to fight to save herself and her parents from the danger to which she has unwittingly exposed them.

So what did the movie do that I didn't like?  It added Wibey, a male character that is purportedly there to 'give Coraline someone to talk to', but who ends up doing quite a bit too much actually-saving-the-day for my tastes.  Way to undermine the cool female protagonist, film-making dudes.

That said, if you like Gaiman's work, or the idea of spooky, kooky movies in general, then you should check this one out.  Even with Wibey stealing way too much of Coraline's thunder, it's an entertaining flick.

Monday, 1 December 2014

This Is Not A Test (1962)

There are too many flaws with this film for me to go so far as to give it a recommendation - even a qualified one - but I kinda like it anyway.  It's a low budget "the bombs are coming" film that actually tries to treat the subject matter with some seriousness.

A deputy sheriff gets orders to set up a roadblock on a mountain road.  Initially, this is to search vehicles for a fugitive who is wanted for murder.  As he begins, however, another more grave announcement is made: a yellow alert, with a risk of imminent nuclear war.  As he explains to the passengers in the vehicles he's stopped, this means evacuations will be beginning in the cities, and he cannot let anyone move from their current position.

This is about the point where we discover that a hitchhiker in one of the vehicles is the fugitive mentioned earlier.  This fellow escapes the deputy's efforts to apprehend him, and spends the rest of the movie lurking nearby but not actually doing much.  The whole fugitive angle is one of the film's weaknesses.  As pretext which gets the deputy into place to set up the roadblock and bring the rest of the cast together, it's fine.  Having the fugitive actually be one of the people there, though, and then not doing anything with him, feels very odd.  It would have been better if he hadn't been there at all.  "I set up this roadblock for reason X, but now something much more important is happening" would have been sufficient.

The deputy decides that the group will attempt to turn one of the vehicles - a supply truck - into a makeshift bomb shelter, and sets everyone to work.  I guess it's a better option than a fridge, and long shot or not, it's the best option they have.

Or as it turns out, it's not: one of the drivers is a local and knows of an abandoned mine in the mountain, with a subterranean spring.  However, for some reason he decides not to tell anyone about this up front.  Even when he does finally bring it up, it's only to his granddaughter and a young man from the area.  Way to murder a bunch of people, guy.  The movie tries to paint this fellow as one of the more likable figures, too.  It makes for an odd and jarring development.

These issues, plus some acting that's pretty deep into 'not good' territory, undercut the film quite a bit, as do a couple of eye-rolly 'hysterical woman' segments.  This is a shame, because they distract from the mostly decent efforts to bring home the overwhelming nature of what is happening, and the sombre overall mood of the film.

With a few of the weaker cast members replaced, and a bit of script-doctoring, this would be within shouting distance of pretty good.  As is though, it has a few too many issues to recommend it.