Friday, 30 October 2015

Primeval Season 2 (2008)

Series 1 of Primeval was unabashedly episodic in structure.  Each week the team would be called in to deal with some dangerous creature from another time - unsurprisingly often a dinosaur, though there was an refreshing absence of Rexes and Raptors - and would have the matter dealt with by the time their 45 minutes was up.  Ongoing arcs were low-key: basically just the developing relationships between the characters, and the background question of "what happened to Cutter's wife?"

However, the series ended with something of a cliffhanger, which immediately creates an expectation that there will be more focus on continued stories in the second season.  And that indeed is what we get.  While every episode still features the team - which undergoes some changes due to the aforementioned cliffhanger - going out and tackling some beastie from another time, it soon emerges that someone is interfering with their operations.  Who is it?  What are they up to?  And how does Cutter's wife fit into it?  These are questions that will come to dominate the season.

I'm of two minds about this changed focus.  On the one hand, it's good to see that they're stretching the original premise.  On the other, I found the actual arc they chose to go with to be a bit rote and predictable.  You're probably not going to be all that surprised by the answers to most of the questions above, and where you are surprised it'll probably be in an "I thought you'd do better than that" kind of way.

Fortunately the creature elements of the show remain a highlight: whether it's deadly scorpions from the Silurian era or a mammoth running amok on a motorway, Primeval delivers fun monster action.  So if that's your bag, the show still has you well and truly covered.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

KungFu Cyborg (2009)

It seems this film is sometimes known as just plain KungFu Cyborg, sometimes as KungFu Cyborg: Metallic Attraction, and sometimes as Metallic Attraction: KungFu Cyborg.  All this title confusion proves a useful shorthand for the film's central flaw: it has a serious case of identity crisis.

When we first meet the effective protagonist of the film, he's presented as heroic badass chasing down an escaped felon despite a gaggle of corrupt cops in his way.  I say 'effective' because who exactly the protagonist is, is one of the areas where the film seems unsure what it wants.  Someone else spends much of the second act looking like the protagonist, for instance.  But this is the guy with the closest thing to a character arc, so I pick him.

Anyway, the whole thing turns out to be a test - though he didn't know that - and he's told he's been picked to help secretly integrate a robotic police officer into society.  His initial reaction is that this is some kind of weird prank, but it proves to be true.  Robots; nearly indestructible and capable of flight, but visually indistinguishable from humans; are already among us.

He's introduced to the robot - designated 'K1', and for record I suggest that if you ever want to secretly integrate a robot into society, you should give it a real name - and suddenly turns into a clownish, spiteful little jerk for the next forty minutes.  The reason for this spiteful jerkiness is that the robot has a handsome appearance, and the sole female officer in their precinct (who of course doesn't know K1 is not human) takes a shine to him.

The whole film shifts tone to go along with the shift in the protagonist's character.  It becomes mostly a very broad and very slapstick-oriented film, with "comedy" such as a computer virus infecting a Swiss cuckoo clock (yes, really) and a young woman being accidentally punched in the face a bunch of times (yes, really).

Then it becomes a completely over the top mecha battle film.  Then a sitcom again.  Then a completely over the top comedic battle between a giant robot and some gangsters (kind of).  Then a romantic tragedy.

Yeah, mood whiplash there.

Bits of this film are quite good fun, but it is all over the place thematically, and its idea of what's funny does not mesh well with mine.  Not one I would recommend.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The War Wagon (1967)

This is not a subtle film.  Not even a particularly sensible one.  It's a straightforward, swaggering, two-fisted adventure tale of a type we don't really see any more.  Modern action films are a little too self-aware to pull off the unabashed, wide-eyed enthusiasm of this movie.

John Wayne is Taw Jackson, an honest rancher falsely jailed by the machinations of Pierce, an evil mining baron who wanted his land.  Kirk Douglas is Lomax, a hired gun who shot Jackson three years earlier at Pierce's behest.  When Jackson is released from prison, he has a plan to steal half a million dollars worth of gold from the mining baron, but he needs Lomax - who in addition to being an expert shot is also an expert safe-cracker - on his five man team to do it.

Lomax has plenty of reasons (100,000 of them, you might say) to join Jackson's scheme, but the job is not going to be an easy one.  Pierce's shipment travels with more than thirty heavily-armed guards, and if that wasn't enough, the gold itself is stored in an armoured wagon equipped with a gatling gun.

It even has its own theme tune. Like I said: not a subtle film.

Of course, when you're got the Duke and Kirk Douglas on the case, there's never really any doubt as to whether Pierce will get his comeuppance or not.

The War Wagon is brash, bombastic, and a little bit buffoonish.  But I had a grand time watching it, and you might too.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Sisters of Death (1976)

I've mentioned before that some low budget films have a Thing: a feature or moment that leaps out to you and says "This right here.  This is the idea that spurred them to make this movie.  The Thing that they thought made it special".

The Thing in Sisters of Death comes right at the end of the film, and it's actually got some promise to it.  If properly built up to, artfully but subtly foreshadowed, and delivered with verve, it really could have been a real sting in the movie's tale.

The key word in the previous sentence is not the puntacular 'tale'.  It's 'if'.

Because alas, like many low budget films that have a Thing, this one lacks the technical and artistic talent to pull it off successfully.  The script is clunky and unfocused; the acting likewise.  A whole lot of nothing much goes on for a whole lot of the film, and when things do happen they sometimes lack context.  For example, much is made of a big, scary spider that prowls around in several scenes, but its entire narrative purpose ... well, it doesn't really have one except to go for cheap arachnophobic chills.

In any case, the premise of the movie is this: a sorority initiation ceremony, involving a staged game of Russian Roulette, goes horribly awry when a real bullet somehow ends up in the gun.  A young woman dies.

Seven years later, the other five women who were present at the event receive an all expenses paid invitation to a sorority reunion party.  Although several of them have misgivings about the idea - gee, I wonder why? - they all decide to go along.  And they continue to go along even when they're met at their destination by two guys and spirited off to a ranch in the middle of nowhere.

Of course, there's a sinister explanation for the summons they've received.  There wouldn't be much of a movie if this was just a run of the mill reunion, after all.  I won't spoil any of the details.  Like I said, the film actually has a potentially worthwhile Thing, and I guess there's a faint chance you might want to sit through the tedium of the first hour to find out what it is.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Bolt (2008)

I'd like to think that I am pretty good about meeting a movie halfway on its premise.  You want to tell me a story about how toys come to life when no people are around?  Okay.  Aliens with acid for blood, you say?  Fair enough.  A dog who thinks it's a superhero?  I'm down with that.

A dog who thinks it's a superhero because the people running the TV show it is on have meticulously concealed that it's all fiction in order to ensure the purity of the dog's performance?

That ping you just heard is my suspension of disbelief snapping.

Quite why this ridonculous - to use a word the film is fond of - bit of over-writing was left in the script, I'm not sure.  "Bolt thinks it's all real" is not a plot point that needs all this embellishment.  He's a dog: they're not exactly known for their critical thinking, except as it relates to (a) getting more noms or (b) getting more scratches.  Perhaps they were worried that if they didn't explain it, people would call Bolt "Buzz Dogyear".

Whatever the reason, Bolt thinks the TV show he is on is real, so when the script has his human co-star get kidnapped, he sets out to rescue her.  And to be fair to the film, once his quest brings him into contact with Mittens the alley cat, we get an often funny tale with some good odd couple comedy.  In fact, it's good enough that I was willing to let the bad first impression slide.

But then it cops out on the ending, and leaps straight to the aftermath, and I was left to facepalm on my couch.  Here's a hint to the film-makers: when the static images over your end credits have more emotional depth than the last two minutes of your film, something has gone wrong.  Also, good job on destroying the obvious TV spin-off opportunity in the process, guys.

Much of Bolt is good, but the whole package doesn't quite gel in the way that a Frozen or Wreck-It Ralph does.  Still to be honest if you have kids they'll probably love it anyway, so ignore the 'not recommended' if you have little ones.

Friday, 23 October 2015

The Three Musketeers (2011)

I feel sorry for Cardinal Richelieu.  He was one of the first true patriots: a man who put his nation's interests first at a time when most people's principal loyalty was to their faith or to their personal liege.  He centralised national power (making him very unpopular with the nobles) and worked to prevent Habsburg dominion over Europe.  However you may feel about patriotism/nationalism, he was an important and in many ways revolutionary figure.

In film however, he has been tarred with a very black brush indeed: he's invariably the villain in adaptations of Alexandre Dumas's novel, and is usually conspiring to falsely dishonor the Queen and seize the King's power for himself.  (In the book itself, things are much less black and white)

I mention all this, because Richelieu gets the usual treatment in Paul Anderson's 2011 film, which is particularly notable given how many "not the usual Musketeers" elements it has.  Not all of these elements work, it must be said.  For instance, while Orlando Bloom is great fun as the preening Duke of Buckingham, I think it muddies the film to turn him into another enemy of the musketeers, rather than their reluctant ally.  Having three factions - with prototypical femme fatale Milady de Winter trying to play off all three - slows down the film's otherwise galloping pace and throws it off its stride.

One element that does work, at least for me, is that this film comes across as Jules Verne's The Three Musketeers.  It's got airships and 17th century scuba gear and death traps and all kinds of other shenanigans.  I approve.  If you're going to ignore the historical record as thoroughly as most Musketeers films do, why not go all out?

The over the top action sequences and broad humour probably won't appeal to all audiences, and I do think the film misfires on some of them (particularly the latter).  But if you're looking for a fast-paced, visually opulent action piece full of wise-cracking heroes, this is a fun way to spend an hour and a half.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Black Scorpion: The Television Series (2001)

Just before the end of last year, I reviewed 1995 superhero film Black Scorpion.  While I wouldn't call it a good film, exactly, I found it fun in a very very "Iron Age of Comics" kind of way.  So when I learned that the film had been spun-off into a TV show six years later, well I had to track it down.

What I found was ... well, Black Scorpion: The Television Series is like a bizarre fusion of the 60s Batman TV show with 1980s exploitation films, as played out under the strict content constraints of basic cable.  It's a bizarre, Frankenstein's Monster-esque agglomeration of ill-fitting parts, clumsily stitched together (given the show's propensity to re-use footage, often re-stitched together) over a tired collection of narrative bones.  In fact, the seams of the show are so obvious that halfway through the season I was moved to flowchart the typical episode outline.  If you're a gamer, you can grab yourself an eight-sided die and play along.

Badly-acted and cheaply-made, this TV show occasionally sprouts an interesting idea or clever moment, but the ratio of fun to formulaic filler is way too small to recommend it.  The show's inability to choose and stick to a 'tone' also undercuts it.

Because I hate myself, I wrote episode-by-episode recaps of the entire season.  If you also hate me, feel free to read them and savour my pain :-)

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Quest for Fire (1981)

It's a pretty gutsy move to make a film where none of the characters' dialogue is intended to be understood.  A huge amount of information must be conveyed by actions, body language and expressions.  Quest for Fire succeeds so well in this regard that I wanted to give it a Qualified Recommendation just for that.

Unfortunately, there are some pretty significant flaws with the film that ultimately made me come down on the 'not' side of recommendation.  Still, if you have an interest in the craft of film-making, especially acting or direction, then I think this is a movie that you should see.  It does a great job with the non-verbal communication.

The film begins with a text scrawl informing us that 80,000 years ago, humanity relied on fire for survival, but lacked the means to make it for themselves.  When they found a natural fire, they had to protect and nurture it, tending it and feeding it constantly to prevent it from being extinguished.

We then meet a primitive tribe who possess such a fire.  Alas for them, they're about to be attacked by another, even more primitive group of humanoids.  Despite being bestial, naked ape-men, the attackers launch an orchestrated and quite sophisticated attack.  In fact, for my money it feels rather more orchestrated and sophisticated than it ought to be.

In any case, the attack succeeds in driving the first tribe out of their cave, and the little 'starter fire' they keep in a skull goes out in the escape.  So they are left in the middle of a swamp without their source of warmth and main protection from wild animals.  The obvious thing then to do is send off several strong warriors to look for a new fire and bring it back for the tribe.

The rest of the film is dedicated to ... well, to the titular quest.  The trio of warriors journey across the land, crossing paths with dangerous animals and cannibalistic neanderthals, among other encounters.  And it's here that the movie really has its issues.  While many of the individual sequences are quite well-executed, it feels like some scenes are given much more time than they need while others - which are more plot-relevant - are brushed aside in seconds.  Then there is the fact that the events we see require a period of weeks - if not months - to have gone by before the group returns from their quest, but nothing in the film suggests that more than a few days have elapsed.  These two issues combined to make me disengage from the film well before the - blatantly obvious half an hour earlier - conclusion rolled around.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Horror Express (1972)

This is the second cinematic adaptation of the short story "Who Goes There?".  You may have heard of the third such adaptation - a little John Carpenter number called The Thing.

This film was made ten years before Carpenter's, and features Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in one of their many screen collaborations.  Lee is a biologist, transporting an ancient fossilised ape-man on the Trans-Siberian railway.  Cushing is his friend and rival whom also happens to be on the same train.  Their characters have names of course, but I'm just going to call them Lee and Cushing here.

Unfortunately for both men - and for all the passengers on the train, come to that - Lee's fossil is a lot more active than it ought to be.  It escapes the large crate in which it has been stored, murdering the porter in the process.

Lee deduces exactly what happened, which is a pretty amazing leap of logic to make.  Naturally a police inspector who happens to be aboard is more skeptical, but he orders a search of the train be conducted.  This leads to the death of one of the men doing the searching.  Noticing that the two corpses share the same strange, white eyes, the Inspector asks Cushing to do an autopsy.  He discovers that the dead man's brain is completely unwrinkled, indicating that all the memories have been drained from it.

Stop giggling.  I'm sure that scene is full of highly credible scientific information!

Anyway, Lee is exonerated and the hunt is now on for the monster.  What our heroes don't realise however, is that the beast is merely a host for the real menace: a disembodied energy-being, capable of seizing control of another living creature if its current form should be slain.

This is a tolerable enough bit of low budget 70s horror, though it doesn't do a good job of hiding its limited resources: the prehistoric man-ape looks quite dreadful, and the very restricted number of sets is quite apparent.  Perhaps they felt their money was better spent on having Telly Savalas turn up halfway through to chew scenery like a madman.  (It wasn't)

Ultimately though, the real downfall of this film is that Carpenter's movie exists.  If you're going to watch a screen adaptation of "Who Goes There?", why would you choose the lesser option?

Monday, 19 October 2015

Avengers Grimm (2015)

Depending on how you want to look at it, this is either The Asylum doing "The Avengers, but with fairy tale characters instead of superheroes" or "Once Upon A Time done as an action movie".  It certainly appears to be a mash-up of those two properties, as we'll see.

The wicked Rumpelstiltskin launches an assault on the kingdom of Snow White and her husband (who is never seen on screen).  His army is the kingdom's own, magically brainwashed to serve him.  He does not want dominion over the fairy tale realm however; he wants Snow White to use her magic mirror to send him and his forces to our world, where his sole mastery of magic will allow him to conquer us with ease.

As villainous plans go, it's not a bad one, actually.

Snow's not cooperative however, and in the ensuing struggle she and Rumpelstiltskin plunge through the mirror together, leaving his minions behind.

Some time later (the movie is really, really unspecific about time frames), Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel and Red (Riding Hood) also travel through the mirror in an effort to rescue Snow White.  The action thus moves entirely to our world, which I am sure has budget-saving aspects which were not lost on the film-makers.

As Asylum films go, this is a pretty good one.  There's some just silly enough to be fun moments, enough oblique fairy tale references to suggest that someone on set was a genuine fan of such stories, and van Dien makes a surprisingly effective bad guy.

Which is not to say that it is actually good, of course.  It's got some sloppy writing of course, and the acting ... well, when Casper van Dien and Lou Ferrigno - yes, that Lou Ferrigno - are two of your best three performers, you definitely have a problem (the other one of the three is Elizabeth Peterson as Red - she's far and away the best of the female actors).  Oh, and the effects are pretty bad too.

If you're the kind of person who enjoys trashy schlock (guilty!), then you might find something to like here.  Otherwise you can skip it.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Roman Mysteries: Series One (2007)

Calling this "The Famous Five in Ancient Rome" makes for back-to-back reviews where I've kicked things off by comparing what I'm reviewing to another media property, but it fits far too neatly not to be used.  Heck, there are even actually four of them, just like in Enid Blyton's famous books: the kids in that counted their dog "Timmy" as their 5th member.  The characters in this series don't do that (and they have three dogs between them) but the parallels otherwise are rather obvious.  The kids go somewhere, meet some friendly - and some not so friendly - adults, stumble across a mystery and then solve it by some combination of (a) outrageous luck and (b) having two brain cells to rub together.

Of course, the series is not just set in a very different time period to Blyton's novels, but also written in a very different one.  That's generally to its benefit: it's much more diverse in its casting for instance (which is definitely appropriate for the setting), and the villains are never "that foreign looking chap".  It's also got the resources and expertise to depict a pretty accurate version of Roman clothing and buildings.  There's none of the "hang a couple of sheets up and hope for the best" set dressing of I, Claudius here.  Some of the other impacts of being a modern show are probably only a benefit if you are in the target age bracket of the show (which I would say is 8-12).  The writers are clearly aware that kids find few things as intrinsically funny as peeing and pooping, and manage to work some kind of mild scatological humour into most episodes.

The writers also make an effort to work accurate information about Roman society, history and beliefs into the episodes, which I appreciate.  On the other hand, they do rather fall into the trap of giving the central characters very egalitarian, modern day senses of how society should work.  This may also be a flaw in the original books on which this is based: I haven't read them and so can't say for sure.

Overall despite its positives, I can't really recommend Roman Mysteries unless you are an 8-12 year old, or have one you need to keep occupied (while secretly feeding them some learning).  The central plots of the show are generally quite weak and while it is possible for a show to overcome that if it has a sufficiently charming cast of characters (yes, Leverage, I am talking about you), I don't think this one manages that.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Legend of the Tsunami Warrior (2008)

"16th Century Thai Aquaman!" would be a kind of frivolous way of describing this movie, but not an entirely inaccurate one.  The plot involves a young orphan boy from a fishing village, who grows up to become a practitioner of Dulum - a magical art which allows him to speak with and command fishes, as well as special words of power that unleash blasts of physical force.  There are nine total levels of this mystic art.  A wise man in the village can teach him the first three, but to learn more he must seek out the famed Dulum Master "White Ray".

Meanwhile, evil pirates - led by a man who is himself a Dulum practitioner - are threatening the kingdom of Langkasuka.  The Queen of this land seeks allies against the pirates, and plans to wed her sister to the prince of a neighboring land.

The pirates are also a threat to the young man's village, and he joins local warriors - and a shipwrecked Chinese inventor - in an ongoing battle against the marauders.  This distracts him from seeking out White Ray, so he remains a novice user of his powers.  Which explains why he's not able to do a lot when the pirates get tired of the villagers attacks and strike back in force.  He does manage to survive, however, and becomes embroiled in the wider Langkasuka-Pirate war.

This film has sumptuous costumes and sets, and some well-staged action sequences.  There's some wire-fu in there, but the action scenes mostly seem a little more grounded than those common in Chinese films.  Well, except the ones where Dulum plays a significant role, at least.

On the other hand, the film runs pretty long at a full two hours, and it sometimes takes longer with things than it needs to.  The subplots also don't resolve in a way that I think most western viewers will find satisfying.

Overall, I'd say check it out only if you've got a hankering to see a Thai take on the "mythic epic" school of film-making, or if you really, really want to see a guy ride a giant manta ray.  The protagonist does a lot of that in this movie.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Hondo (1953)

The 1950s were a period of profound change for Westerns.  The characters and situations became more complex, with the previously black and white moral compass being replaced by shades of grey.  In particular, the depiction of Native Americans changed.  It remained rather patronising and othering, but the films of this era did at least try to portray them as more than the "howling savages" of the 1940s.

Hondo is notable for a number of things.  First, because it was the first film adaptation of a Louis L'Amour novel.  Second, because it represented the return of John Wayne to his signature genre, after a three year break.  And third, because it was part of the first big "3D craze", a fact made abundantly clear by the opening shot of a man riding right out of the screen and over the top of the camera.

Thankfully the DVD copy of the film is in regular 2D.  I am not a fan of the third dimension in my motion pictures.

Hondo Lane is a dispatch rider for the US Army.  He arrives, travel-worn and without a horse, at an isolated ranch.  Only a woman (Angie) and her young son are at the house: Angie says her husband is "out searching for lost calves", in a painfully obvious lie.  Hondo warns her that she should take her son and leave, as the Apache are readying for war.

"We have a treaty!" she protests.
"We did." is his answer. "And we broke it.  Apache can't stand liars."

Obviously Hondo and Angie are in for an exciting/stressful time of things, given the setup.  Not all of the danger will come from the Apache, though.  There is good and bad on both sides of the ethnic divide (a fact rather obviously symbolised by the fact that Hondo himself is half Native American).

This movie features The Duke before the ravages of cancer had sapped his physicality, some gorgeous locations, and a sound if not exactly deep or complex adventure story.  If you have a hankering for an old-fashioned Western in the mold of Stagecoach, but with less (though certainly not none) of the cultural cringe factor, you could certainly do a lot worse.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The Driller Killer (1979)

Abel Ferrara directed King of New York, which I enjoyed, as well as Roger Ebert's favourite screen adaptation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  No, not the Donald Sutherland one: a 1993 version that I'll be reviewing sometime in the coming months.

All of the above meant that I was quite interested to see the luridly titled Driller Killer, which was Ferrara's first 'real' feature film (he'd made some shorts and a pornographic film before this).  The movie is best known these days for being banned in the UK as a "video nasty" in 1984.  It would not be available in that country in its uncut form until 2002.

Ferrara stars (under a screen name) as Reno, a painter who is struggling with a number of pressures in his life.  His latest work is running behind schedule and his financial situation is precarious - not helped by his live-in girlfriend and her lesbian lover, neither of whom seem to have any source of income of their own - and he is in danger of losing his apartment.  To make matters worse, a punk rock band has moved in next door and their non-stop practice sessions keep Reno awake all hours of the night.

Pathologically afraid of ending up turfed out of his home and on the streets - which may have happened to his father - Reno begins to lose his grip on his sanity.  He begins stalking the homeless in the neighbourhood.  His choice of weapon, presumably because it made for a rhyme in the title, is a cordless drill.

Driller Killer shows some of the visual flair I've witnessed in Ferrara's later movies, but both he and screenwriter Nicholas St John are making their first feature film here, and it shows in the often flaccid pacing.  Their lack of budgetary resources are also revealed by the mediocre technical aspects of the lighting and performances.

Only worth your time if you're a Ferrara fanatic.

Monday, 12 October 2015

The Lego Movie (2014)

Everything is awesome!

Well okay ... not quite everything.  I do think this film flags a little around the 75 minute mark when it decides to have the characters explicitly state the theme that's been underpinning the film's events.  It's a slower, tonally very different scene that saps a lot of the momentum from the movie.  And it has, until this point, been a film that was all about energy and momentum, with an almost non-stop barrage of action and comedy propelling the narrative along.  This is the first scene in the film that is neither funny nor frantic (and many scenes have been both).  It doesn't quite work I think.  The movie is still enjoyable, but it seems half a pace slower from then on.

Emmett is an ordinary construction worker in the bustling city of Bricksburg.  He's a cheerful enough young man, but a bit of a non-entity ... at least until the day he stumbles across the Piece of Resistance, a relic which is prophesied to be recovered by The Special: the most interesting and intelligent person ever to live.

The Special is also prophesied to lead the revolution against the tyranny of Lord Business, bringing freedom back to the many Lands of Lego.  So, you know, no pressure on old Emmett.

This is a fun film, packed with humour and zany antics.  It certainly helps if you have some knowledge of the various licensed Lego properties - characters appear from DC comics, The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, among others - but it's not necessary.  Really, if you've ever known the joy of playing with Lego - or Minecraft, these days - then you'll find something to identify with here.  The plot's a pretty straightforward "hero's journey" so will be instantly familiar in form, and it's executed well.  The animation is slick, and plays cleverly with the idea that this is a world constructed from Lego bricks.  All in all, it's a fun time.

Be warned though, it's rather ear-wormy.

Friday, 9 October 2015

The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008)

I first became aware of the Spiderwick books because they were illustrated by Tony DiTerlizzi, who had done some gorgeous artwork for the 2nd edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.  I didn't get around to reading the novels at the time they came out (I have since), but I did see this film when it hit theatres back in 2008.

Following her divorce, Helen Grace moves herself and her three children - Mallory (the eldest) and her identical twin brothers Simon and Jared - to the rural home owned by her aunt Lucinda Spiderwick.  Lucinda now lives in assisted care, and as she has been judged mentally incapable of looking after her own affairs, Helen has control of the property.

None of the children are pleased to be leaving the city to live in a "dump that smells like old people", but Jared is particularly hostile.  He blames his mother for his parents' divorce, and wants to live with his dad.  Given his sullen attitude and sometimes violent outbursts, it's probably no surprise that Jared gets the blame when odd things happen in the house: items going missing, a cruel prank played on his sister, and so on.

Jared's protestations of innocence are ignored, but they are in this case sincere.  He sets out to explore the house and discover what is really going on.  This leads him to an old, leather-bound book in the attic.  It is the work of his great aunt Lucinda's father, Arthur Spiderwick, and compiles decades of research into the magical creatures - goblins, fairies, ogres and griffins - that secretly live in the nearby woods.

Of course, "a brownie did it" isn't an explanation the rest of the family are willing to accept, but Jared's going to have to persuade them quickly, because the wicked ogre Mulgarath desires the knowledge that can be found in book, and now that it has been discovered, he will stop at nothing to claim it.

DiTerlizzi's wonderful creature designs were what initially interested me in this film, and they really shine on the screen, from the toad-like goblins to the elegant flower sprites.  The human cast also does well, especially considering how much of the time they must have spent acting to empty air.

This is fine example of a family-friendly fantasy adventure.  If that sort of thing is in your wheelhouse, you should check it out.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Dragon from Russia (1990)

This film is full of people leaping, backflipping and performing all other kinds of acrobatics.  Even though much of it is clearly wire-fu, it's impressively staged stuff: histrionic and over the top, but well executed.

Alas, the script in which all of these feats of finesse take place is clumsy and awkward.  At its heart it's your standard "young man learns martial arts and must fight to protect himself and his loved ones" trope, but the story is weighed down with to many ancillary characters with too many conflicting and fluctuating allegiances.  When you're a martial arts movie, "who are these people and why are they fighting" are pretty much the only two questions your plot needs to answer.  Doing it as badly as this movie does is a recipe for failure (and indeed, I believe it was a financial flop).

A feud between rival master assassins leads one of them to kidnap a young man from Russia, brainwash him, and train him as a weapon to slay his (the master's) enemies.  Why the master assassin decides to do this is never really explained.  He seems more than capable of winning fights for himself.

After a not terribly convincing or even comprehensible training regime, the young man is sent out to perform assassinations.  However, his lover from before he was kidnapped just happens to see him complete his first 'hit'.  When he is sent to eliminate this witness, he finds himself unable to do so.  This leads to the pair being hunted by the cops, the master's enemies, and the master himself since his "weapon" has disobeyed his orders.

If you just want to watch some flashy wire-fu and extravagantly choreographed martial arts, then this film has you covered.  If you want it to have a coherent context though, you will need to look elsewhere.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

True Grit (2010)

This is a fine adaptation of the Charles Portis novel and in my opinion a stronger film than John Wayne's 1969 effort in pretty much every department.  While I thought both Wayne and Kim Darby were good in the earlier picture, they are clearly surpassed by Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld respectively.  Matt Damon's also far better than his counterpart, but Glenn Campbell's performance was nothing special.

An aside: while I can (very reluctantly) accept that Steinfeld doesn't get her name on the DVD cover because the three men are much bigger stars, I take deep exception to her Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.  Her performance is certainly worthy of accolades, but this is no "Supporting" role.  She is a lead, and an excellent one.

I'm not going to go into details about the plot.  The premise is as outlined in my review of the John Wayne film - 14 year old Mattie Ross hires dissolute US Marshal "Rooster" Cogburn to help her hunt down the man who killed her father - and while the specific events that occur do differ, I don't think there is much value in itemising them all.  Instead, I just want to call out two main things.

The first is that this film stays much more focused on Mattie, giving her a more active role once they actually set out on the hunt.  I approve of this.

The second is that the tone of this version is rather more sombre and melancholy than that of the original.  That is in fact the qualification in my Qualified Recommendation: if you prefer your films to be pure escapism, this is probably not the picture for you.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Werewolf in a Girls' Dormitory (1961)

This Austro-Italian offering, originally titled Lycanthropus, is much less lurid than its English language title suggests.  Assuming you don't have a neck-to-knee nightgown fetish, that is.  Alas, it's similarly tepid in the story stakes: not only are the 'action' sequences awkward and slightly comical, but the mystery of the werewolf's identity is very clumsily executed (though it is not as clumsy as some of the dialogue).

We begin with a new staff member arriving at a women's reformatory.  As he's a reasonably handsome man, his arrival attracts some attention from the inmates.  We learn that the new staff member is not exactly what he appears: he is in fact a disgraced doctor who had a patient die in mysterious circumstances.  It is fortunate for him that the man running the reformatory believes strongly in second chances, or he might not have been able to find work at all.  Disgraced Doctor is obviously going to be our leading man.  It's a shame he has all the charisma of a lump of wood.

There's a fair bit of shady business going on at the reformatory, including the whole werewolf thing, but I'm not going to bother giving a detailed description because it frankly all amounts to rather dull minutiae.  Suffice it to say that the script's attempts to cast suspicion on various characters only serves to make it obvious who the werewolf really is - and that's before the film starts really killing people off.

There's not much to recommend here.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Frozen (2013)

If you don't like Frozen, we can't be friends.  Also, you have my condolences, because it seems you are dead inside.

Frozen is a joy to watch.  In large part that can be ascribed to the protagonist, Anna.  She is cheerful, fun-loving, caring, honest and brave.  She sees the best in everyone and gives the best of herself.  This is not to say she isn't flawed - she'd be much less interesting if she was perfect - as she is also naive and impulsive.

Anna's best friend is her sister, Elsa.  One of Anna's favourite things is to play games using Elsa's magical ability to create snow and ice.  Unfortunately, one night when they are doing so, an accident occurs.  While no permanent harm is done, their parents handle things in pretty much the worst possible way, and ensure that things will go horribly, horribly wrong one day.

This movie is about what happens when that day arrives.

It's also a movie about love - in all its forms - and how powerful it can be.  That it manages to work with this theme and not be cloying and schmaltzy is a tribute to the deftness of the script.  And without spoiling anything - just in case you haven't seen it - I also want to say that it has one of the most perfect climactic moments that I can recall seeing.

Frozen has stolen the hearts of an entire generation of young girls, and it's easy to see why.  It has an excellent female lead, possessed of both initiative and agency, and it presents her in a funny and (ironically, given the title) warm story.  Fantastic stuff.

Friday, 2 October 2015

M.I. High - Season 1, Episodes 1-5 (2007)

Mutant guinea pig scientist in nefarious cyberclone Prime Minister scheme!

Your reaction to that sentence will pretty much define whether or not this DVD is of interest to you.  I certainly enjoyed it, and am disappointed to learn that the BBC has never released any of the other 83 episodes on DVD (31 are on UK and NZ Netflix, though).  Now I'm not sure all the episodes have been quite so enthusiastically tongue-in-cheek as these first five.  Certainly a Google image search suggests the show's tone and intended audience may have changed over the years.

Season 1

Season 7

The five episodes here though are each 26 minutes of unrepentantly goofy teen spy-fi action.  Mentored by Red Dwarf's Danny John-Jules, who poses as the school's janitor, the three youngsters swing into action every time some danger threatens UK security.  In addition to the cyberclone caper mentioned above, the high school secret agents face pop zombies and weather machines while trying to juggle the expectations of ... well, high school.

M. I. High - or these five episodes at least - is fun, fast bubblegum TV that for my tastes hits the sweet spot where cleverness and silliness combine.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Legendary Amazons (2011)

"The Generals of the Yang Clan" are a series of Chinese stories about a family who served the Song Dynasty with unswerving loyalty and provided a succession of brilliant generals and fierce warriors in defence of the Emperor.  So dedicated were they that when the Yang men were all but wiped out by the machinations of their rivals, their widows raised a volunteer army and drove away the enemy instead.  That last element is the focus of this film.

Which makes it a great shame that this movie is dreadful.

The problems start early.  Rather than going to war to defend their country and maintain their clan's honour, the women in this film make their decision all about protecting the life of the last male heir.  Because even in a movie called Legendary Amazons, it's all about the menz.

Equally problematic are the film's action sequences.  Battle scenes comprise a very large percentage of the film's run time, and they are ... not good.  There's a stack of bad CGI and the costumes and weapons props look horribly plastic throughout.  Also while I thought I was used to the implausibly orchestrated battle tactics common in Chinese film, this movie turns the volume up to 11 on that front.  When your climactic battle scene features warriors fighting on pogo sticks, and you aren't the 1960s Batman TV show, something has gone horribly wrong.

Alas, "something has gone horribly wrong" pretty much sums up this whole film.