Saturday, 31 January 2015

Mad Max 2 (1981)

Known as The Road Warrior in the US, this is the film which launched the Hollywood career of Mel Gibson.  I shall try not to hold that against it.

Whereas the original Mad Max - a film of which I'm not especially fond - showed a society undergoing a slow decline toward lawlessness, the second is firmly post-apocalyptic.  Resource scarcity led to a ferocious war that caused ever greater resource scarcity, until all the cities went dark and a reign of violence began.

We find ourselves in the Australian desert, where bandits in bondage gear pursue our leather-clad 'hero' down the highway.  A mixture of driving skill and guile allows Max to survive, though two of the bandits also escape with their lives.

After a subsequent encounter with a gangly, gawky owner of a gyrocopter - played by Bruce Spence, who is the greatest thing in this movie other than the stuntmen - Max learns of a nearby community which is still producing gasoline.  The only trouble is that it's surrounded by a whole horde of those bondage bandits I mentioned earlier - including the ones he tangled with earlier.

Max is a resourceful guy, though, and he's not about to let a little thing like that stop him.  He wants some of the gas these people are making.  He's willing to do a more or less honest deal for it, but he's not interested in risking his neck for any kind of altruistic reasons: he just wants fuel and then he'll be out of there.  Of course, things won't work out anywhere near as smoothly as he hopes, leading to a series of high speed car chases with action aplenty.

Now Mad Max 2 is not a flawless movie in the script department.  For instance, given that we're in the desert, and we see Max eating dog food to survive, it's a little odd that the subject of food and water never really comes up.  I would have expected that to be a more urgent need than fuel.  Second, given that fuel is the subject of all this conflict, it's conspicuous how profligate everyone is in its use.

Fortunately, it is pretty easy to overlook these flaws and just enjoy the action sequences and the colourful characters.  These are definitely the strengths of the film, and it commits to them full throttle.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Hard Hunted (1992)

For his seventh film, Andy Sidaris tried something he hadn't done before.  Not "cast leads who can actually act" or "get a decent script", of course.  Let's not be silly.  No, this innovation was to take one of his existing tropes - the returning actor re-cast in a new role - and invert it, to give us a returning character re-cast with a new actor.

Now other films have done this of course, but most of them have had the good sense not to replace Pat Morita with Roger Moore's son.  Not that there is anything wrong with Moore Jr's performance, at least by Sidaris standards, but it is a rather dramatic alteration to the character, to say the least.

This is not to say that Sidaris eschews his normal pattern of re-using actors in new roles.  There are least five of them in this film, including the perennial Rodrigo Obregon, who racks up his fifth appearance and (if I recall correctly) fourth death in this film.

Kane, the villain from the last movie, returns here.  He's mysteriously changed ethnicity and got a whole lot younger, though nobody comments on that.  He's also acquired a jade Buddha statue that secretly contains the trigger device for a nuclear weapon.  Kane plans to sell it to the highest bidder, but before he can, the device is stolen by an undercover government agent.  Fortunately for him, the contact who helped the agent flee is secretly in Kane's employ, and reveals where she went.

Quite why this contact didn't kill the agent when he had the chance is never satisfactorily answered (there's an answer given, but it isn't a satisfactory one).  But he didn't, so Kane sends a hitman after her.  Because that went so well in the last movie.

This hitman is Al Leong though, so he actually kills the woman - but not before she gets the jade Buddha to two other agents.  We then head into the usual Sidaris territory of gratuitous nudity (not that we hadn't had some of that already, by this point of the film) and badly staged gunfights.  Just once I'd like one of the women in these films to fire a gun without obviously flinching.  Apparently Alan Rickman had the same problem in Die Hard, but Rickman has the important quality of actually being a good actor to compensate.  And also a director smart enough to not show him flinching on-screen.

This is a silly, schlocky film, like all of Sidaris's offerings.  Unless the idea of a pair of hitmen codenamed "Wiley" and "Coyote" sounds hysterical to you (and yes, they suffer a suitably Looney Toons fate), then you can safely skip it.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Carnival of Souls (1962)

This film is credited with influencing both David Lynch and George Romero, and I can believe that this might be the case.  It's certainly visually stylish, using light and shadow in interesting ways and structuring shots to maximise a sense of eeriness and dislocation.  I can see the strong aesthetic (especially on a small budget) and "the macabre in the mundane" feeding into Romero's Night of the Living Dead.  Similarly, I can see the "nothing much actually happening" and narrative incoherence of the work leading the other man to make rubbish like Lost Highway.

Why no, I am not a fan of David Lynch.  However did you guess?

A pair of young men challenge three young women to a drag race in their cars.  The womens' car plunges off a bridge, and it appears the trio are all dead ... but then several hours after the accident, one of them emerges from the water.  This is obviously a little odd, but she seems disinterested in discussing the matter and heads off to a new job in Utah.

All is not entirely well, however.  She keeps seeing a strange, slightly macabre-looking man that no-one else seems able to perceive.  Also, there are a couple of short periods where no-one seems able to perceive her.  Which she finds a mite unsettling, to say the least.

I only wish I found it unsettling, as well.  However the truth is that despite the film's occasionally eerie visual sequences, far too much of it is given over to talky talky talk talk between actors of mediocre talent.  This keeps sucking any tension away from the film.  Even without that though, I think it would founder.  "Woman catches glimpse of odd-looking guy every ten minutes or so" is not actually all that scary when the guy never does anything.  Frankly, I found the romantic sub-plot with her next door neighbour to be creepier: now there's the guy she should be wary of, if you ask me.

Anyway, things are obviously a bit odd in this woman's life. I won't spoil the details, in case you want to see the film, but in my opinion it really doesn't go anywhere especially interesting in the end.

This is worth your time only if you are a fan of spooky stories that are very light on the actual spookiness, or are an aficionado of black and white photography.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Last Man Standing (1996)

I own three different versions of Yojimbo on DVD, but ironically none of them are actually Yojimbo.  The first is A Fistful of Dollars, which I reviewed on this blog in May last year.  The second is The Warrior and the Sorceress, which is a gloriously trashy bit of 80s nonsense that I watched before starting the blog, but which may well turn up as a weekend review here one day.  The third, as you've probably deduced, is this movie.

I'm not going to spend much time on a plot summary here.  It's Yojimbo.  A dangerous drifter comes to a town where two warring gangs have all but destroyed the community, and begins to play the two groups off against each other.  The only thing that really changes between different versions of the tale - other than the drifter's chosen weapon and the quality of the film, of course - is the protagonist's motivations for getting involved.

Last Man Standing was a critical and commercial flop, which I think is a shame, particularly since I find many of the critical complaints to be dubious, at best.  The film has a consciously noir aesthetic, and is set in the prohibition era, so complaining that it has an 'oppressive' atmosphere seems to be missing the point just a little.  I mean sure, such an atmosphere might not be to all tastes - and if you're not interested in a fairly bleak setting and a morally grey protagonist, you're not likely to like this film - but complaining that the film achieves something it clearly intends to achieve is odd, you know?

There are problems with the film, of course.  The absence of female characters as anything other than sexual objects, for instance.  Yojimbo has always been a male-dominated narrative, but this film goes further in that direction.  I liked Alexandra Powers performance in her role, for instance, but I wish she'd been given something more to do than be a victim of the men around her.

But let's talk about the positives of the film for a while, and the two main reasons you should see it.

The first is that the cast is excellent.  Reviews complained about Willis's performance being 'flat', but again I think this is quite deliberate evocation of Clint Eastwood's stoic "Man With No Name".  Regardless of that, however, you've got Bruce Dern, Christopher Walken, William Sanderson and David Patrick Kelly all turning in their usual strong performances.

The second is that the film has a strong visual aesthetic - which is hardly surprising in a Walter Hill movie.  Stylistically, it calls back to Sergio Leone's version of the story, and that is no bad thing.

So basically, if you're in the mood for an action film and don't mind one that's a bit more bleak than the average - a bit like "The Godfather gone Western" - then this could be the film for you.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

UFO Target Earth (1974)

This film (which sometimes drops the "UFO" from its title) put me in mind of The Blair Witch Project.  It doesn't have the whole "found footage" presentation, of course; that particular innovation was still twenty five years in the future.  But in a lot of other ways, it is structurally similar.

It begins, for instance, with a series of interview scenes.  In this case the interviews are not about a piece of local folk lore, but instead about encounters with UFOs.  It then moves on to a bunch of people wandering around in the woods and generally freaking themselves out over various unsettling phenomena.  It's only really in the last act that things diverge.  Where the concept behind The Blair Witch Project required that the actual events of the conclusion be unclear, this film has no such constraint.  There definitely are aliens, and they definitely do contact the characters.

We've a long road to travel before that happens, though, as the vast majority of this film is given over to the characters Talking Very Seriously About UFOs.  This is a film that is jam-packed with nothing actually happening.  Now to be sure, the same charge can (and has) been levelled at The Blair Witch Project, but for me at least, that movie did a much better job of creating and maintaining some sense of suspense.  This one is just wall to wall talking heads.

Conspicuously, even when the aliens do make their 'appearance', the film remains nothing but talking heads, as they deliver a huge wad of exposition and set up a concluding sequence that features all the special effects wizardry you might expect on a budget of five or possibly even six dollars.

This is a tedious affair indeed, and one you can safely avoid.  It is also the last film in this boxed set, so hurrah for that.  Always very satisfying to finally finish one of these collections, regardless of the final movie's quality or lack thereof.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

It probably doesn't say anything good about western culture that this 1959 film has a more even-handed approach to gender politics than most films from the 80s.  Don't mistake this for it being enlightened, of course - it's not.  But feisty widow Carla Coetabaug gets her moments to shine, and she's not constantly needing to be rescued.  Thumbs up to the scriptwriters for that (and since she's not in the original story, it is the scriptwriters who deserve the credit).

Obviously, this is based on the Jules Verne novel, though a number of changes are made to that story, above and beyond the addition of Ms Coetabaug.  Firstly, the German protagonists of the novel become Scottish in the film.  I've seen claims this was done because the Scots were considered the best field geologists by the time the film was made, but I subscribe to the rather more prosaic explanation that a German hero was not going to fly in 1959.

The second change is that the expedition is given a human antagonist.  This is the leader of a rival expedition, who murders Carla's husband and thus leads to her involvement in the plot.  I'm ambivalent about the addition of the villain.  I think the film is at its best when it is pitting the adventurers against the natural dangers they encounter, and his eventual exit from the film is rather weak.  It's also a bit of a worry that - during the brief period where the two groups join forces - the villain is the one who takes the dangers and opportunities of the expedition most seriously.  The script pretty much has to make him a reprehensible jerk to stop you from saying "that guy should probably be in charge".

The plot also has a number of amendments from Verne's original tale, mostly reducing the number of monstrous creatures encountered by the group.  The film features only one such sequence instead of several, and given the goofiness of the "Dimetrodons" as they appear on screen, that was probably a smart decision.

I won't bother to go into any great detail about the story: this is one of those tales where the plot is in the title.  A scientific expedition plunges deep below the surface of the Earth and uncovers a strange and wondrous realm of undiscovered minerals, flora and fauna.  They even stumble across the sunken remains of Atlantis.  It's a pretty silly affair, but it benefits from the fact that the script manages to be lighthearted without mocking itself.  A solid cast doesn't hurt matters, either.

The film's a bit dated these days, but it remains at its heart a rollicking if improbable adventure story.  Good family-friendly entertainment.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Do Or Die (1991)

I'm not sure how Pat Morita got suckered into this movie, but he manages to make Andy Sidaris's dialogue sound more natural than anyone before (or probably since), so I'm glad that he really needed to make those payments on his mortgage, or whatever.

Morita plays "Kane", a mob boss who hires six pairs of supposedly-expert assassins to take out a pair of federal agents.  Being a sporting sort of chap though, he warns the agents that the assassins are coming.

The agents swing into action ... which since they are women and this is an Andy Sidaris movie, means that they do some topless hot tubbing.  But they also find time to fill in their superior over the satellite phone.  Their boss immediately begins assembling a team to help them, but they're going to be up against the odds: Kane's men secretly planted a tracker on one of the women while he was delivering his oh-so-sporting warning.

The team assembled to help the agents includes Erik Estrada.  Estrada was a villain in the previous Sidaris film, and got blasted apart by multiple rockets, but he's back in this as a new, heroic character.  That's a pretty common thing in Sidaris films; in fact Estrada is one of three such cast members in this film.  (Pat Morita, alas, will not return, though his character does).

Anyway, there's a reason I put the word "supposedly" in "supposedly-expert assassins", as most of the attempts to kill the agents are farcically inept, and all seem to ignore the fact that the assassins work in pairs and are going up against a team of eight agents, thanks to Kane's "oh bee tee dubs I'm gonna have you whacked" warning.  So effectively although there are twelve assassins in all, they're outnumbered four to one during most of the actual encounters.

All Sidaris's usual tics - lots of nudity, clumsy exposition delivered as terrible dialogue, vehicles both real and model - are on show here.  Heck, the culmination of the film involves a model helicopter launching real rockets to take out the world's dumbest ninjas.

And really, your reaction to that last sentence is all you need to know about whether this is a film you'd enjoy.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

They (1974)

Bill Rebane gave us the delightfully daffy Giant Spider Invasion, as well as workmanlike Andromeda Strain knock-off The Alpha Incident, so I was cautiously hopeful about this film.  Alas, it's a much weaker offering than either of those later works.

Siblings Jake and Sara run a small plane business out in the North American wilderness.  The only other people around are a group of three scientists who have been doing vaguely defined science-y type things in the area.  Jake tries to fly the three men back to what passes for civilisation when their work is done, but he is warned away from the airfield by the man who runs it.  When Jake looks like he's going to land anyway, the man actually runs out onto the runway to force him to pull up.

Rattled, Jake flies the three men to a hunting lodge for wealthy tourists, instead, but the place is abandoned.  Another plane approaches, but then veers off and crashes, and later the men see strange red lights.  Without the fuel to travel more widely, they go back to Jake and Sara's.

The strangeness continues: reports on the radio of people dying throughout the country, and then a bizarre transmission asking them for their location.

As you might imagine, tempers begin to fray and flare at this point.  One of the scientists suggests some kind of alien source for the invasion.  Much later, he will refine this theory with astonishing detail into the belief that Martians came to Earth thousands of years ago and have been hiding below the surface ever since.  Sure, why not.

Eventually - and I do mean eventually - the group start trying to do more than simply hide.  That goes about as well as such things generally do in this sort of film.  At least it means something is happening though, even if that something is mostly 'people wandering around in the snow'.  Which brings us to the central problem of this film: nothing actually happening for very long periods of time.  This is a problem that The Alpha Incident also faces, but it did a much better job of holding my interest in the long talky sections.

This isn't really worth checking out unless you're insatiably curious to see the end - which comes out of left field, to say the least - or to listen to the equally eclectic soundtrack.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Burn Notice, Season 1 (2007)

I became aware of this show at about the same time as I first encountered Leverage.  The parallels were immediately obvious: both featured a team of highly-skilled experts using their unique skills to help ordinary people who had been targeted by those more powerful than them.

While Leverage has a great cast, excellent characters, and wonderful dialogue, I quickly became a bigger fan of this show.  Burn Notice might not quite have anything to match the Hardison/Parker dynamic of the other program, but it's strong in all the areas Leverage was, and in two other areas, it is much, much stronger.

The first of those two areas is the plots of the individual episodes.  Leverage was very much about the characters.  The jobs they undertook were generally just a pretext to have the cast bouncing clever dialogue off each other.  For me personally, the facile, hand-wavey resolution of many of the plots really detracted from the show.  Burn Notice didn't make that mistake.  It delivers satisfying 'capers' as well as satisfying characters.

The second area is the crux of the show: Michael Westen is a spy who suddenly gets 'burned'.  That means he is disowned by the agency that employed him, and blacklisted.  They freeze all his assets and dump him in Miami.  Westen has no idea why this has been done to him, and his quest to find out is a linking thread throughout this season.  Now often, shows with a 'central mystery' will waffle on and on about it without ever making progress.  Burn Notice neatly avoids this: over the course of the season Westen begins to piece things together and it is clear that in season 2, the situation will have evolved.  This strong execution of an ongoing narrative distinguishes Burn Notice from most other shows on TV.

While trying to solve the mystery of his burning, however, Westen needs to eat.  That's why he takes the jobs he does, assisted by (or occasionally conned into assisting) a team that he describes as "Anyone who's still talking to you.  A trigger-happy ex-girlfriend.  An old friend who's informing on you to the FBI.  Family too ... if you're desperate."  They're a fun group, all well-cast.  Each brings a different set of skills (and problems) to the table, which creates plenty of interesting dynamics.

Burn Notice is a smart show with strong scripts combining both action and humour.  You should check it out.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

The Manster (1962)

I always appreciate it when a trashy movie has a trashy title, and this one does not disappoint in that regard (unless you see it under its UK title, which is the less goofy The Split).

What we've got here is basically a Jekyll and Hyde story set in Japan, though in this case the scientist who comes up with the formula has the good sense not to test it on himself.  We meet him, in fact, just as he is executing one of his test subjects.  Said subject escaped the previous night and killed a woman who lives in a nearby village.  The scientist resolves that he cannot continue further testing near his home, so it is fortunate that a reporter from Tokyo turns up to interview him.  The scientist drugs the reporter and injects him with his 'enzyme', then sends him on his way.

The reporter is an American foreign correspondent who is looking forward to ending his long posting in Asia so he can head home to his wife.  He even, for the first time, turns down a story because he doesn't want to delay his departure.

So when he suddenly decides to stay in Tokyo and carouse rather than go home, his colleagues and wife are confused by his sudden change of behaviour.  The reporter turns surly and distant, then violent, as the enyme takes its course.  Soon the Tokyo police are faced with a rash of seemingly motiveless murders, though all appear to be the work of the same killer.  Their initial efforts to capture the murderer fail, but as the reporter continues to mutate, it can only be a matter of time before his secret (which of course, he doesn't even know he has) is uncovered.

This is the kind of film that will likely only appeal to you if you have a penchant for schlocky nonsense like I do, and it does sag in the middle before the deliciously crazy final act kicks off. On the other hand it offers mad science, a monster-man, and a climactic battle on the edge of an active volcano, so if schlocky nonsense is your thing, it may be worth a look.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Archer Season 1 (2009)

A lot of TV shows suffer from something of an identity crisis.  That may manifest as inconsistent writing of characters (hello, Star Trek Voyager), or a crippling lack of consistency in the show's internal mythology (The X-Files, anyone?).  Sometimes it's more subtle than that: one of the (several) reasons I didn't like the Battlestar Galactica reboot was that I wanted to see the gritty military SF it presented itself to be, but that wasn't the show we got.

One of the nice things about Archer then, is that it knows exactly what show it means to be, and it communicates very effectively what that show is.  By the time the opening credits roll on the first episode, you'll already know if it is something you want to watch.

Sterling Archer - code name 'Duchess' - is one of the most feared secret agents in the world.  He's also a narcissistic manchild with serious Mommy issues ... which still makes him one of the most balanced and well-adjusted people in the ISIS agency.  It's just that he cares less about hiding his dysfunction than most of the people around him do.

Basically, if the idea of an animated James Bond parody with a hugely wrong sense of humour appeals to you, then you should check out Archer.  Just don't underestimate what I mean when I call it "wrong".  There's pretty much no sacred cow this show won't slaughter in pursuit of a gag.  And then it'll probably bathe in the cow's bloody entrails.

The show doesn't rely on lazy 'gross out' jokes, though.  It's definitely full of "I can't believe they just said that" stuff, but it's also very sharp and very clever, and slips in some great little references.  For instance, there's a deft little gag about Chekov's gun in the second episode.

Archer will definitely not be to all tastes, but if you watch the first two minutes and like it, you're going to enjoy the show.  What you get is exactly what is on the tin.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Death Race 2000 (1975)

If you were to watch only one Roger Corman film in your life, Death Race 2000 is the one I would recommend.  It's from right in the middle of the best decade of his career, and deftly combines his willingness to tap into counter-culture and anti-establishment themes with his pragmatic eye for what puts butts in seats (i.e. sex and violence).  The end result is an experience as wild and anarchic as the race it depicts, that will more than once leave you saying "did they really just go there?".

In 1979 a massive economic collapse afflicts the USA.  Twenty-one years later it is an authoritarian state run on the principle of "minority privilege": a massive, legislatively mandated gap between the haves and have nots.  The latter group are kept quiescent by a combination of false promises, bombastic jingoism, and televised blood sports.

The greatest of those blood sports is the Transcontinental Road Race, a three day event in which racers compete not just to be the first to cross the country, but also to accumulate points by intentionally running over any bystanders they might see.  "Over 75s of either sex," we are told, "remain the biggest score at 100 points each."

The five racers in this year's race include Matilda the Hun, with her "lovable Nazi navigator Herman", wise guy-esque 'Machinegun' Joe DiTurbo (a very young Sylvester Stallone), and the surgically reconstructed champion and national hero, Frankenstein.

Unknown to the authorities or the racers, however, a grass roots resistance movement plans to disrupt this year's event and put an end to the barbaric race forever.  They've infiltrated one of their number into the race as Frankenstein's navigator.  They intend to kidnap him and hold him hostage until the race is abolished.

Frankenstein, on the other hand, has his own agenda, one that means he'll stop at nothing to win the race.  The results are going to be explosive for all concerned.

This is great, though resolutely inappropriate, fun.  See it if you have a taste for the mad and the bad.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Guns (1990)

The short description of Andy Sidaris's fifth film is "more of the same".  We've got the usual group of scantily or unclad female agents, their usual beefcakey boyfriends, and the usual criminal with a barely coherent plan and barely competent minions.  On the other hand, this is also the first of two Sidaris films to feature Erik Estrada.  And adding 'Ponch' to just about anything is gonna make it better, right?

Answer: no, but you will get to see him engage in the most awkward sex scene this side of ... well to be truthful, this side of the other sex scene in the film.  But at least that scene has the excuse of taking place on the back of a motorcycle.

Estrada plays "Jack of Diamonds", a supposedly dead criminal who murdered lead agent Dona Hamilton's father a decade earlier.  Jack's looking to re-establish a gun-smuggling racket to his (unidentified) South American homeland, and for some reason his plan to do this begins with murdering Dona's new partner.

The attack gets the wrong woman, however, due to the fact that Jack isn't much more competent than his minions.  Thus begins a frankly rather random sequence of events that allow Sidaris to fill the film with his three great loves: model vehicles, hotted up full-size vehicles, and naked bosoms.  This all ends with the inevitable badly staged gunfight, where grossly excessive force wins the day for the good guys, as usual.

We do, en route to said excessive force, get a deliciously awful ninja attack sequence at a gymnasium.  There is alas no Gymkata in the scene, but one can't have everything.

Yes, Gymkata will get a review here someday

At the end of the day, this is an Andy Sidaris film that is not Hard Ticket to Hawaii, and unless truly trashy cinema is a passion of yours, you can skip it.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Terror at the Red Wolf Inn (1972)

So I see that IMDB and a number of internet reviews call this a 'comedy horror', but in my opinion that's putting far too much emphasis on a five second snippet that happens after the credits roll.  Now admittedly, I saw the 77 minute 'TV' version of the film, and there is a 90 minute edition.  But I'm willing to bet the missing 13 minutes isn't exactly "Yakety Sax" material.  If you're curious to find out though, you may be able to locate the longer cut under one of the film's many titles (other options: Folks at the Red Wolf Inn, Terror House, and Club Dead).

College student Regina gets a phone call to alert her to the fact that she's won an all expenses paid vacation at the Red Wolf Inn.  She protests that she didn't enter any competition, but the person on the phone is very insistent.  They're also very insistent that she has to take the prize immediately and head straight to the airport for a charter flight.

Of course, if this happened in real life, I think most of us would immediately figure something hinky is going on.  Nowadays we might be more thinking identity theft or some other phishing scam.  But this is a 1970s movie, so what Regina's actually walking into - I don't really think this counts as a spoiler since it is obvious very early on - is a cannibal cult.

So this movie actually features mostly pretty solid performances, and some quite effective directorial decisions in terms of making you feel grossed out without doing anything explicitly gory.  In those regards, it is a well put-together little film.

Unfortunately (you knew it was coming, right?) those positives are rather squandered by the absurdity of the core concept.  Firstly, Regina and the two other victims of the cannibals have to be willfully stupid to not realise something weird is going on at the Inn.  A script that relies on characters being this dumb is a script that needs re-writing.

Second, the cultists' plot doesn't make any sense.  After 'winning' the competition, Regina has time to go outside and shout it out to the whole dorm.  Nobody seems to care much, but if she'd had friends or acquaintances nearby, they'd have asked questions and known where she was going.  That seems bad.  And we haven't even got to the question of how the cannibals find and select their victims.  They're basically just one family, so how are they locating young women who (presumably) don't have partners or jobs or other encumbrances to stop them coming?

Sure, you can turn off your brain and just enjoy the film's creepy atmosphere and amusingly twisted conclusion, but you really shouldn't have to.  The basic setup should have been - and has been, in other films - executed better than it is here.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995)

Gamera starred in seven films between 1965 and 1971 but then - other than a 'clip show' style release in 1980 - he took a kaiju-sized break from the big screen.

Now I've reviewed a couple of the original films, and 'pretty dreadful' would be an accurate summation of their quality.  So when I learned that everyone's favorite rocket-powered, sabre-toothed turtle monster had received a mid-90s reboot, well ... my morbid curiosity senses started tingling.  When I discovered I could get both sets of films in one sub-$20 boxed set, my fate was sealed.

Now, I will watch and review the remaining 'original' films one day, but I bought this set for the 90s reboot, and it was the first of those three movies that I slotted into the DVD player this afternoon.  And - as you may have guessed if you've looked at the tags on this post - it was a pleasant surprise.

I don't know if you saw the 2014 Godzilla film, but in that movie a pair of ancient monsters come out of hibernation.  Just the two of them cause a swathe of destruction, and the great danger is that they will mate and breed, spawning many more of their kind.  When a third creature - big G himself - appears, it is feared that another danger has emerged, but he turns out to be hunting the original monsters, instead.

I mention all this because, although many of the details are different, that's pretty much exactly the same outline as the plot of this film.  And honestly - though I quite liked the recent Godzilla and will probably check out the sequel - I liked this movie better.

Now sure, this film isn't anywhere near as slick.  Gamera's obviously a guy in a suit, the enemy monsters (Gyaos) are equally obviously puppets whenever they're not fighting him, and the dialogue includes gems like "Someday, I'll show you around monster-free Tokyo.".  But for all the hokum, it is fun.  The human cast mercifully includes no 'cute' children, making them far more tolerable than in previous Gamera films I've seen, and the various battles are full of fast-paced action.  Most importantly, it manages the fine balancing act of taking itself just seriously enough to present the Gyaos as a genuine threat, while never becoming turgid and grim.

If you can't stand kaiju, you won't like this, but if you have any affection at all for the giant lunks, this is a good outing.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Star Odyssey (1979)

The success of Star Wars inevitably led to a slew of knock-offs of varying quality.  Of course, when the best of the crop are the hysterically daffy Starcrash and Roger Corman's Magnificent Seven pastiche Battle Beyond the Stars, then "quality" is a somewhat subjective term.

(Yes, I know The Magnificent Seven is itself a remake.  Hush.)

My point is, when I tell you that this is one of the worst Star Wars knock-offs I have seen, that is no small claim.  Because my word, this film is dire.  But let's start with the "Star Wars" part of "worst Star Wars knock-off" first.

We've got the seemingly unstoppable bad guy supership.  We have the bickering 'comedy' robot couple (literally a couple in this case - they're "in love").  We have the rough and tumble rascal who gets the girl.  We have the psychic powers - not that this film will bother even with the fig leaf of "the Force" to justify them.  We have hordes of identical bad guys.  We even have frickin' light sabers.  These are almost as good as the ones you'd buy from your local toy store.

So yeah, the inspiration is pretty clear.  There's a fair amount of difference in the details, of course.  This film has an alien overlord "buy" Earth at an intergalactic auction, with plans to sell the population as slaves.  Initially his plan goes well as he overwhelms humanity's defences with a barrage of stock footage explosions.

Earth authorities therefore turn to the brilliant but iconoclastic Professor Mauri.  Mauri is "two centuries ahead" of any other human being in technological knowledge, and also incidentally a psychic.  Though when I say they "turn to" him, I mean they send someone to say "Hey, save the world, would you?  Just don't expect any help or resources from us."

... yeah.

So after that crime of narrative stupidity, Mauri assembles a crack team of ne'er-do-wells, some of who he has to break out of prison.  Because the authorities won't give him any help.  Because the movie is stupid.

Mauri assembles a team and they have a series of badly staged battles with the bad guys and there's a completely nonsensical ending and I haven't even mentioned the soundtrack, which appears to consist of one single 10 second tune that goes "doooo da da doo da da doooo" and is played over and over and over and over and over and oh god please just make it stop.

103 minutes of awful.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

When we first meet Fred Dobbs he is down and out on the streets of a town in Mexico, begging the occasional American he sees for the price of a meal - and then generally spending what he gets on something else, like a shave, a packet of cigarettes, or even a share in a lottery ticket.

Then he gets a job offer, where he becomes friends with another man named Curtin.  The two get stiffed by their employer, which cements their friendship.  Bedding down in a flophouse, they overhear an old prospector talking of gold, and the effect it can have on those who search for it.  Dobbs is dismissive of the prospector's tales of greed gone mad. "I'd take what I'd come for and leave the rest." he claims.

You get no prizes for guessing that Dobbs will find it much more difficult to walk away from gold than he thinks.

He gets the opportunity to find out when he and Curtin stumble across their former employer.  They force the man to hand over the money he owes them, and join forces with the prospector to search for gold.  Even then, though, they only have enough money for the expedition because Dobbs's lottery ticket proves a winner.

Naturally, the three men find gold.  Equally naturally, Dobbs soon displays a worrying degree of greed, and an even more worrying tendency to suspect his colleagues of treachery.  Frankly, given the behaviour he exhibited back in town, this could hardly be considered a surprise.  If the film is trying to make a point about the corrupting influence of wealth, they should perhaps have started with a more upstanding fellow than Fred Dobbs.

There's one genuinely emotionally-effecting scene in the film, which comes not too long after the famous "stinking badges" sequence, but generally speaking this film is a bit like being repeatedly thumped with a pillow.  It's clumsy and annoying, but it doesn't really have any significant impact.

While all the performances are solid enough, I didn't find the script effective, and at a full two hours the film felt too long by at least 30 minutes.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Piranha 3D (2010)

My flippant summation of the difference between the original Piranha and this remake is "the 1978 movie was a film about killer fish that had occasional nudity; this is a film about nudity that has occasional killer fish".

Now as I said, that's being flippant, and it definitely sells short the killer fish in this film: they'll claim a pretty hefty body toll by the time the movie is over.  But it is definitely true that the original film focused on being a Jaws knockoff, while this film focuses on being sleazy and schlocky.  I'm pretty sure the ease with which you can have women in (or out of) bikinis in a movie about killer fish is the main reason that they chose to remake Piranha rather than say Grizzly.

Lake Victoria is a popular spring break destination for college kids looking for sun, sex and insobriety.  Unfortunately, thanks to an earth tremor opening up an entrance to a long-sealed underwater cave, it is about to have a swarm of very unwelcome visitors.

And that, honestly, is pretty much the entire premise.  There's lots more plot, of course: a prospective romance between two characters, some family drama, several opportunities for amusing cameos, many many opportunities for nudity, and so on.  But the premise?  The premise is "Spring Break with Killer Fish".  And that's a perfectly cromulent premise: it worked for Jaws, after all.

If you're the kind of person who giggles like a loon when you realise that the piranha's first victim is going to be Richard Dreyfuss - in other words, a person like me - this is a fun, if very sleazy and silly, film with which to spend some time.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Piranha (1978)

Long before The Asylum mocked their first buster, we had cheapie knock-offs of bigger-budget films.  And whenever there was a sniff of money to be made from low budget film making, there was a good chance you'd find Roger Corman's name involved.

Released in the same year as Jaws II, this is pretty much as blatant a cash-in on Spielberg's monster hit as Universal's sequel was.  It's a better film than Jaws 2, though.  Even Spielberg himself has called Piranha "the best of the Jaws rip-offs".

We start with a couple of teenagers hiking through some woods.  Finding an apparently deserted facility, they sneak inside in hopes of finding a place to stay the night.  Instead, they find a couple of large reservoirs, which inevitably leads to skinny dipping.

And if you can't work out what happens to them with the information on hand, then I worry for your ability to dress yourself.

A few weeks later, an investigator from the big city hires a grumpy local to lead her up the mountain in search of the missing kids.  They also illegally enter the facility, and find signs that the kids were there.  The investigator decides to turn on the pumps and empty the pools to see if the youngsters drowned and - though of course she doesn't know it at the time - she releases thousands of mutant piranha into the local river.

Mutant piranha?  Oh yeah, these aren't your normal everyday tropical fish.  They've been genetically altered and bred by the army to be tolerant of cold water.  Why?  Well, the plan was to release them into the rivers of northern Vietnam, but "the war ended".

Unfortunately for the investigator and her companion, they won't learn any of this until they are already on a raft in the middle of the river.  Oops.

Anyway, the race is now on to warn people downstream of the impending danger.  Which is a problem that will of course be compounded by the self-interest of certain other parties, much as Sheriff Brody's efforts to close the beaches in Jaws were thwarted by the mayor.

It's not subtle about being a knock-off, this.

I like Piranha.  It's not without flaws: it's obviously a pretty cheap film, with patchy acting quality and even patchier effects.  And it has a tendency to insert moments of near-slapstick in between the more tense scenes, which makes for some odd tonal shifts.  But the tense scenes are tense, and the film is much more successful than most at making you feel like any of the cast could die.

It won't be to all tastes, but if you think Jaws would be improved if it had a much higher body count and occasional forays into silliness like a stop-motion fish-puppy-thing, then boy do I have a movie for you!

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Frozen Alive (1964)

I quite liked the first act of this film.  It kicks off with two scientists - a man and a woman - who are preparing for an important presentation.  The scene shows a strong camaraderie between them, with perhaps a hint of something more.  Nicely done.  Then we meet the wife of the male scientist, who is quite delightfully catty, and also quite sure that - whether her husband realises it or not - there's more than just friendship between the two researchers.  Of course, given how close she seems to her own male friend, there may be some glass houses at play.

The research in question?  Cryogenically freezing chimpanzees and then returning them to life.  This has been successfully accomplished on several occasions, and there is quiet talk of human tests - something that some of their superiors have no desire to see.  Presumably on religious grounds, though the film never really spells that out.

After their presentation is a big success, there's a nice awkward scene where catty wife meets female scientist.

And then the movie kind of loses its way.  Having established the four characters and the science fiction gimmick - and it is a gimmick, it could readily be removed without really impacting the basic course of events - it doesn't seem to know how to move them along the arc in a satisfying manner.

What the movie is trying to set up is a situation where the other characters think it is possible that the male scientist murdered his wife.  But it also wants to have him volunteer to be the first subject of human trials.  This requires some credibility-straining contrivances, to say the least, and there's no pay-off for it.  Like I said, the whole cryogenics thing could have been ditched without real effect on the film.  His being unconscious and accused is I guess intended to be dramatic, but it's not really any more so than his just being accused of a crime he did not commit.

Disappointing, since the beginning promised more than was actually delivered.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Picasso Trigger (1988)

This film is an excellent example of the mantra that 'execution matters more than ideas' when it comes to telling good stories.  You see, unlike the other three Andy Sidaris films I've reviewed so far, Picasso Trigger actually has a core concept that isn't fundamentally goofy.  Sure, since this is an Andy Sidaris movie it ends up in goofy-town, but let's compare:

Malibu Express: secret agent hires private detective to investigate a crime she herself is about to commit
Savage Beach: "I have a katana!"
Hard Ticket to Hawaii: TOXIC SNAKE
Picasso Trigger: mob boss fakes his own death as part of a scheme to have his enemies (on both sides of the law) wipe each other out

Put that last concept in the hands of a competent writer and director, and you could actually get a good thriller or action movie out of it.  Put it in Sidaris's hands, and you get ... well, you get boobs and bad dialogue, because that's what Sidaris does.  In this case you also get a lot of remote-controlled model vehicles.  Hard Ticket to Hawaii had diamond-smuggling via model helicopter, but this film takes it up a notch with model cars and planes being used as delivery systems for explosive surprises.  I suspect that either Sidaris or a close friend was quite the fan of radio-controlled gizmos.

The movie also features a pacemaker-seeking missile.  I did say it was goofy.

Let's be honest, I doubt anyone ever watched this movie for the plot.  This is a film with six Playboy playmates on the cast, after all.  The motivations for watching - especially in a pre-internet 1988 - are pretty obvious.

These days, unless you're an aficionado of truly trashy films, there is really little need to spend your time watching this.  Especially since I already spoiled you on the existence of the pacemaker-seeking missile, thereby spoiling the best bit.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Ring of Terror (1962)

So, how's the weather in your neck of the words?  Or your neck of the plains, city or other non-arboreal setting?  We've definitely been having some weather around here.  Sunshine, clouds, rain.  A whole lot of climate going on.

What's that?  Why am I talking about the weather?  Well, you see, I'm padding my review: extending its length with extraneous blather not related to the central theme.  It seemed apropos, since at least three quarters of this film - which is a scant 63 minutes to begin with - is occupied with stuff that exists merely to fill time.  You could comfortably turn the thing in a 22 minute TV show and it would still have a leisurely pace.

We have time wasted on a gravedigger looking for his cat.  Time wasted on the presentation of the contestants in a beauty competition.  Time wasted on the judging of the beauty competition.  Time wasted on the 'jolly japes' of a fraternity induction.  It is true that the fraternity induction does provide an impetus for the main plot (such as it is), but the rest of the material to do with it is of a completely different tone than the supposed 'terror' we've been promised.

Heck, most of the film is of a different tone than the one suggested by the title.  It mostly seems to be aiming at sophomoric comedy.  I'd say it missed the mark, since it fails to actually be funny, but then again, so does most sophomoric comedy.

This is dull as dishwater and about as convincingly acted.  The lead did apparently go on to work on the effects for Star Wars.  I suspect he would much rather be remembered for that than for this.  Heck, he'd probably rather be remembered for his small role in Galaxina than for this turkey.

Dull, dull, dull.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Hereafter (2013)

This is the first film & TV project I ever backed on Kickstarter.  The reason I only just got around to watching the film on DVD is that they originally shared it with backers in electronic format, and I watched it in that format.  The electronic version is free to watch on youtube by the by - just click on the image above if you want to check it out.

In a dystopian future, society is separated between the 'natural born' and 'mod born'.  The difference isn't explicitly stated, but it appears that 'mod born' are genetically engineered in vitro to be stronger, faster and perhaps smarter.  Thus there is considerable surprise when it is announced that some natural borns will be invited to participate in Guardian training.  Guardians are the elite paramilitary/police of this future society.  The final stage of which is the "Fear Tank", a process that frequently takes either the sanity or life of those undergoing it.

It's understandable in light of the above that when a natural born named Katcher receives an invitation, she has mixed feelings about it.  Ultimately the chance of a better life trumps the likelihood of washing out or dying, and she chooses to take the risk (just as well or there probably wouldn't be a story).

Of course, not everyone is pleased to see natural born 'pigs' being allowed into the Guardians hallowed halls, and Katcher will face considerable challenges in her training.  But perhaps the greatest danger is something she could never imagine: a mysterious, possibly supernatural presence known as 'the Ghost'.

Will Katcher survive the Fear Tank?  Will she face the Ghost?  Well, there's a link to watch the film and it's only 36 minutes long, so you can find out for yourself if you want.

I like Hereafter's world building.  We never get "Well, as you know Stan ..." style exposition drops, but plenty of detail about the setting is implied naturally in the course of conversations between the characters.  It's quite deftly done.  The action sequences - a chase and a fistfight - are also well staged, and the cast is strong.  If the film has a weakness, it's that it tries to be both a standalone story and a pilot for a possible TV show, and I think it works much better as the latter.  Whether a series will eventuate is of course hard to say, but as of a couple of months ago there were apparently some production companies looking at making it.  I hope something comes of that, as I'd enjoy seeing more of this world.

Friday, 2 January 2015

An Empress and the Warriors (2008)

My first reaction to that film was "Hmm, that title doesn't parse right to me."  I prefer the alternate option (The Iron Empress).

With that very important issue out of the way, how's the film?  Well, I can tell you exactly when I knew I was going to like it.  You see, about twenty minutes in there's an extended training sequence where the Empress is learning to fight.  She does pretty well, all told, but her trainer - an old friend of hers - is never satisfied with her performance.  She spends a lot of time getting knocked in the dirt as he hectors her, demanding she work harder, fight better, and never give up.

In a lot of movies, this would lead to a scene where she complains about his behavior and he or someone else points out that this is tough love, and is for her own good, because enemies are all around her and he just wants to keep her safe.

In this movie, however, it leads to a scene where she goes to him and says "I have a friend who has always been kind to me.  Now he must be harsh, and I just wanted you to know that I understand he is only doing what he must".  It was really nice to see the script give her the maturity to do that, and even nicer to see the way the actors in the scene gave it the gravitas it needed. Good stuff.

The rest of the film will show that there are indeed enemies all around the Empress, while also exploring the conflict between our sense of duty to others and our desires for ourselves.  It's not the most cheery of films at times; in fact I'd say that the overall tone is definitely in the vicinity of bitter-sweet.  So it probably won't be to all tastes.  But I really liked the lead performers, and I liked the characters they were playing.  They were genuinely good people without being annoyingly naive or implausibly saint-like.

I also generally liked the fight scenes in this, though ironically I enjoyed the climactic sequences the least.  The earlier scenes of the battle against Zhao and the treehouse fight (you'll know it when you see it, if you watch the movie) were the stand-outs for me.

If you don't mind your movies with a bit of melancholy, this is a good one.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Robot Pilot (1941)

Martin Mooney has been dead for nearly fifty years, which means he will never get to hear what I think of him for writing this racist, sexist turd of a film.

It's aiming at being one of those 'screwball' comedies, where a man and a woman meet, verbally spar and one up each other, and then make out.

The problem is that 'screwball' comedies live and die on the strength of their wit, and this script is completely, one hundred percent, utterly and entirely witless.  There's nothing funny about some jerk kidnapping two women and forcing them to cook and clean, however hysterical the movie seems to think it is.  Nor is there anything funny about "Oh those dopey Mexicans", which appears to be the only other joke Martin Mooney knew.

You may notice that none of this seems to have anything to do with the movie's title, and you would be right.  The film only remembers the aviation aspect of the story near the beginning and at the end of the picture.  Which is sad, since those parts of the script are merely stupid, rather than stupid and offensive.

Stay far, far away.