Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009)



I saw the US version of this a couple of years ago and thought it was decent.  Having now watched the earlier Swedish effort, I'm forced to mark the American film down a good few notches.  This is simply better on every front.

The problem with the English-language film is the same as the problem with the English-language title of the book on which both movies are based: it diminishes the lead female character.  She's a grown woman, not a "girl", damn it.  The Swedish title, should you be curious, is "Men Who Hate Women".  Presumably that was felt too confronting to be the English-language title.

In the Swedish movie Lisbeth Salander is allowed to be much more proactive and capable than in the US effort.  Even the sub-plot where she is sexually assaulted is structured in such a way to preserve as much of her agency as possible.

That sub-plot, by the by, is one of two reasons why this film only gets a qualified recommendation.  It is pretty confronting stuff.  The second reason is that this is a near 2.5 hour film in a foreign language, and a lot of people seem to have an issue with reading subtitles (there's no dubbed option on my disc, though perhaps there are on other editions).

For those who don't know, the plot involves a burnt out journalist who gets hired to investigate a 40-year old murder.  He comes to be aided in this by a brilliant but troubled young researcher (the aforementioned Lisbeth) as the two of them unravel a mystery far deeper and broader than they could ever have expected.  Said mystery hangs together pretty well, too.

A satisfying film all around.  I shall be interested to see how the two sequels hold up, when I get to hem.



Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Lady Frankenstein (1971)



The lady of the title is Tania Frankenstein, daughter of the baron.  She arrives home from university - where she was studying medicine, much to the discomfort of many of her male teachers - and wastes no time informing her father that she has no intention of being a surgeon, as he expected.  Instead, intends to help him with his life's work: the reanimation of the dead.

The elder Frankenstein's experiments are hugely illegal however, and so he forbids her involvement.  Should his activities be discovered, he wants her to have plausible deniability.

Unfortunately for daddy Frank, his wishes aren't going to matter for very long.  His latest experiment involves attempting to transplant a human brain into a new body.  Not only does he choose to use the brain of an executed criminal for this, but he presses ahead even when his assistant points out that the brain has suffered damage.  The baron may as well be wearing a "please kill me" badge and his creation promptly obliges his apparent death wish.  It then storms off into the countryside where it seems to have an unerring instinct for finding (a) the men who brought Frankenstein the criminal's body and (b) naked ladies.

Tania commits herself to continuing her father's work.  Not by preserving his brain and trying to find a body for it, as you might expect her to do, but by seducing the assistant and persuading him to have his body transplanted into that of the estate's handsome young handy man.  She'll prove the value of her father's work, the assistant will finally get to act on his long-term infatuation with her, and they'll both have the benefits of a powerful young body to protect them if the monster returns.  Everybody wins!

Yeah, if you think this plan is destined for disaster, you could be on to something.

Lady Frankenstein was partly financed by Roger Corman, and as usual he proves a pretty good judge of what ought to turn a buck.  The film's start is a little slow but once the monster comes on the scene the script throws plenty of sex and violence at the audience.  If you're in the mood for a schlockier, sleazier Hammer horror pic, this should do you nicely.


Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Gamera vs Gyaos (1967)



The 1990s reboot of Gamera made Gyaos something of a signature enemy, with an origin story involving Atlantean biotechnology.  In its original appearance though, Gyaos is ... just some bird/reptile thingy with funky powers.

Also, the 90s version looked much less goofy than this.

Gyaos emerges into Japan when an eruption at Mt Fuji exposes its cave.  It immediately eats a reporter, but is prevented from also snacking on an annoying child when Gamera turns up, attracted by the lava.

Naturally, the two monsters fight.  It's refreshing to see that the producers learned from one of the mistakes of Gamera vs Barugon and got to the kaiju battles a lot earlier in this picture.  If you're feeling generous to Gamera, you might call this encounter a draw: he saves the kid but his arm is badly injured by Gyaos's sonic lance.

Alas, all this kid-saving doubtless means we're heading into the "Gamera, Friend of All Children" period of the franchise.  In other words, the hellish period of the franchise.

The rest of this movie though - apart from annoying kid being annoying and coming up with all the answers while the adults just sit around looking perplexed - is actually not so bad.  I mean, it's not good enough that I'd recommend it to anyone but a kaiju fan, but if you fit that definition then there's a decent mid-movie battle and plenty of the inevitable human efforts coming to naught.

Monday, 28 December 2015

All About Eve (1950)



As an inclusion in a Marilyn Monroe Collection, this film is something of a ringer.  Monroe appears in only two scenes, totalling perhaps five minutes of screen time in a more-than-two-hour film.  She's fun in the role she has, but it's not a big one.

But if you're going to have a ring-in film, then I guess one which won the Best Picture Oscar and had no fewer than four female cast members nominated as well (two for Best Female Lead, two for Best Supporting Female) is not a bad one to choose.

The film concerns renowned stage actress Margo Channing - who at forty years of age is painfully aware that she is much older than the roles she is generally called on to play - and her circle of friends.  One night this circle is enlarged by the introduction of Eve Harrington, an ingenue from the mid-west who is Margo's most devoted fan.

Eve soon makes herself indispensable to Margo, attending to all the needs of the actress's household.  But is she really as innocent and wholesome as she appears?

Well frankly there wouldn't be much of a movie if she was, so consider that a rhetorical question.

I do have some issues with the script.  Setting aside that it displays the lamentable attitudes you'd expect of a 65-year old film, both in the things it says about women and its complete lack of non-white characters, there are some plot points that require some fairly strong suspenders for your disbelief.  It also doesn't quite stick the ending, to my mind.  It's not without merit though: there's some very snappy dialogue throughout.

Where All About Eve uniformly shines in its performances.  The womens' Academy Award nominations are I think all richly deserved, though I'd especially call out Bette Davis for her performance as the proud, headstrong, but vulnerable Margo.  She has the benefit of the meatiest role, but she makes the most of it.  If you have an appreciation for fine acting, it's worth seeking out just for that.


Friday, 25 December 2015

Santa's Slay (2005)



So to get the obvious out of the way right at the beginning: this is not a good film.  The plot is thin - and mostly delivered via flashback - and the ending is kind of a muddle.  Nor is it a sophisticated movie: it's the kind of flick that unabashedly drops a fart joke in the middle of a scene because farts are funny, right?

On the other hand, there's something about this anarchic, unashamedly goofy Xmas-themed slasher film that I can't help but like.  Probably a big part of it is that lack of shame.  This movie is utterly unrepentant about what it is and equally bereft of any airs or pretensions.  From the outrageous stunt-casting of the opening scene to the goofy closing credits, it commits to its premise ("Santa is really an evil Demon who has been magically bound to be good for the last thousand years, but now he is free") wholeheartedly.

Of course, it commits to that premise so wholeheartedly that having revealed it, there's not much I can tell you about the plot, because it's all in that sentence.  Santa roams around in his sleigh, murdering people with inventive gusto, while the obvious heroes by virtue of the fact that they survive more than two scenes slowly begin to piece together what is going on.

Said heroes are played pretty well, it must be said.  The casting is solid throughout the film.  Even the obvious gimmick of casting pro wrestler Bill Goldberg as Santa pans out okay, since he's mainly just called on to look menacing and make deliberately cheesy one-liners.

If you're looking to make your holidays less wholesome, you could do a lot worse.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Straw Dogs (1971)



This film does some interesting and unusual things, which is why it has a qualified recommendation, but it is really, really, really qualified.  It's not a happy or comfortable film in any way, and while the violence of the climactic sequence has lost a lot of its shock value in the 40+ years since it was made, there's a two-part sexual assault scene in the middle that is deeply controversial and in my opinion deeply problematic.

David and Amy Sumner have rented a farmhouse in the English countryside.  Amy has roots in the area, but her husband is an American academic, who fits in poorly amidst the earthy locals.  Compounding this awkwardness is a strong sense that all is not well in their marriage.  They obviously feel passion for each other but Amy is contemptuous of David's work and of his lack of ability with tools, while David for his part clearly considers his wife to be intellectually inferior.  This tension - as well as mounting frustration and fear stemming from the ever more confrontational antics of the local men - will ultimately explode in the film's final act.

There are good performances here, and some thought-provoking elements to the film.  It's certainly not a "revenge fantasy" film like you might expect.  The situation where the heretofore diffident David is finally pushed too far is completely tangential to most of what has come before, and has little personally to do with either him or his wife.  We the audience know that Amy was raped by two of the men with whom David will engage in a savage battle, but David himself has no idea that happened.  He's simply - as the tag line says - reached his breaking point.  There's no sense of triumph when the dust finally settles.  He and Amy do not cling to each other, their relationship restored by the ordeal they've endured.  There's a sense of numb relief, but not much more.

This is a confronting and uncomfortable film and I share many of the misgivings that others have over the years raised about the rape scene near the middle, but it is interesting to see a film that so thoroughly usurps many of the expected story beats.  Worth a look if you're in the mood for something stark.  Make sure you get the original though, as the 2011 remake appears to have eliminated much of the complexity that makes the film interesting despite its profound issues.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Funeral Home (1980)



1978's Halloween launched the "shadowy figure murders lots of folks" film on an unsuspecting world, beginning a horror movie revolution that would culminate in the slasher film.  Ironically, one of the key aspects of the genre's final form - the prominence and importance of the killer as a character in the film - was entirely absent from the progenitor.

This movie was released just two years later; the same time as the first Friday the 13th, in fact, and like that film it hews much more closely to the Halloween formula than to the later model.  It also seems to owe more than a little debt to Psycho, though it doesn't really deserve to be discussed in the same breath as Hitchcock's film.

Heather is a college student who is spending her summer vacation helping her grandmother run her new bed & breakfast business.  Grandma Maude has established this endeavour in what used to be the local funeral home.  There's no way such a decision could prove to be a bad one, is there?

As I am sure you are shocked to learn, guests at the B&B soon start "checking out" without notice.  Heather comes to suspect that the building's cellar figures into the mystery: Maude keeps the room locked but Heather has heard voices coming from it, and believes that someone must be living down there.  It takes her rather a long time to get around to doing anything about this belief though.

"Takes rather a long time" is something of a theme of the film, to be honest.  Like a lot of cheaply made horror films it tends to be long on people talking about the creepy things that are happening, rather than actually having creepy things happen.

You'd be better off watching any of the other films mentioned in this review than this one.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Gamera vs Barugon (1966)



I bought this collection for the 1990s trilogy (all of which I have reviewed previously on this blog), as to be honest I've never much rated Gamera's original 1960s-70s run of films.  But they are now among the DVDs that I have owned longest without watching them, so I guess I'd better make a start.  I'm helped a little by the fact that I already saw the first and fifth films as part of another boxed set, so can skip them this time.

This is the second of the original series.  At the end of his debut film, Gamera was lured onto a rocket and blasted into space.  Therefore this one starts with the news that a meteor crashed into the rocket, destroying it, and Gamera has returned to Earth.  Once here, he resumes his rapacious consumption of energy, destroying a hydro-electric dam in Japan and then racing off to absorb the geothermal energy of an erupting volcano.

Things are about to go from bad to worse however, as a group of Japanese treasure hunters accidentally unleash another giant monster.  This is Barugon, a lizard-like creature with the ability to exhale a freezing mist, and also to unleash a rainbow-like energy blast powerful enough to vaporise steel.

There are no prizes for guessing that the two monsters will fight.  It's right there in the title of the film, after all.  But if you're seeking a picture packed with rock 'em sock 'em kaiju on kaiju action, this is not the movie you're looking for.  They have only two brief fights.  Barugon wins the first, around the halfway point of the film, quite easily, freezing Gamera until the last five minutes of the the movie.  Most of the last act instead focuses on human efforts to defeat the big lizard.  They fail, but they do injure him enough that he's easy pickings for Gamera when the turtle returns for round 2.

This is better than the other two 1960s Gamera films I have seen, but frankly that's an extremely low bar to clear.  Only bother with this if you are a kaiju tragic.

Monday, 21 December 2015

The Americans Season 1 (2013)



Washington DC, 1981.  Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are husband and wife travel agents.  They have a nice house in the suburbs and two children; 13 year old Paige and 10 year old Henry.

They're also elite Soviet spies, who have been carrying out sabotage, espionage and assassinations since being infiltrated into the US nearly twenty years earlier.

With the new Reagan administration ratcheting up the Cold War tensions, Philip and Elizabeth must face ever more challenging and dangerous missions from their Moscow-based directors, while struggling to maintain the facade of their 'normal' lives and protect Paige and Henry from the consequences of who their parents really are.

The Americans is a smart, well-written, well-acted "spy soap" that follows not just the Jennings family but also the FBI agents who seek to catch them and the Soviet embassy staffer who gets caught in the middle.  The cast is uniformly strong: not just the leads, which is probably to be expected, but also the regular minor players all turn in sound performances.

Writing-wise, there is of course an interesting tension between the fact that the Jennings family are our main point of view characters, with whom we sympathise, and yet they regularly do pretty terrible things, such as poisoning a college student as a means of blackmailing his mother.  Not that the people chasing them are pure as the driven snow either, of course.  They're not above a little blackmail or assassination of their own.  The show is definitely a "shades of grey" affair.

This is good stuff.  I ploughed through the entire season in a weekend.  I don't think I can give a more convincing recommendation than that, really.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Iron Man 2 (2010)



I wasn't all that thrilled by Iron Man 2 when I saw it at the cinema, but on the re-watch it proves to be a better film than I gave it credit for back then.  It's certainly got its flaws - which I will get to - but there's plenty to enjoy as well.

Some months after revealing himself as Iron Man, Tony Stark is facing two main problems: the first is the efforts of the US government to seize what they deem to be his new "weapon".  The second is that the technology is slowly killing him.  Stark's reaction to both troubles is perfectly in keeping with his swaggering ego: he tries to brazen them out.

What Tony doesn't know is that a third problem is just over the horizon.  A Russian physicist named Anton Vanko has access to technology similar to that which powers the Iron Man suit, and he has his reasons to hate Tony Stark.  The clash between the two men will be an explosive one, to say the least, especially once Vanko has the backing of Justin Hammer, a wealthy rival of Stark.

I mentioned that this film had flaws, and I think Vanko is one of them.  Mickey Rourke is a fine actor, but the role doesn't give him as much screen time or dialogue as it probably should.  A lot of the time he could have used instead goes to Justin Hammer, who ... well he's amusing, but he's never presented as a credible threat to Tony Stark and I think that undermines the film's efforts to build tension.

Despite that, this is a fun film.  There are some genuinely funny moments, plenty of exciting action sequences, and the same strong performances that marked the first entry in the franchise.  Iron Man 2 also introduces Black Widow to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and while she doesn't get to do as much as I might like in this film, Widow is definitely one of the ongoing MCU's star players.

If you have any interest in superhero films in general, this one is worth your time.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Iron Man (2008)



This is a movie that really needs no introduction.  After all, it not only resurrected the career of Robert Downey Junior, it launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has racked up a dozen successful films in the last eight years.  It's reached the stage that predicting the failure of the next MCU movie is something of a cottage industry.  One day the naysayers will even be right.

Downey plays Tony Stark, the brilliant and charming - albeit vain and shallow - wunderkind owner of a massive weapons manufacturing company.  Stark's cavalier attitude to life gets a serious reality check when he's captured by terrorists.  They attempt to force him to manufacture weapons for them, but instead he creates a miraculous armored suit and fights his way to freedom.

The experience changes Stark, as you might imagine it would, and he tries to put his company on a more altruistic path.  There are forces within the organisation who have a vested interest in opposing his ambitions, however, and will stop at nothing to thwart his plans.

It's not hard to see why this film was a big success.  It features great central performances from Downey as Stark, and from Gwyneth Paltrow as his assistant.  It has a solid script with plenty of fun dialogue.  And of course it boasts some slam bam action sequences.  They might not impress quite as much now as they did back in 2008 of course - expectations have climbed since the release of newer MCU films - but they are still well put together.

A fine film that richly deserved its critical and commercial success.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Devil Times Five (1974)



Three couples go on vacation to an isolated mountain lodge.  Each of the couples has its troubles, often caused - or at least exacerbated by - their relationship with the other pairs.

These everyday squabbles aren't going to matter very much in the near future, however, as five children trudge out of the wilderness to the lodge.  They explain that they are survivors of a bus crash and the adults take them in.  Attempts to contact the authorities fail because the phone lines are out, but the adults aren't too concerned.  They've enough food to look after the kids for a few days if need be.

Of course, if the grown-ups knew what the audience does - that the five children are from a mental institution and have already murdered their bus driver - they might be feeling less sanguine.

Yep, this is a killer kiddie flick, a genre that stretches back at least to the 1950s (The Bad Seed) but which probably reached its popular zenith a couple of years after this movie with the (in my opinion, overrated) The Omen.

The child actors in this are pretty good, doing a decent job of conveying an unsettling wrongness to their characters without mugging for the camera.  And some of the kill scenes are quite inventive, albeit very contrived.  Where the film founders though is in making you really care whether the adults survive or get murdered.  Most of them are not terribly likable people.

This is a bleak little curiousity, but it's not engaging enough for me to recommend it.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Red Sonja (1985)



Red Sonja is a female warrior, blessed by a goddess with supreme martial skills but required never to lie with a man unless he first defeats her in fair combat.

This is not a good film, which is why it's not recommended, but I still have a soft spot for it despite its flaws.  Those flaws are manifold, but the most pronounced is probably the casting of Brigitte Nielsen.  She may have had the 'Amazonian' physique producer Dino de Laurentiis wanted for Red Sonja, but she's not up to the acting demands of being the film's lead.

Of course, the fact that the film doesn't let Red Sonja be the lead of her own film is its second major problem.  She does get to the kill the villain (a wicked Queen who is regrettably coded as being evil at least in part because she's a lesbian) but otherwise she spends an awful lot of the film being saved by men.  The DVD cover art makes the issue clear, really: Schwarzenegger gets first billing and a much larger portrait, and it's the same in the movie itself.

The film does have its nice touches though, and these make me like it more than I possibly should.  It has an order of warrior nuns who are pretty badass, for instance.  Sure they all die in the first ten minutes, but the staging makes it clear that it's sheer weight of numbers that overwhelm them, as one on one they more than hold their own.  And the film's MacGuffin is refreshingly different: it's the artefact that made the world, but it has absorbed so much power that it is on the very of unmaking all it created.  Also, the sets and costumes are entertainingly bombastic and baroque.

A case in point

The biggest thing to like though is probably the film's recognition that Sonja's vow is kind of perverse - and not in a good way - in that she will only sleep with someone who has tried to kill her.  For the mid-80s, that's surprisingly forward thinking.

Overall, not a good movie, but there are a few good ideas in it nonetheless.

Monday, 14 December 2015

What Did You Do In The War, Daddy? (1966)



A comedy written by the author of The Exorcist, you say?  What could possibly go wrong?

Well in truth William Peter Blatty would not write his most famous work until five years after this film, and at the time this was made his output had overwhelmingly been in the comedic field: including several novels and four other movies before 1966.  One of those previous movies had been the second Pink Panther film, directed by Blake Edwards, with whom Blatty would reunite for this picture.

I wasn't a fan of Edwards' 1965 comedy The Great Race, which squandered a fine cast on a handful of jokes that started as mediocre and got steadily worse the more often Edwards reused them.  So I did not have high expectations for this film (which I only own because I inherited it somewhere along the line), and those expectations were more or less confirmed.

Captain Cash is a by-the-book US Army officer in Sicily in 1943.  He is appointed to command C Company with the mission of capturing a small but strategically important town.  He's keen to face up to the challenge, but he's entirely unready for the rascally nature of the soldiers he's supposed to command or for the unmilitary but passionate Italians with whom he must engage.

What Did You Do In The War, Daddy? shows every one of the 50 years that have passed since it was written, expecting us to find hysterical such tired old "gags" as "man must dress as a woman", and "drunk person can't stand up on his own".  It's a lazy script, rarely trying to actually earn a laugh, but assuming that it will get them, Pavlov's dog style, if it just gives us the same spots that dozens of other films have done.

If this is an example of Blatty's comedic chops, then it is definitely for the best that he branched out into horror.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)





Despite being credited as the screenwriter for the film, Roald Dahl was apparently not a fan of this adaptation of his novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  He felt it focused too much on Willy Wonka, rather than Charlie.  That might seem an odd complaint given that Wonka doesn't appear until over 40 of the movie's 95 minutes have elapsed, but for all he is unseen, Wonka is certainly not absent from that opening act.  Almost every line of dialogue, in fact, relates to the man, his mysterious factory, or to the competition he is holding that will allow five lucky winners to see inside.

One of those five winners is Charlie Bucket, who lives in poverty with his hard-working mother and four bed-ridden grandparents.  He'd pretty obviously be our plucky underdog hero even if the other four winners weren't all horrible people, but of course they are.

On the duly appointed day of the grand tour, Charlie and the other winners finally meet the "great man" himself, and from that point on it pretty much is the Willy Wonka show.  He leads them on a madcap adventure through the strange wonderland that is his factory, filled with odd gadgets, improbable inventions, and goofy puns.  His guests frankly don't know how to take him and it's quite possible the movie-going audience will find him as much irritating as charming.  Of course, I think that's entirely the point.

This is a fun if often very silly film.  The cast gamely give it their all, no matter how slapstick things get, which helps a lot.  It's obviously visually no match for the more recent Tim Burton adaptation, but I think is a more enjoyable film overall.

Not a bad option if you want a kids' flick that's got a little bite to it, but still ultimately ends up in sugary sweetness.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Snowpiercer (2013)




The world is plunged into an ice age and all life goes extinct: except for a tiny remnant of humanity that made it aboard some kind of super-train that is a technological marvel.  Unforunately, life on said train turns out to be almost worse than the alternative.

This is a stylish action film in an evocative if highly-improbable setting.  And if you agree to completely turn off your brain and just enjoy the pretty (albeit grim and dystopian) pictures, you'll probably have a decent time.  Hence the qualified recommendation.

On the other hand, no matter how willing you are to just accept every bit of nonsense the script throws at you, I'm almost certain there is going to be a moment where your suspension of disbelief throws its hands in the air and says "I'm out of here!".  Which is why the qualified recommendation is really, really, really qualified.  As in the "This movie actually makes me angry, because it is so well made and yet so utterly stupid" kind of qualified.

For me the tipping point came pretty much about the moment where the hero and his heretofore faceless nemesis finally meet.  Don't get me wrong, I'd rolled my eyes a bunch of times before that at the magic train and the many misery-for-the-sake-of-it elements of the setting, but it wasn't until I got to that point and they confirmed that they were really going to go for the silliest, most contrived and asinine explanation for everything, that I went from "determined to enjoy it despite it being nonsense" to "verbally abusing the television".

And the less said about the supposed-to-be-uplifting-but-actually-we've-somehow-managed-to-make-everything-worse-than-the-crapsack-world-we-had-before final two minutes, the better.

So: it's very pretty and quite inventive, and Chris Evans does a great job in the lead role.  But it is is utterly, utterly stupid and futile and if you'll pardon the expression, it goes completely off the rails in the last half hour.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Unforgiven (1992)



This may surprise you, but this is the first time I've ever seen Unforgiven.  It's not like I have consciously avoided it, or anything like that.  I just missed it at the cinema and then never got around to seeing it.  In fact, it only came back onto my radar now because I've been watching a few westerns and thought I should finally pay a visit to the film that is often credited with launching the genre's early 90s renaissance.  That claim is overblown in my opinion; both Young Guns and Dances With Wolves pre-date it and were very successful films; but it was certainly a commercial and critical success.

Bill Munny was a bad man in his youth: a thief and a murderer.  But then he fell in love, settled down, and became a father.  Even after his wife died of smallpox, he struck to his reformed ways.  No drinking, no fighting.  Just raising his kids on his small farm.

It's not really a life for which he is well-suited, though, and when young gunslinger offers him half of a thousand dollar bounty, Bill is sorely tempted.  The bounty is for the killing of two cowboys who cut up a woman's face.  Since she was a whore, the men got off with nothing more than a fine.  The other women at the brothel weren't satisfied with that (and who can blame them) and they raised the reward.

It's been over a decade since Munny shot at a man, but he really needs the cash ...

Unforgiven has a quality cast who turn in fine performances, and it is visually striking too, with strong use of light and shadow.  For me though it does fall down a bit on the script side of things.  It's a slow-paced film, with more secondary characters than it really needs and a lot more first act than third.  It's quite deliberate in both those things, I think, as an intentional response to the more traditional structure of the genre ... but at the end of the day it all comes down to a gunfight in a saloon anyway, so the deconstruction feels a little undercooked, despite all the time time committed to it.

Still, you've got a strong cast here and they all deliver the goods, so if you don't mind the rather bleak tone of it all, it's certainly watchable.



Tuesday, 8 December 2015

A Passenger to Bali (1950)



Even by Mill Creek's less-than-rigorous-standards, this "film" is a perplexing inclusion in the Chilling Classic box set.  For one thing, it's not a film.  It's an episode of a TV show called Studio One, which presented one-hour screen adaptations of novels and short stories.  The show was sponsored by Westinghouse, and the episode still includes the comically earnest and unconsciously sexist Westinghouse adverts of the time ("A gal's best friend is her refrigerator!").

The plot of the episode is that the captain of a small cargo ship finds himself persuaded to take a passenger at short notice.  The man purports to be a Dutch missionary, travelling to Bali to bring his Christian message to the local people.  His transparent eagerness to get a ship immediately should be something of a warning, but the captain allows him to come aboard.

If we are to believe later dialogue, the captain's decision is motivated by compassion.  If so, he soon has reason to rue his soft-heartedness.  His passenger is not a missionary, but an anarchist revolutionary, and none of the colonial governments of the region will accept him ashore.  The ship is barred from all ports, becoming a latter day Flying Dutchman.  I don't know if the anarchist's assumed nationality was a deliberate link to the famous ghost ship, but it'd be a bit sad if it were an accident, given how often they mention it.

The performances in this are decent enough, though the production values in other respects are obviously quite cheap.  The sets are few and spartan, to say the least.  But it's mostly the script that's an issue.  Even setting aside the casual racism it displays as a product of the time it was made, we're left with a pretty weak story.  There are literally thousands of islands in South East Asia, and I find it very unlikely that the captain couldn't be rid of his unwelcome passenger if he really wanted to be: simply put him ashore at some tiny bay.

Harmless, but not memorable in any way.  Well, except for the dreadful adverts.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Tinker Bell and the Legend of the NeverBeast (2014)



This film is misleadingly titled.  Tinker Bell is merely a secondary character in the narrative - and not even the most prominent secondary character, at that - with her animal fairy friend Fawn moving centre stage for what turns out to be the last of the Pixie Hollow series.  The upside of this is that I probably won't be getting any dust in my eye on a Monday night for a while.

When it comes to caring for animals, Fawn has a tendency to let her heart guide her much more than her head.  She's brought rats and snakes - and a vampire bat - into the Hollow before.  Her latest escapade really crosses the line: she's been raising a baby hawk that she found, after it injured its wing.  This is a big deal because hawks - once they're grown up - eat fairies.

This little escapade brings Fawn into conflict with Nyx, a new character who you can basically think of as captain of the fairy militia.  It also earns her a gentle admonishment from Queen Clarion, which is a Pretty Big Deal since Tinker Bell is about the only fairy to ever get one of those before.

Fawn resolves to be an upstanding citizen from this point on.  A resolve which lasts almost a day before she stumbles across a new type of creature she's never seen before.

This guy.

Fawn begins to study the creature, whom she dubs "Gruff", and he in turn slowly seems to warm to her.  But she's not the only fairy to take an interest in the strange new arrival.  Nyx has also been investigating, and she believes that Gruff will bring destruction to Pixie Hollow.

Are Nyx's fears justified?  Or is Fawn right to trust in the good nature of her friend?  Well to be honest this isn't really ever in any doubt.  But I frankly don't care because the film is full of lovely touches of humour and pathos.  A sound story well told beats innovation 99 times out of a hundred, especially when it ends as strongly as this one.

I wish Disney had made more of these.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Primeval Season 5 (2011)



Barring a short-lived spin-off set in Canada, this is the last series of Primeval.  Though as I have mentioned while reviewing previous seasons, it feels more like the second half of an extra-long season than a standalone story: season 4 ended with the reveal of Matt Anderson's secret mission, and season 5 is all about Matt bringing the rest of the team in on it while still dealing with the inevitable creature attacks that are the show's bread and butter.

The sense of continuity is probably reinforced by the fact that this is the first time in the show's run that the core group of characters for a season have been the same as in the previous season.  One new minor character is introduced, but other than that the cast remains consistent.

As a conclusion to the show, this is a pretty satisfactory effort.  The only real misstep is in the final scene, where they do the inevitable horror movie "it's not over yet" thing.  Probably this was meant as a lead-in to a series 6, if it had happened, but feels really unnecessary even in those circumstances: they'd given us a perfectly good ending-with-scope-for-future-dangers literally seconds earlier, and should have quit there.

That one sour note aside though, things are good.  The looming, season-long threat is kept constantly in our minds without being allowed to detract from the episode-to-episode creature incursions, and said incursions occur in some inventive locations.  Characters have understandable reasons for their actions, and act within their established and logical skill sets.  No-one asks me to believe a modern day police officer taking on a medieval knight in a sword fight, for instance.

Primeval delivered four entertaining series of adventure/action, while only season 3 was a bit of a stinker.  It's been outlasted by Doctor Who - with which it clearly shared a target audience - but in my eyes this show's hit to miss ratio was a lot better.


Thursday, 3 December 2015

Let the Bullets Fly (2010)



At the time of its release, this action-comedy was China's highest-grossing domestic film.  It's been supplanted since then, but clearly it was a big commercial success.  It was also critically successful, with many award nominations, and several wins, across the Asian cinema industry.

So when I say that I don't think it works quite as well for Western audiences as it does for Chinese ones, that's really not much of an indictment.  It's still an entertaining flick - though by no means a flawless one.

It's 1920s China - a pretty wild and lawless time - and bandit chief "Pocky" Zhang ambushes the train of an incoming governor.  The official in question, by the name of Ma, is a bit of a conman, and pretends to be merely his own counselor so as to not seem like a valuable prisoner.  This gives Zhang the idea to impersonate the governor himself, taking the supposed counselor along to assist him.

To Zhang's chagrin, it turns out that being governor of a city in this troubled decade isn't quite the gravy train he thought it would be.  Mostly it's extorting money out of the poor to fill the pockets of the rich.  Zhang has no interest in being someone else's lackey, though.  His independent ways soon bring him into conflict with Master Huang, whose money and hired thugs make him the de facto ruler of the region.  It won't be long before things get bloody.

By Western standards the film's combination of farce and violence may feel a little strange, and I am sure there are a few cultural cues that I missed entirely.  Let the Bullets Fly is also pretty bad in its depiction of women: the three with spoken lines are respectively a murder victim, a prostitute, and a rape victim.  It's also a bit on the long side, at a shade over 2 hours.  I think twenty minutes could have been cut easily.

Despite all those complaints though, I enjoyed the film.  The central performances - Zhang, Huang and Ma - are strong and diverse, and the action sequences have a viscerality to them that's often lacking from more wire-fu focused Chinese films.

Worth a look if you're interested in seeing a Chinese rendition of a "1920s gangsters" film.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

The Long Riders (1980)



Walter Hill once said 'Every film I've done has been a Western'.  I opened with that quote the last time I reviewed one of his movies, and I use it again now for the rather self-evident reason that this film is a literal western.  Not just that, but it is an account of the James-Younger gang: probably one of the most frequently-filmed historical western stories there are.

Which is not to say that this is a run-of-the-mill western.  Hill's a bit more of an idiosyncratic film-maker than that.  He eschews the normal Monument Valley-esque visuals for, well:

Here's the film's opening title

Jesse James and his compatriots conducted most of their banditry in Missouri, and while Hill didn't actually film there, he obviously consciously chose to film in locations that would reflect the real climate and terrain of that part of the country.  This is a land of farms, not ranches; of forests, not deserts.

This film was a pet project of James and Stacy Keach, who played the James brothers (Jesse and Frank respectively).  Perhaps inspired by this, Hill chose to cast all the sibling groups in the gang with real life brothers.

Story-wise, I don't think there is much here to surprise you if you are at all familiar with the James-Younger gang's exploits.  Former Confederate soldiers turned bandits, they are pursued by the authorities but supported by the people of the region, many of whom resent the federal government as deeply as do the gang.  And like many Jesse James films, I do think it is guilty of idealising the gang to a significant degree.

But honestly I don't think that historical accuracy or narrative innovation were ever intended to be the attractions of the film.  Its appeal lies solidly in the visceral and impactful action sequences, which Hill handles with his usual skill.

Check it out if you want to see how the man who always makes a western handles actually making a western.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Nightmare in Wax (1969)



This film has no connection to the Vincent Price film, though I am sure the producers of this movie would have welcomed the association.  I mean, it's probably not a coincidence that the main character in this shares the famous actor's first name.

This Vincent is a former make-up artist who was disfigured by a movie producer in an argument, he now works as the chief sculptor for a wax museum.  He's also, as I am sure you have probably deduced from the film's title, a very naughty boy.  Not that you would have much trouble deducing it even if you didn't know the title.  Given that what Vincent is up to is abducting movie stars, drugging them into "immobility" (which I have put in quotes for reasons we'll discuss later), and displaying them as waxworks, the real question is not "what is going on?" but "how is he getting away with this?".  Subtle, his plan is not.

Now to be generous to the film, it doesn't make any effort to pretend that the audience isn't in on Vincent's activities.  It does rather strain credulity that none of the characters seem to suspect anything is amiss for so long, though.  The film's also hampered by its structural and directorial defects.  On the former front, the script is way too fond of flashbacks, and I suspect it throws up so many to disguise the fact that the "current day" storyline doesn't actually have much going on.  On the latter front, one of the "immobile" victims clearly wobbles in numerous shots.  This is not her fault: the position she has been asked to stand in is not one that can be maintained with perfect stillness for any length of time.  The director should have realised that and given her a more sustainable posture.

Cameron Mitchell is entertainingly hammy as Vincent, and if you have a thing for 60s go-go dancers there's a sequence in the middle of the film you'll enjoy, but this is forgettable stuff on the whole, and not recommended.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Tinker Bell and the Pirate Fairy (2014)



Pirate Fairy.

Those are the two words that first made me pay attention to the Tinker Bell series of films, and if they don't make you say "Tell me more", then you might want to check yourself for a pulse, because you're dead inside.

Zarina is "the Tinker Bell of dust keeper fairies": inquisitive and adventurous, determined to follow her dreams whatever anyone else says.  But when you work with pixie dust, the magical force that drives the entire fairy kingdom, well ... the potential for mishaps is pretty frightening.

I'm sure you know what happens next.  Zarina causes quite the mishap indeed.  She's banned from working with pixie dust as a consequence, and leaves Pixie Hollow, taking her own secret supply with her as she does so.

A year later Zarina returns, as Captain of a pirate vessel, to steal the blue pixie dust that keeps the kingdom running.  When Tinker Bell and friends try to stop her, she blasts them with a veritable rainbow of pixie dust, causing all their powers to switch over.  Can Tink and Co adjust to their new abilities fast enough to retrieve the blue pixie dust?  What will happen to Zarina if they do?

With four previous films under their belt at this point, the Tinker Bell crew have really honed their formula: this is a fast, fun, family adventure film with a generous mix of humour, action and adorbs.

All the adorbs.

Clearly the target audience for this is young girls, but if you don't laugh out loud at least once while watching this, then you might want to check yourself for a pulse, because -- oh wait, I already did that gag earlier in this review.

Good stuff.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Primeval Season 4 (2011)



Season 3 of Primeval did pretty well in the ratings stakes, but it was an expensive show to film at a time when the broadcasting network had got itself into financial difficulties.  They elected not to renew the series and the producers began to look for new partners.

It took about a year, but ultimately a deal was struck to film two additional series - 13 episodes in all - thanks to the co-operation of several channels (including the original broadcaster).

I'm pleased to say that I enjoyed season 4 a lot more than season 3.  First and foremost because it has precious little Danny Quinn - just a guest spot in one episode - but also because the creatures in this series feel like much more credible dangers than they did in the last one.

Just as in the real world, a year has passed in the show.  There's a new team responsible for the anomalies, headed up by newcomer Matt Anderson.  Matt's a man with secrets, as is made clear from his first appearance, though it won't be until the season conclusion that he clearly states what it is.  This is a thread that runs though both this series and the next one, which is why to me they feel a bit more like one season in two parts than two genuinely separate series.

Jess Anderson (in the red dress above) is also new to the show.  She oversees things from back at base, using advanced computer systems to coordinate the team's actions and to keep the public out of harm's way.

The other important new face in the show is Philip Burton, a technological genius whose company has been brought on board to help fund investigation of the anomalies.  Exactly what he gets out of the arrangement is left ominously unsaid (dun dun dun!).

The other main cast members are all returnees, including three veterans (four if you want to count a CGI lizard) who've been on board since season 1.

Despite all the changes, this series feels more like the show going back to its roots than anything else, with its renewed emphasis on menacing creatures and will-they-won't-they romance angles, both of which were staples of the first two seasons.

It's nice to be having fun while watching this show again.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)



Two girls and their father move house.  Later, the girls wait for a bus.  The next day they plant some acorns.  At the climax of the movie, they go on a bus ride.

I'm deliberately exaggerating the mundanity of the events in this film, of course.  I mean, from the DVD picture above you can probably guess that it's not quite as prosaic as those events would make it sound.

And yet those are signature sequences of the film.  "Waiting for the bus" occupies a good 5-10 minutes of screen time and most of it really is just standing by the side of the road.  That those 5-10 minutes are still engaging and entertaining speaks highly of the film's craftsmanship and of the writing's ability to capture the wide-eyed wonderment of childhood.  Not to mention its ability to make you wish, even if it is just a little bit, that you could see the magical creatures that live at the end of the garden.

This is one of the films that built the reputation of Studio Ghibli in its native Japan, and one of the films that made director Hayao Miyazaki a strong influence on John Lasseter of Pixar.  It is no accident that Pixar's success in the industry has been followed by a the rising visibility of Miyazaki's films to western audiences, in the shape of newer releases such as Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle.

If you want to see the work that inspired the minds behind Toy Story and WALL-E, this is a fine place to start.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Big Country (1958)



This is another of those movies I own on DVD because it came in a pack with the movies I actually wanted.  I've had pretty good luck with such films in the past, but it did not really continue here.

It's not that The Big Country is a bad film, per se.  The music and cinematography are good and the performances are all sound.  But it is in my opinion a deeply and fundamentally flawed film in a couple of important ways.

The first of these ways is the length.  At 160 minutes, the movie is far too long for the relatively slight story it has to tell.  I appreciate that it's a film that deliberately sets out to be an 'epic', but I haven't seen a narrative this padded since ... well, okay, since the Hobbit films, which wasn't that long ago.  But Peter Jackson's efforts to redefine self-indulgence aside, this is one of the most "oh get on with it" movies I've seen in a while.

The second issue is the main character.  Jim McKay (Gregory Peck) is Right About Everything, All The Time.  Now sure protagonists often do tend to be The Best, but in McKay's case it becomes problematic because his actions do not match the motivations the script ascribes to him.  If you tell me that one of the prime traits of your protagonist is modesty, it's best if I can't point to at least three scenes in your film where his actions appear motivated by pride.

The plot: man from back east (McKay/Peck) arrives in the west to marry his fiancee.  He makes a poor first impression on most of the locals: but as the movie will make abundantly clear to us, over and over again, this is because the locals are all venal, spiteful western yokels and he is ethically, morally and intellectually their superior.  No doubt this played very well to urban, middle class 1950s cinema-goers.  Anyway, his fiancee's family is locked in a bitter feud with one of the other ranchers in the county, and things all come to a head soon after he arrives.  What a good thing the city slicker is there now to fix all the problems these brutish cowboys have brought upon themselves.

The Big Country is one of those late-50s-to-early-60s westerns (like The Searchers or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) that critiques and/or deconstructs the genre that birthed it.  Alas, it does so without any verve or consistency, and it takes way too long to do it.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Revenge of Doctor X (1970)



Ed Wood apparently wrote the screenplay on which this film is based.  I say apparently because, although he claimed he did, and all the usual Woodisms are there - thuddingly awful dialogue, incomprehensible "logic", and characters whose motivations change from scene to scene (or even within a scene) - he didn't receive a credit.  But then, in the best known cut of the film no-one receives a credit: the original US video release mistakenly had the credits for an entirely different movie.

On the plus side, if you're going to go uncredited, this is a good film to not be credited for.

During an important space mission launch, the lead scientist shows alarming signs of cracking under the strain.  His colleagues suggest he take a holiday - there's nothing they can do now until the rocket reaches it destination in any case - and he agrees.

Since he was a botanist before he became a rocket scientist (lots of overlap in those fields, right?), our protagonist decides to spend his holiday studying plants in Japan.  Before he leaves the US though, he has a chance encounter with a snake-handling garage owner who owns a Venus Flytrap.  The scientist (let's call him Dr X, since I don't recall his real name, and since there is no actual Dr X in the film) is so impressed by the plant that he treks into the local swamp and digs out one for himself.  Such are the things that happen in Ed Wood films.

Dr X takes the flytrap to Japan with him where he is met by the designated love interest, though to say that the romance is unconvincing is a bit like suggesting that Andre the Giant was of larger than average build.

Once established in his isolated laboratory near an active volcano (here's a helpful tip: if at any point in your life you find yourself voluntarily moving to live in an isolated location near an active volcano, please consider that you may be a mad scientist or supervillain), Dr X conducts experiments on his flytrap.  Somehow convincing himself that it has the capacity to reason, he resolves to cross-breed it with an aquatic plant only found in Japanese waters, and create a human-like hybrid plant.  Why?  To prove that humans evolved from plants, of course!  As we must have done, if we came from the sea!

No, I don't follow the Woodster's logic either.

Anyway, what we've got here is a dumb as rocks Dr Frankenstein remix with the monster replaced by a humanoid plant-thing with what looks like boxing gloves for hands.  Though that's a summary that actually makes the film sound a lot more entertaining than it really is, because it focuses on the events of the film's mad last half hour, rather than on the interminably dull first 60 minutes.

Also, before I go, I do want to give a shout out to the soundtrack, which is delightfully inappropriate throughout pretty much the entire film.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Tinker Bell and the Secret of the Wings (2012)



I'm not crying.  You're crying.

Okay, to be honest I didn't actually cry while watching this, but I did mist up a little at one point.  You can ascribe this to the fact that this is the first film I ever sat down and watched with my eldest niece.  Or you can ascribe it to me being a sentimental old fart.  Both probably have some validity.

Neither of them changes the fact that this is a grand little film.  It celebrates sisterhood and friendship in a matter of fact and unashamed way.  It shows characters disagreeing without any of them being 'bad people', and - without ever calling attention to it - shows that you can have different opinions and beliefs to someone else without being hurtful toward them or treating them badly.  It has (mostly female) characters who are consistently proactive, compassionate, altruistic and brave.  It has librarian jokes (it's possible I am the only one for whom this last fact matters, but it's my review).

The plot?  Tinker Bell dreams of visiting the land of the Winter Fairies, but it's forbidden for the very sensible reason that it is too cold there to be safe for Warm (Autumn, Summer and Spring) Fairies.  Prolonged exposure to the icy temperatures can irreparably damage a Warm Fairy's wings (and vice versa for Winter Fairies, of course).  But when Tink finds a mystery to which only a Winter Fairy can give her the answer, she's not going to let a little cold and snow stop her.

What Tinker Bell finds in the land of Winter will change not just her life, but the entire Fairy Kingdom ... assuming it doesn't destroy it first.

This is, all in all, a charming piece of film-making.  Recommended for anyone whose heart has even a little childlike optimism still in it.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Witchville (2010)



If you're as old as I am, you may remember British boy band Bros, who enjoyed a brief period of success in the late 1980s.  Band member Luke Goss has since moved on to acting.  For my money, he's better at this gig than he ever was at music, but his on-screen career has tended toward ... well, it's tended toward movies like this one.

Actually, that may not be entirely fair.  This is by far the worst movie I've seen Goss in; and I've seen Tekken.  But he's definitely tended toward the shallow end of the cinematic gene pool, with his highest profile parts being as the antagonists in Blade II and Hellboy II.

This film, though ... wow.  It doesn't just waste Goss's talents (and he is a pretty charismatic actor, really), but the talents of pretty much everyone who gets in front of the camera.  There's a fair number of capable-if-far-from-A-list actors in this flick, but none of them can make the dialogue work, and I don't blame them for that, because its straight out of a 14-year-old's first attempt at a fantasy novel.  Leaden and pompous only begins to describe its problems.

The narrative is as clumsy and malformed as the dialogue, with characters lurching in and out of the story like badly-operated marionettes.  Perhaps the worst example of this issue are a group of Chinese bandits who attack Goss's character, then join up with him, and later get pretty unceremoniously killed off because the script doesn't need their martial arts mojo any more.

The story?  Oh yeah, Goss is the heir to the throne of a kingdom beset by witches.  When his father dies, he has to fight to defend his people against the supernatural menace that threatens them.  This feels like it takes a lot longer than the film's 82 minute run time.  The end.

Seriously, you'd be better off watching Tekken.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Dredd (2012)



I'm something of a casual fan of Judge Dredd, in that I own a few of the collected trade paper backs, and will probably buy more eventually.  However I've probably read only about a tenth of his near-forty year publication history in the pages of 2000 AD and its affiliated magazines.

I'm no expert on him, in other words, but I do have enough affection for the source material that I approached this 2012 adaptation with the sincere hope it would be a much better film than the execrable Stallone effort from the 1990s.

And in that regard, I was not disappointed.

Dredd is not a particularly sophisticated film.  It's almost entirely confined to a single location - albeit a rather expansive one in the form of a 200-storey 'megastructure' containing 75,000 inhabitants - and the narrative is pretty simple. Dredd and the rookie Judge (police officer) he's assessing end up tangling with a large, heavily armed gang of mobsters in a running gun battle that occupies most of the film's length.

When you make a film as focused - and especially as action-focused - as this one, you really need to nail your casting.  Your need actors who can to define and express their characters with only brief snatches of dialogue and a lot of non-verbal cues.  And it's here that the film makers have really excelled.  Karl Urban is tremendous as the implacable Dredd - but then Karl Urban managed to be good in Doom, so the man's obviously something special. He's ably matched by Lena Headey as the twitchy, psychotic villain Ma-Ma, while Olivia Thirlby brings just the right balance of nerves and steeliness to her portrayal of rookie Judge Anderson.

If you're looking for a solid action film and don't mind if it comes with some SF trappings, this is a good way to spend ninety minutes of your time.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)



This is a splatterpunk gothic opera set in a dystopian future where cosmetic surgery and organ transplants have become ubiquitous, because they are cheap and available on payment plans.  Part of how the prices are kept so low, however, are the savage penalties if you fall behind on said plans. Default on payments, and your new organs will be forcibly repossessed.  It is a corrupt, venal and decaying society.  The story focuses on one young woman, who suffers from a rare blood disease, and the traumatic and turbulent events that occur when she comes to the attention of the world's most powerful family.

So some people hate all musicals on principle, but I'm not one of them.  I have no objection to songs in film, and have thoroughly enjoyed many musicals over the years.

But one thing I do insist on, in a musical, is memorable songs.  Songs that stick in my head and make me hum them for hours (or occasionally days) afterword.  The Little Mermaid is made of earworms, for instance, while Rent has tracks like "No Day But Today", "Tango: Maureen" and "La Vie Boheme" to hook into my brain.

After that paragraph, I bet you can guess where I think this film fails.

It's a shame, too, because there are things to like in this film.  The visual design is good for one thing, with the macabre (if implausible) world of the future brought to life with real panache.  The cast is one that I really want to like, and you can see they give it their all.  Most of the core members have decent or better voices, too.

But the songs, oh dear the songs.  The music is frequently repetitive, but never catchy.  The lyrics are clumsy and awkward.  The staging is mostly stiff and lifeless (there are occasional exceptions to this last point, but they tend to go too far in the opposite direction).  And whoever made the ill-advised decision to have some of the dialogue "spoken-sung" needs their head examined.

One other thing to warn people about, is that under the glossy surface nastiness of the film is ... more, bleaker, decidedly not-glossy nastiness.  It's not far short of High Plains Drifter levels of unpleasantness.

Still, I could probably forgive it that if it had good songs.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

John Wick (2014)



There's a lot to like about John Wick.  It's a visually stylish film with great action choreography and exceptional use of sound: not just in the use of great and fitting music, but also in the use of (near-)silence, which is something few movies do well.

It also plays very much to Keanu Reeves' strengths as a lead (brooding good looks and the ability to be stoically monosyllabic) while populating the supporting roles with strong character actors like Willem Dafoe and Ian McShane.  And it does a good job of creating interesting and distinguishable antagonists.

And yet it's only getting a qualified recommendation.  There are two main reasons for this.  The first is that the film is framed as a flashback, which rather kills any kind of suspense. The second is the execution of two fairly major subplots: one involving Dafoe's character and one involving a character played by Adrianne Palicki.  The former half-heartedly makes gestures at misdirection before ending in a manner that has been blindingly obvious since halfway through the film.  The latter ... well its setup is a lot better but its conclusion is the dampest of damp squibs.

Still, you're probably not going to watch a film like John Wick for its deep nuances.  You're going to watch it for the action, and on that front it delivers.  Wick is a retired killer.  He left the life in order to get married, but his wife has recently died.  When hoodlums break into his home to steal his car - and incidentally to destroy the last gift his wife left for him, in a scene whose content means I will never recommend this film to my mother - Wick goes back to his old life in order to wreak his revenge.

That's pretty much the whole plot right there: straight up man-pain revenge fantasy.  It's a sound enough basis on which to hang the resulting ninety minutes of action, and if the film occasionally feels a little emotionally empty, well ... you could argue that's a fair reflection of the characters.

Check it out if stylish action is your thing.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue (2010)



It is the beginning of summer, and the fairies are on the mainland to ensure the change of the seasons proceeds smoothly.  Thanks to Tinker Bell's efforts in the first film, Tinker fairies are among their number.  No word on whether they still have to use separate water fountains in parks though.

Ahem.

Pretty much the first thing Tink gets told on arrival is "stay away from humans", so even if the film's introduction hadn't already given away that this is the story of how humans and fairies met, I bet you'd be able to guess what happens next.

The sound of an approaching car sends the fairies running for cover.  All except Tinker Bell, of course, who is fascinated with how this strange machine works and flies closer to investigate.  Another fairy (Vidia) who kind of filled the 'mean girl' role in the first film, follows her and attempts to get Tink to come back and leave the humans alone.

Vidia's efforts are of course in vain, and through a series of misunderstandings, coincidences and accidents, Tinker Bell ends up trapped inside a bird cage in a human girl's bedroom.

The film has twin narratives from this point onward: one focusing on the rescue party Vidia organises to free Tink, and the other on Tinker Bell's interactions with the humans, especially Lizzy, the girl who found her.

This film doesn't feel quite up to the standards of the first two Tinker Bell movies - the ending is a little too pat and obvious, for one thing - but it is still a pleasant and breezy tale that manages to include some fun sequences involving Tinker fairy gadgets, and a nifty chase sequence or two.


Friday, 13 November 2015

The Railway Children (1970)



Much like Heaven Can Wait, which I reviewed a couple of months ago, The Railway Children ended up in my collection because it came in a combo-pack with another movie that I wanted (the charmingly old-fashioned Swallows and Amazons).  Also like Heaven Can Wait, this film turned out to be thoroughly entertaining in its own right.

Three children in Edwardian London grow up in pretty much the perfect household.  They have a lovely house full of big fireplaces - "even a gas fire in the breakfast room" - and loving parents.  Their mother "was not the sort to having boring meetings with boring ladies" and their father was "quite the most perfect" one in the world.

Which wouldn't be much of a story, really.  So of course the sunny, serene life they've led to date runs aground on the shoals of poverty when their father is imprisoned on (false) charges of selling national secrets.

The children and their mother move to a small house in Yorkshire.  There aren't many sources of entertainment in the village, and the children gravitate to the local railway, where they become friends with the station porter and with an elderly gentleman who passes by every day on the 9:15 train.

The kids also have various adventures, such as when they need to warn a train about a landslide that has covered the track, but the heart of the movie is their relationships with the people they meet.  And a warm and gentle heart it is too.  The characters in the film are pretty much all terribly decent people who do their best by others, to the point where modern audiences may well find it all a bit twee.  Personally though I thought the charm of the cast - especially the always reliable Bernard Cribbins - helped it rise above that.

The Railway Children is a "nice little movie".  Well worth a look if you want some wholesome entertainment for yourself or for some youngsters.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979)



Released a decade before his breakthrough in the West, this John Woo film swaps the gunplay for which the director is now renowned for martial arts melees: particularly sword fights.  Despite the different time frame and style of combat, however, some of the Woo trademarks are there.  There's the usual narrative focus on the nature of friendship, honour and loyalty for one thing, and the meticulous fight choreography (usually involving one or two men against a horde) for another.

By modern standard the fight choreography is in fact a little too meticulous.  As I watched them, they felt to me more like collaborative dance sequences than like real, kill or be killed battles to the death.  This may be a generational thing though: this is after all a film that's only a few years off its 40th birthday.

We open with a wedding ceremony.  It is interrupted by a powerful adversary of the groom's father.  Betrayed by the woman he was going to marry and badly injured, the young man barely escapes with his life, and many of his retainers are killed.  He, of course, swears vengeance.

So far, so revenge fantasy norm, but from here things take some twists and turns you might not expect.  I don't think they all work in execution, personally, but at least the film is showing a bit more ambition and scope than your usual action movie.  Of course as I said above, Woo has always shown a great interest in the complexity and paradoxes that underlie his characters' motives, so it's not that surprising to see him reaching for something more than just "beat 'em up" action.

Ultimately though, I think Woo has since done better, more powerful films with similar themes (A Better Tomorrow or The Killer for instance), so this is probably only one you should check out if you're an avid fan of his work, or a big fan of martial arts films that eschew wire fu for a more grounded (if no less elaborate) form of choreography.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The Magnificent Seven (1960)



This is another case where I own the Western remake of an Akira Kurosawa film, but not the original movie.  Though in my defence, Seven Samurai is approximately 85 hours long.

For those of you who somehow don't know, the premise of the film is simple.  A village of poor farmers is regularly raided by bandits.  The brigands carry off most of the food, leaving just enough for the farmers to scrape through until the next time they are robbed.  Tiring of this never-ending cycle, the villagers gather together what few items of value they have and go to a border town to buy guns.  But weapons are expensive (not to mention they don't really know how to use them).  The advice they get is "Hire men.  Men are cheaper than guns, these days."

And so that's what they do: seven men in all, as you might have guessed from the title.  The pay they offer is meagre, and the risks great, but each of the seven has his own motives for taking the job.  For most, an inability or unwillingness to earn a living any other way plays a significant factor.

So we've got a pretty iconic set-up: a small band of heroes (for want of a better word) trying to fend off a much larger group of marauders.  And we have a very strong cast assembled here: Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, Charles Bronson and - the cream of the crop in my estimation - Eli Wallach.  There's a whole lot of charisma on screen and it mostly - mostly - compensates for a jarring misstep in the script about 90 minutes into the film.  You'll know it when you get to it.

The Magnificent Seven is a film that starts stronger than it ends, but it is worth seeing for the opening act alone, which does a great job of introducing a large cast of characters and giving them all unique identities.  It's a great object lesson in cinematic efficiency.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

The Witches' Mountain (1972)



A woman returns home to find her cat murdered.  She is understandably upset.  A young girl appears and demands they search for her pet, which is afraid the cat.  As they search, the girl mentions the woman's name (Carla) and also reveals mentions that she was the one who killed the cat.  Eventually they find the pet - a snake - in the garage.

At which point Carla sets the garage, the snake, and the kid on fire.

Roll opening credits.

We next meet Mario, a photojournalist, as he returns home from a long assignment to find Carla waiting for him.  To say that he's not pleased to see her would be understating things: he clearly wants nothing to do with her, to the point of refusing the offer of a plane ticket to Brazil in her company.  Instead he phones his editor and says he will take an assignment anywhere in the world.

Soon after arriving for his new assignment, Mario meets an attractive young writer named Delia.  And by "meets", I mean "takes photos of her while she's changing her swimming costume".  Seemingly unperturbed by this rather intrusive behaviour, Delia agrees to Mario's suggestion that she accompany him on his journey up into the mountains.

And then we get sixty minutes of them puttering around while nominally "spooky" things occasionally happen.  Mario hears loud, chant-like music.  Delia goes sleep walking.  There are photos on Mario's camera that he never took.  Oooooooooooh.

Frankly, it's all rather dull stuff, and you'll probably be very glad when the witches from the title turn up to do ... well, whatever it is they are planning to do.  The movie doesn't bother to explain little details like that.

You may notice that none of the last three paragraphs mention Carla the Child Murderer.  That's because she effectively doesn't feature.  She's revealed to be one of the witches right at the end, but how and why and what the opening scene was all about are also things the film doesn't bother to explain.

Skip.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure (2009)




Every year, the fairies of Pixie Hollow celebrate the Autumn Revelry.  Every eighth year, the revelry is marked by a Blue Harvest Moon.  The light of this moon, when refracted through the fairies' moonstone sceptre, produces blue fairy dust that is essential to the continued health and well-being of their community.

Given the moonstone's importance to them, the fairies create a new, ornately-decorated sceptre for it each time it is to be used.  And this year, with another Blue Harvest Moon due to arrive, the job of constructing that sceptre is given to Tinker Bell.  As you can imagine, it's a great honour.  But it is also a rather nerve-wracking one, because in addition to being incredibly important, the moonstone that goes in said sceptre is incredibly fragile.

Yeah.  I bet you can guess what happens next.

So now Tink needs to find some way to replace or repair the moonstone, which is a pretty darn major problem, all without letting anyone know that there is a problem at all.  Oh, and she'll probably Learn An Important Life Lesson in the process.  That's the way these things tend to work.

This is another well-crafted "girl's adventure" film with a dash of comedy thrown in.  The title relates to the plot on a couple of different levels, and I like the film's solution to Tinker Bell's problem.  It's nicely thematic and ties in well with her established strengths and abilities.

Good stuff.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Primeval Season 3 (2009)



At 10 episodes, series 3 of Primeval is almost half again as long as any other season.  At least if one goes by the official count.  I think an argument could be made (and possibly will be, in a future review) that series 4 and series 5 are really just one season that got broadcast in two parts.

I've never seen any official word about the reasons for the extra length of this series, but I suspect it stemmed largely from the need to farewell old characters and introduce new ones.  If you look at the cast picture from this DVD and compare to the one from my review of last series, you'll notice 60% turnover.  That's a pretty rough thing to juggle for any series, especially one that also saw the need to introduce new human adversaries over and above the group's existing nemesis and all the beasties that once were the focus of the show.

That 'were the focus' part is one reason for why I haven't given this season a recommendation.  Series 3 of Primeval just doesn't deliver on the creature feature stakes, in my opinion.  It too often plays the monster incursions for laughs (even the ones where the dialogue is all about how dangerous they are), and/or embellishes them with goofy additions, such as the episode where a Dracorex is pursued into the modern day by a medieval knight.  Much more focus is given to the ongoing antics of Helen Cutter (which are pretty meh) and the new human adversaries (who show initial promise, but their arc gets hijacked by Helen's stuff).

The second reason I haven't given this season a recommendation is front and centre in the picture of the DVD.  I find Danny Quinn (he of the cocked eyebrow and silly hair) to be thoroughly annoying, a feeling that is exacerbated by the fact that the writers so clearly intend us to see him as a charming rogue.  As far as I am concerned, he's not charming in the slightest, and the narrative cartwheels the scripts do to make him the central figure in the show are like fingernails on a chalkboard for me.

On the plus side, this was the series I liked least when I watched the show on TV, so maybe things are going to look up again now that it is over.