Friday, 31 July 2015

Niagara (1953)

Marilyn Monroe is best known for light comedic roles such as The Seven Year Itch, which I reviewed previously.  She did however occasionally turn her hand to more dramatic roles, and Niagara is one such occasion.

Though filmed in lush colour - which captures the well-known falls in all their splendour - this is unmistakably a noir film.  Monroe fills the femme fatale role, playing the young, beautiful wife of an older, emotionally troubled husband.  Of course, at least part of his tumultuous mental state can be attributed to Marilyn herself, as her adherence to her marital vows is, shall we say, somewhat lacking.  He'd probably be even more troubled if he knew she and her lover were plotting to give him a fatal accident.

Stumbling into this deadly triangle is Polly Cutler, who has come to Niagara for a belated honeymoon with her husband.  Polly is the closest thing the film has to a point of view character: the movie was originally conceived around the role, but the focus shifted toward Monroe's character after she joined the film.  While this makes the film a very rare beast - not just a noir film built around a female character, but also a dramatic film where both leads are women - I do think it suffers a little for blurring things this way.  It's not just the audience who become spectators to events, but Polly herself, as she has little agency in the film.

That flaw aside, this is a sumptuously shot, visually rich movie which shows that - even if her acting skills were not yet fully developed - Monroe could be more than just a pretty face in light and fluffy comedies.

If you have an interest in noir films, this is worth your time.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Rush (2013)

I have zero interest in motor sports.  Watching cars (or motorcycles, or boats) go round and round the same track eight thousand times, a process which appears to take roughly forty seven hours, bores me silly.

Fortunately, Rush is not a motor sports movie.  Sure, there is lots of footage of cars hurtling around race tracks, but the narrative weight of the film rests entirely on the characters, motivations and rivalries of the men driving them.  In particular, of Niki Lauder and James Hunt, two diametrically different personalities who would battle over the 1976 Formula 1 driver's championship.

Lauder was the reigning world champion: a methodical, exacting Austrian who was widely perceived as being cold and aloof.  Hunt was a brash British driver, renowned as much for his hard drinking and hard partying ways as for his aggression on the track.  In 1975, Hunt had raced for one of the smaller teams; this year, he would be racing for McLaren, perhaps the only team with a car that matched the quality of Lauda's Ferrari.

Obviously, the competition between the two men is the main narrative of the film, but the script sensibly focuses less on the details of their on-the-track tussles (only two key races are covered in any detail) and more on the men themselves: their motivations for choosing this dangerous profession, their desire to win, and the clash of their very different personalities.  Of course in the manner of many biopics it plays a bit fast and loose with the details in order to create a more coherent narrative arc, but it's far less guilty of such shenanigans than say, Gladiator or a host of other "historical" films.

Powerful performances of complexly-drawn characters are at the heart of this film, and really make it shine as an example of movie-making.  The film shows the good and bad of both men - allowing neither to become a cardboard hero or villain - and manages to celebrate triumphs for both of them, even if only one of them can ultimately win the championship.

This one is worth your time, even if you care as little about motor sports as I do.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Dementia 13 (1963)

This is Francis Ford Coppola's first film as a director.  Well, if one ignores the two softcore skin flicks he'd done the year before.  And if one doesn't mind that this was a hack job written in three days and financed on the leftover budget of another production.

The rushed nature of the script is painfully obvious from the beginning of the film.  I suspect some members of the cast would sound stilted even with the most finely crafted dialogue, but the lines they have to deliver here are rough-hewn at best.  The plot too is rather less than elegantly constructed.

And what is that plot?  Well, first a warning: I'm going to reveal the movie's one genuine surprise, so if you're some kind of mad Coppola fan who now needs to see this flick, you might want to stop reading here if you don't want to be spoiled.

Still with me?  Okay then.

The movie begins with an unhappily married couple going rowing on a lake.  The wife (Louise) complains to the husband about his mother's Will, which amuses him.  "Ha ha!" says he. "You are just worried that if I die before mother, you will get nothing!".  And then he promptly has a heart attack and dies.

Actually, that's not quite true.  He promptly has a heart attack, but he doesn't die for a few minutes: giving him just enough time to mock his wife again while expiring on the bottom of the boat.

Louise isn't so easily put off her pursuit of an inheritance, though.  She dumps her husband's body in the lake and invents an urgent business trip that's called him away.  Then she goes to visit with her mother-in-law, in the hope of ingratiating herself into the Will.  And it seems Louise might actually have a shot at this: the older woman is clearly very superstitious, and some cunningly fabricated 'ghostly happenings' might just sway her.

That certainly doesn't seem like it would be beyond Louise's abilities, and she sets out to engineer just such phenomena ... and is promptly axe-murdered by a shadowy figure.

Yep, surprise!  The character we've been following for over half an hour is not the protagonist.  That would actually be the new character who shows up in the next scene (and no, he isn't the axe murderer).

Now of course the problem with this sort of bait and switch is that, however much it might work as a shock, it's a pretty cheap means of doing so, and it makes the first 30 minutes of the film almost completely pointless (they do establish some important background information about the family, so they're not 100% wasted).

The rest of the movie is basically about the other characters (a) realising there's a killer out there and (b) working out who it is.  It's not terribly interesting, in all honesty, especially since the cast is small enough that there are only two real suspects.

Safely skippable unless you are a Coppola completist.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The Lion in Winter (1968)

This film earns a recommendation on the back of its cast, whose performances run a gamut from literally Oscar-winning to merely excellent.  That the recommendation is only qualified can be laid at the feet of the writer.  While the film's dialogue - especially in the first 90 minutes - is often beautifully written and scathingly witty, the script founders in the last half hour under the weight of three burdens:

  1. everyone in the film is a terrible, terrible person
  2. everyone in the film lies so habitually, and puts on pretenses so often, that none of that clever dialogue means very much emotionally because they are all just empty words and you can never believe them
  3. the fact that nothing really gets achieved by anyone

These three problems are a shame, because I had a ball with the first two acts of this film.  Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn are exceptional as lovers-turned-enemies (but possibly still in love despite that) Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.  They quarrel, negotiate, bicker and scheme in a whirling carousel of allegiances and plots that also involve their three surviving sons (all of whom want to be king after the aging Henry) and the newly-crowned King Philip of France (whose father lost a lot of territory to Henry, and whose half-sister Alys is betrothed to Henry's son ... while also being Henry's mistress).

To be honest, that paragraph above is as good a summary of the film's actual plot as can be written without going into detail about the individual stratagems, double-bluffs and double-crosses that stud the film like the sprinkles on a chocolate freckle.

Chocolate freckle is not a euphemism

Check this out if you want to see a superb cast absolutely own the screen, or if you're between seasons of Game of Thrones and looking for something with all the scheming and none of the rape (and don't mind that at the end of the day, things end up pretty much as they started).

Monday, 27 July 2015

Cash (2010)

Me: "Hey, want to watch Cash?"
My sister: "What is it?"
Me: "A crime thriller starring Chris Hemsworth and Sean Bean."
My sister: "Sure, sounds good."
Me (knowing that the DVD cost seven bucks): "I wouldn't count on it."

Needless to say, my sister was doomed to disappointment by this low budget offering, which was made the year before Hemsworth's breakthrough gig as Thor.  Personally, while I doubt the man in question loudly touts this flick in his resume, I don't think he has anything to be ashamed of here.  Nor does anyone else in the cast.  The flaws in the film - and there are several - are all to do with the script.

Let's start with the good: this is a technically proficient film.  The main cast are all solid, the sound is clear and audible throughout (not true of every film I've watched for this blog, sad to say), and - with the exception of a couple of composite shots - the visuals are a step above average for an indie film.  Well-executed lighting, lots of locations/sets, and a good feel for how to use the camera.

So what are the problems with the script?  Well before that, a precis:

When struggling working class couple Sam and Leslie stumble across a briefcase full of money, they think it must be their lucky day.  Unfortunately for them, however, while the criminal who originally stole it is behind bars, he has a twin brother (named Pyke) on the outside.  And given that the suitcase contains over $600,000 there's a lot of reasons for the brother to track it down.

This Pyke successfully does, leading to a confrontation between the young couple and the hardened criminal.  Intimidated by this menacing individual, Sam and Leslie give back all the cash they have left - over $500,000 - but they've already spent close to eighty grand.

Some men might decide that half a million is enough, but not Pyke.  He insists that Sam and Leslie return every last cent of the cash, by whatever means necessary, and he intends to put the screws to them until they do so.  After all, he's a hard man; they're just a soft suburban couple; and he's apparently never heard any proverbs about cornered rats.

The basic plot of the film isn't a problem at all.  I don't think the ending quite comes off - though with a few changes to dialogue it could be made much more effective - but other than that it's a solid framework.  Unfortunately there are three problematic details.  The first is Pyke himself: he's a a mish-mash of weird character tics (chain smoker, OCD, yoga practitioner) that are never made a cohesive whole.  The second is structural: the film throws at least half a dozen snippets of flashback into the first ten minutes.  I guess this is supposed to be edgy and modern, but it doesn't work.  The last is the minor characters: the film goes to the "comedic ethnic character" well multiple times, and it comes up entirely empty on comedy (but full of cringe) every time it does so.  Each incidence is a jarring and juvenile distraction from the main plot of the film.

Overall, I think the flaws overwhelm the positives in this little number, which is something of a shame as the basic idea - while not exactly original - has potential.

Friday, 24 July 2015

The Omen (1976)

I find it hard to imagine that anyone reading this blog does not have at least a passing familiarity with this film, but just in case ...

An American diplomat is informed that his son died mere moments after birth.  He is persuaded to secretly adopt another newborn boy, telling no-one - not even his wife - of the exchange.  Five years later, after a seemingly ordinary childhood, things start to go a bit odd.  The boy's nanny commits suicide at his birthday party.  The boy freaks out at being taken to a church.  A crazy priest keeps accosting the diplomat and warning him that his son is the Antichrist.  And as the strange phenomena continue - and become more and more threatening to himself and his wife - the diplomat begins to wonder if perhaps the crazy priest is on to something, after all ...

So the first thing to note is my goodness, but the 4 decades since it was made have not done this movie any favours.  Scenes that were considered shocking at the time - the suicide I mentioned above, and a slow-motion decapitation now - wouldn't raise many eyebrows today, and some of the other 'spooky' scenes are likely to just cause giggles.  "Ooh it's windy and the leaves are blowing around - it can only be Satan's work!".

The Omen has a strong cast that do their best to make the histrionic and implausible script work, but it's a Sisyphean task.  Are we supposed to be believe that a diplomat's son has never been to a church in the first five years of his life?  Maybe today, but in the 70s, I doubt it.  He should at least have been christened.  Then there's a pivotal scene which relies on a British police officer carrying a pistol while on an ordinary beat - which they generally don't even today and certainly did not in 1976.  Then there's giggle-worthy dialogue like when the movie tries to make the formation of the Common Market (today's EU) into a sign of the forthcoming apocalypse.  I know the UKIP thinks the European Union is the devil's work, but you're not actually supposed to take those cretins seriously.

I'm glad I've seen this film, since its renown makes it something of a cultural touch-point, and it's an interesting piece of film history in terms of how audience tolerances and expectations have transformed since its release.  But I can't actually call it a good film, nor recommend it to anyone on its merits as a work of entertainment.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Chariots of Fire (1981)

I dimly recall seeing at least part of Chariots of Fire as a child.  I definitely heard the theme any number of times - it was pretty ubiquitous for a while there.

This film is a dramatisation of the athletic careers of Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, British runners who competed at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris.  Both men won gold medals, which might be worth a film if that was all there was to the story, but this one comes with an extra wrinkle.  Liddell was a deeply religious man, and the heats of his favoured event - the 100 metres - were to be held on a Sunday.  He thus declined to participate in the event, as it would require him to break the Sabbath.  He instead participated in the 400 metres, and won an unexpected and unlikely victory.

Of course in the real world the schedule of the Olympics are known for months in advance, and Liddell had publicly announced his decision, and begun training for the longer event, well before the Games themselves.  The movie eschews this in favour of a splash of melodrama, and has Liddell learn the schedule only as he boards the ship to France.  This leads to a scene where the British Olympic Committee - including the Prince of Wales - attempt to convince him to run.

I can forgive such embellishments in the pursuit of a more compelling story (though I think the real story could have been made just as compelling), but I'm rather less impressed by the film's handling of Harold Abraham's personal life.  Not only does it have him meet his wife 10 years earlier than was actually the case, but it gets the wrong woman.  Rather sloppy, that -- though I imagine it won't matter much to the average viewer.

In the film's favour, it has some layers beyond the Olympic story and the men's personal lives.  There's considerable time and attention paid to Abrahams's position, as a Jew and the son of an Eastern European immigrant, in British society of the time.  While Liddell's victory is perhaps more impressive, coming as it did in an event where he was not favoured, Abrahams's story is the more interesting of the two, to my mind, and the real meat of the film.

Chariots of Fire is well-acted, with a strong cast and good direction.  Its occasional fumbles with historical accuracy not withstanding, you should check it out if you're in the mood for a 'triumph against the odds' style of drama.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

The Bat (1959)

The people behind this film appear to have adopted the eminently sensible philosophy that if one is going to make a schlocky murder mystery, one should go all in.  The killer should have a goofy alias, and an idiosyncratic method of killing.  There should be plenty of potential suspects, a raft of dark secrets and odd habits, a hidden room or two, and - of course, though it's not unheard of for this to be missed - plenty of murders.

The Bat delivers on all these fronts.  Our villain's "nom de mort" is right there in the title of the film, and he dispatches his victims by tearing out their throats with an iron-clawed glove.  It's not particularly bat-like, perhaps, but it is memorable.  As for the other requirements, they are all present as well, as you'll see.

The film begins with a mystery novelist renting a summer home while the owner is off in the forest on a hunting trip.  Said owner is the manager of the regional bank; a bank which is about to be in a world of trouble when it emerges that a million dollars of valuables has been stolen from its safe deposit boxes.

We quickly learn that it was the absent manager who is the thief, because he proposes a murderous scheme to his doctor (who is with him on the hunting trip).  They will kill their guide in such a way that the corpse cannot be identified, then the doctor will report the dead man to be the manager, and they can split the ill-gotten proceeds.  The manager feels safe in making the offer because (a) he has a gun ready and (b) only he knows where the money is - a hidden room in his home.

What the manager hasn't banked on is that the doctor might know of the hidden room, and might be quicker on the trigger than he is.  Looks like the Doc will indeed be reporting his death - if just won't be falsely.

Shortly thereafter, the Bat begins prowling around the dead man's estate.  Is it the Doctor, looking for the hidden room?  Is it the mystery author's new butler, whom she has known for only a short while, and whom may have a criminal record?  Or is it one of the other suspects the film will offer up (there are four plausible ones, overall)?

One thing's for sure, you can be confident that the bank manager will not be the last person to die in this entertainingly melodramatic little number.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Moulin Rouge! (2001)

There's a two-fold qualification on my recommendation of this film.  The first is that you have to be okay with musicals.  If you're one of those people who has a fundamental issue with the form, then you should stay far, far away.

The second qualification is that you have to be on board with a movie that's unashamedly emotionally manipulative.

Actually, scratch that.  "Manipulative" suggest some kind of subtlety, and there's none to be found here.  Moulin Rouge! attempts to assault your emotions like a charging rhino.  Of course, depending on your psychological make-up, its assault might miss you completely.  I'm in large part in the "miss" category myself (for reasons we will get to later), but there were quite a few people in tears when I saw it at the cinema, back in '01.

So the film opens with Christian, an aspiring writer in Paris in 1899, who falls in with a group of Bohemian actors.  They persuade him to pitch his work to Satine, the most beautiful courtesan in all Paris - and also the star attraction of the Moulin Rouge dance hall.

Through a comedy of errors, when Satine meets Christian, she believes him to be a wealthy Duke whom she hopes will fund the production of a spectacular stage show, and allow her to become a "real" actress.  The mistake does get cleared up, but not before the two of them have become utterly smitten with each other.

Thus, if you will forgive the expression, the stage is set.  Satine and Christian must keep their romance a secret while working together on the play that the real Duke is financing.  Of course, ol' Dukey expects a little quid pro quo from Satine for all the money he's providing, which complicates matters.  Oh, and there is the minor issue that Satine is dying of tuberculosis.

A little research indicates that director Baz Luhrmann drew inspiration from the lavish, unrestrained productions of Bollywood, which makes a lot of sense.  Moulin Rouge! is drenched in opulent colour, rife with rambunctious musical numbers, and - as noted previously - thunderously uninhibited in its attempts to provoke an emotional response.

I expect most people will either love or hate this film, though I'm oddly kind of in the middle on it.  I have no issue with musicals, nor with crude emotional manipulation in a film (at least, not when it is done so openly), but I found that some of the details of the romance threw off my enjoyment a little.  Specifically, I feel a bit uncomfortable about Christian's persistence in the face of Satine's attempts to deny or end their relationship.  While in the context of the film it's clear that she wants him as much as he does her, it reminds me that in the real world there are men who attempt to browbeat women into accepting dates with them, even though the woman doesn't really want to.  So I found that a bit off-putting.

If you're not put off by any of the above though, then you should definitely give the film a try.

Monday, 20 July 2015

The Name of the Rose (1986)

I saw this film on VHS some time in the late 80s, but my memories were pretty hazy when I sat down to watch the DVD.  I recalled it having a rather random sex-scene, and a bunch of murders over a book, but other than the fact that it had been critically well received at the time, I didn't remember much.

William of Baskerville is a Franciscan monk who arrives at a Benedictine monastery for a theological disputation.  His attention is quickly diverted, however, by the mysterious death of a monk.  William is something of a medieval Sherlock Holmes and is called upon to investigate.  He quickly determines that it was a suicide, but it is swiftly followed by a second, far more sinister death, and the real mystery begins.  Unfortunately for William, almost everyone in the monastery seems determined to make his investigation more difficult.  His only ally is his Watsonian assistant, who takes part in the aforementioned sex scene with a local girl.  Which I now see was not as random as teenage me assumed - the point is to give the assistant an emotional connection to the young woman when the Inquisition arrive and accuse her of being a witch.

I can see why this movie was praised at the time of release.  It's well shot and depicts several interesting and evocative locations.  It's visually quite a treat.  It's also well acted.  But I'm not recommending it.

That's because for my money, The Name of the Rose has two insurmountable problems.  The first is the lack of any likable characters.  Almost all the monks at the monastery are broken people in one way or another, and of course the Inquisitor and his minions are monsters.  But even William himself - though clearly meant to be sympathetic - isn't exactly someone I'd want to hang out with.  He comes across as more interested in proving himself right and the Inquisitor wrong than in the moral aspects of executing an innocent woman.

The second issue is the McGuffin at the heart of the mystery.  It's a book written by Aristotle, and the head librarian of the monastery fears that it could lead men to laugh at God, causing chaos in society.  I'll forgive the nonsense of this logic on the basis that said librarian is a crazy medieval monk.  But the movie fails to give any explanation as to why said librarian has kept the work intact all this time, or why he would rather kill those who read it than simply destroy it.

If you're desperate for a rather more grim version of the Brother Cadfael mysteries, you might enjoy this.  Otherwise I'd say give it a miss.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Wing Commander (1999)

You know how sometimes you can watch a movie and at the end of it your reaction is "that didn't work for me, but I'm not sure why?".  Well, Wing Commander is not one of those movies.

The flaw of this film is readily apparent from the first few minutes.  It's not the cast.  Other than the near-expressionless Freddie Prinze Jr they all range from solid to good.  And while the effects are adequate at best and sometimes far south of it (the costumes for the alien Kilrathi being the nadir), they're not the real issue either.

The real issue is the script.   I'm not going to go into detail about what it does wrong, because (a) it's a lot and (b) someone else already did a fine job of that.  I do want to call out though that it's not an issue to me that it's clearly riffing off WW2 naval films (Das Boot and Midway immediately leap to mind).  I know some people have complained about that, but I think it's actually a potentially smart move since it grounds the science fiction action in familiar structures.

Rather than going into detail about the issues (read the link if you want that), I'm going to call out the thematic element that I think they share, which is that the film seems to lack energy.  It takes too long to get started, and the characters frequently don't act like they're under any sort of real time pressure (they talk about it plenty, but the movie fails to show rather than tell).  It's a failing that's exemplified by a scene where the Kilrathi (the villains) are trying to escape a lethal predicament and the only way you know they're at all agitated is because there are three exclamation points in the subtitles - nothing in the visuals or audio conveys the severity of their situation.

The plot?  I guess I should cover that.  It's not complicated, really: humanity has spread to the stars and encountered a hostile alien race.  These Kilrathi manage to capture a human navigation computer that will let them launch a direct attack on Earth.  It is up to a single Earth vessel to delay the invasion armada long enough for the human fleet to assemble.  It's a serviceable enough premise, really - it's the execution where it falls down.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

The Amazing Mr X (1948)

Two years after her husband's death, Christine still misses him deeply ... to the point that she thinks she can hear his voice in the sound of the waves near her beachfront home.  Those who care for her are worried about her state of mind, and become even more concerned when she meets a psychic named Alexis.  She is soon regularly visiting him for seances, attempting to contact her husband's spirit, and despite their efforts her friends cannot seem to catch Alexis out.  It sees he has all the answers.

But as Alexis will discover, he might not even know the right questions ...

Fake haunting stories are a pretty common trope of cheapie 30s and 40s films, generally following a pretty similar formula: someone fakes supernatural phenomena in order to get money somehow (usually by getting their victim declared mentally incompetent), but their scheme ultimately backfires in some way - quite often by a real supernatural force coming along to kill them just as their machinations are exposed.

In the defence of The Amazing Mr X (a.k.a The Spiritualist) I will allow that it avoids a couple of the more common flaws of the type.  It never asks the audience to believe the supernatural shenanigans are real - in fact it shows us exactly how Alexis is performing them - and it does a better than average job of justifying how he is able to keep ahead of those who try to prove his perfidy.  It even mixes up the endgame in a relatively novel way (though not one that makes a whole lot of sense, to my mind).

On the other hand, it's rather too slow-paced to be very engaging, especially in the first forty minutes or so.  And then there's the acting, which is decidedly so-so.  Finally, as already noted, the later developments in the story might be out of the ordinary but they aren't any more plausibly explained than the more typical "and then real ghosts turn up and eat the baddie".

Check this one out only if you're desperate to find out how Alexis's scheme comes undone (because of course it does).

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

3 Musketeers (2011)

I've set the image above to display larger than normal, because I want you to be able to view it clearly.  Why?  Because none of the people in the DVD cover image actually appear in the movie.  Nor does the building in the background, or any of those outfits.

There are in fact, no period costumes of any kind worn in the movie, because this film is set in the modern day.  Period costumes and timeframe-appropriate locations are difficult and expensive.  This movie is not much interested in difficult and it is most assuredly not interested in expensive.  It is, after all, an Asylum Production.

That's right folks, I have once more been suckered into picking up an Asylum mockbuster, because the pitch ("The Three Musketeers re-imagined as a modern espionage thriller") sounded cool, and the DVD was cheap, and I didn't think to check who the production company was.

And yet, despite the film's flaws - and trust me, it's got plenty of them - I kind of don't regret seeing it.  I mean, it's not good on any level, but I feel this weird affection for any movie that asks questions like "Do you think anyone will notice if we use exactly the same cockpit for scenes on three completely different aircraft?"  (the answer is Yes, for the record).

The Musketeers are an elite special forces unit for the US; or at least they are until their handler, "The Cardinal" sets them up as the patsies in a scheme to start a war with North Korea.

Meanwhile, an ambitious young agent named d'Artagnan stumbles across the Cardinal's conspiracy from another direction.  She soon finds herself framed in the same way the Musketeers were, and so she reaches out to them for aid.

Can the awesome foursome battle their way through the host of CGI explosions (real ones are expensive) that await them, in order to thwart the Cardinal's plan?  Will the film come up with a contrived excuse to work in a fencing duel?  Will it feature many 'action' sequences that consist mainly of the actors firing guns at enemies who are not actually on screen?  The answer to all these questions is "well, duh".

So is there anything to like about the film?  Well, some of the stunt work is decent, the cast is mostly tolerable - a step above the average for an Asylum movie at least - and you get to play "hey, remember when that person had a career?" with a few of them.  Plus, you know, there's something endearing about how much its ambition outstrips its budget and capabilities.

I still wouldn't recommend you watch the film, of course, especially when you can get such a great feel for the movie from its trailer:

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

The Eagle Has Landed (1976)

The script of this film has a numberof issues even before the reveal that the whole thing has been a shaggy dog story (warning: link goes to tvtropes).  Almost all of these issues appear to have been introduced by changes made in the transition from page (it is based on a book by Jack Higgins) to screen, so I guess the blame for them lies with screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz.

That the movie works despite these flaws is a tribute to the excellent cast.  Particularly the exceptional turn from Donald Pleasance in the (relatively minor) role of Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS.

In 1943 Berlin, a meeting is held between Adolf Hitler, Himmler, and Wilhelm Canaris (head of Abwehr; the military intelligence service).  The Germans have just executed an extremely high profile and successful commando raid and Hitler decides that another such mission should be launched.  Its goal: to kidnap Winston Churchill and bring him to Berlin for face to face negotiations to end the war.  He orders the Abwehr to prepare plans for such an operation.

Canaris believes the whole thing is a ludicrous pipe-dream, but also that his rival Himmler will bring it to Hitler's attention if he does not follow through.  So he orders his adjutant Colonel Radl to prepare an assessment, making it clear as he does so that the whole thing is a waste of time.

Radl, however, discovers information that makes him think otherwise.  Winston Churchill will shortly be spending a few days near an isolated part of the British coastline.  A skilled commando team might actually be able to capture him.

And what happens when they try, of course, is the subject of the rest of the film.  Now even if you know nothing about history you can probably guess that Churchill wasn't ever kidnapped and taken to Germany (though in a post-Inglourious Basterds world, I guess you might wonder if the film will care about such details), and the raid therefore is not likely to succeed.  This is therefore a film about the journey, not the destination, and in that regard it largely succeeds.

If you're up for a traditional adventure story with a strong cast and well-staged action sequences, this film is worth your time, despite the script's occasional missteps.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Monster from a Prehistoric Planet (1967)

There's an old adage that says that the best parodies are those which are themselves good examples of the thing they are parodying.  This explains why Scream works, for instance, since it is a decent slasher movie after you strip out all the comedic elements.  It also explains why this kaiju-parody (originally known as Gappa: The Triphibian Monster) is a failure: it's a terrible example of the genre.

Now I am willing to allow that the version in this boxed set is a particularly bad and blurry pan-and-scan, so the film was operating under a handicap when I watched it.  But the atrocious monster costumes and dire effects would look no better in the latest high definition (possibly worse), and the script would be just as lousy.

A Japanese magazine owner is looking to start up a theme park, and he wants "exotic animals and primitive peoples" to stock it.  That's some mighty fine cultural imperialism there, movie.  In any case, he sends an expedition to the south seas to find specimens.  Said expedition succeeds beyond his wildest dreams when they discover an isolated island with a newly-hatched and apparently unique "bird-lizard" that the natives call "Gappa".

Side note: you may notice that this makes the "prehistoric planet" part of the film's name completely nonsensical, since it is an entirely Earth-bound narrative.  This is not actually something we can blame on the original film-makers, but trust me: we're not going to be short of things for which they do deserve the blame.

Apparently the expedition members have never seen King Kong, because they immediately load the creature onto their ship and head back to Japan.  They also begin a long and tedious series of arguments about whether to publicly announce the creature, and whether it should be an exhibit in the park or be held for scientific study.

So obviously there are only two things that can happen from here: either the creature grows to an immense size and goes on a rampage, or it has parents that go on a rampage to get it back.  In this movie's case, it's the latter.

The adult Gappa are fully triphibian - comfortable on land, in the water, and in the air - and they fly at supersonic speed to Japan to begin smashing model cities and fighting model tanks and jets.  They are, of course, impervious to human weaponry and able to emit powerful energy blasts that can destroy a vehicle in an instant.

So the Gappa rampage tediously for a while until the humans finally get the bright idea of giving them the baby back and hoping they will leave, and the movie mercifully ends.

Not good.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Conan: Heart of the Elephant (1997)

Successful TV shows often spawn imitations, and so it was with Hercules and Xena.  These included a science fiction show from the same production company (the wonderfully campy Cleopatra 2525, which I will have the pleasure of reviewing here one day), as well as a couple of efforts from other parties.  The one I was aware of at the time was the execrable Sinbad (the 1996 one; not to be confused with the actually not terrible 2012 show of the same name).

I was not aware of Conan the Adventurer, which lasted one season, and is flagrantly a cheap knock-off of Hercules: the Legendary Journeys.  If you've ever seen old Herc, you're probably bloggling at the idea of a "cheap" version of its already shoestring antics, but trust me, it is possible.

Apparently taking a leaf from 1982's big screen Conan film, the makers of the show cast a former bodybuilder with a thick accent as their titular character.  They apparently did not consider the fact that they'd written their Conan to be a personable, jovial fellow when making this choice.  It means that the role really needs someone a bit more comfortable with delivering lines.

Mind you, 'comfortable with delivering lines' is a quality that is short on the ground even among the cast members for whom English is their native tongue.  I'd be tempted to make some comment about the producers obviously saving their money in the casting stakes, but frankly they also seem to have been more than a little frugal in the 'everything else' stakes as well.

I'm talking about this TV show because Heart of the Elephant is a "movie" put together from the first two episodes of the series.  In it, a wicked Sorcerer-King has a prophetic dream that Conan will slay him.  After discussing this with his chief advisor, The Skull That Talks --

Trust me, it looks even goofier when it is moving

-- said Sorcerer decides that the barbarian must die.  Which of course is exactly what causes Conan to swear to kill him.  Evil is dumb.

This is a badly acted, clunkily written, cheaply made production.  And being the first two episodes of a show means that it ends in a very "to be continued" state.  So I definitely wouldn't recommend it even though I rather enjoyed it in a Hawk the Slayer kind of way.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Iron and Blood: The Legend of Taras Bulba (2009)

There's a scene about 40 minutes into this film where I lost any interest in, or empathy for, the protagonists.  Now my attitude toward them wasn't very positive even before this, since they were boozy, blokey and macho.  But at this point of the movie, the Cossack "good guys" learn that Catholic Poles are mistreating their countrymen.  Their reaction: to hold a pogrom against the Jews.

Now it is true that the main character does save one of the Jews.  But it is not out of you know, common decency or because killing Jews for Catholic crimes is frickin' stupid.  It's because the man once helped his brother.  So he goes in the same cesspit, character-wise, as his countrymen.

Ah yes, his countrymen.  But what country?  The film identifies them as Russian, though they live in the Ukraine.  Reading more about the movie since watching it, I discovered that the director is of the opinion that "there is no separate Ukraine".  I doubt the Ukrainians would agree with him.

The plot is basically that the terrible, wicked and evil Poles are trying to overrun the Ukraine, and the brave "Russians" (Ukrainians) are fighting back.  The core characters are an aging cossack named Taras Bulba, and his two adult sons.  The younger of the sons falls in love with a Polish woman.  In another story, that might be the symbol that allows for a new detente and the end of interminable warfare.  In this one, however, it leads to Taras Bulba executing his own son in cold blood.

Not that the Poles are depicted as any better.  How could they be, since they are the supposed villains of the piece?  Though it is worth noting that the movie's one act of mercy is performed by a Polish character.

Eventually, Taras and his other son both die horrific, painful deaths and the movie ends.  Thank goodness.

Normally I'd acknowledge that all this nastiness is in the original novel on which the film is based, and then spend time complaining about the film's odd technical choices, such as narration over battle scenes, and spoken Russian translations of Polish dialogue (i.e. the line is delivered in Polish, and then the narrator repeats it in Russian), but that would merely prolong thinking about this deeply unpleasant movie, and I'd really rather not.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

The Gorilla (1939)

Wikipedia informs me that the stars of this film staged a very public walk-out over the poor quality of the script.  As recommendations go, that's not one.

Said stars are the Ritz Brothers, a trio of comedy siblings who enjoyed a successful film career with Fox through most of the 1930s.  That probably immediately puts you in mind of the Marx Brothers - it certainly did me - but the Ritz's don't seem to be copying the other group's act (or vice versa, I guess).

The premise of the film is that there is a serial killer on the loose.  He goes by the sobriquet "The Gorilla", because 1930s Hollywood sure did love its anthropoid antics.  Something of a prima donna, the murderer has publicly announced his planned victims in the past, and the movie begins with another such threat being delivered.  Walter Stevens, a businessman, is the target.

Despite the pleas of his niece, Stevens declines to inform the police.  His argument is that doing so did not help the previous victim.  Instead, he hires three detectives (the Ritzes, of course) to protect him.  Given how incompetent they swiftly show themselves to be, you might start to wonder if Stevens actually wants to die.  Or maybe, just maybe, there's more to the situation than meets the eye?

Meanwhile, in one of those only-in-Hollywood coincidences, a real gorilla escapes its pen and ends up at Stevens's house.  Shenanigans inevitably ensue.

This is another film that I suspect has ended up in the boxed set because Bela Lugosi has a role in it.  It's certainly not actually a horror film - not even a comedy horror like some of the others in the pack.  It's a comedy whodunnit.  Alas, the comedy part is pretty terrible - the same handful of jokes wear very very thin by the end of its 65 minute run time.  The mystery element actually had one more twist than I expected, but by the time it is revealed I doubt you will care any more.

Mindbogglingly, this is the third movie adaptation of this story, which began life as a play.  You'd think they'd have done a better job of it after so many attempts.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Alexander: Warrior Saint (2008)

Alexander Nevsky, Prince of Novgorod, is one of Russia's great national heroes; the leader who defeated the invasion of the Teutonic Knights and ensured that the Russian people remained in the Orthodox, rather than Catholic, faith.  His battle with the knightly order was the subject of an eponymous film by Sergei Eisenstein in 1938, which is widely regarded as one of the great works of Soviet cinema.

This is not that film.  In fact, it is not even about Alexander's war with the Teutonic Knights.  Instead it focuses on the earlier struggle that gave him the sobriquet "Nevsky" (which means "of the Neva"; the Neva being a river in the region).  This was a Swedish invasion of Novgorod in 1240 AD.

The Swedish threat comes at a difficult time for Alexander.  He is threatened from another direction as well: the powerful Tatar Empire is at his gates.  Unlike the westerners, however, they do not care what faith the Russian people follow.  They care only whether or not they receive tribute.  For the devout Alexander, the answer is clear; he must bow to Tatar demands in order to shepherd the souls of his people.  There are powerful factions in his realm who disagree, however, and the young prince will be faced with treason and treachery before he can cross swords with the Swedes in open warfare.

The film is in Russian, so it's difficult to judge the acting in detail, but it seems pretty solid on the whole.  There's a scene between two of Nevsky's enemies - a father and son - that communicates complex emotions quite effectively, even when reading subtitles.

On the other hand, things do seem a bit uneven script-wise.  There are some good elements - the scene I mentioned above, for instance, and the fact that Alexander is allowed to make mistakes - but also some poor ones.  The opening and closing narration clunks quite badly, for instance.  There's also a kind of lightweight Lancelot-esque subplot involving Alexander's best friend falling for Alexander's wife.  It doesn't work very well to be frank.  Finally, the action sequences have a number of jarring tone-shifts from comical to dramatic to supposed-to-be-dramatic-but-actually-comical.

Overall, it's not a bad film, but it's also not good enough that I can really recommend it unless you have a passion for medieval period pieces, or for movies that deal with "obscure" (to western audiences) events.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Godzilla (2014)

So if you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you may have picked up on some subtle hints that I do not much care for the first American attempt at a Godzila movie.  So you'll understand that I had mixed feelings when Legendary Pictures announced they were making another attempt at the franchise.

Then Pacific Rim came out.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, and my hopes for this movie correspondingly rose.  I'm pleased to say that - although I don't love it as much as I did del Toro's film - I was not disappointed.

One of the challenges of a kaiju film is balancing the human story and the giant monster story; it's no easy task to make both compelling and interesting.  The script here does a fine job of hitting what often proves a difficult target.  The story of Ford Brody and his family, though it lays on the sentimentality pretty thickly, is deftly interwoven with that of Godzilla.  It's helped significantly here by the believable affection between the actors playing Ford and his wife: it's probably no accident that they got cast as siblings in Avengers: Age of Ultron, as they work very well together on screen.

The main plot of the film is pretty straightforward: miners uncover massive bones in a recently unearthed cavern, along with what appear to be two strange eggs.  Fifteen years later, those two eggs are going to bring a world of pain for humanity ... but they will also draw out the one thing that might save us: Big G himself.

A second challenge of kaiju films, as I have mentioned in previous reviews, is maintaining interest and excitement before the climactic battle.  While almost every work of fiction ultimately comes down to the last act, few works are so specifically structured around a duel.  You know that any tussle between Godzilla and another monster in the first two acts has to end inconclusively because he can't defeat it until the climax of the film.  The script does a good job of avoiding this pothole as well; partly by the time honoured tradition of letting monsters Trash Stuff, and partly by escalating the threat halfway through.  Sure, Big G's proved he can handle one of these creatures in single combat, but there were two eggs ...

Despite my praise for the film, you'll notice I've given it only a qualified recommendation.  I've done so because I do feel the film is less impressive on the small screen than it was in the cinema.  The scale of the action is obviously impacted, and unless you have your lighting well set up, you might find the night-time sequences rather murky and hard to make out.

Still, if the whole 'giant monster' thing isn't an instant unsell for you, this is a well-crafted, well-acted, and visually impressive film.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Event Horizon (1997)

You can't always pin down the moment a film goes off the rails, but with Event Horizon it is trivially easy.  It's when Sean Pertwee's character dies.

It's not the event itself that is the issue.  As much as I enjoy Pertwee's work, his role in this film is relatively minor.  But the explosion that snuffs out his character marks a dramatic shift in the film's tone; from effective if thuddingly unsubtle haunted house film to much less effective and equally as unsubtle action flick. The script does makes one last gasp pitch at a scare right at the end, but frankly it's frittered away its tension and impact to such a great extent that it just gave me the giggles.

The premise of the film is a potentially interesting one: the "Event Horizon" was an experimental space vessel that disappeared on its maiden voyage.  Suddenly, seven years later, it reappears.  There are no responses to attempts at radio contact, so another ship is dispatched to investigate.  Upon arrival, the rescue crew quickly finds that there is something desperately, desperately wrong with the "Event Horizon".  If only their own ship hadn't been badly damaged during the process of that discovery - they're now stuck until repairs can be effected.

I found Event Horizon a pretty tension-inducing film when it first came out, but sitting on the couch at home is a very different experience to seeing it on the big screen, and I'm a lot more familiar with the various techniques of scary cinema these days than I was then.  As often as it manages to be creepy - and it does manage it fairly often - it throws in a cheap jump scare or hysterically overdone sequence that stops just short of having some guy walk on screen with a placard saying "ARE YOU SCARED YET?".

Still, up until about the hour mark, the film does work pretty well.  Unfortunately, it then attempts an Aliens-style genre shift from tension to action, and it simply doesn't carry it off with the same panache as the earlier film.

Side note: if you think the first part of Aliens wasn't scary, dig up the original theatrical release some time and re-watch it up to the first alien attack.  It's a darn effective piece of horror film-making, and a reminder of how good a director James Cameron once was.

The things the characters of this film see make them gouge their own eyes out.  It would be unfair to say that Event Horizon has the same effect on its audience, but is definitely a film that goes badly awry.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Black Sheep (2010)

Seven Soviet Samurai.

That's the pitch here.  It's 1941, the Germans are pouring eastward during Operation Barbarossa, and a group of seven men are about to find themselves as the only defenders of a small village against the invading enemy.

The wrinkle is that the seven men in question are escapees from the local prison camp.  They were sent on a work detail, but a Luftwaffe strafing run killed their guards and gave them the chance to flee.  Six of them are common criminals: thieves and ruffians all.  The last, a man they call "Picasso", is a stranger to them, but it seems he is known to the new commandant of the prison camp.  When the commandant sees Picasso's file in the camp records, he launches a search for the missing prisoners that will continue for the remainder of the movie.

The seven men meanwhile, have traveled to a tiny hamlet in the forest.  This is where Picasso grew up, and he assures them it should be safe, as it is not even on any map.  His assurances sound a little hollow, though, when it emerges that the Secret Police have been to the village and taken away his aunt and his cousin.

The six criminals overlook this however, being more interested in the fact that they can get food and alcohol here.  Also warm beds to share with the local women: the local men have all been shipped off to fight, and several (entirely voluntary) pairings soon emerge.

Of course, that's when German soldiers find the place.  The gang manage to hide, eluding discovery, but they now find themselves in the unexpected position of wanting to defend the community of which they've become a part.

Through the first ninety minutes of this two-hour film I was sure I was going to give it a Qualified Recommendation; the qualification being "as long as you don't mind your movies on the grim side".  Alas, the final half hour falls apart pretty badly.  Several parts of the action sequences are a muddled mess, and they're peppered with what are obviously meant to be big, dramatic moments that almost all fall flat (there are two that work quite well - notably the ones that hew closer to the more understated tone of the film's first two acts).

Oh, and forget about ever learning why the commandant was so keen to find Picasso.  That's never revealed.  A movie-long subplot without a conclusion.

Given the solid (if grim) first ninety minutes, it's a real shame how badly this one goes off the rails.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The Monster Walks (1932)

I have a pretty high tolerance for the cheap, creaky productions that were churned out by Hollywood's poverty row in the pre-war years, but even by the incredibly modest standards of such fare, The Monster Walks is execrably written and acted.

We're presented here with the hoariest of cliches: a gathering on a dark and stormy night for the reading of a rich man's Will.  It's not much of a gathering, though.  Other than the lawyer who is there to read the Will, there's the dead man's two servants, his invalid brother, and his daughter (who brings along her fiancee and their chauffeur, a painfully racist and unfunny "comedic" African American character).

There's also an ape chained up in the basement of the house.  The film insists on calling it a gorilla, but it's clearly a chimpanzee (and is never seen in shot with any of the human characters, presumably as an attempt to disguise its actual size).  The chimpanzee/gorilla (chimporilla?) was present in the house for unspecified experiments conducted by the deceased man.

When the Will is read, the daughter gets almost all of the estate and wealth.  Then that night, as she tries to sleep, a hairy hand reaches through a secret panel and tries to strangle her.

Yes indeed, this is a 'killer gorilla' movie (and not the last one in this pack, either).  Of course, the beast must have a human directing its actions, and given the teeny tiny cast, the list of possible suspects is not exactly daunting.

The movie shambles tediously through its paces as the villains are revealed and eventually overcome.  This all takes a mere 60 minutes, but frankly it feels much longer.

Avoid, unless you're suffering from the world's worst case of insomnia.