Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Winchester '73 (1950)



The model 1873 Winchester rifle was one of the most successful rifles of its day, and became colloquially known as "The Gun That Won The West".  By white folk, anyway.  I imagine that Native American terms for it were less flattering.

Over 700,000 of the rifles were manufactured.  In a cunning marketing decision, the Winchester company separated their products into grades, based on the results of test-firing.  Those barrels with the tightest "grouping" (and thus the highest quality work) were given special badges and sold at a highly marked-up price.

This film revolves around one such "One in One Thousand" rifle, though it elevates the status of the brand even further: we are told that such perfect weapons are never sold, because they could have no price.  They can only be gifted to specific individuals ("President Grant has one") or won in contests of skill.  In this case, a target shooting competition at the "Dodge City Centennial Celebrations".

The man who wins this competition is Lin McAdam, who triumphs over 'Dutch' Brown in what is obviously a heated and personal grudge match between the two.  However Brown immediately steals the rifle and the hunt is on.  Or actually, the hunt continues - it emerges that McAdam was pursuing Brown even before this encounter.

Now McAdams has two reasons to chase Brown - their existing feud and the rifle - but ironically Brown loses the weapon a few days later.  The movie follows both McAdams and the rifle from this point on, with the rifle actually getting the larger share of the screen time.  A sensible decision, since "guy rides across the countryside" is not a terribly compelling concept for a film.

Winchester '73 is an old-fashioned western.  The Native American characters are there purely as adversaries (and played by white actors, of course - Rock Hudson is their chief).  The saloon gal has a heart of gold.  The bad guy even wears a black hat.  It's raised above mediocrity by its strong cast and by the playfulness the script displays in dialogue and the rifle's journey before it finally returns to McAdam.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Haunts (1977)



The use of unreliable narrators always makes me wary of a work of fiction - especially in film.  Sure, they can be used in clever and creative ways when employed by an expert (Kurosawa's Rashomon comes to mind), but more often than not they're a sign that the writer(s) weren't up to the task of creating mystery by honest means, and must instead resort to lying to the audience.

Which makes it doubly disappointing that this film goes the unreliable narrator route, because for the first hour or so it does create mystery, and everything we see is internally consistent.  Creepy and weird and a little bit "off", perhaps, but consistent.  But when they unveil the unreliability of - well, pretty much everything we've seen - that's all swept away.  I mean that both literally, in that we're flat out told that many events we saw simply did not occur, and thematically, in that the kind of story we're being told is fundamentally changed by the revelation.  And alas, not changed for the better.

The film Haunts appears to be for much of its length is more or less your standard 'masked killer stalks female protagonist while occasionally murdering other people' thing, though being released as it was before Halloween or Friday the 13th it does not conform to the slasher stereotypes.  Our female protagonist is in her 40s, for instance, rather than a nubile teenager, and the killer lacks the "style" (for want of a better word) of a Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees.  There's no distinctive costume, no signature weapon, no carefully orchestrated kill zones.  It's just a guy with a knife and a balaclava.

But like I said, it turns out that's not what this film is about after all.  What it is actually about is a far murkier question to answer, and frankly it doesn't give you enough reason to care.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Megamind (2010)



Some of you may have guessed this review was coming after last Monday.  You may have a gold star if you did.  Much like the gold stars won by superhero Metroman while he was at primary school with arch-rival Megamind.

Megamind (real name: Megamind) is an alien with an advanced intellect, sent to Earth by his parents when their own world was on the brink of destruction.  Which is also how Metroman got here.  One day, someone will do a superhero spoof and choose an origin story other than Superman's to parody, but it won't be in this film.

"Treading a familiar path" is kind of par for the course for this film.  I mean, it's right there in the very premise: from the studio that brought you Shrek, a movie that Shreks The Incredibles.  I suppose we should be grateful they didn't try to Shrek Toy Story.

If I sound down on the movie for this ... well, I am.  It's definitely a real weakness of the picture: you've seen everything that happens here many times before, often in Dreamworks' own films.  It's very unlikely anything plot or character-wise will surprise you.  Which is a shame, because the movie looks good and has some funny moments.  Also, when it does make an effort it includes some pretty cool stuff.  The use of music is pretty great, for instance: especially in the final confrontation between Megamind and new villain "Tighten".  And there are some key plot points where it does a good job of "showing, not telling".

Overall, if you don't mind that it's rather unambitious in its storytelling, this film is a pretty fun time.  I do wish it had tried to be more than it is, though.  It could have done with a bit more ambition.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Willow (1988)



By the late 80s the financial failure of films like Krull, Dragonslayer and Legend had so soured Hollywood on the fantasy genre that even George Lucas struggled to find financing for such projects (admitedly, Lucas had also done himself no favours with 1986's Howard the Duck).

I'd make the argument that the failure of the three aforementioned movies had more to do with them being deeply flawed films than with their genre (Sorry, Krull/Dragonslayer fans: I like them too, but they are deeply flawed).  The main problem with that argument is that Willow is also deeply flawed.

Let's start with the premise, which is pure Tolkein-with-the-runes-filed-off: there's a McGuffin that can bring about the downfall of the Evil Tyrant, and said McGuffin circumstantially ends up in the hands of a notHobbit from the notShire.  Lucas's innovations: the McGuffin is a baby, and the Evil Tyrant is a woman.

NotFrodo ... sorry, "Willow", sets off to find a human guardian for the baby.  Which is when notHanSolo ... sorry "Madmartigan" ... comes into the picture.  This rascal with a heart of gold will (at first very reluctantly) help Willow protect the baby, engage in one of the worst executed and problematic screen romances this side of Attack of the Clones, and generally handle all the action hero duties.

Lucas also wedges in a pair of bickering brownies as transparent droid expies, in case the recycled Star Wars-isms of the script weren't already frequent enough.  Either Lucas (who wrote the story) or his screen-writer also find time to wedge in some scatalogical humour.  It becomes ever easier to see where Jar Jar Binks came from.

The script has some other serious flaws: time management is a big one - both in terms of pacing and in terms of time clearly moving at different speeds in supposedly simultaneous events - while the defeat of the Evil Tyrant is one half clever trick (which I am okay with) and one half "convenient bolt of lightning from the sky suddenly zaps her" (which I am not okay with - and it's not a metaphorical "bolt of lightning", for the record, that's literally what happens).

Willow isn't just "not good": it doesn't even manage to be endearingly bad.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

1911: Revolution (2011)



Jackie Chan is best known for light-hearted or outright comedic martial arts action films.  For his 100th role however he tried something new: a serious historical epic, charting the 1911 revolution that led to the fall of the Qing dynasty.  Props to him for taking on an ambitious change of pace.

If only I could also give him props for it being a good film.

Unfortunately, while it is clearly an earnest attempt to recount an important period in Chinese history, it's also a dull, meandering and didactic movie.  For all that it is full of Serious People Having Serious Conversations, it never manages to convey the gravity or conviction of the Historic Words.

Chan plays Huang Xing, who was the revolutionaries' military leader and would ultimately become the first commander-in-chief of the army of the Republic of China, after the Qing monarchy was overthrown.

The film tracks the military efforts of Xing, and the political efforts of Sun Yat-Sen, as they attempt to win their revolutionary struggle.  It also follows the deliberations of the Qing court, and the rise to a power-broking position of Qing "loyalist" General Yuan Shikai.  In real life, Shikai went on to overthrow this first Chinese Republic in 1913 and attempt to make himself the first Emperor of a new dynasty, but the film doesn't cover those events.

Spreading itself over these four different groups stretches the film thin, and does not help its general lack of dynamism.  Also not a help to the overall product is the one incongruous martial arts sequence that suddenly occurs about three-quarters of the way through.  It's like they suddenly thought "can't have a Jackie Chan movie without at least one fist fight!" and wedged in the sixty second fracas without a single thought for how it tonally clashes with literally every other moment of the film.

Bit of a mess this, alas.


Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Exit Humanity (2011)



This zombie western has a strong first act, ending in a particularly harrowing moment for its protagonist.  Thereafter however, it could probably have done with a couple more re-writes to tighten it up, as it loses some momentum during the second half.  It's still watchable - carried along by strong performances and canny production that makes it look like a more expensive movie than it is - but it doesn't quite live up to its early promise.

That said, it still earns a qualified recommendation because if you're at all a fan of the zombie milieu (and judging by the popularity of The Walking Dead, plenty of people are) then this is worth your time.  While it doesn't always gel quite as well as I would like, it's got more to say than the average misanthropic entry in the genre, and it's made by people who obviously know and understand their craft.

Exit Humanity posits a zombie outbreak in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War, and follows the experiences of a Confederate soldier named Edward when he returns home to find his wife is infected and his son is missing.  He slays and buries his wife, and sets out to find his boy.

You may find this an odd thing for a zombie movie to be, but this film is at its core a story about love - whether it be romantic, paternal, fraternal, or for one's country - and the good and bad that can come from that strong emotion.  Love is the cause of the zombie plague.  Love brings Edward to his lowest moments.  But love also motivates the positive actions of characters in the film, and it is through love that Edward is able to endure his experiences and find hope for the future.

In need of some tightening up it may be, but I'm glad I saw this film.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Naked Massacre (1976)



In 1966 Richard Speck broke into a townhouse in Chicago and systematically murdered the eight young women he found inside.  A ninth woman, whom he somehow missed or lost track of, survived by hiding under a bed.  Her description of a tattoo on his arm (reading "Born for Hell", also an alternate title of this movie) led to his eventual arrest and incarceration.  He would die in prison 25 years later.

I mention all this because - as you might have surmised from the alternate title I mention above - this is a fictionalised account of the murders.  Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it is a fictional film heavily based on the murders.  The events of the movie take place in Belfast, for instance, so it's certainly not meant to be a literal retelling.  The protagonist - because in one of the most distasteful elements of this distasteful film, the murderer is more or less our point of view character - is also recast as a Vietnam veteran.  Or at least that's what he claims to be.  Some of the other stories he tells have inconsistencies, which is possibly a subtle hint that we shouldn't believe the things he says about his past ... or it could just be lousy writing.

Ultimately this is an 85 minute movie that dedicates more than half its running time to graphically depicting pseudo-Speck's abuse and murder of eight women.  It's deeply unpleasant to watch, not the least because it the script seems to have more sympathy for the murderer than his victims.

Yuck.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Wreck-It Ralph (2012)



A few years ago we had a run of animated films where the hero was a "bad guy".  I don't mean merely a "jerk with a heart of gold" like Lightning McQueen in Cars.  I mean films that sold themselves on the idea of "villain has to save the day".  Notable releases to use this concept during the period I'm thinking of include Despicable Me, Megamind, and this film.  They certainly weren't the first to do it - Shrek is an obvious precursor for instance - but they all came out in a period of a few years, making the trend quite noticeable.

Disney apparently first came up with the concept for this film some twenty years before its eventual release.  I think the long production delay probably worked to its advantage.  For one thing, it gave computer animation time to reach the point it needed to be at for the movie to really pop off the screen, and - perhaps even more importantly - it gave video games the time to become such a well-established and ubiquitous part of culture that the audience would instantly grasp many of the in-universe concepts.  Having to stop and explain the context - which in say 1990 I am pretty sure they would have needed to do - would rob the film of momentum.

All that blathering aside, what's the movie about and is it any good?  Well as the preamble suggests, it is about a "bad guy" who has to save the day.  Specifically it is about Ralph, who is the villain in a Donkey Kong-esque arcade game.  Tired of being ostracised by the other characters from his game, Ralph decides to prove that he could be a hero.  Of course, that's not going to be as easy as he expects.

As for whether it is any good: Yes, yes it is.  It has plenty of funny sequences, likable characters, nice animation, and a great voice cast.  Really the only reason not to see it would be if you're one of those "animation is for kids" stick in the muds, and really, that's your loss if you are.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Heaven Can Wait (1978)



To be honest, I only own this DVD because it came in a triple pack with two films (Reds and The Parallax View) that I wanted.  It's thus something of an added bonus to find that I thoroughly enjoyed it.  That perhaps shouldn't be surprising of a film for which Warren Beatty received Oscar nominations for writing, directing, producing and acting (becoming only the second person - after Orson Welles - to be nominated in all four categories for a single film), but I'm not generally a fan of comedies.  Films with humour in them, fine: but out and out comedies tend to contrive and contort their narrative too much for my tastes.

And yet here I am endorsing a film where the premise is that a footballer taken to heaven too early is returned to Earth in the body of a wealthy industrialist.  An industrialist whose wife and personal secretary just happen to be trying to murder him.  So it might seem I am being a little inconsistent about this 'contrivance' thing.

But the thing is that while Heaven Can Wait has a wild and woolly premise, it plays it - for want of a better word - 'straight'.  Rather than forcing the characters to act in whatever way it needs to get a joke to happen, it lets them act naturally in their admittedly unnatural situation, and then finds the comedy in that.  It derives, rather than contrives.  Sure, the characters are broad archetypes with somewhat exaggerated personality traits, but they stay on the right side of believability.

This film is a light and fluffy concoction, but it's light and fluffy in the way of a good souffle.  The ingredients (actors) are all top notch, and they're combined with deftness and skill. Definitely worth a look if you aren't put off by the premise.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Rape of the Vampire (1968)



In 1968 a French film distributor was looking for a short film to bundle with his next release and make up for the feature's rather anemic run time.  He hired a young film-maker named Jean Rollin to produce the necessary picture.  Rollin's resulting effort, Le Viol de Vampire, had two major flaws: firstly that at 45 minutes it was a quarter-hour longer than planned, and secondly that it was rather better than expected.  Good enough in fact for the distributor to find more financing so Rollin could expand it into a feature itself.

I imagine that most film-makers in this situation would look for ways to extend the existing scenes in their script, and to insert new ones into the narrative so that the basic plot was unchanged but it took longer to deliver.  Rollin was not most film-makers.  Instead, he filmed a second, self-contained film, picking up where the first left off and using the same characters.  I don't know his motivations for this.  Perhaps he felt the existing narrative's pacing and tone would be ruined by trying to wedge extensions into it at this late stage.  Perhaps he just thought it would be easier.

Now in principle I guess Rollin's approach could work, if the new material followed on from the original in a convincing manner.  Alas, in this case it does not.  In fact, it actively works against the original.

Rollin's original short film concerns four sisters who live in a derelict chateau.  The local villagers - and the sisters themselves - believe the quartet to be vampires.  However, three outsiders from Paris do not agree.  One of them in particular scoffs at the very idea, and he's not short on evidence to support it: only one of the young women drinks blood (and that from birds), while another is the sole sister to exhibit any fear of sunlight (despite all four saying it could kill them).  These and other factors seem to indicate strongly that the entire 'vampire' story is a collective fantasy.

The new material suddenly reverses course.  The sisters are vampires after all, and there is in fact an entire secret community of blood-drinkers, led by a Vampire Queen.  Queenie has many plans and schemes afoot - not that the film will ever explain what they are - while many of her subjects chafe at her rule and at their undead existence.  Material like this could work as a story, it's true - provided you could surmount the cognitive whiplash when compared to what came before - but Rollin had neither the skill as a writer nor the budget as a film-maker to do justice to it.

Behold the Queen's "throne room"

The first half of Rape of the Vampire is sleazy and barely coherent, but it has some nice shot composition and strongly evokes its mood.  The second half is even more sleazy, completely incoherent, and doesn't seem to know what mood it is aiming for.  Not recommended.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

House of the Damned (1996)



Back in the first early days of this blog's existence, I posted a review of Pathogen, a micro budget zombie film written and directed by then 12-year old Emily Hagins.

Ten years before Pathogen, then 16-year old Sean Weathers scraped together the resources to do a zombie film of his own.  He shot it in about a month, spending one week in Boston (where all the 'location shots' appear to have been filmed), and then the remainder of the time filming in his own home.

As you might imagine, Weathers' effort has some profound technical limitations.  The only camera was a cheap camcorder for instance - and it shows - while the acting is decidedly uneven.  On the other hand, he manages some surprisingly convincing fight sequences, and the "haunting" effects - while not especially imaginative or complex - are executed competently.

The plot is pretty simple: a young woman on the eve of her 21st birthday discovers that her mother is planning to murder her.  Why?  Because by virtue of an ancient spell this will grant mommy dearest 21 years of youthful beauty.  The mother has in fact been doing this for hundreds of years: killing her daughters just before they turn 21.  Obviously the daughter isn't real keen on the idea and would prefer to survive the night - but can she find a way to turn mom's spell against her?

Now if you're analytically-minded you might have immediately wondered how the mother ensures she always has a daughter on a regular 21 years schedule.  You may also wonder about the fact that she would be need to be heavily pregnant in the movie, which she clearly isn't, in order to meet the schedule for her next child.  These alas are not even the most obvious plot holes in the film: the script really needed a few more re-writes I think.

I can't recommend the film for its entertainment value, so it gets a "not recommended", but if you have an interest in "no budget" film-making, or in African American film-making (the cast has no white characters), then it may be something you should check out.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Metamorphosis (1990)



Long before The Asylum mocked their first buster, the Italians had built an entire industry on "being inspired" by successful international films.  In today's film, the inspiration was Cronenberg's The Fly.  Which I am reminded I have never seen.  Should fix that.

In any case, using what I know of Cronenberg's film, courtesy of the power of cultural osmosis, it's pretty easy to see the parallels here.  Dr Peter Houseman is a maverick scientist engaged in cutting edge research, though rather something silly like teleportation he's pursuing a much more functional goal: immortality.

Being the maverick, lone wolf researcher that he is, Peter's neglected to file any reports for the $200,000 of funding he's spent, and his rivals at the institute are after his blood.  He's forced to make a presentation to defend his work, but that backfires when he reveals that he's conducted testing using human embryos.

Desperate to prove his work, Peter takes the radical step of testing his serum on himself.  Given that we've not been shown him conduct a successful test up to now, this plan seems colossally stupid.  But for an (allegedly) very smart man, Peter's been pretty stupid a whole bunch of times already, so what's one more?

Initially all seems well, but really, there's not going to be much of a film if your plot is "guy performs dangerous experiment on himself and everything works out okay".  Peter soon begins to physically devolve, reverting to an earlier, more bestial form of life, and putting everyone around him in danger - including the woman with whom he has recently begun a romantic relationship.

Metamorphosis is exactly the kind of schlock you'd expect from a cheapie Italian knock-off, though it's badly hobbled by the fact that Peter is deeply unlikable even before he turns into the lamest dinosaur ever put on film.

Yes, really

Even the hysterically goofy "dun dun dun!" moment at the very end can't save this one.  Tell it to buzz off.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Trials of Life (1990)



This is the third of David Attenborough's three "big picture" nature documentaries (his works since then have focused more narrowly but more deeply).  I believe it to be the best of the three, which when you consider how impressed I was by the first and second, ought to give you an idea of just how good I think it is.

Rather than examining life on a class by class basis (separate episodes for plants, insects, reptiles, and so on), or by the environment in which they live (tundra, the sea, deserts and so on), Trials of Life focuses on the key challenges that all living creatures must face during the course of their lives, and how various different organisms tackle those hurdles.

Attenborough begins with birth, before moving onto adolescence, and then the key tasks that every creature must face: finding food (whether a herbivore or a carnivore), navigating, building a home, interacting (peacefully or otherwise) with other creatures, all of it ultimately leading up to the process of becoming a parent.  Which is, in the end, the key metric by which the success of any species is judged.  It's also of course a neat narrative circle for the series, as it ends where it began.

The twelve fifty-minute episodes of this series are packed with strange and startling information.  Whether you simply enjoy being educated, or specifically want to know more about the world in which we live, or you're a gamer or writer in search of inspiration (or a source of nightmare fuel - some of the ways different animals breed are not pretty), then this is a series you should check out.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Escape to Witch Mountain (1975)



Tia and Tony are an odd couple of kids.  Tia can speak to her brother - and to animals - using only her mind, sometimes has precognitive flashes, and can unlock doors simply by concentrating on them.  Tony meanwhile can telekinetically control objects (but apparently not locks - perhaps because he can't see inside them?).  The two have no memory of their family, and have been in the foster care system for a number of years.

One day Tia has a precognitive flash that causes her to save a man from a car accident.  No good deed goes unpunished, however: this man works for a ruthless billionaire who will stop at nothing to have the psychic children help him make more money.

The idea of a billionaire intending to base their business decisions on the instructions of magical moppets might seem far-fetched today, but this was the 70s, when "is Bigfoot real?" was a question people seriously thought worth discussing (spoiler: No, Bigfoot is not real).

That whole preamble above takes the first 30 minutes of the film.  The remaining hour is dedicated to the kids' attempt to escape from the billionaire and make their way to a mountain where they believe they might find their family.  They're aided in this by a crusty old widower and by their cat Winkie, who makes a credible bid for the title of "best thing in the film".

This is a harmless and pleasant little movie - hence the recommendation - but to be honest, I think this it probably only works all that well if you are under 10; or if you first saw it when you were under the age of 10 and are high on nostalgia.  If you don't meet either of those criteria it's merely a very "cozy" adventure story.  There's no real sense of the kids being in any danger of losing at any point, though it's all amiable enough stuff.  For modern audiences - especially those that don't meet the aforementioned criteria - I'd suggest checking out the 2009 version, Race to Witch Mountain, which packs in a lot more action and menace (and to be honest, is also funnier in its comedy spots).

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Wild Zero (1999)



"Japanese Punk Rock Zombie Crying Game."

That's pretty much the elevator pitch for this film.  And for a small group of people - me included - it's probably all you need to know for you to want to see the movie.  For others it's probably an instant un-sell.  The vast majority of people though are probably going to fall somewhere in the middle, and for them, we need to answer the question "Is it any good?"

Short answer: Not really.

Longer answer: Where the film mostly fails is in the zombie elements.  Firstly because their make-up is basically "paint people grey", and secondly because these are the most ineffectual, listless flesh-eaters I've ever seen.  There can be about fifty of them attacking a guy with a crowbar for ten minutes, and he still gets out without being bitten.  Or scenes where living characters are standing in a street while zombies shuffle past in the background.  There's also a painfully unfunny 'comedy' sub-plot involving squabbling lovers that continues even after they're both dead.

The other plot-lines of the film: a violent disagreement between a nightclub owner and the band Guitar Wolf (who are basically the Japanese Ramones), and the romance between more-or-less main character Ace and Tobio (who is a transwoman) are better done.  Unfortunately, although they appear like major elements of the film in the opening twenty minutes or so, both these threads are relegated to being C or D plots for most of the film's run time, in favour of interminable zombie inaction.

There are some moments of genuine wacky fun in this film, and I can get behind the (explicitly stated) message that "Love has no borders, nationalities, or genders" ... but overall I wish the moments and message were in a film that succeeds better as an end to end piece of entertainment.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

El Dorado (1966)



You may remember that I reviewed Rio Bravo about a month ago.  At the time I said I would hunt down a copy of this film, and here it is.

El Dorado reunites star John Wayne and director Howard Hawks to take a second stab at the earlier film's core premise: a sheriff and his small band of helpers against the power of the region's wealthiest man.  It changes up many of the details of course - some for the worse, in my opinion - but there's a huge amount of overlap.  We've got the hero who's crawling out of the bottle after a woman done him wrong.  We've got the handsome young stranger (played here by a freakishly baby-faced James Caan).  We've got the irreverent, wise-cracking old deputy.  We've got the love interest who's twenty years younger than The Duke.

This is a solid film: it has a strong cast and some strong action scenes.  That's why I have given it a qualified recommendation, even though on the whole I don't think it's as good as Rio Bravo.  The one area in which it does improve on things is an important one - the final confrontation between good guys and bad - but it's a less focused, more patchy film before that.  Its attempts at humour generally don't work, and several of the story development scenes feel like they're rather didactic and heavy-handed in their presentation.  Plot points on the whole feel pretty telegraphed and obvious.

I will admit I've never seen a spinal injury be Chekov's gun before though.

Overall I guess if you get a chance to see this, I'd say it is worth your time, but if you were given the option of this or Rio Bravo, go with the latter.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Bell from Hell (1973)



This film has received positive reviews at a number of B-movie blogs.  I will not be joining the chorus, however.  I'll admit their praise of the performances, direction and editing are not without merit, but for my money none of that is worth much with a script as muddled and unengaging as this one.  It's a bit like when everyone raved about The Dark Knight because of how good Heath Ledger was.  Ledger's performance was terrific but it doesn't change the fact that the script was a hot box of stupid.

A young man who may or may not be crazy gets released from the sanitarium his aunt had him committed to three years earlier.  The aunt may or may not have done this in order to seize his inheritance and spend it on herself and her daughters.  Her nephew may or may not plan to get his revenge on her by slaughtering his cousins in an abattoir.

Ambiguity can be a powerful tool in fiction, when used well, but it's really easy to overdo it.  Particularly when your film is quite slow-moving in general.  And boy does this one ever take its sweet time doing anything.  Any initial interest I might have had in the possibly insane nephew's possibly misguided quest for revenge against his possibly wicked aunt evaporated long before he finally got around to putting his plans into action.

And as for the very end of the film ... it's not merely "a bridge too far" in terms of plot contrivance.  It's six bridges and a ferry ride too far.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Despicable Me 2 (2013)



Sequels are generally inferior to their progenitors, and Despicable Me 2 is no exception to that rule.  Which is not to say that it's not a fun film - it is.  There are plenty of laughs to be had.  I'm just not a huge fan of the direction they took.

To give some context, a short precis of the film's set-up:

Since adopting the three girls from the first film, Gru has given up his supervillainous ways (though he's sensibly kept the awesome rocket car) and committed himself to being a father and building a legitimate career.  Therefore he is not initially interested when the "Anti-Villain League" asks for his assistance in finding the person responsible for stealing a dangerous mutagen.

However, when his long time colleague Dr Nefaria decides to take another job ("I miss evil"), Gru starts to think that the AVL offer might be just the excitement his life is lacking ... though he's less than thrilled when AVL Agent Lucy Wilde is assigned to be his partner.

And I bet you can already guess that Gru and Lucy will be making kissy-faces by the end of the film.  Now I have nothing against romantic sub-plots (or even romantic main plots) in general, but this one rubs me the wrong way for two reasons.  The first and lesser reason is that it just feels really lazy and obvious as a progression.  "Gru became a dad in the original film so let's make him become a husband in this one" is so join-the-dots unimaginative.

The more important reason is the way the film does it: after displaying what a great dad Gru is, it then drops the "but the kids can never really happy without a mom as well" line.  Way to make every kid of a single parent (and every single parent as well) feel inadequate, movie.  And let's not think about the baked-in anti-gay parent message there, either.

"Gru falls in love" is a storyline I can accept (even if I think it's a bit of a safe and boring choice).  "Gru's kids need a mommy" irks me.

As long as you can overlook this element though - and I imagine a lot of people won't even register it - this is a fun movie.  There are some "it happens because plot" moments, but the pace and humour of the film generally carry it past them.

Check it out if you liked the original and don't mind that this one doesn't quite measure up.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Swiss Family Robinson (1960)



I remember seeing this movie as a child - probably when I was 9 or 10 - and loving it.  And why wouldn't I?  It had tigers and monkeys and shipwrecks and a climactic battle against pirates.

As an adult I find that there is still a lot to like about the film - the genuine sense of warmth between "Father" (John Mills) and "Mother" (Dorothy McGuire) for instance, or the fact that McGuire was actually age-appropriate to be the parent of her movie-sons.  It's far too common to cast a 30-year old woman as the mother of a 22 year old.

Also the pirate fight remains very cool.

On the other hand, this is a near 60-year old movie and it has some distinctly 60-year old attitudes.  For instance, there's a scene where the two eldest sons have just rescued a cabin boy from the pirates and they joke with one another "wow, I thought that guy back home we called 'sissy' was effeminate, but he has nothing on this guy".

Now it is true that the audience is obviously being tipped a wink here since well ...

... yeah

Obviously said "cabin boy" is obviously not a boy at all.  But this is still a conversation between two characters we're supposed to like about how weird and icky those gay people are.  That makes a frowny Adam.  I can overlook an alleged Pacific island with tigers and elephants and hyenas on it (yes, all of them), but homophobic "heroes" tick me off.

Fortunately, it is only two minutes out of a two hour film.  The brothers do conspire to be quite annoying later when they compete for the young woman's affections, but at least at the end of that they both accept her decision with good grace.

If you can overlook the retrograde social attitudes, this is otherwise a fun film - though certainly not a plausible or sensible one - with lots of cheerful adventure.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

G.I. Samurai (1979)



The premise of this film is that a unit of modern-day (as of 1979) Japanese soldiers, along with equipment including a tank, an APC and a helicopter, somehow slip 400 years back in time.  This concept, could with the rather twee English-language title, might lead you to expect that it is a goofy, gonzo romp.  And perhaps if you saw the original US release, then you might more or less have got that ... until the fatalistic, downbeat ending, anyway.

This is the full, unexpurgated version of the film, however.  It includes all 40+ minutes of (mostly graphic) material cut from the earlier release, and clocks in at a frankly excessive 139 minutes.  And it's a long, long way from either goofy or gonzo.

The soldiers have a number of different reactions to their sudden and unexplained trip to the past.  One - who was planning to elope with his girlfriend in the morning - seizes on the hope that the effect is localised and tries to travel out of it.  Four others sneak off with weapons and go on a rampage of looting and rapine before their comrades finally hunt them down.  A sixth man begins a relationship with a young widow and settles into the era.

The main group, however - after killing the rampaging deserters - join up with a local warlord in an attempt to conquer Japan.  Their commander's ostensible plan is that if they kill enough people in this era, it might cause a disruption to the timestream and return them to the modern age.  And if it doesn't work, at least they get to be kings.

All this takes about 80 minutes of the run time and frankly it mostly seems to exist purely to justify the film's major set-piece: a massive battle sequence where fifteen men with modern gear go up against thousands of sword and bow-wielding samurai.  It's initially a very exciting sequence.  This is the fourth or fifth battle they've fought since arriving in the past and the enemy commander has come up with some ingenious counters to their technological edge (plus, you know, he has a whole lot of guys).  Alas it runs a full thirty minutes of action with minimal dialogue, which is rather outstaying its welcome.

I didn't get what I wanted from this film, but none of the characters in it get what they want either, so I guess there's at least some symmetry there.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

True Grit (1969)



John Wayne picked up his only Academy Award - for best male actor in a leading role - for this film.  That perplexes me a little.  His performance is good, but I wouldn't call it great.  Perhaps it was the fact that he played against type here: Rooster Cogburn is a far cry from his usual upstanding heroes, and the novelty - plus Midnight Cowboy's votes probably getting split between its two leads - may have carried him over the line.

The success of the film was apparently a surprise to Wayne, who did not get on with leading female Kim Darby, a fact which seems to have coloured his opinion of her performance.  For my money, she's great entertainment, especially in the first 45 minutes of the film when the narrative is almost entirely centered around her.  In fact I think the movie is at its best in those early stages: once Wayne moves from supporting player into a co-lead role, it becomes 'merely' a good western.

The premise of the film is simple: the father of young Mattie Ross is killed, and she is determined to see his murderer brought to justice.  When she learns he has fled to a reservation, where the local Sheriff has no jurisdiction, she seeks out the "meanest" of the local US Marshals to do the job.  This is Cogburn, who usually gets his man - but rarely brings them back alive.  Cogburn's also a drunk, and none too encumbered by scruples.  The script has the good sense never to say so in as many words, but there's definitely the sense that the line between the Marshal and the men he hunts is a mighty thin one, and that he could easily have ended up on the other side of the chase if things had gone a bit differently.

This is a solid film, though as I said I feel its strongest period is the first act.  If you don't mind that, and can also deal with the sexist attitudes of the main male characters (who are admittedly not portrayed as particularly noble men in general), then it is worth your time to see one of the iconic westerns.  For my own part, it's made me very keen to track down the Coen Brothers' remake, as it apparently keeps Mattie as the main character throughout the story, rather than enlarging the Cogburn role as this one did.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Scream Bloody Murder (1973)



"See what I do for you? I get you groceries and clothes and art stuff and kill people!"

This line, delivered with whiny earnestness and without a hint of irony or self-awareness, is likely to be one of several moments of script absurdity that stick with you, should you actually decide to sit down and watch this rather nasty little Oedipus riff.

It begins with a farmer stopping his tractor to tinker with the engine.  His son, who looks about 10 or 12, hops into the cab and proceeds to run his father over.  Which, given that the tractor has the acceleration and maneuverability of ... well, a tractor ... requires considerable stupidity - or perhaps just a death wish - on the part of the father.  Whatever it is, it runs in the family, because the kid manages to run over his own hand when dismounting from the tractor.

The kid - Matthew - gets packed off to a mental hospital and when next we see him he looks about 20 and is sporting an iron hook in place of his missing hand.  He's also very very angry that his mother's sent him a letter which indicates there is a new man in his life.

In fact, when Matthew arrives home in the next scene, it is to discover that his mother has just re-married.  Matthew's obviously unbalanced state on learning this - and a remark from his mother that the hospital didn't tell her he was being released - suggest that the young man is far from well, and probably left the facility without their knowledge.

Obsessed with "protecting" his mother's "purity", Matthew murders his step-father with an axe.  His mother discovers this however, and suffers a fatal accident in the ensuing struggle.  Matthew goes on the run, his sexual hang-ups leading him to accumulate an impressive body count in the process.

Ultimately, Matthew comes to fixate on a new woman; a bohemian hippy chick named Vera (played, in a nicely macabre touch, by the same woman that played his mother).  His efforts to "protect" her will ultimately lead to a deadly game of cat and mouse between the two.

Also known as The Captive Female, this odd little number has a weird mix of probably-unintentional humour and wholly intentional nastiness.  I doubt that's a combination with a broad range of appeal.