Friday, 29 May 2015

Storm Warriors (2009)

For some reason the producers of Storm Riders never made a sequel, so it was not until the rights moved to another company ten years later that this film went into production.

If only the new producers had used some of that decade to work up a script that wasn't muddled and incoherent.

So I'm obviously not going to give this a good review but let's work our way through it and see where it all falls apart (spoilers: pretty much everywhere).

We begin with narration (ugh) which informs us that the evil Japanese warrior Lord Godless has used his evil Japanese ways to drug and then capture the Chinese emperor and China's greatest martial artists.  He gives the latter group the chance to serve him, but of course instead they burst their bonds and attack.

This results in a lot of dead Chinese martial artists, and me wondering why Godless bothered with all this sneaky sneaky stuff if he's so darn tough.  It's probably to show what an honourless cad he is, or something like that.  The upshot is that only a few martial artists escape: these are a man called "Nameless", who is badly wounded; the protagonists of the first film, Wind and Cloud; and a chap named Piggy King.

The group decides that they will seek out Piggy King's brother, Lord Wicked, for help.  Unfortunately this doesn't work out.  You see, Lord Wicked succumbed to Evil at some point in the past.  To atone, and to ensure he never kills another innocent, he chopped off his own arms.

Diversion: seriously parents of these characters, what is with the names you chose?  I mean, Piggy King is bad enough - you pretty much ensure he's going to be a lecherous, gluttonous slob.  But what do you expect to happen when you name your kid Wicked?  You may as well name him Murdering Jerkface.


Lord Wicked proposes that Wind - whom he judges to be the more controlled than the impulsive Cloud - undergo the Evil Training (capital letters and all) as this is the only way to quickly amass the power to defeat Godless.  Presumably Wind will then become a Sith.  Or the mythical Chinese equivalent of one anyway.  Cloud meanwhile goes to study with Nameless.

And there's a lot of fighting.  Cloud fights minions.  Wind fights minions.  Cloud fights Godless.  Wind goes all goth (he really is a Sith!) and fights Cloud.  Then he fights Godless.  Then Cloud and Wind put aside their differences and both fight Godless.  Then two other guys fight over the mystical artefact that keeps China safe and accidentally break it in the process.  You'd think this is something that would be a big deal, but it will never be mentioned again because now Wind and Cloud need to fight each other again.

So they fight.  And fight.  And fight.  And fight.  And oh god movie just end already!

And then it finally does.

To steal from MacBeth, this film is "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Thursday, 28 May 2015

The Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior (2008)

As I noted in my review last week, the original Scorpion King is a pretty obvious Conan pastiche.  It's sequel (which is also a prequel) is not.  Instead it seems to draw its inspiration from Ray Harryhausen's mythic epics: Jason and the Argonauts, or the Sinbad films.

For example, the first film in this series had a purely human cast, only one character with sorcerous abilities, and no magical items at all.  Most of the characters were just really good at making other people dead by hitting them with sharp or heavy metal things.

The plot of this film, in comparison, goes something like this:

  • Mathayus must travel to Crete
  • To face the Minotaur
  • Because its Labyrinth houses a gate to the Underworld
  • Where he seeks the Sword of Damocles
  • Which he must steal from the goddess Astartes
  • So he can use it to kill the Sorcerer-King Sargon
  • Who killed his father and brother via magical curses
  • And who will transform into an giant scorpion when they do battle

I can totally see Harryhausen making a movie with that plot, though he'd have had the gumption to include a sea serpent fight in the ocean voyage, and skeletal adversaries in the Underworld.  He'd probably also have made a movie that was good.

Because there's another important difference between the first Scorpion King film and this one: and that is that this one is dreadful.

Now I had low expectations going in, given the long gap before it got made, the lack of any returning cast members, and the fact that it was a prequel (seriously, how many prequel sequels can you name that are actually a patch on the original?  They have an even worse hit rate than normal sequels).  But Rise of a Warrior failed to meet even my low expectations.  It starts with the casting, which is dire.  When the MMA fighter you cast as your villain is the most credible actor on the screen, you have a problem, you know?  It continues with the script, which is almost belligerently awful: it's like it is daring you to stop watching.  "You think you're tough enough to sit through this rubbish?  Well I can get worse!".

Charmless, brainless (not in a good way) and valueless.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Jack Hunter and the Quest for Akhenaten's Tomb (2008)

At the end of the first Jack Hunter movie it was revealed (omg spoilers) that one of Jack's colleagues was actually a member of a secret international organisation dedicated to keeping ancient superweapon "The Star of Heaven" out of the wrong hands.

Quite why she recruits Jack to keep the second part of the Star safe, given that (a) this organisation seems to have massive resources, and (b) Hunter already let the bad guys get away with the first half, I couldn't say.  I mean, sure, he's the world's foremost expert in the language of the the Ugarit people who made the weapon, but he is also - not to mince words - something of an idiot.

Jack insists on being joined by his colleagues from the first film: wacky ethnic stereotype Tariq, and obvious love interest Nadia.  He's also going to be working with Dr Lena Halstrom, a new character introduced in this film.

(L-R) Tariq, Nadia, Lena

Naturally the verbal claws come out from the moment Nadia and Lena meet, especially since the latter has a history with Jack and a tendency to look at him like he's wrapped in bacon and seared to perfection.  And to be honest, while the whole "two women squabble over a man" deal is the kind of thing that makes me roll my eyes, Alaina Huffman plays the obviously-secretly-a-baddie Lena with such relish that it's actually pretty fun.  Because yes, shock, the new female character is a villain.

Note: it's not actually a shock.  She may as well be wearing a "Villains Rule OK!" badge.  The only one who can't see it is - of course - Jack.  I refer you to my earlier comments about him being something of an idiot.

Anyway, there's basically 90 minutes of chases and fight scenes, most of them executed tolerably well if without overmuch imagination, before the movie ends with a big fat "to be continued".  Which given that these films were originally aired back to back as a mini-series is probably not hugely surprising, but does tend to make it a little less than satisfying.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Phantom of the Opera (1925)

The unmasking of the Phantom in this, the first English-language screen adaptation, is considered one of the great moments of cinematic horror.  Lon Chaney's self-devised makeup was reportedly so repellent that the camera actually lost focus on the shot.  Mill Creek have of course spoiled the moment by whacking him on the cover of the DVD box, though I guess the argument can be made that you shouldn't need to worry about spoiling a 90 year old movie.

In any case, this is apparently the most faithful screen adaptation of the novel.  Details are changed, but the overall thrust and tone is in keeping with that of the book.  This is an important note, as later works tended to draw on and extend elements introduced in the 1943 version of the film, starring Claude Rains.  The Phantom's deformity being the result of an injury, for instance, is an invention of the WW2-era film.  In this movie, and in the book, he has been disfigured since birth.

Now that specific detail isn't in and of itself a big deal but it is symptomatic of a wider tonal shift: later adaptations have cast the Phantom in a more and more sympathetic/tragic light.  Make no mistake though: in the original book, and in this film, he's most definitely a villain.  He murders those who threaten to reveal him and uses the threat of further violence to force a woman to agree to marry him, despite the fact that she loves another.

I wonder if (ironically, given the word "Opera" in the title) it was easier to make the Phantom wicked because this is a silent film.  We're told he has 'the voice of an Angel', but of course we only ever see his face and his actions, both of which are repellent.  If he were just a beautiful, disembodied voice for the first act, we might well be much more sympathetic to him when he finally appears.

These musings aside, how is the film?  Well, honestly I think it is a bit too long.  It starts to run out of steam around the halfway mark and the climactic "marry me or I will blow up your lover and everyone else in the Opera House" sequence is particularly drawn out.  There are good elements, though.  I've already mentioned Chaney's make-up work, and the film has other striking visual components.  The use of shadow is strong, for instance, and there's a Masquerade scene shot in an early form of Technicolor, where the Phantom appears as the Read Death.  I found that to be a striking sequence.

Overall, I'd probably say this one is principally of interest to film geeks.  The average modern movie watcher is likely to find it too slow-paced to entertain.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Godzilla va Megaguirus (2000)

Having done a hard reboot of the franchise in 1994, and a soft reset in 1999 (Godzilla 2000 didn't explicitly wipe the earlier 90s films out of continuity, but it notably dropped the characters and themes they'd all shared), Toho did another reboot in 2000, with this turkey of a film.

To be clear, being a reboot is not what makes this film a turkey.  What makes it a turkey is the ham-handed script, uniformly punchable human characters, and badly executed monster sequences.

All of which is a great shame because, unlike some of the other execrable entries in the franchise - All Monsters Attack, I am looking at you - this film does actually seem to be trying to be good.  It just misfires in pretty much every way imaginable.

The film begins with a potted summary of the new continuity it establishes: Big G appeared in 1954 and trashed Tokyo, then again in 1966 and 1996.  In the last rampage, it attacked Osaka, which had become the capital of Japan after Tokyo got flattened.  In each case after the first attack, the lure was nuclear energy.  The 1966 attack targeted Japan's first nuclear plant, while the 1996 attack focused on a 'plasma reactor', which the Japanese government had believed would not be detected by Godzilla's radiation-sensing nose.

No, no-one actually says that Godzilla literally smells radiation, but he's clearly able to detect it somehow.  Anyway, the authorities decide to deal with the big lizard by shooting it with a miniature black hole.

... and if your immediate reaction to that is "That's gonna go horribly wrong", then congratulations, you are smarter than literally every character in this film.  In fact, the first test of the device opens a rift in space-time, allowing a giant prehistoric dragonfly to enter the present day and leave behind an egg cluster before it returns to the past.

Because the egg is found by a young boy who is especially stupid, even by the standards of this film, Tokyo is soon overrun by thousands of human-sized insects.  Which ought to be a cool sequence, and yet utterly fails to be.  The swarm later tangles with Big G.  They come off distinctly second best, but some of them survive and spawn a Godzilla-sized super dragonfly with a sonic attack.

So a re-skin of Mothra, basically, that gets its in-universe justification by what amounts to "Oh yeah, eighty foot long dragonflies were totally a thing in the carboniferous period".

The emergence of this "Megaguirus form" of the dragonfly is of course the signal for the film's climactic act.  And on paper, the kaiju battle probably read like a good idea.  In execution, alas, this is not the case.  Again and again it sets up big set piece moments that ought to be cool, and again and again they misfire.  It's pretty much twenty straight minutes of flailing wildly with the bat and never once connecting with the ball.

Alas, poor movie, you're kind of naff.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Storm Riders (1998)

I have a fundamental aversion to the idea of 'destiny'.  If events are predestined, then our choices and actions aren't just meaningless, they're not even our choices and actions: they were chosen for us, long before.

I'm also averse to the use of the idea in fiction.  I mean obviously, the events of a film are predestined, what with there being a script, and such, but I'm talking here about predestination being used inside the narrative world.  Characters talking about it, I mean.

And so Storm Riders gets a bit of a black mark from me right at the get go, when it becomes obvious that the whole thing is going to revolve around a prophecy / predestined outcome.  In short: Powerful warlord Conquer will raise up two disciples named Wind and Cloud, and enjoy ten years of triumph as he does so.  But then the two will join together and become the storm that overcomes him.

The film doesn't actually reveal the second sentence of the prophecy until about an hour into the run time, but seriously: when a prophecy begins "X and Y will ensure your power for the next ten years", what's your first guess as to how it will end?  Not that the film tries to disguise this from the audience, what with Wind and Cloud turning out to be the sons of two men that Conquer murdered.

Aside: I like the literally translated names in the subtitles for this.  They're sometimes a bit off ("Seedy Sword" doesn't have the connotations it was probably meant to), but they're mostly evocative of who people are within the story.

Of course, once Conquer belatedly learns the second half of the prophecy, he tries to engineer the deaths of Wind and Cloud.  And if you suspect that those very actions are what will drive them to turn against him and thus ensure that destiny is fulfilled, well ... you've probably seen a film before.

This is not to say that Storm Riders is without narrative surprises.  The final form of the two young men's triumph is probably not what you'd expect (it's certainly not in keeping with typical western story beats).

Storm Riders is not going to be to all tastes.  It is very much a supernatural martial arts film, very different stylistically from more realistic fare like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Once Upon A Time in China.  Yes, I did say "realistic": those may be wire fu films, but the action sequences are largely highly exaggerated versions of real martial arts.  Storm Riders places not such limits on itself.  Astral projection, fireballs, people ripping off their own arms to power magical abilities - all this and more is on display.

While far from a flawless film (as you can see, I had several issues with it), this is not a film without attractions.  Sonny Chiba is excellent as Conquer, for instance.  There are some imaginatively staged fight scenes, as well - you just have to accept that you're watching a mythological Chinese superhero movie.

And really, if "a mythological Chinese superhero movie" sounds at all like a thing you'd enjoy, then you should check this out.

A final note: if pretty, pretty men are your thing, it sure has you covered.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

The Scorpion King (2002)

2011's Conan the Barbarian is a pretty dire film, which was disappointing.  But not only that, it's perplexing, because nine years earlier we'd seen the release of the best Conan film this side of 1982.  Heck, depending on how fond you are of the Schwarzenegger film, you might even say the best Conan film ever.

Because while The Scorpion King's protagonist might be named "Mathayus", the parallels with Robert E. Howard's famous character are kind of obvious.  He's a barbarian who is scorned by men of "civilisation", but who operates by his own personal code of honour.  He's a mighty warrior, and basically not a cruel man, but nonetheless a thief, assassin and reaver.  And let's not forget that he is destined to overthrow a terrible tyrant and become a king himself.  All you'd need to do to make this a Conan film is change his name, make his race Cimmerian rather than "Akkadian", and tweak his weapon choices ("By this bow I rule!" doesn't have quite the same ring to it).

Mathayus is, as mentioned, an assassin.  He is hired to kill the sorcerer who serves the wicked king Memnon, but is betrayed and left to die in a torturous manner (though not by being crucified to a tree - that would have made the parallels to Conan just a little too obvious, I suspect).  Needless to say he escapes and plots revenge on Memnon, though his attitude toward the "sorceror" has become a little more confused since learning that she's a very attractive sorceress.

Yeah, there's a whole lot of patriarchy in the "he doesn't kill her immediately because she's pretty", thing.  And it's not a movie that's short on such elements in general frankly (though I quite liked the subversion in the harem scene).

Ultimately though the movie sinks or swims on its action sequences, and these all deliver.  It's not even remotely realistic stuff, of course, but it is all imaginative and well-staged, making the fights and stunts one of the strong points of the film.

Not a strong point, on the other hand, is Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in his first starring role.  He's not terrible - better than Arnie 30 years earlier, to be honest - but having seen Furious 6 recently, I can definitely see how much more assured and capable he has become in front of the camera.

If you're interested in a fast paced, action packed adventure story with a charismatic (if occasionally slightly wooden) lead, then The Scorpion King has you covered.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Jack Hunter and the Lost Treasure of Ugarit (2008)

It's odd, I've never seen the Jack Hunter telemovies before and yet there is something eerily familiar about the logo ...

So yeah, obviously these movies are transparently pinching the "adventurer-archaeologist" schtick of the Indiana Jones films, albeit updated to the current day and with - as yet anyway - no sign of whip-wielding on the main character's part.  Everything else is more or less the same, though, right up to the whole "the artefact he's seeking turns out to be an ancient superweapon" thing.  The film makes no attempt to hide it, either.  There's a scene early on where a comment is made about "face melting", which is a pretty blatant Raiders of the Lost Ark reference.

The film starts with Jack breaking into a museum in order to take photos of an ancient tablet, but when he accidentally triggers an alarm and gets into a fistfight with a guard, his camera gets broken.  So he just steals the tablet itself, instead.  He's a maverick, that Jack Hunter.  He's also apparently able to spirit priceless antiques through airport security.

The tablet comes from the ancient civilisation of Ugarit (a real place in which one of the early forms of alphabet appears to have arisen).  It contains a cryptic clue that Jack's mentor believes leads to the supposed location of the "Iris", part of the King of Ugarit's regalia.  For his part, Jack thinks such stories are nonsense, and is ready to wash his hands of the whole affair ... but then his mentor is murdered.

So it is off to Syria, to meet the (surprise!) extremely attractive and western-educated female archaeologist who will accompany him on his search for the Iris.  Naturally the two of them immediately evince the kind of mutual hostility than will inevitably lead to them falling in love at some point.

This first Jack Hunter film is a harmless enough bit of light adventure nonsense, though it is certainly an unambitious script.  Fistfights and gunfights pop up regularly in lieu of characterisation or plot, and there are some clangingly awful moments of dialogue.  "The Ḥashshāshīn! They're real!".  Well yeah.  They're also pretty thoroughly documented, supposed archaeologist-lady.

If you're looking for light entertainment and you don't mind the constant "damsel in distress" moments of the lead female, or the "wacky ethnic stereotype" antics of one of the other Syrian characters, I guess you could do worse than spend 90 minutes with Jack Hunter.  But you could also do a lot, lot better.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Doomed to Die (1940)

This is another of the Mr Wong films to star Boris Karloff, who looks and acts no more Chinese-American than he did in The Fatal Hour.  Also like that film, this movie has no business being in a "Horror" collection.  But such are the ways of the Mill Creek boxed set.

Structurally this pretty similar to The Fatal Hour, with Mr Wong being called in to investigate a murder - in this case to exonerate the young man who has been accused of the crime - and then ambling around looking pleased with himself while narrowly avoiding being murdered as well.

As in that earlier film, most of the entertainment value in the movie comes from the supporting cast, especially the bickering between Police Captain Bill Street and Intrepid Girl Reporter 'Bobbie' Logan.  This pair probably actually spend more time on screen than Mr Wong himself, which frankly is okay by me.  There's nothing wrong with Karloff's performance (other than his ethnicity, obviously), but Mr Wong doesn't really have any character traits other than "solves crimes", so he's not terribly interesting, especially when the central mystery is as lazily written as in this film.

And it's the weakness of the central mystery that leads me to be less generous with this film than with my previous Mr Wong review.  The plot only works because (a) Mr Wong lucks into two major clues, (b) the real culprits are painfully stupid and inept and (c) things are kept from the audience to obscure what's going on.  With access to the same information as Mr Wong, you could probably solve the crime in half the time.

The Logan/Street repartee lifts this film above the average for a 1940s cheapie, but that's a low average to clear.  The average episode of Castle will give you a more interesting case with more amusing banter.  Heck, so might the average episode of Magnum PI, for that matter.  You can safely pass.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Godzilla 2000 (1999)

The first two thirds of a kaiju film has one function: to set up the final climactic battle.  That may seem like a simple enough mission statement, but the challenge these movies face is that their audience knows this, and that can make it hard to get them to engage.  It's a bit like asking someone to watch a game of baseball from the start, after telling them that the scores will be tied at the top of the ninth.  They're not going to care overmuch about the first eight innings in a situation like that.

The best kaiju films (Pacific Rim, the three Gamera films from the 1990s) manage to overcome this by making the 'setup' period of the film satisfying and engaging on its own terms.  More often though, you get what happens in Godzilla 2000: the first 65 minutes fulfill their narrative function - they set up who Big G's enemy will be, and why we should want Godzilla to win - but they don't actually stand on their own merits.

With this film, the failure stems from three main weaknesses.  The first is the human characters being annoying: we've got a bratty child (she's presumably meant to be adorably feisty, but she's so not), and a whiny photojournalist whose only expression for most of the first hour is a pout.  There's also bratty kid's dad, who is more or less the 'hero' from the human side of things.  He's kind of like the Godzilla equivalent of a stormchaser, which does not sound like the sort of thing you should turn into a daddy/daughter bonding session, no matter how irritating she is.

The second weakness is in the increased use of CGI and overlays, rather than model and rubber suit work.  Suffice it to say that Toho's skills in these "new" FX types are significantly weaker than in those traditionally associated with Godzilla.

The final weakness is in the 'action', such as it is, of the first hour.  We have some Looney Tunes-esque scenes of Godzilla causing destruction early on, and leaving bewildered but unharmed humans in the rubble behind him: seriously, they just need animated birds flying 'round their heads and they'd fit right into a Warner Bros cartoon.  Then we have a 'battle' behind Big G and the human military, which mostly consists of them shooting Godzilla with missiles while he stands there and roars from time to time.  Exciting, it is not.

This is something of a shame because the final battle, when it comes, is actually a pretty good one.  The new monster looks cool (and undergoes several minor transformations during the battle that keep things fresh), and the climactic piece of action is well thought out.

If you like kaiju films, then the final battle is worth checking out (though I recommend you turn if off as soon as Godzilla actually wins - there's a silly coda afterword that you're better off skipping), but I wouldn't bother sitting down to slog through the whole thing.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Zombie Diaries 2: World of the Dead (2011)

Pop-quiz time.

It's the zombie apocalypse and you have in your possession:
a) a gun; and
b) a video camera

Which do you keep in your hands?

If you chose b, then congratulations - there may be a part in the Zombie Diaries franchise for you.

So as you may have guessed both this and the original film in the series are "found footage" affairs, when some idiot with a camera blunders about recording everything for no good reason rather than actually doing something useful.  This is a common problem in such films, and they address it with varying degrees of success.  The first Zombie Diaries does a terrible job of it for instance.  This one is better, for a while, but there comes a point where the group is fighting their way through a horde of (the most static, unthreatening) zombies you've ever seen, and camera-guy is still recording, where they clearly just threw their hands up and went "ah, no-one will care that it makes no sense to record this instead of using a gun to help, right?".

That scene is actually a good time to turn the movie off on another front, because it signals that the plot's about to take a hard right turn into rape-town.  For a film ostensibly about the zombie apocalypse, there sure seems to be a lot more time and attention paid by the film-makers to the extended scenes of violent sexual assault that follow.  It's also notable that the leader of the rapists escapes any kind of justice - as blatant a sign as any I can think of that the writer needs a good slapping.

Awful, charmless, witless garbage.  Stay far away.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Fido (2006)

This film is set in a version of 1950s America where World War 2 was "The Zombie War", a battle between humanity and the undead which was ultimately won by the living - at least, if one considers "living in sealed communities while large tracts of the country are left to the walking dead" to be victory.

The war has wrought other changes on society.  Since everyone who dies becomes a zombie, funerals are now extremely elaborate and expensive, with the head having to be buried separately from the rest of the corpse.  Those who can't afford to pay for them end up as flesh-eating monsters ... at least until ZomCon captures them and puts on a "control collar" that inhibits their hunger and renders them docile servitors.  Society has thus passed all its menial jobs - janitorial work, groundskeeping, domestic servants - off to zombies.

If the jobs given to the zombies sound like those into which non-white Americans were relegated after the war ... well, I don't think that's a coincidence.  The cast is resolutely, one hundred percent Caucasian.  You won't be seeing an Asian-American or African-American face, and I think that's the result of a deliberate decision to equate "living" with "white" within the film.

Our main character is a young boy who has a rather distant relationship with his parents and plenty of problems with bullies at his school (the school scenes by the way are great: the film has thought through some of the implications of an ongoing zombie menace quite thoroughly and shows how that impacts the education of children).  His life changes when his parents buy a zombie to help around the house.  The boy dubs the newcomer 'Fido' and begins to strike up a rapport with the creature.  For its part, the zombie - once treated a bit better than his kind normally are - begins to evidence a degree of loyalty and affection in turn, to the point that it can eventually overcome its hunger for flesh, even when its control collar malfunctions.

Of course, the friendship of boy and zombie never runs smooth and they'll have to deal with a lot of challenges from a society that insists on complete segregation.

This is a fine zombie-themed comedy-drama.  I think the script could have done with a little tightening; in particular there are some early scenes involving the boy's mother where her character seems quite at odd with how she acts later in the film, but it's overall a strong production.  It's frequently clever enough to provoke real laughs, and the central performances are all strong.  It's worth your time if you're not immediately put off by the presence of zombies in a film.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Pontypool (2008)

Apparently the director of this film insists this is not a zombie movie, but if it walks like the undead and bites like the undead, well ...

Grant Mazzy is a former radio shock jock whose career has sunk to the point that he's stuck in a tiny radio station in rural Ontario.  Driving to work in a snow storm, he encounters a woman who acts oddly, repeating his words, and then disappears into the blizzard.  Mazzy is a little unnerved, but shakes it off to the point where he uses the incident as inspiration for his show.

Shortly thereafter, however, the station's "helicopter" reporter Ken (who is actually just sitting on a hill and using sound effects for the chopper) calls in some strange goings on at the clinic of a local doctor.  Hundreds of people have gathered and, after chanting strangely, begin to trash the place in an orgy of violence.

As eye-witnesses call in and are mysteriously cut off before they can be put through to him, and the intermittent calls from Ken become stranger and stranger, Mazzy begins to suspect that he is the victim of some kind of bizarre prank by his co-workers.  He insists on going outside to see for himself.  The stampede of frenzied totally-not-zombies-honest that greets him puts paid to any idea of a hoax.

The reason the seriously-man-they're-totally-zombies are at the station is that they're following the doctor whose clinic was destroyed.  He has apparently worked out a lot of the story behind the strange behaviour and aggressiveness of those infected, as well as how the disease spreads.  I'll give the film points for having an unusual vector of contagion, and while it is wildly implausible, it's no worse than the usual explanations for the walking dead.

There are some good performances here, and quite a lot is achieved with a very restricted cast and sets.  For much of its run Pontypool is quite effective at building tension; especially once the doctor arrives at the station.  In the last ten to fifteen minutes however, I felt it foundered quite badly, and delivered an unsatisfactory conclusion, which is why I'm not giving it a recommendation.  It's really only - despite the director's protests - for zombie aficionados.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

With the exception of Gamera, this is going to be a week of zombie film reviews, and there's really only one way I could begin.

I've been a huge fan of Night of the Living Dead ever since I first saw it, nigh on 25 years ago now.  After that, I rented it several times on VHS, checked out the 1990 remake (fun, but an inferior film), and eagerly snapped up the "30th Anniversary Edition" when I saw it on DVD sometime in 1999.

Which proved to be a horrible mistake.  That DVD has two versions of the film: one with a new score; which is mindbogglingly awful; and one with 15 minutes of extra footage added; which is equally terrible.  Definitely a case of subtraction by addition.

However, due to the omission of a copyright statement on the prints, the film is in the public domain and legally available at The Internet Archive, so I was at least able to download a version of the film that had not been ruined.  It also means that Mill Creek can slap it into their budget 50 packs.  Which is a win all round.  Honestly, I would have paid $20 for a decent copy of this film by itself; to get it in a pack that also includes Nosferatu (which we'll get to) and Metropolis (reviewed here), is pretty sweet.

So in case you've been living under a rock for the past near-50 years, Night of the Living Dead is the grandfather of the modern zombie genre.  Without this movie, there is no Walking Dead, no 28 Days Later, no iZombie.

For reasons unknown - the film offers theories, but never identifies any of them as 'true' - the dead rise from their graves all over the planet.  Apparently driven by an insatiable lust for human flesh, they assault the living.

The movie centres on a small group of strangers who become trapped in an isolated farmhouse by the zombie hordes.  We - and they - are given snippets of the wider situation via news reports on the radio and television, but there's no phone on the premises so they aren't able to make two-way contact.

Naturally in the fraught circumstances there are angry disputes between the mismatched members of the group, as they argue about the best way to survive.  The fact remains, of course, that whichever strategy they choose, the mob of undead outside the building continues to grow ...

Night of the Living Dead is tautly made, with little wasted time and an oppressive atmosphere.  It's short on jump scares and other cheap tactics, focusing on building up a real sense of danger and then maintaining that as the isolated group's position becomes more and more desperate.

This film is well worth your time even if you are normally not one for horror films or gore (though if you are on the squeamish side, make sure to see it in the original black & white, rather than a colourised version).

Monday, 11 May 2015

Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (1999)

This is the third and final Gamera film to be made in the 1990s, and the last Gamera review you'll see from me for a while.  Although the boxed set has all eight of his movies from the 60s and 70s, I'm not in any real hurry to watch them.  I have, after all, seen Attack of the Monsters.  So I know what they're like.

The 90s reboot is a very different beast from those earlier films.  He's a much more rough and bestial looking monster --

-- and for all that he's basically benevolent in intent he's also a fifty foot turtle monster thing with flaming breath.  Having your city protected by Gamera tends to leave entire city blocks levelled.  It's be kind of like treating an infected wound in your arm by amputating the whole limb.  It might be better than the alternative, but it's not exactly without its drawbacks.

And indeed, this film concerns itself with a young woman whose parents were (inadvertently, though she doesn't know that) killed by Gamera during his first 1990s appearance.  She understandably doesn't like the big tusked turtle very much, and when she hears of another monster - an enemy of Gamera's - that is imprisoned in a cave, she resolves to free it so they can get their revenge together.

If you immediately suspect that this new creature is going to turn out to be much worse than Gamera is, well ... yeah, of course.  "I summoned a new monster and it's even more friendly than Gamera" wouldn't be much of a conflict now would it?

The film doesn't really get down to the rock 'em sock 'em kaiju action until after the hour mark, but it does a good job of spoon feeding short but still fairly intense battle scenes through the first sixty minutes, and it has a better than average human storyline that keeps things humming up until the climax as well.

If you're not at all a kaiju fan this movie isn't going to change your opinion, but if you are interested in such fare, it's an excellent example of the genre.

Friday, 8 May 2015

The Seven Year Itch (1955)

This film is adapted from a play, and its stage origins are obvious from the start.  Our main character - the odious Richard Sherman - soliloquises constantly to himself.  About his apartment, his wife, his son, and about the many, many young women he could have seduced had be been "that sort".

Sherman, you see, is alone in Manhattan for the summer while his wife and child holiday in the cooler climes of Maine.  This is something many men of business do during the hottest part of the year.  A lot of them also use that time to drink too much, smoke too much, and chase unattached women.  But Sherman - as he loudly and vociferously reminds himself - is not going to do any of those things.  Not because he can't, of course.  He's perfectly capable of seducing any woman he chooses, he assures himself and an imaginary version of his wife.  He's just too upright a person to do so.

Since my use of the word "odious" in introducing Sherman has tipped my hand to my opinion of the man, I'm sure you will be unsurprised to hear that he's about to learn that he has a new, very attractive neighbour for the summer.

But don't worry, he's not "that sort".  He certainly won't be pretending to be unmarried, inviting her in for a drink, or attempting to paw her on a piano stool.

Oh wait, that's exactly what he's going to do, all within a few hours of meeting her.

So obviously there's a big cultural shift between the 1950s, when "man struggles (not very well) with the temptation to cheat" is a source of highlarity, and today, when it just makes me want to give his wife the number of a good divorce lawyer.  To the script and actors' credit, they occasionally are quite funny, despite the fundamentally repellent core concept of the film.  But the core concept remains, and no amount of Marilyn Monroe standing on a steam vent is going to redeem that.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Age of Heroes (2011)

This is one of those movies where I kept waiting for it to do it's Thing.  The Thing that had made the film happen.  The little wrinkle or quirk or out-of-the-ordinary idea that had explains why someone put up the not-inconsiderable amount of cash needed to make a movie.

It never happened.  This film really is the pale, slightly lifeless imitation of a 60s war film that it appears to be.  It's not actively awful you understand, it's just ... there.  A lump of cinematic indifference.  Frankly, I'd have enjoyed it more if it was awful, but had a Thing.

So obviously I am not going to recommend this, but what's it all about?  Well, basically it's a fictionalised account of Operation Biting, a real WW2 commando raid.  Highly fictionalised: they changed the name to Operation Grendel, moved it from France to Norway, and cut the number of soldiers involved from 120 to 8.  The last of course can be explained by the realities of film-making.

The script mixes in a little of The Dirty Dozen, with two of the commandos on the raid being lifted out of military prison to take part.  This includes the nominal protagonist of the film, who it seems we're supposed to warm to as this Gutsy Common Man Who Rises To The Occasion, but frankly the writing never justifies that.  His rise to greatness is really more of a sidle to mediocrity.

If you've got a hankering to watch an old-fashioned war movie, pick one with more liveliness than this insipid affair.  The Dirty Dozen is probably the obvious candidate, given the obvious echoes in this film.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Prototype (2009)

I'll start by noting that the square brackets around this film's name do not appear in the actual on-screen titles.  I suspect they were added as an attempt to cash in on the successful video game released the same year:

Nah, I'm sure it is totally just a coincidence.

Given that video game films have not historically set the box office alight, they must have been really hard up for a marketing plan.  To be clear: there's no connection between the movie and the game.

In any case, this film is about a young man named Alex, whose life is not not going terribly well.  He has a dead end job with a boss who victimises him, and who might be sleeping with his girlfriend.  Said girlfriend constantly mooches money off him.  His mother is dead.  His step-father slaps him around.  Pretty much the only comforts in his life are religion - he's an avid church-goer, and believes that God has a purpose for him, if only he can find it - and the one friend who doesn't use him.

Said friend is a bit of a genius, it turns out, because he invents a pair of gloves that allow the wearer to employ telekinetic powers of immense force.  He shows these to Alex, but is reluctant to let the young man use them when his first attempt is unintentionally destructive.

As Alex's life continues to get worse, he becomes convinced that the gloves will allow him to right the wrongs that he feels are being done to him.

Now, to be honest, the people in Alex's life are pretty horrible.  But murdering them is probably not a valid response, and that's pretty much Alex's only game plan.

Now while this has all been going on, there's been a subplot about the local sheriff.  He's divorced (as a result of his own adultery) and his ex-wife is about to remarry.  Initially, he reacts to this news by harassing her new fiance, but when his ex confronts him about this he comes to the realisation that he is misusing his power.

And for like five minutes, I actually thought "Hey, this is quite cool - the movie's juxtaposed these two guys stories quite effectively.  Alex isn't the protagonist.  Sheriff guy is."  Because even after 500 reviews on this blog, hope springs eternal.

Alas, the movie doesn't pull the trigger on this parallel.  In fact, it doesn't really pull the trigger at all.  Instead, having set up a situation where both Alex and the Sheriff have one of the telekinesis gloves, which you might think would lead to a big TK vs TK battle ... it stops.  Roll credits, all done.  Were they hoping for a sequel?  Did they run out of money?  I don't know.  And honestly, at the end of the day, I don't care very much, either.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Godzilla vs Destroyah (1995)

There are some striking similarities between the new adversary in this film and that of Gamera 2: Attack of Legion.  Both are insect-like monsters that initially swarm as more or less human-size creatures before later revealing a giant form to battle their respective kaiju counterparts.

While it would have been poetic justice for this film to steal from Gamera, I doubt that was the case.  For one thing, this movie was released seven months earlier.  It does however, "draw inspiration" from elsewhere:

Movie: the soldiers enter the pipe-filled industrial site, moving in teams. They carry assault rifles and flamethrowers, and each team has a heavy weapons trooper with a harness-mounted minigun
Me: "Gee, could you be any more obvious with your Aliens riff?"
Movie: one of the soldiers has a motion detector
Me: "I guess that's a yes, then."

Later, it emerges that the the Destroyah beasts even have the mouth-within-a-mouth thing going on, though frankly, they're considerably less terrifying than everyone's favourite xenomorph.

So, setting aside the similarities with other movies, how is this one?  Well, it's okay.  If you're not into kaiju it's not about to make you a believer, or anything like that.  And even if you are a fan of the genre, you're probably going to roll your eyes at the human-centric portions of the flick.  The Aliens scene is pretty effective but other than that they're almost all exposition/narration fests, much of them coming from a college student who somehow becomes the #1 authority on all things Godzilla about five minutes into the film.

It's a weakness of the film that all the exposition and narration is actually pretty necessary.  There's a lot going on here: Little Godzilla growing up.  Adult Godzilla blowing up.  Monsters from the Pre-Cambrian being released and mutated by the weapon which destroyed the Original (1954) Godzilla.  It's all driving toward what's clearly intended to be an "epic" conclusion prior to the franchise taking another hiatus.

I'll give the film points for aiming for something a little different than usual, but for my money it didn't quite hit the mark.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Street Fighter (1994)

I saw this movie when it was in the cinemas, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  This is not because it is a good film, you understand.  It's not.  It's a terrible movie.  A gloriously terrible one.  As I watched, my jaw dropped - and kept dropping - as the script moved from bombastically stupid to "how drunk were they when they wrote this?"

I mean, one does not expect high art from a film that casts Jean Claude Van Damme and Kylie Minogue as its leads, but this is the final shot of the movie:

Just what the heck is Van Damme doing?  And who is that guy on the far right?  I just watched this film and I don't remember him.

The premise of the film has an international military force (the "Allied Nations", since presumably the UN wanted nothing to do with this nonsense) entering the fictional South-East Asian country of Shadaloo to battle the forces of General M. Bison.  Said forces are totally not Cobra.  The makers of this film would like Hasbro to be really, really clear on that front.  Totally not Cobra.

After all, Cobra wear blue and these guys are in red.  No similarity at all.  Please ignore the fact that the script makes more sense (for certain definitions of "sense") if you find and replace all the Street Fighter character names with GI Joe ones.

Anyway.  Bison is played by Raul Julia.  Julia would alas die shortly after the film was made, but at least his last role is one where he seems to be having fun: certainly he hams it up like all his Christmases have come at once.

Mixed up in the Allied Nations vs Bison conflict are a pair of hucksters, the local crime gang they try to rip off, and a trio of journalists with a secret agenda.  This is all thrown into a big pot with a couple of gallons of lunacy and blended into a giant, delicious mess.

Ultimately, there are two kinds of people in the world:
1. those who will enjoy the incoherent, goofy, ridiculous movie as much as I did
2. sane people

You probably already know which group you're in.