Monday, 31 August 2015

Despicable Me (2010)

If you're not one of those silly "cartoons are only for kids" people, you should see Despicable Me.  The film is aimed at kids of course: it has three young girls as central characters, at least two "poop jokes", and the goofy minions as constant comic relief.  But it's also jam-packed with references only older viewers will get: mostly James Bond riffs, but also some traditional mad scientist gags and even the odd quip about international financial scandals.

The basic premise is simple enough.  Gru is a supervillain.  He drives a rocket-car, has an underground lair, and a grand plan to steal the moon itself.  He also uses his freeze ray to jump the queue at the coffee shop, but who among us hasn't wanted to do that?

The fly in the ointment of Gru's latest scheme is a new villain named Vector (a suspiciously Bill Gates-like figure) who yoinks the shrink ray that is vital to the whole moon-stealing plan.  Gru's efforts to break into Vector's lair are less than successful ... at least not until he discovers Vector's weakness for fundraising cookies.

Enter Margo, Edith and Agnes: three adorable orphan moppets who sell said cookies door to door.  Gru adopts them as step one in a plan to infiltrate 'cookie robots' into his adversary's HQ.

And I'm sure you can see where things are going to go there.  Gru is destined to Learn An Important Lesson About What Really Matters, courtesy of the three hellions ... um, three adorable little tykes.  And it's certainly true that it's a familiar refrain, but it's well executed here.  A fun script, good voice-acting, and fine character designs combine to make a pleasing whole.  You'll almost certainly laugh out loud at least once, and you might even get choked up a little at some points.

Good stuff.  I'll probably watch the sequel sometime soon.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Star Knight (1985)

I'm not sure what this film is trying to be.  Is it intended as a deconstruction of traditional "questing knight" stories?  Or perhaps it means to be a mockery of medieval values and virtues?  Or is it just an unfunny comedy that fails to live up to its potentially interesting premise?

Sadly, I suspect it is probably the latter.

The film begins with an alchemist using a pentagram to attempt to summon an 'angel' to aid him is his quest for eternal life.  His invocation is answered by a brilliant light in the sky.  The peasants promptly assume this to be a dragon, and demand that the local ruler do something about it.

Said ruler is a hypochondriac old man whose main concerns - other than his own health - are making sure the taxes are collected and keeping his daughter (who is named as a princess despite the fact that her father is a Count) from meeting any men.  If she got married, after all, her husband might try to usurp him.

The captain of the ruler's guards is Klever (pronounced Clever, the "joke" being that he is anything but).  Klever is infatuated by the princess.  Klever dreams of being a knight.  Klever wants to slay the dragon and achieve all his goals as a consequence.  Klever is also played by Harvey Keitel in the middle of his 1980s career slump, and frankly he looks horribly lost and uncomfortable in almost every scene he's in.

You may remember that a few paragraphs ago I mentioned a potentially interesting premise, and here it is: the "dragon" is a space ship.  The pilot of the ship encounters the princess when she sneaks out of the castle to do some skinny dipping (because of course she does) and the two fall in love.

We don't get to see them fall in love, of course.  That would require effort.  Instead, we get told about it after the fact, when the princess returns.  Her alien paramour can't breathe our atmosphere, you see, so their love is doomed (doomed!).  The princess isn't willing to give up so easily, though.  For that matter, neither is Klever, no matter how much you'll come to wish he would.

Unless you find buffoonery hysterical, there's nothing to recommend here.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

I Eat Your Skin (1971)

Filmed in 1964 as Caribbean Adventure, this movie sat unreleased for six years.  It was eventually picked up to serve as the second half of a double feature with I Drink Your Blood, which explains its name change.

Despite the graphic new title bestowed upon the film, this is actually quite tame stuff.  Or at least, by modern or 1971 standards it is.  In 1964 it was probably considered quite licentious, but even then the violence levels would probably have gone unremarked.

Horn-dog pulp novelist Tom Harris accepts his agent's suggestion of a journey to remote Voodoo Island.  The place is reputedly full of the walking dead and venomous snakes, which doesn't make it sound like much of a tourist spot, but Harris is swayed partly by the prospect of nubile island women, and partly by the need to escape an irate husband.

Naturally the trip turns out to be a terrible idea on pretty much every level: there are zombies prowling the jungle, and the locals might have plenty of women but they're also pretty keen on the whole 'blood sacrifice' thing.

On the other hand, the island is also home to an attractive young woman whose father is conducting cancer research using venom from the native snakes.  Harris first encounters the young lady when her skinny-dipping is interrupted by a zombie attack.  Not the most romantic of settings, and the writer sure isn't keen on the island as a whole, but he is rather taken with this one inhabitant.  Unfortunately, he's not the only one with designs on her ...

I Eat Your Skin is silly, schlocky stuff with middling acting and some comically bad make-up for the zombies.  It's also tonally somewhat uneven, with the many parts playing more like a slightly sleazy comedy than any kind of horror film.  The voodoo ceremonies in it are well-staged though, and led by a fellow with an excellent voice.

Despite its many flaws, I enjoyed this bit of nonsense.  It's got a light and breezy air to it, and it moves along with sufficient pace that I didn't get bored (not something that can be said for a lot of cheapie 'chillers').

So I'm going to err on the side of generosity and award this a qualified recommendation.  Just be aware that part of the qualification is that you should not really care whether or not the movie is good.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Traitor (2008)

I didn't buy this DVD myself, but it drifted into my collection via people moving interstate and culling their own belongings.  I'll be getting to films like World War Z and Elysium for much the same reason one day, though I "inherited" those much more recently.

So this is pretty much your standard post-9/11 espionage thriller.  Islamic terrorists planning a huge, coordinated operation to strike at the US; FBI guys trying to stop them.  Forty years ago it would have been Soviet agents.  Twenty years ago ... well actually that was after the first Iraq War so Hollywood had already started switching over to hating on Muslims by then.

Central to both the terrorists' plans and to the FBI's ongoing investigation is Samir Horn (Don Cheadle).  Horn is a former US Special Forces operative, and an expert in explosives, and a devout Muslim.  It appears he's become radicalised and is working with the terrorists on this new attack.

Now if you're an astute reader you'll have noticed the word 'appears' in that sentence.  Or you'll have said to yourself, "There's no way they're casting Don Cheadle as an actual terrorist".  And indeed they haven't.  The movie plays it pretty coy with this, only revealing that Horn is a government agent around the halfway point, but well before that he is too obviously the protagonist of the film for him to be anything else.

So how's the movie overall?  Well, the means by which Horn is infiltrated into the terrorist organisation are frankly pretty far-fetched.  I recommend not thinking about them too closely while you're watching the movie.  Cheadle's performance is strong enough that this is actually pretty easy to do for most of the run-time.  Not even he can salvage the ending, though - the means by which the grand terrorist plan is thwarted (it's surely no spoiler to tell you the terrorists lose?) is patently absurd.

Goofy ending aside, this is a well-acted espionage thriller.  If that's your sort of thing, you'll probably enjoy it.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Medusa (1973)

Despite the title, there are no supernatural or mythological elements to this film.  Its only connection to the legendary gorgon is that it is set in Greece.  And possibly that it could turn you to stone from sheer boredom.

The film begins with a man and a woman being found dead on a drifting yacht.  It then leaps back in time and the dead man - Jeffrey - gives us some narration establishing that he and his sister were heirs to a mining fortune before they shuffled off this mortal coil (yep, the narrator is not just dead, but aware of it).  Events on screen meanwhile depict the sister's wedding, where Jeffrey proves himself quite the jerk.

The 'real' plot of the movie though is that the siblings' father has written a new Will.  Since they were previously the sole beneficiaries this can't be good news and for Jerkfrey it is especially worrying as he owes local mobster Angelo a lot of money (it translates to about $700,000 in 2014 terms).

So it is that Angelo intercepts the father's lawyer in an attempt to acquire the Will.  The lawyer doesn't have it though, and Angelo's efforts to make him talk prove more fatal than effective.

The lawyer had a colleague though, so Angelo sends Jerkfrey to try and wheedle the Will out of him.  When this proves impossible, a masked accomplice murders the colleague.  So now there are two bodies, but still no Will.  I think it's no spoiler to say that the pile of bodies is going to grow significantly before the all important document does turn up.

If you were foolish enough to watch this film, you will probably work out the identity of the masked killer long before the movie reveals it.  In fact, you can probably work it out right now, if you think about it for a couple of seconds.

This Anglo-Greek production comes across as a pale and tedious attempt to make a giallo - unfortunately while they seem to have nailed the nonsensical story-lines of such films they have missed out entirely on the style.

Monday, 24 August 2015

The Genius of Buster Keaton: The Short Film Collection (1917-1923)

I bought this boxed set expecting it to be a collection of the short films in which Buster Keaton took the lead role, but it actually includes all the short, silent films he was in, including those where he was not the lead.

On the one hand I admire how comprehensive that makes the pack: heck, it even includes a film where no-one is sure what role Keaton played (if any), but his name is in the credits. On the other hand, that means that most of the first two discs are Fatty Arbuckle films, rather than Buster Keaton ones, and I am not a fan of Arbuckle's character. I say 'character' rather than 'characters' because, like a lot of silent-era comic actors (including Keaton) he generally plays the same basic type in every film. In Arbuckle's case this type is a lazy and dishonest sort with a wandering eye. In the shorts where his character is married, there is invariably a scene where his wife scolds him for his philandering ways and Arbuckle mugs for the camera to suggest how unreasonable she's being.
Arbuckle's career was cut short by allegations of rape and manslaughter. He was subsequently acquitted, but the then-head of the MPAA still blacklisted him because of his 'debauched' lifestyle. I'd ordinarily be upset by an acquitted suspect being treated like that, but there are still people who claim Polanski isn't a rapist either, so I am a bit leery of the whole situation.

In any case, Arbuckle's fall saw Keaton promoted to leading man. While Keaton also had a fairly defined 'comic character', it's one I find much more appealing than Arbuckle: he's generally a deeply impractical dreamer, and while he's not above the odd bit of illegality, there's usually a playfulness or naiveté to his schemes that I find much more tolerable than the often mean-spirited Arbuckle. Plus unlike Arbuckle, there are films where Keaton changed things up. For instance in the short The Frozen North, he plays an out and out cad.

All up the pack offers over 30 short films, with nearly twenty of those being headed by Keaton. They're all stuffed with a huge amount of visual and physical comedy (something that becomes more impressive when you realise that with a Jackie Chan-like disregard for common sense, Keaton did practically all his own stunts). They're also not something I think you would sit down and watch in a block. They tend to be similar enough in basic content – Keaton's character is usually either chasing money or a woman or both, and getting into all kinds of trouble in the process – that you probably would need to take breaks. But they are each individually entertaining, with inventive scenarios and winsomely surreal touches (the nutty machines of 1922's The Electric House were a particular favorite of mine).

Comedy doesn't always translate through the years, and and of course these silent films are absent any clever wordplay, but there are plenty of laughs to be had here.  If nothing else, I suggest looking up The Electric House, The Goat or Convict 13 online - they should all be freely available to watch, and there's some funny stuff in them.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Rollerball (2002)

At the risk of being considered a philistine, I like this (critically derided) remake a lot more than I do the original 1975 film.  I found the earlier movie unbearably tedious, and James Caan's lead character just plain unbearable.

Now this is not to say that the remake is exactly a good film.  The script is at best ham-fisted and at worst out and out stupid.  On the other hand, "stupid" has never been enough by itself to make me dislike a movie, at least not if I can engage with something else.  And this version of Rollerball offers two significant advantages over the original.  The first is relatively likable leads.  Chris Klein's protagonist is a cocky punk, it's true, but he's a cocky punk with his heart in the right place.  That's not something I would say about the James Caan character, whose motives and actions are much murkier.  LL Cool J, meanwhile, is entertaining as ever in the 'sidekick' role.

The second advantage is director John McTiernan's eye for action sequences.  The actual rollerball matches are kinetic extravaganzas.  The game's pitch might not make a lick of sense and be practical only in a movie where every move can be repeated until it is right, but they're good fun to watch and relatively easy to follow.  Would that more action films had such clear direction.

The remake also has a few other advantages - some neat cameos, and a great soundtrack - but they're much more minor in scope.

The basic plot is that a cocky, rebellious punk becomes a champion player of violent, underground sport 'rollerball'.  However, as the financiers of the sport become more and more greedy in their pursuit of lucrative media contracts they look for more spectacle and blood, and the pitch becomes more and more like a literal battleground.

Like I said, this is a dumb film (though so was the original).  If that doesn't bother you too much, and you just want to see an action flick where the cartoonishly evil bad guys eventually get their comeuppance, you could do a lot worse.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Harbinger Down (2015)

This is another film which I backed on kickstarter, and am watching as a digital download.  Harbinger Down's selling point was that it is a "practical effects" horror film.  That means that it eschews CGI in favour of using models, miniatures, make-up and costumes.  The techniques, in other words, of such classics of the genre as Alien and The Thing.

The kickstarter itself specifically called out those two movies as inspirations for this one, but even if you hadn't read that, I doubt you'd have any trouble picking up the common lineage, especially with John Carpenter's renowned film.  Like The Thing, this film features an isolated group in a hostile, bitterly cold and isolated location (albeit at the opposite end of the world).  Like The Thing, it posits that an artefact is found in the ice: an artefact that contains a dangerous life form capable of mutating its form.

This is not to say that this is a slavish copy of the earlier film.  Harbinger Down has its own set of characters with their own set of motivations and relationships.  I think it's given more scope in this regard by its inclusion of characters of differing genders and more varied professions.  It also has a less tense and more pulpy feel to it.  While it does includes some of the same themes of paranoia, with the question of 'who can be trusted?', they're much less prominent than in the Carpenter film, and the context in which they are asked is also somewhat different.

So with its inspirations clear, how is the film?  It's not bad at all, actually.  The cast are good, and the effects - while not as strikingly memorable as the two films that so inspired it - are well executed (very well, given the budget).  The script is generally sound as well.  There are a few slightly rough moments, but it whips along at a decent clip and doesn't really let the pace slacken once the monster comes into the open.

Really the biggest criticism I can level at the film is that it wears its inspiration a little too obviously on its sleeve.  The parallels to The Thing are strong and numerous, and while this is a capable enough bit of old school horror, it is not in the same class as The Thing.  Of course, few movies are.

If you're the kind of film wonk who is passionate about practical effects work, or you just have a hankering for a straightforward horror flick that's not laden down with a hundred gaudy CGI shots (I'm a bit of both of the above, myself), this is worth the 80 minute investment to watch it.

I hope these folks get to make another film - one that distances itself a bit more from its inspirations, preferably.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Death Rage (1976)

The ad copy for this film tried desperately to cast it as a spiritual successor to Charles Bronson's Death Wish, which was released two years earlier.  This aspiration is thwarted mostly by the fact that it is very boring.

A New York mobster is gunned down in Naples, and the Americans decide they have to respond in kind.  Their chosen agent is Peter Marciani, a deadly hitman who retired several years earlier after the death of his brother.  Marciani is coaxed back for one more hit by a simple formula: the target - a man named Gallo - murdered his brother.

Marciani's plan seems to mostly be to swan around Naples while hooking up with a much younger woman and occasionally killing any of Gallo's men who try to take him out.  He's aided in his nebulous plans by an eager young man who aspires to the life of a gangster, and hindered (barely) by the attentions of the chronically incompetent Naples police.

For a movie called Death Rage, this film displays an almost total lack of passion.  Yul Brynner portrays the lead role - his last performance, if IMDB is to be believed - with stolid indifference.  Most of the rest of the cast meanwhile are Italian, and their English dialogue is clumsily dubbed and clumsily performed.  Of course, they're not helped by a lethargic script, which stumbles along as disinterestedly as the acting.  Even the "twist" ending is utterly banal and predictable.

Italian knock-offs / homages of well known films (pick the term you think suits best) are rarely good, but they can sometimes be energetic or esoteric enough to be entertaining.  This somnambulistic effort is none of those things.  Avoid, unless you're suffering from insomnia.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Double Dragon (1994)

I'll start with an important PSA: if you're the kind of person who loves mind-boggingly, bewildering stupid and terrible movies (in other words, a person like me), then you should ignore that "Not Recommended" tag and hunt down a copy of Double Dragon immediately.  It is a film of sublime and surprising awfulness.

It's not surprising that it is awful, of course.  The words "Let's make a Double Dragon movie." never had a high chance of leading anywhere good.  But the form of its awfulness ... this is a film that continually finds someway to "top" its last most of random stupidity with an event even more random and stupid.

So for those of you too young to remember it, the plot of the the Double Dragon arcade game was very simple: bad guys kidnap the woman you love, so you beat them up until you get her back.  I suspect the movie's problems began when someone said "That's not enough of a plot."  Which is nonsense.  It's a perfectly serviceable plot for a film.  Make it paternal rather than romantic love, and you have the lynchpin of Liam Neeson's recent career.

But for some reason, it was felt that the adaptation of a game that was all about fighting bad guys should be about something else entirely.  What should that something else be?  As far as I can tell, the writers tried to answer that question while locking themselves in a room with a copy of The Warriors and a whole pile of drugs.  The result is mesmerisingly bad.  Wildly uneven characterisation.  Awkward attempts to be a PG-rated Robocop (with 10% of the budget, if the effects are anything to go by).  Sudden diversions into Looney Tunes-esque physical comedy.  Magic martial arts powers that are inspired more by Street Fighter than anything in the Double Dragon game.  Street gangs that work shifts you can set your watch to.  Street gangs on unicycles.

I'm not going to bother trying to explain the plot, beyond "there's a magic amulet and everyone is fighting over it", because frankly none of it makes a lick of sense anyway, and it really needs to be experienced to be believed.

Astonishingly, wonderfully awful.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Knightriders (1981)

I like that this movie has the courage to have characters who strongly oppose one another, without casting one side as the heroes and the others as the villains.  The closest the film comes to a 'bad guy' is in one of the supporting cast.  It's a pretty bold and interesting choice; it's certainly not every day you see a movie where after their battle is done, the antagonists share a friendly hug.

Unfortunately, this is also a movie that fails on a number of other fronts.  The two most important though, are:

1. there's pretty much nobody in this movie who isn't a jackass; and
2. what they're all fighting over is frankly kind of dumb

So what the film presents us with is a group of people who have decided to reject what they see as the corrupt and venal life of ordinary society and embrace the dream of a more noble age: the age of Camelot.  They do this by travelling around the country as a kind of Renaissance Fair deal, except that they do their jousting from motorcycles, not horses.  Their leader is "King" William, who holds the position because the whole thing was his idea, but who can be replaced if he is ever made to yield in combat.

Now you may be thinking "So they reject modern society in favour of (re-)creating one with an explicit caste system, where leadership is definitionally determined by physical force?".  I sure was.  Through most of the movie, I was trying to work out if the film was deliberately painting the characters as completely lacking in self-awareness, or whether the lack lay with the writers.  Alas, I tend to think it was the latter.

"King" William (Billy, to his friends) is something of a petulant prima donna.  One of the first things we see him do is self-flagellation, to give you an idea of the kind of person we're talking about.  Alas, his potential usurper, Morgan, is a philandering jackass, so he's not exactly someone you'd want to be cheering on either.

The catalyst that brings this incipient rivalry into open conflict is the 'bad guy' I mentioned before: a talent agent who has visions of turning the troupe into a highly choreographed arena show.  Medieval pro-wrestling, basically.  Billy hates the idea, considering it anathema to his entire philosophy.  Morgan on the other hand is a fan of the idea, and so the battle lines - such as they are, anyway - are drawn.

Like I said, there's not really a villain here (though there are plenty of jerks), so the plot will likely surprise you in how it unfolds.  On the other hand, at 145 minutes in length, it's probably close to a half-hour too long, and the final ten minutes in particular seem very indulgent.  I'm reminded of Easy Rider, and if you've read my review of that film, you'll know that's not a positive comparison.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Attack on Leningrad (2009)

I suspect that many of us instinctively think of sieges as being a medieval phenomenon, becoming obsolete with the invention of powerful gunpowder weapons.  In actual fact one of the greatest sieges in human history occurred in the 20th century.

It's true that at a mere 882 days in length, the siege of Leningrad (now St Petersburg) cannot compare in duration to the 21 year siege of Candia (now Heraklion).  But the Nazi envelopment of the city during World War 2 is one of the most destructive sieges in history, and in terms of human lives, it is by far the most costly.  Total deaths are estimated at 1.5 million.  To put that number in context, it is more than the total war dead suffered by the United Kingdom, the United States, and Italy.  Combined.

This film revolves around a British journalist who accidentally becomes trapped in the city - presumably a nod toward making the film more accessible to English-speaking audiences - and the Soviet citizens with whom she interacts.  In particular, a pair of children and a female police constable.

Now this is a film about a bleak time in history, and make no mistake that it is a bleak film. It is not a movie where everyone gets a happy ending.  Nor even one where they all get the endings they deserve. So it will not be to all tastes.  But it is also a film about two women who go through an astonishingly challenging and frightening experience with dignity and strength and compassion.  Whatever their fate may be - the film deserves more than for me to spoil it - they win a victory simply from the way they face it.

Worth your time if you are okay with subtitles (significant portions of the film are in English, but much of it is in Russian or German), and the grim subject matter.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

City of War (2009)

No-one knows how many people died in the Nanjing Massacre: most estimates generally place the numbers killed by the Japanese Army as between 40,000 and 200,000 people, though the Chinese government claims 300,000 and some Japanese nationalists deny there was a massacre at all.

What is known is that roughly a quarter million Chinese civilians were sheltered in the "Nanking Safety Zone".  This demilitarised area was established and maintained by an international committee of American, British and German representatives.  The leader of the committee was John Rabe, a German, and a card-carrying member of the Nazi Party.

Like the more famous Oscar Schindler, Rabe was a Nazi party member who used his position - and his own personal wealth - to protect the lives of those considered enemies of the Reich or its allies.  I'm not going to compare the two men's achievements: it doesn't matter who took more risks, sacrificed more, or saved more lives.  Both men deserve to have their efforts recognised and celebrated.

Obviously this film is an account of Rabe's activities, and a good one, though I do think it errs to much into fictionalisation at times.  The committee's achievements are quite dramatic enough without adding in late night chases, putting Rabe's wife on the USS Panay (an American gunboat sunk by the Japanese) or other such malarkey.

Despite the fictionalisation, however, this is a worthwhile film.  The cast is strong, and the depiction of Rabe is sufficiently nuanced that he doesn't feel whitewashed.  I'm glad I saw it, and learned Rabe's story.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Oasis of the Zombies (1983)

Let's start off with a quick bit of arithmetic.  If you have a character who was born in mid-1944 in a movie set no earlier than mid-1979, how old should they be?

If your answer is "Eh, who cares?", then congratulations - you could have a career working on turkeys like this film.

The character in question is the sort-of protagonist.  I say "sort of" because we don't see him until about ten minutes in, and then it's just to introduce a twenty minute flashback about how he came to be conceived (and incidentally to pad the running time with some stock footage from another film) ... and then we go back to the characters from the first ten minutes of the movie for a while longer.  So it is really not until the halfway point that he does more than read a letter from his deceased father.

Said letter explains the story of his conception during World War Two, and of the Nazi bullion his father left behind in the desert.  In about the only sane decision he will make in the film, the kid (he looks about 20, despite the fact that he should be 35) decides to go find the gold.  Of course, what he doesn't know is that he's not the only one who's looking for it.  Oh, and that it's guarded by zombie Afrika Korps soldiers.

Now as it happens our "hero" won't be in the dark on these two fronts for very long, because despite the rather lackadaisical approach he takes to the search, he manages to stumble right into a fatally injured rival gold-hunter.  Which at least ought to tell him that the place is dangerous, even if he doesn't believe the "walking dead' stories that people - including survivors of zombie attacks - keep telling him.

Frankly, it's enough to make you hope he ends up as zombie chow, but the film-makers are apparently under the mistaken impression that we want to see this guy survive, so there's no joy there.

This is a tedious affair, feeling considerably longer than its 84 minute run time.  Other than a couple of epic early 80s moustaches, there's nothing worthwhile to see.  Skip.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

The Bridge (2008)

The original Die Brücke was released in 1959, garnering international acclaim.  This remake received a much less positive reception, with German commentators feeling that it lacked the intensity of the original.  I've only seen this version, so I can't confirm the claim, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was true.  I'll discuss why that is, but I first I need to give you a precis of the movie for some context.

The basic outline of the film is pretty simple. The titular bridge is in a small German town during the closing months of World War 2.  Seven local boys, who have somehow managed to retain their naive romanticism about the war, are drafted into the military.  This appears to be an arbitrary decision from the top, not one requested by local commanders, as the latter are well aware that a handful of untrained teenagers will not make any difference to the outcome of the war.

The youngsters are assigned to 'guard' a bridge, more or less as a means of keeping them out of the way while the real soldiers pull back.  The only trained soldier left with them has orders to send the boys home once the wounded have been evacuated.  However, he decides to desert his post instead, so the young men never get that order.

Thus, when US advance forces arrive the seven boys fight to defend their bridge.  Somehow they manage to put up enough resistance that the American scouts withdraw to await reinforcements.  The action leaves only two of the youngsters alive, however, and they are horrified when they discover that German sappers are readying to blow up the bridge that their friends died to hold.  They drive the sappers away, though one of them is fatally wounded in the process, leaving only a single, shell-shocked survivor as US forces roll into the town once more.

Clearly the whole point of the movie is the futility of the struggle these young men endured.  Toxic ideas about manhood and nationalism lead them to fight and die long after the real army has withdrawn, and in the end they manage to hold up the enemy for a matter of a few hours at most.  Then the one thing they might actually have achieved - giving the sappers time to destroy the bridge and thus deny it to the enemy - they undo because they don't even understand why they were defending it.

Understanding the point the film is trying to make is not the same as actually feeling it, however, and it there that the movie fails.  We never really get to know five of the young men, so their deaths have little emotional weight, and one of the two who we do get to know is a sexual predator, so I'm not exactly choked up about his death, either.

This film shoots wide of the mark.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Midway (1976)

Imagine you and someone else are each given a machete.  Then you are both locked in a pitch dark room and told you can't leave until one of you is dead.  Whatever nutcase is running this game then randomly lights up small sections of the room for brief periods of time.  If you happen to be looking in the right direction, you might learn something.  If you happen to be in the wrong place, you may be fatally exposed.

That's obviously not an exact analogy for the nature of naval engagements in the Second World War, but I think it gives some idea of the atmosphere.  Two forces with the capability to devastate each other, each dangerously vulnerable at the same time, desperately groping to find the other before their own location can be exposed.  A single moment of luck - good or bad - could decide the engagement.

This film does an admirable job of establishing the stress and strain of warfare under these circumstances: knowing that every order to launch your planes, or to change their armament, could be the key to victory -- or the cause of your death.  I've seen some accusations that the film is 'slow', and it certainly doesn't have much in the way of whizz bang action to it, but I think that's a very deliberate and sensible decision.  Frenetic action scenes would alleviate the tension the film is attempting to create.

The historical Battle of Midway came about due to the Japanese desire to cripple the US Navy's carrier force.  The location of the conflict was not of itself of any intrinsic importance to the Japanese war effort; it was simply somewhere they believed (correctly) that the US would feel compelled to defend.  The movie depicts the ensuing engagement pretty faithfully - or at least faithfully to how it was understood at the time of the film's production.  Some of these ideas have been challenged in the past decade or so.  Still, you're not going to see a U-571 or Bruckheimer-esque Pearl Harbor here.  Thumbs up for that.

For my tastes Charlton Heston looked a mite too smug in all his scenes, but other than that I found Midway a solid account of an important engagement in WW2.  If you have an interest in history - particularly those times where small things have large impacts - then you should check it out.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Rio Bravo (1959)

In the earlier days of this blog I worked my way through a pack of John Wayne movies. They were mostly very slight affairs, cribbed from his 1930s career in Hollywood's "Poverty Row".

This movie is a rather different proposition. It was during the long period when Wayne was one of the world's most recognisable stars, with hits like Stagecoach, Sands of Iwo Jima, and The Searchers behind him, and others like True Grit still to come. It has star power behind the camera as well, in the shape of renowned director Howard Hawks.

Rio Bravo begins with an arrogant gunslinger shooting a man in cold blood. He's promptly arrested by Sheriff John Chance (Wayne, of course), but this is far from the end of the matter. It'll be more than a week before a US Marshal can reach the town to handle the case, and the murderer is brother to the richest man in the territory. There's no way this wealthy and ruthless land baron will stand by and allow his sibling to pay the consequences of his crime.

Thus the sheriff finds himself more or less besieged in his office as the land baron put his money and men to work on the problem of freeing his brother. And if that takes a few more killings, well that's a price the murderer's brother is willing to pay.

Sheriff Chance gets offers of help from several friends, but declines most of them. "Putting well-meaning amateurs in a fight with trained men will just get a lot more people killed.", he reasons. The only allies he accepts are Dude – a former gunfighter recovering from a two-year drinking spree – and Stumpy, a tough and garrulous old timer. Not everyone is going to accept being told to stay out of it though: a cool young hired gun named Colorado takes an interest, as does the feisty and tempestuous "Feathers", a young woman who takes a shine to the Sheriff.

Rio Bravo is well-acted and has a solid script with some snappy dialogue – especially from Angie Dickinson as Feathers. She is so good in the role that you almost forget she's more than twenty years younger than Wayne. Almost.

The film's only got two real weaknesses. The first is its depiction of two Mexican characters: they're good people with lots of positive qualities, but they are also pretty clearly "comedic ethnic sidekicks". This is, after all, a 1950s film. The second flaw is the climactic battle between Chance's group and the land baron's (much larger) forces. It's a curiously tepid and one-sided affair, without much tension. It's not a huge problem, but it is noticeable that the bad guys seem much more competent and menacing in earlier scenes.

These issues aside though, this is a well-made and enjoyable film. Wayne and Hawks apparently had a second stab at the concept in 1966 in El Dorado. I think I might need to track down a copy of that.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues (1955)

It's always a good feeling to finish one of these 50-pack box sets.  I mean sure, given Mill Creek's propensity to duplicate films between boxes it generally works out to be more like 40 movies, but that's still quite a lot of time in front of the TV.  And this box set has even been a good one: it would have been worth the twenty-odd bucks I paid just for an unbutchered copy of Night of the Living Dead, but it also included a half-dozen other films where I found something to recommend them, plus a couple of silent era films that I wouldn't tout to others, but were of interest to a cinema geek like me.  Even a couple of the stinkers had the decency to be so bad they were good (yes, Beast of Yucca Flats, I am looking at you).

The fact that I have spent the first paragraph of this review talking about the other films in the box set might clue you into the fact that I don't have much positive to say about this one.  In fact, I think I can sum up the things I like about this movie in one sentence: "It's the last one in the pack".

The movie begins with a fisherman hauling up a net and apparently being completely oblivious to the really obvious monster rising up right beneath him.  This gets him horribly mauled.  Or so we are told when his body washes up on shore.  We don't get shown it, of course.

The source of the monster is going to turn out to be a "radioactive beam of light" beneath the waves.  Who placed this "death ray" (no really, that's what they call it) there and created its guardian is what two government investigators hope to find out.

I've seen one review of this movie which complains that it has too many characters to keep track of.  I don't agree with this claim.  There are only seven notable characters - that's no more than say Aliens (Ripley, Newt, Hicks, Hudson, Burke, Gorman, Vasquez) or the 90s version of The Parent Trap (Hallie, Annie, Mum, Dad, Chessy, Martin, Meredith).

The problem with this movie's characters is not how many of them there are.  It's that they are all unremittingly dull.  Like the rest of the film, in other words.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The Green Hornet (2011)

I'm not sure who thought that making The Green Hornet into a Seth Rogen vehicle was a good idea, though presumably Rogen himself was among them.  And I guess, if I squint really hard, I can even see a semblance of logic to it.  Rogen is well suited to play the vacuous playboy that is the Hornet's public identity, after all.

Where the concept - and thus the film - falls down is in making this version of the character a vacuous playboy in his crime-fighting identity as well.  This is not a man who fights crime to protect society from the losses he has suffered or because he is driven to right the world's wrongs.  He fights crime because it lets him roar around town in a hotted up car and beat people up.  Both of which he can only do thanks to his martial-arts-expert-and-mechanical-genius offsider, Kato.  Not that Kato is an any better person than his boss.  He's a lot tougher, sure, and brilliant with machines, but he's just as much as a dudebro in pretty much every other respect.

Now it's true that the Hornet's lack of substance does tie directly into the central theme of the film: the juxtaposition of appearance versus ability; and the value and weaknesses of each.  If you have enough style, can you get away with having no substance?  And if you have no style, will your ability always be overlooked?  These are questions the film is asking from almost its first scene.

On the other hand, while the film is clear about the questions it wants to ask, it is very muddled about what, if any, answers it might have.  And 'muddled' is a good summation of the film in general, as it is tonally all over the place, treating violence as grim and terrible in one scene and as the height of comedy in the next.  It's also deeply misguided in its depiction of its "heroes": they both come across as schmucks, frankly.

While there are a few laughs here from time to time, there are a lot more groans.  Skip it.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Last Man on Earth (1968)

Richard Matheson's I Am Legend is considered a classic horror novel, and is cited as a seminal influence by many modern authors.  However screen adaptations of the work have generally been rather bumpy.  Charlton Heston's Omega Man took nothing more than the basic concept of a man besieged by noctural monsters, as did the Asylum's I Am Omega mockbuster.  Conversely, Will Smith's 2007 adaptation was doing fine until the inexplicably thick-headed ending (a much more thematic alternative ending was also shot, but not used because who knows why - you can get it on the 2-disc DVD of the film, apparently).

Before all those other films though, came this one.  Matheson actually worked on this movie, but asked to be credited under another name when he was dissatisfied with the final product.  His objections were two-fold: rewrites of his script, and that he did not think Vincent Price was the right choice for the lead role.

I'm not all that sympathetic to Matheson's first complaint (and I wonder what he thought of the other adaptations, given how much more faithful to his book this one is), but I can admit there might be some merit to the latter.  Price was a capable actor, but he's just a bit too erudite and urbane for this role.  The movie would have benefited from a performance with more of an edge of desperation and strain.  The film is also undermined by some poor dubbing into English (most of the cast are Italian), and the production values are mediocre due to its low budget.

Despite these flaws, I think the movie is worth seeing.  It is an effective piece of film-making, and does a good job of establishing a sombre mood, which is eminently suitable for the kind of tale it is telling.

The basic plot, you see, is that a strange malady has swept the world.  Those infected by the disease take on the traditional traits of the vampire: an aversion to sunlight, garlic and mirrors, and the need to feed on blood.  One man - Dr Richard Morgan - seems somehow immune to the illness.  He spends every night besieged in his fortified home, emerging each morning to hunt for the hiding places of those who have succumbed to the disease.

And then one day, he encounters a young woman, also out in the sunlight.  She runs from him, but he catches her and brings her to his home.  Is this the companion he's longed for in his long period of isolation, or is there some other explanation for her appearance?

Check this one out if you want to see a film adaptation that hews close to Matheson's acclaimed novel in tone, if not always in its details.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)

Possibly because this film got its own US version and release, my Godzilla boxed sets don't include this movie, so I skipped it when I was working my way through the franchise a few months ago.  It's a pretty important film in Big G's progression however, as it is the one where he goes from villain to hero (at least until the franchise rebooted about 15 years later, anyway), so when I found a copy available as an individual disc, I picked it up.

As with all Godzilla movies, we've got parallel kaiju and human stories here.  The giant monster action revolves around the titular Ghidorah, a three-headed space dragon that destroyed all life on Venus 5000 years ago and now intends to do the same to Earth.  The human-scale narrative meanwhile focuses on the princess of a fictitious country, who not only becomes the instrument through which the remnants of Venusian civilisation attempt to warn humanity, but is also being chased by assassins due to political upheaval in her homeland.

Big G's face turn also saw the franchise head in a much more kid-friendly direction than it had previously followed, and this film really marks the beginning of that change.  The kaiju battles are largely played for laughs, rather than drama.  For instance, at one point Ghidorah's lightning breath hits Godzilla in the butt, and Big G leaps into the air, holding his posterior.  For seven year old boys, that's comedy gold.  For the rest of us, though ... meh.

The rather light-hearted, slapstick air extends to the assassination plot as well, believe it or not.  Although "let's murder someone" is a fairly serious kind of sub-plot in general, the would be assassins in this are so bad at their jobs that it feels more like they are playing at being killers rather than actually trying to harm her.

Ultimately, despite the fact that the dialogue claims that humanity will be destroyed if Ghidorah isn't stopped, the whole film feels very lightweight.  The comedic fight scenes ensure that there is no sense that there is any risk, and the 'dramatic' moment where Big G decides to fight on the side of good is pretty much bungled: watching the monsters bellowing at each other while someone 'translates' their conversation is not exactly riveting entertainment.

This one is for Godzilla completists only.