Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Looking Glass War (1969)



John le Carré pretty much built his career on Cold War spy novels in which the West is just as reprehensible as the Communist Bloc.  Consider for instance The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, in which British intelligence employ - and got to considerable lengths to protect - a literal Nazi because he is important to their plans.  His protagonists are often more or less the only honorable men in the narrative, and not infrequently meet sticky ends.

The Looking Glass War is one of le Carré's lesser known works, and the movie appears to make a number of changes from the original novel.  The main character becomes a much younger man, for instance, and his motivations much more self-interested.  He's frankly a deeply unlikable fellow even before he assaults his girlfriend.  This shift toward even more bleak and cynical characters seems to apply to much of the rest of the cast, as well.  Which when you consider what I said about le Carré in the first paragraph of this review might give you an idea of how miserable and outing this really is.

The premise of the film is that British intelligence believe that there might be Soviet rockets in East Germany, in contravention of treaties.  When their rather inept efforts to ascertain the truth of this end in the death of their agent, they recruit a young Polish sailor named Leiser to go in person and report to them via radio.  For the aging commanders of the department, this is a chance to relive the glory days of the war.  For Leiser, the lure is the chance to legally stay in Britain with his pregnant girlfriend.

Leiser receives a crash course in how to be a spy - which quickly reveals the many ways in which he is temperamentally ill-suited for the task - and is then dispatched on his mission, with predictably le Carré-an results.

This is an ugly movie filled with ugly characters.  I'm quite glad it is over.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Godzilla: The Series (1998)



The 1998 Godzilla movie was terrible.  Audience response was so bad that even though the movie itself made money, all plans for a sequel were abandoned.  Instead, the decision was made to create an animated series, which has the twin benefits of being cheaper to produce and - with a new monster every week - quicker to generate a toy line.  Never underestimate the merchandising dollars.

The show is a direct sequel to the movie, and picks up at the moment of Godzilla's death in the film.  Dr Niko Tatopoulos (voiced by Iain Ziering; I guess Matthew Broderick had to wash his hair or something) leads the search for any remaining eggs left behind by the monster.  By a series of contrivances, he finds one just as it hatches, and the baby Godzilla imprints upon him as its parents.

Tatopoulos forms a team - a couple of scientists, a hacker, and a French spy - to investigate the creature, which grows at a prodigious rate and soon attains adult size.  The team travels the world in a hydrofoil vessel, investigating sightings of "mutations" - giant monsters that are beginning to spring up in all kinds of places.  The new Godzilla is their principle weapon in the battle against these creatures.

If that premise sounds a bit familiar even though you're way too old to have grown up watching this show, don't be surprised - it is very similar to that of the 1978 Hanna-Barbera cartoon.

Warning: contains ear-worm

There are things to like in this show.  The relationship between Tatopoulos and his reporter girlfriend is much more convincing than it was in the film, for example, and generally speaking the character interactions within the team are quite enjoyable.  And while a lot of the monsters they encounter are just "giant <insert animal>", the show does also deliver some quite entertainingly ooky creations.

However, the show's weaknesses are also quite pronounced.  The early episodes in particular are very weak from a writing and artistic perspective, for instance - possibly due to the show being rushed into production.  The quality of the art does improve, but the writing remains patchy.  For instance, about thirty episodes in there's a show where they go to Area 51 and everyone mocks the one team member who believes in UFOs ... despite the fact that they all fought an alien invasion fifteen episodes earlier, and therefore know that UFOs are a very real possibility.

For chilling in front of the TV on a Saturday morning, this is quite acceptable fare.  But when it comes to the question of "is it worth getting on DVD?", I think its weaknesses outweigh its strengths.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Pinata: Survival Island (2002)



Oh my.

I think I may have found the Best Worst Movie since House of the Dead.  I mean, when ten minutes into the film you're thinking "I'm going to enjoy seeing these people horribly murdered", then the script is either very very wrong, or very very right.  And to be honest, even after watching the whole thing, I'm not sure which it is.

I mean, is this film deliberately playing up the whole "oversexed, obnoxious teenagers" trope of horror movies?  I mean, it is a film about a killer piñata.  That's not something that screams "deadly serious".  Though it sure is deadly (ha!).

On the other hand, the movie plays its ridiculous premise straight.

On the third hand, maybe that's the true mad genius of its satire?  If so, that would make it a much smarter movie than Cabin in the Woods.  And I kind of want that to be true.

The film begins with an interminable prologue about a small isolated tribe who suffered a terrible series of hardships until their shaman trapped all their sins in a grotesque piñata.  As you do.  Feel free to skip this tedious section of the film, should you ever watch it: they're going to recap this backstory as dialogue around the halfway point.

Cut to modern times and the world's most obnoxious group of college students have arrived on a small island to ... well, to have a scavenger hunt for underwear.  Whichever team brings back the most unmentionables will win a cash prize for their fraternities/sororities and for the charity of their choice.  Oh, and there are also piñatas stocked with booze on the island too, in case they get thirsty.

If you're thinking that someone is going to stumble across the wrong piñata, then congratulations - you have at least two functioning brain cells.

Thankfully the monster comes into play pretty early in the film and gets a-murderin', which thins out the cast of cretins quite nicely.  One thing I do genuinely and unironically like about the film is that the creature becomes steadily more demonic with each kill, until it's this flying worm-bull CGI thing.  I mean sure, it's terrible CGI, but the concept of the monster evolving is quite a nice one.

Anyway, soon enough the cast is down to the obvious survivor candidates and a couple of stragglers, and the film moves toward what we might generously call its climax.

I found this charmingly awful.  You will certainly find it to be one of those two things.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

The Lost Future (2010)



There's a TV show called The 100 where a bunch of people try to survive on a post-apocalyptic Earth - but one that has reverted to a lush green wilderness, rather than the blasted desert landscape popularised by the Mad Max films.  It's a good show, and I'm pleased to hear it's been picked up for a third season, but it does suffer from the common TV trope that the survivors are rather too pretty - and very much too clean.

To be honest, I mention this mostly so I can recommend you all check out The 100.  It's got genuinely strong and interesting female characters, and a willingness to do things a bit out of the ordinary.  When faced with a choice between pragmatism and idealism, for instance, the heroes don't allows choose the latter.  And when they do, it's not always the right call.

But I also brought this up because The Lost Future is also set in lush, green post-apocalypse, and it also features characters that are too pretty and too clean for the life they're in.

As we learn during the film, a strange, highly communicable disease - being breathed on an infected person is enough to catch it - broke out and all but destroyed civilisation.  Those who suffer the illness become bestial, Orc-like creatures who relentlessly hunt and attack any uninfected humans they encounter.

Generations later, a small group of humans survives in an isolated valley.  They have however hunted out the terrain around them, and when they venture further in search of food, they bring a tribe of the infected down upon them.  Many of the humans make it into a cave and barricade the entrance, but some are trapped outside.  And of course they are all - though they don't know it yet - now infected themselves.

Three of those trapped outside the cave go in search of help.  They're a pretty archetypal group: the brash son of the chieftain, his beautiful girlfriend, and the weird dreamer who has never really fit in, who carries a torch for the aforementioned girlfriend.  His infatuation is quite unsettling in the way it is depicted actually - there's a scene where he wakes up and watches the other two have sex. I think we are supposed to feel sorry for him, but I was mostly just thinking "Dude, roll over and face the other way.  You're being creepy."

Anyway, the trio meet up with Sean Bean - who despite trying very, very hard, will not manage to get himself killed for once - and go in search of (a) help to drive off the infected, who continue to besiege the humans in the cave, and (b) a cure for the disease (which does exist, but of course is not easy to get).

Wikipedia tells me that some reviewers have criticised this film for having unfinished subplots, but I'm not sure that's fair.  I mean sure, Creepy Dreamer doesn't end up with the hot girlfriend at the end of the movie, but frankly I think that's a heck of a lot healthier than the alternative.  I do think there's a more than a whiff of 'leaving things open for a sequel' to proceedings, though.

I was tolerably entertained by The Lost Future.  The made-for-TV budget occasionally shows through, and the script is sometimes a bit weak - we've discussed the creepiness already, and it's got a few 'dramatic' moments that don't really work as intended - but the cast are solid and if you watch it as the light entertainment it's intended to be, you probably won't hate it.

You'd be much better off watching The 100, though.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Tormented (1960)



Though it's let down a bit by an ending so overwrought as to be comical, this is on the whole a pretty well put-together little "vengeful ghost" story.  That's somewhat surprising really, coming to us as it does from Bert I. Gordon, who is best known for this gamut of trashy giant monster movies.

Jazz pianist Tom Stewart is engaged to a wealthy, beautiful young woman.  His former flame, Vi, is less than happy that he's moved on and visits him with an ultimatum: end his engagement and return to her, or she will find a way to destroy it herself.  Tom refuses, and as the conversation grows heated, the railing Vi is leaning on gives way.  She manages to catch herself though, and is left dangling over the deadly drop.  If Tom pulls her up, she'll live.

Tom does not.

He doesn't stamp on her fingers, or take any action to make her fall, you understand.  But he consciously and deliberately withdraws his hand, rather than reaching out to aid her, thus becoming culpable in her death.

Of course, Tom doesn't say a word of this to his fiancee, but if he thinks his troubles are over, he's definitely in for a rude surprise.  He begins to see things that aren't there: wet footprints in the carpet, a floating hand wearing the ring he meant for his wedding, and so forth.  A pile of stinking seaweed also somehow ends up all over his fiancee's wedding dress (which is the only one of the phenomena that anyone else sees).

Tom's problems aren't just limited to these apparently ghostly visitations, however.  There's also the small matter of the boat owner who brought Vi to Tom's island home.  The sailor figures the groom is getting some action on the side, and that there must be a payoff to be had from that.

Now if it sounds to you like Tom's problems are entirely of his own making, then you're not alone.  And the movie doesn't (thankfully) doesn't paint him as an innocent in all this, which is probably one of my favourite things about it.

Tormented has a solid cast, and serviceable effects (particularly in light of its age and budget).  The script generates some tension and unease in places, and shows the unraveling of Tom's world pretty well.  I enjoyed it, and if the premise interests you at all, you probably will too.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Mythica: The Darkspore (2015)



I watched and enjoyed the first Mythica around the time that the kickstarter for the second film in the series - this one - went public.  The DVD arrived this week, and as is my custom for such independent films, I sat down to watch and review it immediately.  I don't exactly have a huge readership but if I find good indie stuff I want to share it - it might help.

I wish, therefore, that I could be more positive about this film: while I may one day be able to give a recommendation to the series as a whole, I can't really recommend this one as a standalone experience.  It definitely suffers from a bad case of "middle-filmitis".  There's a lot of exposition to kick things off and catch us up to speed, for instance, while the actual plot of the film has a lot of activity, but doesn't seem to achieve a great deal, and ends on a big honking "to be continued" sign.

I should note that this lack of progress is specifically in the "big MacGuffin quest" part of the film.  There is progress in terms of characters: a burgeoning romance from the first film is confirmed, for instance, while main protagonist Marek faces the temptation of her necromantic powers.  I liked both of these elements, though I wish they'd be framed by a main narrative that felt more meaningful.

So what is the main plot?  Well, the stone doodad everyone was after in the first film turns out to be one of four that the bad guy needs to collect, and the good guys set off in pursuit of the second.  Since we're never told anything like "He now has three", this sets the stakes rather low.  Even if the heroes fail here, they have two more chances to stop him, after all.

It also rather telegraphs that they are going to fail.  This is effectively the second act of the story after all, and things are always worst at the end of the second act.  Just look at The Empire Strikes Back for example.

All of this combines to make the main plot of the film feel a little flaccid - a feeling that is not helped by a subplot involving the fact that Marek is technically an escaped slave.  I give them points for not just dropping the issue, but the execution is rather awkward.

Performances remain solid: Arrowstorm do an excellent job of casting their films.  The effects are good given the independent nature of the film, but a bit more ambitious and frequent than they've really got the resources to handle.

I hope that the next chapter of the series will deliver a more satisfying entry to the story of Marek and her friends: the passion of the people involved deserves that, even if they didn't quite stick the landing on this one.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)



So we come at to the last (at this time, though a new one is in production) Japanese Godzilla film.  Toho conceptualised Final Wars as both a 50th Anniversary special, and as the last Godzilla film for at least a decade, and they decided to go big: lots of monsters, lots of martial arts fights - not previously a thing in the franchise, which has mostly kept the action at kaiju scale - and a meaty 125 minute run time.

Did this strategy add up to a successful movie?  Well from the studio's perspective, probably not: it fared poorly at the box office.  But then so did Battleship, which I thought was great fun.

Final Wars kicks off with Godzilla battling a flying submarine at the South Pole.  An earthquake leaves Big G trapped beneath the ice, and we head straight into the introductory narration.  Apparently the rise of monsters in the 1950s and 60s forced humanity to come together and form the "Earth Defence Force" to battle them.  Hence the flying submarines.  Recent years have also seen the appearance of mutants - humans of unusual strength, speed and resilience - who have been gathered as the EDF's elite fighting unit, "M Force".

Everything sounds great then, right?  Well sure, except for the weird cyborg monster they just found fossilised below ground.  It has the same marker, known as "M-base" that is found in the mutants.  That's a bit unsettling.

More than merely unsettling, however, is the sudden attack of every known monster, across the entire planet.  The EDF fights back as best it can, but it simply doesn't have sufficient ships or personnel to defend dozens of cities all at once.  (Side note: if you have ever rolled your eyes at Hollywood's depiction of countries other than the US, don't expect Toho to do any better with countries other than Japan)

Fortunately, an alien ship arrives and captures all of the monsters.  These benevolent extraterrestrials are here to warn humanity about an onrushing meteor that will soon wipe out the planet.  They are most certainly not in control of the monsters, nor evil in any way.  Anyone who says otherwise has clearly just been watching too much V.

So yeah, obviously the aliens are here to eat us.  And given their superior technology, the only way to stop their army of monsters is with a bigger, badder monster of our own.  And thus we get to the point of the movie: Big G kicking kaiju bottom.

Alas, Final Wars doesn't quite nail its formula.  Most of the kaiju battles are brief and extremely one-sided.  I can understand the desire not to overdo these fights - there's a big monster brawl due at the end after all, and you don't want to wear the audience out - but I think the filmmakers erred too far in trying to cram so many monsters into on-screen encounters with Big G.

Despite that, however, this is a fun film.  It's bombastic and overblown and more than a little bit silly, but I find it to be quite charmingly so, overall.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)



I was a big fan of Frank Miller's Sin City graphic novels during the early 90s.  They had gorgeous art and lashings of testosterone and I was 20 years old.  I also thoroughly enjoyed the first film when it was released in 2005.  Sure, the actual comics had become something of a caricature of themselves by then, and the similarity of many of the stories - a violent but honourable man acts to protect a woman and finds that the forces which threaten her are more than he first imagined - was made rather obvious by combining three of them into a single film, but man oh man it looked gorgeous and it had a great cast and So. Much. Style.

I was thus very pleased when A Dame to Kill For was announced, soon after the first film debuted.  It would feature the one story which had changed up the Sin City formula, and it would be so very, very pretty.

The fact that the sequel ultimately took almost a decade to be released was the first warning sign about the film.  Miller's hypnotically awful big screen adaptation of The Spirit was the second.

But to be honest, while The Spirit was deeply stupid, not to mention frequently insane, at least it never felt phoned in.  It was terrible, but it was wholeheartedly committed to its terribleness.  Sin City: A Dame To Kill For commits the far graver sin of not seeming to care.  The action sequences are static and lifeless; the sexuality gauche and awkward.

There are exceptions to the general air of malaise, it's true.  Eva Green does a fine job as the eponymous "dame", for instance (though it is best not to think too hard - or at all, really - about the logic behind her actions after about the halfway point of her arc).  And Powers Boothe is obviously having a whale of a time being Evil McEvil in the other two arcs.

I mention "arcs" because this is again an anthology piece with three main, intertwined but not really interconnected narratives going on.  Both the ones Boothe is in were written especially for the film, and - his performance aside - they're disappointing.  They do avoid the "Sin City formula" I mentioned above, which is nice, but they fail to be satisfying narratives in their own right.  This is especially true of the arc that ends the film: the climactic scene made me laugh out loud, but I was laughing at  the movie, not with it.

If you ditched the two new arcs, expanded the "Dame" storyline (making her strategy more logical in the process), and made the action sequences not suck, this would be a decent movie.  It would also be nothing like the film they actually made.

Disappointingly tedious and tepid.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Monsters (2010)



There's quite a bit to like in Monsters, but the characters aren't one of those things.

We'll discuss why I didn't warm to the two leads at the same time as we address the film's other main flaw: a plot hole large enough to make a home for one of the titular creatures. But first, some background.

The premise of the film is that NASA discovered signs of alien life in the solar system and sent a probe to investigate. On its return to Earth however, the probe broke up in the atmosphere above northern Mexico. Soon after, otherworldly creatures – think of walking octopi as big as a house – began to appear, and parts of Mexico and the US became a no-go "Infected Zone". Being outside the zone is not itself a guarantee of safety however, as the monsters sometimes venture out.

One such incursion initiates the film's story arc. Among the injured is Samantha, the daughter of a media baron. Andrew, a photojournalist working for Sam's father, is in the area and is ordered to ensure she is safely returned to the US. He's not keen on the idea – he wants to stay and take a front page photo, but the threat to his job induces him to agree.

And here we see the first problem: Andrew is an ass. While we will see over time that he has some regard for Sam's safety, his initial motivations for helping her are entirely selfish, and he continues to act like a jerk. For instance, he makes a series of increasingly creepy passes at Sam – then nonpologises for it by blaming the fact he'd been drinking. Sam, for her part, spends much of the early part of the film being very listless and passive, which made it hard for me to warm to her.

Andrew's plan is for the two of them to travel by train to the coast, where he will put Sam on a ferry to the US. And here we get to the big plot hole. Why, given that Sam has a wealthy father who is actively attempting to get her home, is the plan not to put her on a plane? I can accept that there are no non-military flights allowed over the infected zone (not that the film says this), but it would be easy enough to fly her to Cancun, and from there to Florida and safety. The script simply ignores the option, never mentioning why it was not used, or why – when Andrew's plan starts to unravel – they don't get on the phone to Sam's father and ask for help.

So there are pretty significant plot issues at work here, which is shame because, as I said at the start, there's quite a bit to like here. First, they found some visually arresting and interesting places to make the film. It's been a while since I so enjoyed a film purely for the locations in which it was shot. Second, the titular monsters are great: they're dangerous and they're eerie and they're a little bit wondrous, all at once. Third, the two central actors do a good job (it's a shame they play such unlikeable people). Fourth, the film has a good atmosphere. It feels authentic in a way many films don't. Possibly this is because it was more or less done guerrilla style. It was mostly filmed with whomever the filmmakers happened to meet at the locations they found to shoot in, and they rarely had permission to be shooting there to begin with.

Ultimately, I've given Monsters a qualified recommendation. It has some deep and disappointing flaws, but part of what makes them disappointing is how many other things it gets right.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The World Gone Mad (1933)



This is another of the "in no way a horror movie" movies in the Horror Classics pack.  It is in fact a crime film featuring an uneven mix of comedy and melodrama to go with its main mystery-themed plot.

A crooked investment banker, his pyramid scheme of worthless companies about to be exposed, pays for the district attorney to be murdered.  The death is designed to look self-inflicted, but neither a nosy newspaper reporter nor the new district attorney believe that, and each sets out on an independent investigation to find the real story.

It being the 1930s, the good guys will eventually win out, but not before a couple of genuine suicides and several attempts to add to the murder tally.  The film was made nearly two decades too early to be influenced by Raymond Chandler's advice "When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand", but it lives up to the idea nonetheless.  If only it had Chandler's narrative flair as well.

The investigation is the weakest part of the film (a bit of an issue since it is the main plot), with contrivance being piled upon contrivance.  Not even the stalwart efforts of the cast - most of the main players being solid performers who had successful careers - can save that part of the movie.  They do better with the attempts at comedy and pathos, probably because there is more scope there for good delivery to hide weaknesses in the actual content.

This film (which can also be found under the title The Public Be Hanged) is a fairly average low-budget crime feature of the era.  It's lifted by the solid performances but let down by the script.  Overall, I don't think there's enough here to justify seeking it out.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Starship Troopers: Invasion (2012)



There's a scene in the original Starship Troopers film where the entire platoon - men and women alike - hit the showers together.  Now obviously the motivation for this scene is the voyeuristic impulse.  But it also shows us something about these people, and the society in which they live.  None of the characters act like this is in any way an intimate, let alone sexual moment.  Their conversation entirely focuses on their reasons for joining the military, and no one pays the slightest attention to anyone else's naked body.

Now I'm not suggesting that this societal insight was the real reason for the scene, or anything like that.  I'm 100% sure it was all about getting bosoms and bums on screen.  But it shows that the makers of that film understood that any scene - however puerile its main purpose - can be used to achieve multiple things at once.

And why am I talking about this?  Well, because it makes a telling contrast with this movie, the fourth in the franchise and the first (if one sets aside the Roughnecks TV series) to be animated.  There are three scenes of nudity in the first act of the film, and it's painfully obvious they exist solely to show off some CGI breasts.  The fact that a woman is nude (it is, of course, always a woman) is the entire focus of the scene, not just from the camera's perspective but also from that of the other characters.  This lack of deftness; the inability to do more than one thing with a scene, or to add nuance to it; is the greatest weakness of the work.  It makes for a static and unengaging narrative.

You know how when you were a kid you'd do those 'join the dots' pictures, and you'd end up with a dog or a clown or whatever but it would never look quite right because you'd just gone from point to point without an understanding of the proper shapes to use?  This film is kind of like that, as it works its way through its "yeah so we basically just did Aliens meets Event Horizon" plot.

This overall weakness is something of a shame, because there are some things the film does right.  Like Aliens, for instance, it does a pretty good job of setting up its secondary characters, so they are (in some cases at least) more than just interchangeable shreddies for the bugs to kill.  Some of the set design is pretty good too (the character designs didn't thrill me much, however).

Overall, this is probably only your time if you can never get enough Space Marine action.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003)



My word, this may be the goofiest Godzilla movie since Big G faced off with Hedorah in 1971.  And that's saying something, since in the intervening decades he's faced a black hole white hole space crystal version of himself, and a giant mutant rose.

In a break with the tradition of the previous few films, this film does not reset the timeline.  Instead, it is a sequel to the previous year's Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla, though it switches the focus to a new group of characters working within the "Mecha G" program.  Well, mostly to a new character: one of the mechanics who services the giant robot.

This mechanic's uncle encountered Mothra forty years earlier, and Mothra's two diminutive fairy spokespeople suddenly contact the uncle again while the mechanic is visiting.  They bring a warning: in using the remains of the original Godzilla as the skeleton of Mechagodzilla, humanity has transgressed against the natural order.  The bones must be returned to the ocean.

Naturally, the suggestion that they scrap the Mechagodzilla project doesn't go over well with the authorities, when they hear it.  Nor is our protagonist a fan of the idea.  Not even the promise that Mothra will defend Japan if they do is enough to change their minds (and to be honest, I doubt it would mine, either: what's a giant moth going to do against Godzilla, eat his clothes?).

Of course, Big G himself soon turns up for his regularly scheduled rampage.  The army is mobilised to defend Japan but Mechagodzilla is not fully repaired yet, so they hold it in reserve.  Godzilla seems to be able to sense the robot's presence though, as he makes a beeline toward it, easily brushing the armed forces aside.

Fortunately, the mechanic's nephew and uncle manage to summon Mothra to the battle.  This slows Godzilla's advance, but it soon becomes apparent that Mothra is outmatched.  Now, she's quite the planner and has an egg in reserve, but that's not going to be much help right this second, so the Japanese Prime Minister orders Mechagodzilla to go to her aid.

All of which sounds pretty straightforward, and it is.  It even remains so when Mothra's egg hatches and two silk worms emerge (just like in the original Mothra vs Godzilla) and cocoon Big G (also just like in the original Mothra vs Godzilla).  It's only after all that happens that the film gets on the goofy-train.  I won't spoil the details: they're probably better experienced than described.

Overall, this is one for kaiju fans only.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Bee Sting (2014)




Bee Sting began life as a graphic novel.  And on the page, with decent art, it might work reasonably well.  On screen; with flat, lifeless lighting and even more flat, lifeless acting; it fails on pretty much every level.

Kevin has a plan.  He and his friend Aaron are going to take jobs at a summer camp and sleep with all the lady counselors.  You will note that I never said this was a good plan.  Aaron is not a fan either, pointing out that they're more likely to be chopped up by a guy in a hockey mask than experience Kevin's fantasies (try not to burst your sides from laughter at this snappy repartee).

Of course, Kevin has no intention of taking no for an answer and soon enough the two young men are driving into the dilapidated camp and meeting the awkwardly enthusiastic camp director.  They also meet twin sisters Ashley and April, and Aaron is instantly smitten by Ashley.

When Ashley suffers a bee sting in a baseball game, Aaron volunteers Kevin and himself to drive her to the hospital in case she has an allergic reaction (apparently this is the first bee sting either of the sisters has ever suffered).  April insists on coming along as well, and soon the four are lost on back roads somewhere.  Bickering over what to do next leads to an accident, and while no-one is hurt, the car is a write-off.

Which is when the redneck cannibals turn up.

Bee Sting is a comedy-horror film that is neither funny nor scary.  This is partly the fault of the script, which belabours every "joke" it makes and seems to not care whether we like the protagonists or not.  It's also partly the fault of the cheapness of the production, with the lighting and sets being very weak.  But it's mostly the fault of the acting and direction.  Both are decidedly on the "not" side of "good", and made me very glad that this only has a run time of 50 minutes.

Note: this is a review of the digital download provided to Kickstarter backers, but as far as I am aware, the physical DVD version is identical.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Nosferatu (1922)



Unable to secure the rights to film an adaptation of Bram Stoker's famous novel, the makers of this movie simply changed a few names - 'vampire' to 'Nosferatu', 'Dracula' to 'Orlok' - and hoped they'd get away with it.

It didn't work, and a court issue was ordered in its native Germany that all prints of the film were to be destroyed.  And that would have been the end of it, except that fortunately one copy of the film had already been sent overseas, and therefore survived.  Nosferatu has gone on to be regarded as a great example of Expressionist film, and a classic horror film.

Now of course by modern standards the film is unlikely to seem very frightening.  It is ninety years old after all, with the stylistic, technological and content limitations that this implies.  Many versions of the film also have less than ideal soundtracks, which can also have a very negative impact on the film's effectiveness.

But when watched with the a soundtrack that supports the film rather than detracts from it (this version on youtube seems like one of the better ones), the movie develops and maintains an eerie, creepy atmosphere.  There's great use of shadow, some clever if inevitably low-tech effects work, and a memorably macabre villain at the heart of it all.

Here, Orlok/Dracula (some versions of the film now use the latter name, including the one I have) is not the suave and sensual figure you might be used to, but a rat-like and cadaverous creature, as corrupt physically as spiritually, though possessed of great power for all that.

The basic plot outline of the film is of course likely to be familiar to anyone watching it, as it follows closely to Stoker's novel for much of its length.  But familiarity with Stoker's story hasn't prevented people from watching adaptations of Dracula before, and it shouldn't in this case, either.

Nosferatu is worth seeing not just as an important film in cinematic history, but also as a accomplished and skillful piece of film-making in its own right.  If you have any interest in the art of film-making, then you should see it.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

American Ninja 2: The Confrontation (1987)



I would never have seen the first American Ninja - and thus this film - if a couple of years ago my then-flatmate and I hadn't been doing something called the "Trashy Tuesday Movie".  Basically we sat down every week, and watched a terrible movie while he mocked it on twitter.  Sometimes he'd also do essays about the lessons writers could draw from the film (examples include Robot Jox and Highlander.  Fair warning: his language is much saltier than mine), but mostly it was about the snark.

I mention this because after a long hiatus, "Trashy Tuesday Movie" returned on a trial basis, and what better film to start it with than American Ninja 2: The Confrontation ?

In case you were wondering, the original American Ninja spent its first hour being a run of the mill low budget martial arts film ... and then at the beginning of the third act someone utters the immortal words "ninja magic" and the whole thing becomes bug nuts crazy - and not coincidentally, it also becomes about 27 times more fun to watch.

The sequel, I am pleased to say, does not wait anywhere near so long to start dishing up a old big serve of "what the heck?".

Three preppy-looking guys stop in at a bar.  They turn out to be US marines.  They get hassled by a bunch of guys in camo - who naturally have nothing to do with the military - and a fight ensues.  One of the three prepsters is clearly in cahoots with the camo gang, and his two companions are quickly beaten unconscious.

At which point ninjas enter the bar and spirit the unconscious men away.

This brings the number of marines to go missing to four, and the local commander calls in outside help.  Which is how our protagonists get involved.

That'd be these guys

The two newcomers are US Army Rangers, rather than marines.  There's some tension over this fact, due to inter-service rivalry, but most of the local personnel are so happy with their current assignment - a remote Caribbean island with bevies of beautiful bikini clad women - that they make the Army guys welcome.

The commanding officer I mentioned?  That'd be this guy.

Anyway, it turns out that a local scientist was trying to find a cure for cancer but his government funding dried up, so he accepted the financial support of a criminal industrialist, who has corrupted the process into a means to clone an army of "super-ninjas".  The missing marines are the raw genetic stock he is using to manufacture these minions, who he then plans to sell to the highest bidder.

It's very much as daffy as it sounds, and I kinda love it for that.  While there's no denying that American Ninja 2 is a quintessentially bad film - and a quintessentially eighties one as well - I had a blast watching it.  If you have any kind of taste for unintentional camp or schlocky cinema in general, it's worth an hour and a half of your time.

Addendum: if you'd like to read the twitter snark, you can find it here.



Tuesday, 9 June 2015

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)



I've never been a fan of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Victor Hugo's novel may be a classic of literature, replete with important themes and innovations in storytelling, but it's also trenchantly miserable.  I prefer my fiction with a bit less "everything is awful and unjust" to it.  If I want that, I'm confident the real world can provide it.

Of course, like many film adaptations, this film makes changes from the original text.  Some of these were mandated by the year of production - the Hays code that was in force at the time would not permit a film to have a church official as a villain, for instance - but some are, I suspect, a deliberate attempt to shift to a more positive tone.  Not to the same extent as Disney's 1996 effort - there will be no throngs of Parisians cheering the Hunchback in this - but enough that audiences don't walk out of the theatre in a state of suicidal depression.

This film was a star-making project for Lon Chaney.  A respected character actor, his lead performance here as the Hunchback, Quasimodo - including make-up he designed and applied himself - launched him into top tier stardom.

Quasimodo is the half-blind, hunchbacked bell-ringer at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.  In the book, his master is the wicked archdeacon of the church, who is a suspect sorcerer.  Thanks to the Hays code, the archdeacon in the film is a saintly fellow, and Quasi's master is the archdeacon's wicked brother.

Said wicked brother lusts after the beautiful Gypsy Esmeralda, and orders Quasimodo to kidnap her.  This goes awry.  The hunchback is captured in the attempt by Captain Phoebus, and publicly whipped for his crime.  Afterward, Esmeralda's kind heart compels her to bring him water, which earns her Quasimodo's love and admiration.

Esmeralda, however, has fallen for the dashing Phoebus.  For his part, the Captain initially sees her as just another conquest to be won, but gradually becomes as entranced by her kind heart as by her beautiful face (a change from the book, where he's quite the cad).

Of course, there's still the matter of Quasimodo's wicked master, who has not given up his own lust for Esmeralda.  He is determined to have her, or if unable to manage that, then at least to deny her to anyone else.

I won't spoil the details of the ending, in case you want to see the movie, though as noted it is less bleak than the book.  Of course the book's ending is pretty much "nobody gets what they want, and almost all of them die in the attempt", so about the only thing that isn't less bleak is Hamlet.

This is a pretty good silent film.  If you have an interest in the history of cinema, you should probably check it out.  Chaney's make-up isn't that impressive by modern standards but is still quite effective, and the production is one of the most ambitious of the era.  If you're the average modern movie-goer, though, then you can skip it.  The acting is typical silent era stuff, and comes across as very overdone by modern standards, and the film lacks the visual flair or thematic resonance of something like Metropolis.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002)



Like the previous few films, this movie ignores all other entries in the franchise after the 1954 original.  Unlike them, however, it does acknowledge other Toho films.

Because this is a scene that needed re-showing.

This Japan has therefore  faced other giant monster attacks since the first Godzilla, and has a special military force dedicated just to combating some menaces.  But Big G is a threat beyond anything they've ever encountered.  So when a new Godzilla (the 1954 monster having been destroyed by a unique superweapon whose secrets have been lost) menaces the island nation, they are hopelessly outmatched.

The government's solution to this made obvious by the film's title: they build a robot Godzilla to fight him (much as they did in the similarly-titled 1993 film).

Of course, as a plan of action it's even crazier than it is obvious, because they build this new Mechagodzilla over the skeleton of the original 1954 monster, and use cell samples from those remains to create "DNA computers" that will control the machine.  About the only thing they don't do to ensure disaster is have someone say "nothing can possibly stop us now!".

I suspect this film may have had a formative influence on Guillermo del Toro as the scenes where Mechagodzilla is transported remind me of sequences from his recent kaiju vs giant robot effort, Pacific Rim.  Unfortunately, it's not nearly as entertaining as del Toro's film.

I mean, Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla has got some decent enough giant monster action ... it's just that it seems to lack commitment.  At the very least, it sets stuff up but doesn't use it well.  For instance, the "DNA computers" in Mechagodzilla go wild after its first encounter with Big G, causing it to go on a rampage ... but then it runs out of power and in the next scene, the problem has been fixed.  Or there's the pilot of the robot, who froze up during Godzilla's initial incursion and must now redeem herself in her own eyes, as well as those of her comrades.  That's a perfectly fine arc to include in the film (and one that Pacific Rim uses as well), but the script does it so perfunctorily that it lacks much impact when she succeeds.

Even the result of the film's final battle reflects that lack of follow-through: Godzilla just kind of leaves.  He's not defeated, he just has another appointment, or something.

Lackluster.


Friday, 5 June 2015

Storm Riders: Clash of the Evils (2008)



The opening of this animated feature has some strong thematic overlaps with The Storm Warriors.  As in that film, the character Wind turns to a corrupt form of power in order to defeat an enemy, and as in that film, he is overcome by it, which leads to a kung fu battle between himself and Cloud.  Almost all of the details are different, however: the enemy Wind must battle (in this it is Conquer, the villain of The Storm Riders), the source of the tainted power, and the physical manifestation of Wind's corruption, just to name three.

The battle sees Cloud plummet to his death; at least as far as the penitent and apparently  restored Wind believes.  Cloud survives of course, though - of course - he has amnesia.

The two men have their own separate adventures for a while.  Amnesiac-Cloud falls in with a group of street kid pickpockets and, freed of the terrible memories of his childhood, is actually happy for the first time in his life.  Wind ... gets drunk a lot and randomly beats people up, really.  He falls in with a group who are hiding from the martial arts community.  Most of them want to kill him since he's clearly a master of king fu, but their female leader forbids it.  She advances several logical reasons for this, but it sure doesn't help that she thinks Wind is kinda dreamy.

Of course, there are villains in the film, but they spend most of the first half engaged in parallel activities that - while they are ultimately intended to lead to a confrontation with Wind and Cloud - do not directly impinge on the main characters' lives.  Eventually though they show up, Wind and Cloud are reunited, and there's lots and lots of kung fu fighting.  Not that this was something the film was short on at any point, to be honest.

There are things that I liked about this film.  For example, I appreciated some of the visual design and I liked Cloud's arc as he becomes a better - and happier - person over the course of the movie.  Unfortunately, it's got several weaknesses.  The biggest is that it seems to rely pretty heavily on the viewer having some familiarity with the original comics on which all three films have been based.  I was able to follow along since I've seen the other two films, but a viewer without that background might well struggle.  On those occasions when the film does give context, on the other hand, it often does so in a very heavy-handed and inelegant manner (though that might partly be the fault of the subtitles; possibly it works better in the original Chinese).  Finally, as I said earlier, it sure does have a lot of kung fu fighting.  As with The Storm Warriors, I was ready for the battles to be over well before they actually were.

I suspect that if you are a fan of the original comics, this is a pretty good film.  For anyone else, it's likely to be more miss than hit.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Scorpion King 3: Battle for Redemption (2012)



While the original Scorpion King aped Conan and the second may have looked to Ray Harryhausen's work for inspiration, the third film seems to have its eyes firmly on Asian cinema.  And I'm not just saying that because there are a whole lot of ninjas in this film.

An overdose of narration kicks off the movie.  It seems being a king didn't work out so well for Mathayus.  A terrible plague swept over his people, decimating the population and killing his wife.  Devastated by these losses, Mathayus abdicated and returned to his earlier ways as a sellsword, seeking the most dangerous tasks, partly for the gold and partly for the chance of death.

So yeah, he's all about the Man Pain.

Playing the role of Mathayus this time is Victor Webster, whom I rather liked as the roguish Brendan Mulwray in Mutant X, but who is not well suited to the whole Broody McAngstalot thing they have going on here.

But perhaps they thought he brought other qualities to the role.

Mathayus accepts a job from the Horus, King of Egypt - travel to a far off land (which I did not hear named, but it was filmed in Thailand and makes liberal use of elephants and the distinctive architecture of that region) - and help the ruler there to defeat an invasion by Horus's brother, Talus.  Talus is played by Billy Zane, who chews the scenery like he's starving and the set is made of bacon.  So in other words, he's the best thing in it.

Mathayus has three main jobs: rescue a princess from Talus, make an alliance with a mysterious rebel leader named Cobra (no prizes for guessing who that turns out to be) and stop the invasion.  This will necessitate fighting assassins, armies, ninja, and a trio of undead warriors from beyond the grave.

So a pretty normal week for the Scorpion Ex-King, then.

This is a better film than the previous entry in the series (which is damning with faint praise if ever I saw it).  It has some solid action sequences (though the larger 'battle' scenes are not among them) and cool costumes.  Unfortunately it is let down by a sometimes boneheaded script that fails to use Webster to his best advantage, and by the weak performance from the actor playing the princess.  She's not cringingly bad or anything, but she is very flat.

If you're in the mood for light action fare and don't mind that it's a bit dim and tends to veer rapidly between toilet humour and taking itself too seriously, especially in the first half, then this isn't a bad way to spend an hour and a half - but I wouldn't suggest going out of your way to see it.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Jack Hunter and the Star of Heaven (2009)



So it emerges that the first Jack Hunter movie was the weakest of the three, which I guess is better than the last one being the worst.

Of course, the second film was elevated mostly by Alaina Huffman's gleeful turn as the bad girl ex-lover, and this one is elevated mostly by Jack's love interest (a) pointing out that he's an arrogant idiot and (b) choosing "save the world" over "save Jack".  (alas, Jack survives anyway)

Now of course, having a protagonist who is not an arrogant idiot would have been a better call than having his foibles pointed out, but I guess it was a bit late to retitle this series "Nadia Ramadan and the ...".  Also, "Nadia Ramadan" is a terrible name for a fictional character.  What's next, Harry Christmas?

In any case, Jack is still on the trail of the bad guys who stole (half of) the ancient superweapon, and so are his NSA buddies.  Because oh yes, the secret organisation he's been helping are apparently the NSA.  If that was explicitly mentioned before, I missed it.  This chapter's exotic location, after sojourns in Syria and Egypt, will be Turkey.

Plot-wise, this is more of the formula we saw in the last two films: lots of chases and fights interspersed with bursts of exposition to justify the next round of chases and fights.  And as with the second movie, a former flame appears to complicate matters a little, though this time it's someone from Nadia's past rather than Jack's.

The flaws of the series also remain the same: Jack's ... well, Jack.  The attempts at humour are uniformly cringeworthy, and the script is on the "and then they're saved by a conveniently timed total eclipse!" level of coincidence.  Hey, it it worked for Mark Twain ...

At the end of the day though, this is a trilogy that consciously apes the same "two fisted tales of derring-do!" that inspired Indiana Jones (or perhaps more accurately, it consciously apes Indiana Jones), so having a protagonist that's a bit of a jerk and a plot that mostly revolves around action sequences is to be expected.

I wouldn't recommend anyone seek out the Jack Hunter films, but they're adequate no-brain-required time fillers, if you stumble across them while in that sort of mood.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Indestructible Man (1956)



Like last Tuesday's movie, this film stars Lon Chaney.  It is not, however, the same man.  This film features the original actor's son, who was billed as "Lon Chaney, Jr" earlier in his career but dropped the extension starting with the 1941 hit The Wolf Man.

Chaney's got a fairly challenging brief in this flick, as for narrative reasons he is unable to speak for most of the run time.  He must instead communicate his desires and emotions non-verbally, and on the whole it must be sad he does a fine job.  Admittedly, the range of emotions he's required to convey are fairly limited.  This is not a nuanced film.  Still, I'd definitely rank him a cut above the rest of the cast.  "Adequate" might be the best one word appraisal I can give of their performances.

Still, "adequate" is a cut above the script, which might rate a "tolerable" if it wasn't drowning in narration.  If you wanted to be really, really charitable you might suggest they're shooting for a noir-esque tone, but I think it far more likely the writers are just not up to the task of telling a story without it.

Chaney plays "Butcher" Benson, a convicted felon on death row.  His former compatriots sold him out, but Benson hid their $600,000 haul (about $5 million in today's terms), and - in the one scene where Chaney has lines - chooses to go to the gas chamber without revealing its whereabouts.

And that might be the end of it, except that a scientist purchases Benson's body for medical purposes (he's trying to sure cancer), and accidentally restores the dead man to life.  Benson's vocal cords are burned out by the electricity that ran through his body during the experiment, which is why he does not speak again in the film.

Meanwhile, the Police lieutenant who caught Benson is trying to find the money, and find evidence that Benson wasn't working alone, and romance Benson's former girlfriend.  He's certainly a busy boy.

Benson's body has been changed by the experiment, leaving him with superhuman strength and toughness.  Bullets cannot harm him, and he is able to lift a car with his bare hands.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, he has unpleasant things in mind for his former accomplices.  He's not exactly subtle about it, though, and leaves a large and obvious trail.  So large and obvious that the police are soon forced to admit that either he had an identical twin, or the dead man is up and walking around.

This is a largely inoffensive film.  It's got too much narration and there are some dated attitudes on display, what with being made in the 1950s, but it filled the 70 minute runtime without making me shout at the TV.  So it's several steps above many of the other films in this boxed set ... but it's not good enough that I'd be saying to anyone "oh, you should see Indestructible Man".

Monday, 1 June 2015

Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack (2001)



This is the first film since the original Godzilla to make me feel like Big G is a terrifying, unstoppable force of destruction.  I suspect that even if I hadn't liked other aspects of the movie, I would give it a qualified recommendation just for that.  But as it, I did find other things to like as well.

Before I talk about them, however, I'll quickly check off the three niggles I had with the film.  Only the first is of much consequence, to be honest, and it's that I don't much like the Godzilla suit in this.  Apparently it was originally designed with the intention that Godzilla would have a posture where his back and tail were horizontal to the ground.

More like this guy, in other words.

Unfortunately the posture put too much strain on the actor in the suit and they reverted to Godzilla's traditional, upright stance.  Which, well ... doesn't go so well since the suit wasn't designed for it.

He looks like he has a beer belly.

The other two niggles are the CGI - some of Toho's stuff in this wouldn't look out of place in an Asylum mockbuster like American Warship or Atlantic Rim - and the very last couple of seconds of footage.  They go for "Dun Dun DUN" and hit "hee hee hee" instead.  But as I said, these latter two aren't really of much consequence and even the first is easily enough forgotten when the movie gets its groove on.

As with each film since Godzilla 2000, this one jettisons all previous continuity except the first film, though it sneaks in a back-handed reference to Roland Emmerich's awful attempt when two characters discuss a monster attack that happened in New York:

"That was Godzilla, right?"
"In America they say so, but not in Japan."

We're quickly introduced to our two main characters: a young would-be documentary maker, and her father, who is a military man.  The film also takes little time to explain its ridiculously long title: Godzilla is on his way to wreck Japan, and three ancient "Guardian Beasts" have awoken to defend the islands.  Note that that means the actual islands, not the people on them.  Get in the way of a kaiju battle in this film, and it'll be the last mistake you ever make.

You may have noticed that there are three guardians, but only two monsters other than Godzilla mentioned in the title.  That's because the third guardian, Barugon, is much less well known than Mothra and Ghidorah, and also because he gets curbstomped pretty early in the film.

And make no mistake, 'curbstomped' is the right word for it.  The film makes no bones about who the biggest, baddest monster is.  Godzilla is more than a match for any one of the Guardian Beasts.  In fact he's a match for two of them, plus the entire Japanese Defence Force, which is what will occupy the last act of the film, in a very entertaining example of men-in-rubber-suits warfare.

But like I said, the "Godzilla is finally a badass again" angle is not the only reason to like this film.  It also has the distinction of one of the best human-level narratives in the series.  Which admittedly isn't the highest of bars to clear, but I found that the tale of how the young journalist and her father come to better understand and respect one another was pretty well executed.

This is a fun kaiju romp with a strong "B story".  Worth your time if you're not immediately put off by the whole giant monster millieu.