Monday, 30 November 2015

Tinker Bell and the Pirate Fairy (2014)

Pirate Fairy.

Those are the two words that first made me pay attention to the Tinker Bell series of films, and if they don't make you say "Tell me more", then you might want to check yourself for a pulse, because you're dead inside.

Zarina is "the Tinker Bell of dust keeper fairies": inquisitive and adventurous, determined to follow her dreams whatever anyone else says.  But when you work with pixie dust, the magical force that drives the entire fairy kingdom, well ... the potential for mishaps is pretty frightening.

I'm sure you know what happens next.  Zarina causes quite the mishap indeed.  She's banned from working with pixie dust as a consequence, and leaves Pixie Hollow, taking her own secret supply with her as she does so.

A year later Zarina returns, as Captain of a pirate vessel, to steal the blue pixie dust that keeps the kingdom running.  When Tinker Bell and friends try to stop her, she blasts them with a veritable rainbow of pixie dust, causing all their powers to switch over.  Can Tink and Co adjust to their new abilities fast enough to retrieve the blue pixie dust?  What will happen to Zarina if they do?

With four previous films under their belt at this point, the Tinker Bell crew have really honed their formula: this is a fast, fun, family adventure film with a generous mix of humour, action and adorbs.

All the adorbs.

Clearly the target audience for this is young girls, but if you don't laugh out loud at least once while watching this, then you might want to check yourself for a pulse, because -- oh wait, I already did that gag earlier in this review.

Good stuff.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Primeval Season 4 (2011)

Season 3 of Primeval did pretty well in the ratings stakes, but it was an expensive show to film at a time when the broadcasting network had got itself into financial difficulties.  They elected not to renew the series and the producers began to look for new partners.

It took about a year, but ultimately a deal was struck to film two additional series - 13 episodes in all - thanks to the co-operation of several channels (including the original broadcaster).

I'm pleased to say that I enjoyed season 4 a lot more than season 3.  First and foremost because it has precious little Danny Quinn - just a guest spot in one episode - but also because the creatures in this series feel like much more credible dangers than they did in the last one.

Just as in the real world, a year has passed in the show.  There's a new team responsible for the anomalies, headed up by newcomer Matt Anderson.  Matt's a man with secrets, as is made clear from his first appearance, though it won't be until the season conclusion that he clearly states what it is.  This is a thread that runs though both this series and the next one, which is why to me they feel a bit more like one season in two parts than two genuinely separate series.

Jess Anderson (in the red dress above) is also new to the show.  She oversees things from back at base, using advanced computer systems to coordinate the team's actions and to keep the public out of harm's way.

The other important new face in the show is Philip Burton, a technological genius whose company has been brought on board to help fund investigation of the anomalies.  Exactly what he gets out of the arrangement is left ominously unsaid (dun dun dun!).

The other main cast members are all returnees, including three veterans (four if you want to count a CGI lizard) who've been on board since season 1.

Despite all the changes, this series feels more like the show going back to its roots than anything else, with its renewed emphasis on menacing creatures and will-they-won't-they romance angles, both of which were staples of the first two seasons.

It's nice to be having fun while watching this show again.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Two girls and their father move house.  Later, the girls wait for a bus.  The next day they plant some acorns.  At the climax of the movie, they go on a bus ride.

I'm deliberately exaggerating the mundanity of the events in this film, of course.  I mean, from the DVD picture above you can probably guess that it's not quite as prosaic as those events would make it sound.

And yet those are signature sequences of the film.  "Waiting for the bus" occupies a good 5-10 minutes of screen time and most of it really is just standing by the side of the road.  That those 5-10 minutes are still engaging and entertaining speaks highly of the film's craftsmanship and of the writing's ability to capture the wide-eyed wonderment of childhood.  Not to mention its ability to make you wish, even if it is just a little bit, that you could see the magical creatures that live at the end of the garden.

This is one of the films that built the reputation of Studio Ghibli in its native Japan, and one of the films that made director Hayao Miyazaki a strong influence on John Lasseter of Pixar.  It is no accident that Pixar's success in the industry has been followed by a the rising visibility of Miyazaki's films to western audiences, in the shape of newer releases such as Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle.

If you want to see the work that inspired the minds behind Toy Story and WALL-E, this is a fine place to start.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Big Country (1958)

This is another of those movies I own on DVD because it came in a pack with the movies I actually wanted.  I've had pretty good luck with such films in the past, but it did not really continue here.

It's not that The Big Country is a bad film, per se.  The music and cinematography are good and the performances are all sound.  But it is in my opinion a deeply and fundamentally flawed film in a couple of important ways.

The first of these ways is the length.  At 160 minutes, the movie is far too long for the relatively slight story it has to tell.  I appreciate that it's a film that deliberately sets out to be an 'epic', but I haven't seen a narrative this padded since ... well, okay, since the Hobbit films, which wasn't that long ago.  But Peter Jackson's efforts to redefine self-indulgence aside, this is one of the most "oh get on with it" movies I've seen in a while.

The second issue is the main character.  Jim McKay (Gregory Peck) is Right About Everything, All The Time.  Now sure protagonists often do tend to be The Best, but in McKay's case it becomes problematic because his actions do not match the motivations the script ascribes to him.  If you tell me that one of the prime traits of your protagonist is modesty, it's best if I can't point to at least three scenes in your film where his actions appear motivated by pride.

The plot: man from back east (McKay/Peck) arrives in the west to marry his fiancee.  He makes a poor first impression on most of the locals: but as the movie will make abundantly clear to us, over and over again, this is because the locals are all venal, spiteful western yokels and he is ethically, morally and intellectually their superior.  No doubt this played very well to urban, middle class 1950s cinema-goers.  Anyway, his fiancee's family is locked in a bitter feud with one of the other ranchers in the county, and things all come to a head soon after he arrives.  What a good thing the city slicker is there now to fix all the problems these brutish cowboys have brought upon themselves.

The Big Country is one of those late-50s-to-early-60s westerns (like The Searchers or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) that critiques and/or deconstructs the genre that birthed it.  Alas, it does so without any verve or consistency, and it takes way too long to do it.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Revenge of Doctor X (1970)

Ed Wood apparently wrote the screenplay on which this film is based.  I say apparently because, although he claimed he did, and all the usual Woodisms are there - thuddingly awful dialogue, incomprehensible "logic", and characters whose motivations change from scene to scene (or even within a scene) - he didn't receive a credit.  But then, in the best known cut of the film no-one receives a credit: the original US video release mistakenly had the credits for an entirely different movie.

On the plus side, if you're going to go uncredited, this is a good film to not be credited for.

During an important space mission launch, the lead scientist shows alarming signs of cracking under the strain.  His colleagues suggest he take a holiday - there's nothing they can do now until the rocket reaches it destination in any case - and he agrees.

Since he was a botanist before he became a rocket scientist (lots of overlap in those fields, right?), our protagonist decides to spend his holiday studying plants in Japan.  Before he leaves the US though, he has a chance encounter with a snake-handling garage owner who owns a Venus Flytrap.  The scientist (let's call him Dr X, since I don't recall his real name, and since there is no actual Dr X in the film) is so impressed by the plant that he treks into the local swamp and digs out one for himself.  Such are the things that happen in Ed Wood films.

Dr X takes the flytrap to Japan with him where he is met by the designated love interest, though to say that the romance is unconvincing is a bit like suggesting that Andre the Giant was of larger than average build.

Once established in his isolated laboratory near an active volcano (here's a helpful tip: if at any point in your life you find yourself voluntarily moving to live in an isolated location near an active volcano, please consider that you may be a mad scientist or supervillain), Dr X conducts experiments on his flytrap.  Somehow convincing himself that it has the capacity to reason, he resolves to cross-breed it with an aquatic plant only found in Japanese waters, and create a human-like hybrid plant.  Why?  To prove that humans evolved from plants, of course!  As we must have done, if we came from the sea!

No, I don't follow the Woodster's logic either.

Anyway, what we've got here is a dumb as rocks Dr Frankenstein remix with the monster replaced by a humanoid plant-thing with what looks like boxing gloves for hands.  Though that's a summary that actually makes the film sound a lot more entertaining than it really is, because it focuses on the events of the film's mad last half hour, rather than on the interminably dull first 60 minutes.

Also, before I go, I do want to give a shout out to the soundtrack, which is delightfully inappropriate throughout pretty much the entire film.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Tinker Bell and the Secret of the Wings (2012)

I'm not crying.  You're crying.

Okay, to be honest I didn't actually cry while watching this, but I did mist up a little at one point.  You can ascribe this to the fact that this is the first film I ever sat down and watched with my eldest niece.  Or you can ascribe it to me being a sentimental old fart.  Both probably have some validity.

Neither of them changes the fact that this is a grand little film.  It celebrates sisterhood and friendship in a matter of fact and unashamed way.  It shows characters disagreeing without any of them being 'bad people', and - without ever calling attention to it - shows that you can have different opinions and beliefs to someone else without being hurtful toward them or treating them badly.  It has (mostly female) characters who are consistently proactive, compassionate, altruistic and brave.  It has librarian jokes (it's possible I am the only one for whom this last fact matters, but it's my review).

The plot?  Tinker Bell dreams of visiting the land of the Winter Fairies, but it's forbidden for the very sensible reason that it is too cold there to be safe for Warm (Autumn, Summer and Spring) Fairies.  Prolonged exposure to the icy temperatures can irreparably damage a Warm Fairy's wings (and vice versa for Winter Fairies, of course).  But when Tink finds a mystery to which only a Winter Fairy can give her the answer, she's not going to let a little cold and snow stop her.

What Tinker Bell finds in the land of Winter will change not just her life, but the entire Fairy Kingdom ... assuming it doesn't destroy it first.

This is, all in all, a charming piece of film-making.  Recommended for anyone whose heart has even a little childlike optimism still in it.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Witchville (2010)

If you're as old as I am, you may remember British boy band Bros, who enjoyed a brief period of success in the late 1980s.  Band member Luke Goss has since moved on to acting.  For my money, he's better at this gig than he ever was at music, but his on-screen career has tended toward ... well, it's tended toward movies like this one.

Actually, that may not be entirely fair.  This is by far the worst movie I've seen Goss in; and I've seen Tekken.  But he's definitely tended toward the shallow end of the cinematic gene pool, with his highest profile parts being as the antagonists in Blade II and Hellboy II.

This film, though ... wow.  It doesn't just waste Goss's talents (and he is a pretty charismatic actor, really), but the talents of pretty much everyone who gets in front of the camera.  There's a fair number of capable-if-far-from-A-list actors in this flick, but none of them can make the dialogue work, and I don't blame them for that, because its straight out of a 14-year-old's first attempt at a fantasy novel.  Leaden and pompous only begins to describe its problems.

The narrative is as clumsy and malformed as the dialogue, with characters lurching in and out of the story like badly-operated marionettes.  Perhaps the worst example of this issue are a group of Chinese bandits who attack Goss's character, then join up with him, and later get pretty unceremoniously killed off because the script doesn't need their martial arts mojo any more.

The story?  Oh yeah, Goss is the heir to the throne of a kingdom beset by witches.  When his father dies, he has to fight to defend his people against the supernatural menace that threatens them.  This feels like it takes a lot longer than the film's 82 minute run time.  The end.

Seriously, you'd be better off watching Tekken.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Dredd (2012)

I'm something of a casual fan of Judge Dredd, in that I own a few of the collected trade paper backs, and will probably buy more eventually.  However I've probably read only about a tenth of his near-forty year publication history in the pages of 2000 AD and its affiliated magazines.

I'm no expert on him, in other words, but I do have enough affection for the source material that I approached this 2012 adaptation with the sincere hope it would be a much better film than the execrable Stallone effort from the 1990s.

And in that regard, I was not disappointed.

Dredd is not a particularly sophisticated film.  It's almost entirely confined to a single location - albeit a rather expansive one in the form of a 200-storey 'megastructure' containing 75,000 inhabitants - and the narrative is pretty simple. Dredd and the rookie Judge (police officer) he's assessing end up tangling with a large, heavily armed gang of mobsters in a running gun battle that occupies most of the film's length.

When you make a film as focused - and especially as action-focused - as this one, you really need to nail your casting.  Your need actors who can to define and express their characters with only brief snatches of dialogue and a lot of non-verbal cues.  And it's here that the film makers have really excelled.  Karl Urban is tremendous as the implacable Dredd - but then Karl Urban managed to be good in Doom, so the man's obviously something special. He's ably matched by Lena Headey as the twitchy, psychotic villain Ma-Ma, while Olivia Thirlby brings just the right balance of nerves and steeliness to her portrayal of rookie Judge Anderson.

If you're looking for a solid action film and don't mind if it comes with some SF trappings, this is a good way to spend ninety minutes of your time.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)

This is a splatterpunk gothic opera set in a dystopian future where cosmetic surgery and organ transplants have become ubiquitous, because they are cheap and available on payment plans.  Part of how the prices are kept so low, however, are the savage penalties if you fall behind on said plans. Default on payments, and your new organs will be forcibly repossessed.  It is a corrupt, venal and decaying society.  The story focuses on one young woman, who suffers from a rare blood disease, and the traumatic and turbulent events that occur when she comes to the attention of the world's most powerful family.

So some people hate all musicals on principle, but I'm not one of them.  I have no objection to songs in film, and have thoroughly enjoyed many musicals over the years.

But one thing I do insist on, in a musical, is memorable songs.  Songs that stick in my head and make me hum them for hours (or occasionally days) afterword.  The Little Mermaid is made of earworms, for instance, while Rent has tracks like "No Day But Today", "Tango: Maureen" and "La Vie Boheme" to hook into my brain.

After that paragraph, I bet you can guess where I think this film fails.

It's a shame, too, because there are things to like in this film.  The visual design is good for one thing, with the macabre (if implausible) world of the future brought to life with real panache.  The cast is one that I really want to like, and you can see they give it their all.  Most of the core members have decent or better voices, too.

But the songs, oh dear the songs.  The music is frequently repetitive, but never catchy.  The lyrics are clumsy and awkward.  The staging is mostly stiff and lifeless (there are occasional exceptions to this last point, but they tend to go too far in the opposite direction).  And whoever made the ill-advised decision to have some of the dialogue "spoken-sung" needs their head examined.

One other thing to warn people about, is that under the glossy surface nastiness of the film is ... more, bleaker, decidedly not-glossy nastiness.  It's not far short of High Plains Drifter levels of unpleasantness.

Still, I could probably forgive it that if it had good songs.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

John Wick (2014)

There's a lot to like about John Wick.  It's a visually stylish film with great action choreography and exceptional use of sound: not just in the use of great and fitting music, but also in the use of (near-)silence, which is something few movies do well.

It also plays very much to Keanu Reeves' strengths as a lead (brooding good looks and the ability to be stoically monosyllabic) while populating the supporting roles with strong character actors like Willem Dafoe and Ian McShane.  And it does a good job of creating interesting and distinguishable antagonists.

And yet it's only getting a qualified recommendation.  There are two main reasons for this.  The first is that the film is framed as a flashback, which rather kills any kind of suspense. The second is the execution of two fairly major subplots: one involving Dafoe's character and one involving a character played by Adrianne Palicki.  The former half-heartedly makes gestures at misdirection before ending in a manner that has been blindingly obvious since halfway through the film.  The latter ... well its setup is a lot better but its conclusion is the dampest of damp squibs.

Still, you're probably not going to watch a film like John Wick for its deep nuances.  You're going to watch it for the action, and on that front it delivers.  Wick is a retired killer.  He left the life in order to get married, but his wife has recently died.  When hoodlums break into his home to steal his car - and incidentally to destroy the last gift his wife left for him, in a scene whose content means I will never recommend this film to my mother - Wick goes back to his old life in order to wreak his revenge.

That's pretty much the whole plot right there: straight up man-pain revenge fantasy.  It's a sound enough basis on which to hang the resulting ninety minutes of action, and if the film occasionally feels a little emotionally empty, well ... you could argue that's a fair reflection of the characters.

Check it out if stylish action is your thing.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue (2010)

It is the beginning of summer, and the fairies are on the mainland to ensure the change of the seasons proceeds smoothly.  Thanks to Tinker Bell's efforts in the first film, Tinker fairies are among their number.  No word on whether they still have to use separate water fountains in parks though.


Pretty much the first thing Tink gets told on arrival is "stay away from humans", so even if the film's introduction hadn't already given away that this is the story of how humans and fairies met, I bet you'd be able to guess what happens next.

The sound of an approaching car sends the fairies running for cover.  All except Tinker Bell, of course, who is fascinated with how this strange machine works and flies closer to investigate.  Another fairy (Vidia) who kind of filled the 'mean girl' role in the first film, follows her and attempts to get Tink to come back and leave the humans alone.

Vidia's efforts are of course in vain, and through a series of misunderstandings, coincidences and accidents, Tinker Bell ends up trapped inside a bird cage in a human girl's bedroom.

The film has twin narratives from this point onward: one focusing on the rescue party Vidia organises to free Tink, and the other on Tinker Bell's interactions with the humans, especially Lizzy, the girl who found her.

This film doesn't feel quite up to the standards of the first two Tinker Bell movies - the ending is a little too pat and obvious, for one thing - but it is still a pleasant and breezy tale that manages to include some fun sequences involving Tinker fairy gadgets, and a nifty chase sequence or two.

Friday, 13 November 2015

The Railway Children (1970)

Much like Heaven Can Wait, which I reviewed a couple of months ago, The Railway Children ended up in my collection because it came in a combo-pack with another movie that I wanted (the charmingly old-fashioned Swallows and Amazons).  Also like Heaven Can Wait, this film turned out to be thoroughly entertaining in its own right.

Three children in Edwardian London grow up in pretty much the perfect household.  They have a lovely house full of big fireplaces - "even a gas fire in the breakfast room" - and loving parents.  Their mother "was not the sort to having boring meetings with boring ladies" and their father was "quite the most perfect" one in the world.

Which wouldn't be much of a story, really.  So of course the sunny, serene life they've led to date runs aground on the shoals of poverty when their father is imprisoned on (false) charges of selling national secrets.

The children and their mother move to a small house in Yorkshire.  There aren't many sources of entertainment in the village, and the children gravitate to the local railway, where they become friends with the station porter and with an elderly gentleman who passes by every day on the 9:15 train.

The kids also have various adventures, such as when they need to warn a train about a landslide that has covered the track, but the heart of the movie is their relationships with the people they meet.  And a warm and gentle heart it is too.  The characters in the film are pretty much all terribly decent people who do their best by others, to the point where modern audiences may well find it all a bit twee.  Personally though I thought the charm of the cast - especially the always reliable Bernard Cribbins - helped it rise above that.

The Railway Children is a "nice little movie".  Well worth a look if you want some wholesome entertainment for yourself or for some youngsters.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979)

Released a decade before his breakthrough in the West, this John Woo film swaps the gunplay for which the director is now renowned for martial arts melees: particularly sword fights.  Despite the different time frame and style of combat, however, some of the Woo trademarks are there.  There's the usual narrative focus on the nature of friendship, honour and loyalty for one thing, and the meticulous fight choreography (usually involving one or two men against a horde) for another.

By modern standard the fight choreography is in fact a little too meticulous.  As I watched them, they felt to me more like collaborative dance sequences than like real, kill or be killed battles to the death.  This may be a generational thing though: this is after all a film that's only a few years off its 40th birthday.

We open with a wedding ceremony.  It is interrupted by a powerful adversary of the groom's father.  Betrayed by the woman he was going to marry and badly injured, the young man barely escapes with his life, and many of his retainers are killed.  He, of course, swears vengeance.

So far, so revenge fantasy norm, but from here things take some twists and turns you might not expect.  I don't think they all work in execution, personally, but at least the film is showing a bit more ambition and scope than your usual action movie.  Of course as I said above, Woo has always shown a great interest in the complexity and paradoxes that underlie his characters' motives, so it's not that surprising to see him reaching for something more than just "beat 'em up" action.

Ultimately though, I think Woo has since done better, more powerful films with similar themes (A Better Tomorrow or The Killer for instance), so this is probably only one you should check out if you're an avid fan of his work, or a big fan of martial arts films that eschew wire fu for a more grounded (if no less elaborate) form of choreography.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

This is another case where I own the Western remake of an Akira Kurosawa film, but not the original movie.  Though in my defence, Seven Samurai is approximately 85 hours long.

For those of you who somehow don't know, the premise of the film is simple.  A village of poor farmers is regularly raided by bandits.  The brigands carry off most of the food, leaving just enough for the farmers to scrape through until the next time they are robbed.  Tiring of this never-ending cycle, the villagers gather together what few items of value they have and go to a border town to buy guns.  But weapons are expensive (not to mention they don't really know how to use them).  The advice they get is "Hire men.  Men are cheaper than guns, these days."

And so that's what they do: seven men in all, as you might have guessed from the title.  The pay they offer is meagre, and the risks great, but each of the seven has his own motives for taking the job.  For most, an inability or unwillingness to earn a living any other way plays a significant factor.

So we've got a pretty iconic set-up: a small band of heroes (for want of a better word) trying to fend off a much larger group of marauders.  And we have a very strong cast assembled here: Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, Charles Bronson and - the cream of the crop in my estimation - Eli Wallach.  There's a whole lot of charisma on screen and it mostly - mostly - compensates for a jarring misstep in the script about 90 minutes into the film.  You'll know it when you get to it.

The Magnificent Seven is a film that starts stronger than it ends, but it is worth seeing for the opening act alone, which does a great job of introducing a large cast of characters and giving them all unique identities.  It's a great object lesson in cinematic efficiency.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

The Witches' Mountain (1972)

A woman returns home to find her cat murdered.  She is understandably upset.  A young girl appears and demands they search for her pet, which is afraid the cat.  As they search, the girl mentions the woman's name (Carla) and also reveals mentions that she was the one who killed the cat.  Eventually they find the pet - a snake - in the garage.

At which point Carla sets the garage, the snake, and the kid on fire.

Roll opening credits.

We next meet Mario, a photojournalist, as he returns home from a long assignment to find Carla waiting for him.  To say that he's not pleased to see her would be understating things: he clearly wants nothing to do with her, to the point of refusing the offer of a plane ticket to Brazil in her company.  Instead he phones his editor and says he will take an assignment anywhere in the world.

Soon after arriving for his new assignment, Mario meets an attractive young writer named Delia.  And by "meets", I mean "takes photos of her while she's changing her swimming costume".  Seemingly unperturbed by this rather intrusive behaviour, Delia agrees to Mario's suggestion that she accompany him on his journey up into the mountains.

And then we get sixty minutes of them puttering around while nominally "spooky" things occasionally happen.  Mario hears loud, chant-like music.  Delia goes sleep walking.  There are photos on Mario's camera that he never took.  Oooooooooooh.

Frankly, it's all rather dull stuff, and you'll probably be very glad when the witches from the title turn up to do ... well, whatever it is they are planning to do.  The movie doesn't bother to explain little details like that.

You may notice that none of the last three paragraphs mention Carla the Child Murderer.  That's because she effectively doesn't feature.  She's revealed to be one of the witches right at the end, but how and why and what the opening scene was all about are also things the film doesn't bother to explain.


Monday, 9 November 2015

Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure (2009)

Every year, the fairies of Pixie Hollow celebrate the Autumn Revelry.  Every eighth year, the revelry is marked by a Blue Harvest Moon.  The light of this moon, when refracted through the fairies' moonstone sceptre, produces blue fairy dust that is essential to the continued health and well-being of their community.

Given the moonstone's importance to them, the fairies create a new, ornately-decorated sceptre for it each time it is to be used.  And this year, with another Blue Harvest Moon due to arrive, the job of constructing that sceptre is given to Tinker Bell.  As you can imagine, it's a great honour.  But it is also a rather nerve-wracking one, because in addition to being incredibly important, the moonstone that goes in said sceptre is incredibly fragile.

Yeah.  I bet you can guess what happens next.

So now Tink needs to find some way to replace or repair the moonstone, which is a pretty darn major problem, all without letting anyone know that there is a problem at all.  Oh, and she'll probably Learn An Important Life Lesson in the process.  That's the way these things tend to work.

This is another well-crafted "girl's adventure" film with a dash of comedy thrown in.  The title relates to the plot on a couple of different levels, and I like the film's solution to Tinker Bell's problem.  It's nicely thematic and ties in well with her established strengths and abilities.

Good stuff.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Primeval Season 3 (2009)

At 10 episodes, series 3 of Primeval is almost half again as long as any other season.  At least if one goes by the official count.  I think an argument could be made (and possibly will be, in a future review) that series 4 and series 5 are really just one season that got broadcast in two parts.

I've never seen any official word about the reasons for the extra length of this series, but I suspect it stemmed largely from the need to farewell old characters and introduce new ones.  If you look at the cast picture from this DVD and compare to the one from my review of last series, you'll notice 60% turnover.  That's a pretty rough thing to juggle for any series, especially one that also saw the need to introduce new human adversaries over and above the group's existing nemesis and all the beasties that once were the focus of the show.

That 'were the focus' part is one reason for why I haven't given this season a recommendation.  Series 3 of Primeval just doesn't deliver on the creature feature stakes, in my opinion.  It too often plays the monster incursions for laughs (even the ones where the dialogue is all about how dangerous they are), and/or embellishes them with goofy additions, such as the episode where a Dracorex is pursued into the modern day by a medieval knight.  Much more focus is given to the ongoing antics of Helen Cutter (which are pretty meh) and the new human adversaries (who show initial promise, but their arc gets hijacked by Helen's stuff).

The second reason I haven't given this season a recommendation is front and centre in the picture of the DVD.  I find Danny Quinn (he of the cocked eyebrow and silly hair) to be thoroughly annoying, a feeling that is exacerbated by the fact that the writers so clearly intend us to see him as a charming rogue.  As far as I am concerned, he's not charming in the slightest, and the narrative cartwheels the scripts do to make him the central figure in the show are like fingernails on a chalkboard for me.

On the plus side, this was the series I liked least when I watched the show on TV, so maybe things are going to look up again now that it is over.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Doomsday Book (2012)

This South Korean production is actually an anthology of three short films.  Not in a Pulp Fiction "we've got several more or less standalone narratives that nonetheless intertwine with each other", but in a straight up "hey here are three short films that we've stuck on one DVD".  There are no shared characters and the events of each film are basically incompatible with those of the others so you can't even imagine them as sharing a world.  They do have a thematic link - they all deal with situations which may mean the end of humanity as we know it (though they're wildly different in their details) - but each is a self-contained unit.  There isn't even a framing narrative for them.

With that in mind, I'm going to judge this "film" based on its constituent parts, rather than as a whole package.

'A Brave New World' is a zombie contagion scenario where the gimmick is that it's told from the perspective of the first people to become infected, rather than from that of survivors attempting to remain alive.  It's considerably stronger at the start than at the end.  This is a common trait of all three films to some extent, but it is most pronounced here.  A quick warning: this film contains graphic abattoir scenes.

'The Heavenly Creature' examines the question of 'what if a machine became self-aware?" through a Buddhist lens.  It's the most effects-heavy section of the film, since it features a humanoid robot as a major character, but it is definitely not a spectacle-based film.  The effects are frequent but low-key and prosaic, and the focus is very much on the philosophical ramifications of the situation: what does it mean for humanity as a whole and Buddhists in particular if a machine can think like we do?  It's definitely a section of the film I can see myself re-watching one day to try and unpack everything it is saying.

Finally we have 'Happy Birthday', in which a 10-kilometer wide asteroid is 12 hours from a cataclysmic collision with Earth.  Despite the apocalyptic scenario, it's actually the funniest of the three films; albeit in a rather "gallows humour" kind of way; both in terms of why disaster is looming and in terms of how people respond to it.

While I don't think that any of these films is an automatic "home run" in its own right, I do appreciate that all three try to do something more than just "action films with aliens" (and I say that as someone who thoroughly enjoys action films with aliens).  If you want some SF that's not from the Space Opera playbook, you might like it.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

There's a weight hanging over the first ten minutes of this film.  The heavy, bittersweet presence of a man who died before the film even began.  Senator Ransom Stoddard and his wife have travelled for two full days from Washington to attend his funeral, even though the dead man's name is barely known to the people of the town where he will be buried.

It's obvious that the deceased was particularly significant to Mrs Stoddard, as we see in a scene where renowned comic actor Andy Devine shows that he had some dramatic chops, as well.

Eventually of course, the weight of the presence has to be lifted, and it comes when Senator Stoddard agrees to tell the tale of Tom Doniphon, and why the deceased means so much to them.

The problem with this, of course, is that the cost of that early gravitas is a movie that is 90% flashback.  It's difficult to be too worried over the fate of a character you know is alive and well to tell the tale twenty-five years later.  I do think it's a significant flaw with the film, not just because it robs the film's events of some immediacy, but because it delays the first appearance of John Wayne - who plays Doniphon - for nearly twenty minutes.

At the time when the majority of the film is set, the Senator was just a young lawyer, looking to establish himself in a wild frontier territory.  Things are just a little wilder than he expected, though. He's badly beaten by bandits when the stagecoach he's on is robbed, and his outspoken ways attract the attention of bad men: in particular, one named Liberty Valance.  Doniphon warns Stoddard that the only way to defend the law in the West is with a gun, but Stoddard is reluctant to take that step.  The film is however, called The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, not "the man who successfully prosecuted Liberty Valance before a jury of his peers", so I bet you can guess how that ends up.

This film has a great cast, and some fine use of light and shadow.  It's filmed in black and white, most likely as a cost-cutting measure, but director John Ford makes a virtue of necessity, especially in the titular gunfight.

On the other hand, the script is a little undercooked, to my thinking.  I don't know if it would be better without the framing story or not.  It would certainly have more immediacy without it, but it would also lose some of the melancholy that we see at the start and end.  Of course, for a significant part of the audience "less melancholy" is probably a good thing.  More problematically, some of the later plot developments of the film definitely feel a bit handwaved and perfunctory, like they were running out of time to hit all the plot points they needed to make.  Cutting those 15-20 minutes of framing would definitely have helped with that.

Despite those issues though, there are some fine performances to enjoy here.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

War of the Robots (1978)

The success of Star Wars prompted a host of cheap Italian imitations.  None of them were any good, of course.  That's not how cheap Italian imitations work.  The best you could hope for is that they'd manage to be endearingly stupid in some way, like Starcrash.

This is no Starcrash.

Alien robots stage an attack on a scientist's home and abduct him and his female assistant.  Said assistant is also the scientist's lover, but she's secretly two-timing him with a starship captain.

No prizes for guessing who gets the job to chase after the abductees.

It's imperative that the scientist be recovered within eight days, because he left a nuclear experiment running at his home (as you do) and without his assistance to shut it down, it will go critical and destroy the nearby city.  The authorities are less worried about the assistant, but obviously our space captain has a personal interest there.

Naturally there are some misadventures during the chase itself, but the film's real shenanigans begin when the pursuers reach the alien planet.  The scientist doesn't want to leave, because the aliens desperately need his research and willingly give him all the resources he struggled to get on Earth.  Oh, and for reasons the film will never give, the assistant is now Empress of the alien planet.

Now of course, the sensible thing for the space captain to do in this situation is accept the scientist's decision - on the proviso he give instructions for shutting down the experiment - then settle down to become Mr Empress of the Aliens.  But if he did that, how would we get our fill of poorly staged "light sword" fights and even more poorly staged "space battles"?

With the exception of one shining moment of utterly stupid, right near the end (hint to the characters in this film, if someone asks you "Should I kill her, or let her kill you?", you should probably say "Kill her!" not "That has to be your choice."), this is banal stuff.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Tinker Bell (2008)

Have you ever wondered who carves the designs of snowflakes, or paints the leaves so they change colours with the seasons?  Who teaches birds to fly and makes sure there's always a rainbow ready when the sun shines through the rain?

It's fairies of course, staying carefully out of sight while making sure that the world works as it is meant to.

And where do fairies come from?  Why from the first laugh of a child, naturally: carried on the wind to Pixie Hollow.

Call me a sentimental old coot, but I think that's some pretty cool myth-building.

We begin with the birth of the newest fairy in the realm.  Queen Clarion greets her, and explains that she must find her talent.  All fairies have one.  They might be light fairies or water fairies or garden fairies or fast-flying fairies ... or they might be tinkers, the builders and handyfolk of the fairy peoples.  And that indeed, is what Tinker Bell proves to be.

Tink finds learning all about her new home to be very exciting, but what thrills her most are tales of "the Mainland", the strange and distant place where the seasons constantly change, thanks to the fairies diligent work, and from which come the weird and wonderful "lost things" that wash up on Neverland's beaches.

She's understandably crushed to learn then, that Tinker fairies don't get to go to the mainland: only nature fairies (light, water and so on) do.  I gotta say I'm with Tink on this one.  It's a crummy rule.  And if her reaction to the news isn't the most practical one ... well, she was only born yesterday.

Now if you've seen more than a dozen films in your life you could probably accurately predict what's going to happen from here, so I'm not going to bore you with the plot details.  Instead I'm going to give a thumbs up for the strong voice cast, simple but effective CGI animation, and neat sense of whimsy in the film.  Execution trumps innovation more often than not, in my book.

If you need a change from Frozen (and good as that film is, I guess you might, eventually) you could do a lot worse than this.