Monday, 29 February 2016

There's No Business Like Show Business (1954)

It's a fact of life in professional wrestling that it's not enough to just dump a couple of good wrestlers in the ring with no context to it, and expect the crowd to care.  I mean sure, there's a small hard core audience who will rate it "four and three-quarter stars!" and rave about the "wrestling clinic" the participants put on.  And that small hard core audience may even be right about the technical ability on display.  But if the story isn't there - if there's not a compelling reason to the bout - the average fan isn't going to get engaged.

And so it goes for this 'musical comedy', which is big on music and short on comedy.  It's packed to the gills with talented performers giving it their all, and I'm sure that if you're a hardcore song and dance enthusiast you'll find plenty to like.  But for the rest of us, most of the opulent musical numbers just bring the film to a halt.

Now it's true that the picture is about a Vaudeville family, and so you'd expect such performances to be an important part of their lives, but the script relies on that fact alone to justify their inclusion, without any regard for whether they really fit there or make sense or are even particularly good songs.  It also throws so many of them at you - I doubt that there's ever a gap of more than 5 minutes between numbers - that it feels like the film's story (such as it is) never gets a chance to get moving.  It's a film where events happen, but they all feel like distinct items on a checklist, rather than a natural narrative.

As an example, consider the 'romance' arc for Mitzi Gaynor's character.  We see her invited to lunch by a young man.  The next time we see the two characters together, it's so the young man can ask her brother (a priest) to perform their wedding ceremony.  He then disappears from the film entirely, though we do get dialogue mentioning that she is pregnant and the two of them are happy together.

Yeah.  Quite how I'm supposed to be engaged by this plot line (if it even deserves the term), I don't know.  But I guess they couldn't allow any more time for it what with needing to fit at least 4 different performances of "Alexander's Ragtime Band" into the picture.

This is a definite case of having all the right ingredients to make a fine product, and then mixing them in entirely the wrong quantities and getting a soggy mess instead.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Xena: Warrior Princess, Season 2 (1996)

One of the interesting things about Xena as a series was its complete disregard for staying in a particular niche.  Of course the basic premise of the show - repentant former villain Xena roams the land, fighting bad guys with the assistance of her sidekick Gabrielle - remains in place, but beyond that all bets are off.  The show is happy to pinball its episodes back and forth between historical events that occurred hundreds of years apart, and also happy to leap from slapstick comedy to angsty drama to pop culture knock-off.

An example of the historical flexibility?  In this season alone the warrior princess encounters both Julius Caesar and Nazis.  Yes, actual Nazis from World War 2.  Admittedly this is in what came to be called an "uber" episode, featuring a reincarnation of Xena on an archaeological dig, but it's a useful illustration of the wacky things they sometimes came up with. Because yes, if you're thinking "archaeologists vs Nazis sounds familiar", well it is indeed a pretty transparent Indiana Jones riff.  They also yoink episode concepts from A Christmas Carol and Ten Little Indians, and do their Halloween episode in a rock video style.

The above probably gives you an idea of the thematic flexibility of the show, as well, come to think of it.  I don't even need to mention the way it'll have an episode where Gabrielle's husband dies and Xena finally accepts that she won't be able to fix one of her biggest mistakes, and then follow it with an episode of pure farce involving a prissy princess and morally flexible bar wench - both of whom happen to look exactly like Xena herself.  It's a wild mish-mash that shouldn't really work but somehow does.

For fans of the show, season 2 features some pretty significant events in Xena "lore", with the introduction of her son (whom she left to be raised by centaurs in the best Greek mythic tradition), the first appearance of Caesar (played by Karl Urban), and the first time the warrior princess dies (it's okay, she gets better).  It also has the first "uber" episode, as I mentioned above, and the first example of connected episodes running back to back - where each has a complete story in and of itself, but also directly follows on from the one before.

From a cultural perspective, this season also features lead actor Lucy Lawless performing an on-screen kiss with an openly HIV positive actor, which was a pretty courageous thing to do, given then-current beliefs about the disease.  It may not have any real relevance to whether the show was good or not (though clearly I think it was) but it's worth saluting either way.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Stake Land (2010)

What we've got here is a zombie apocalypse movie with the zombies replaced by vampires.  It's quite a clever idea for breathing a little freshness into the (arguably, if you're as big a fan as I am) overplayed zombie formula.

Stake Land's vampires are bestial killers of perhaps animal-level intelligence.  As such, they can be switched in pretty easily in place of the 'fast' zombies such as those found in a lot of modern zombie films: they surge to attack in the same way, and are just as eager to rip out the throat of every human they meet.

The difference of course is in the methods by which the monsters can be dispatched.  On the one hand sunlight kills them, so if you're outside in the day time you're reasonably safe from them. On the other hand you need a wooden stake to kill one - hitting them in either the lower brain or the heart - so the old "shoot 'em in the head" trick is not on the cards unless you have a bow and arrow.

The film centres on a young man named Martin who is saved from vampire attack by a taciturn drifter he knows only as "Mister".  The pair begin a long journey northward in search of "New Eden", which is said to be safe from the pandemic that causes the creatures.  Of course there are plenty of dangers along the way, including the psychotic humans that all but inevitably pop up in zombie apocalypses.  In a refreshing change though, they also encounter functional communities where people are doing the best they can to help each other.

If you're at all a fan of the zombie genre, you should check this film out as it's an interesting variation on the theme.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Man in the Attic (1953)

Jack the Ripper roams the streets of Whitechapel, murdering women.  At the same time, a certain Mr and Mrs Harley, after suffering some financial reversals, decide to take in a lodger.  The applicant is a Dr Slade, who rents not just the room in question but also the attic, as he needs a space to conduct experiments.

From here, events go as you might expect, given the coincidence of events.  The Ripper murders continue, and the Harleys become uncomfortably aware that their new tenant spends an awful lot of time out at night, and has a bag and coat just like the one the Ripper was reported to be seen wearing, and ... well, you get the idea.  Lots of circumstantial but inconclusive evidence that their tenant has homicidal tendencies.  Which would be worrisome enough by itself, but in addition their beloved niece seems quite taken with the doctor.  Still, it could all just be coincidence, and Slade always seems to have a logical explanation for his sometimes odd habits, so probably it's nothing to worry about ...

This is for the most part a pretty solidly made little film.  The cast is all competent, and the plot moves along briskly enough.  But then we get to the ending.  And well: spoilers ahead.

So the film is based on 1913 novel The Lodger, in which a landlady becomes aware that her tenant is a serial killer known as "the Avenger", but - in dire need of the rental income and with a cultural resentment of the police - does not reveal who he is until it is almost too late.  In changing the focus to "is he the killer or isn't he?", the film basically decides to make the twist that there isn't a twist, and the obvious suspect is in fact the killer.  I guess if this was executed really well I could go with it, but it doesn't gel here for me.

I also think making the film about the very real Jack the Ripper, rather than a fictionalised version of him, was a mistake.  The Ripper's identity remains unresolved to this day, and to have him revealed and chased through the streets before apparently drowning in the Thames feels false and hollow because we know it is false and hollow.

A mostly enjoyable little film that goes sadly awry in the last act.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Much Ado About Nothing (2012)

As I was watching this movie, I waffled back and forth about whether or not to give it a recommendation, because I kept comparing it to the Kenneth Branagh version and feeling it came up short.  Ultimately I decided to do the fair thing though, and judge it solely on its own merits, so a qualified recommendation it is.

If you've read the review I linked above then there's probably not a lot I need tell you about the basic plot of the film.  Although director Joss Whedon has used modern sets and costumes for his costumes, and gender-flipped one role from male to female, he's not touched the story in any notable way.

In case you haven't read the other link: it's about two couples.  The first is Benedick and Beatrice, who ostensibly hate one another and argue constantly (so are clearly destined to be together) and who get all the funny bits of the script.  And then there's Claudio and Hero, who fall instantly in love and then have all the dramas, all the time - mostly because Claudio is kind of a jerk.

I think Whedon's failure to do anything new with the script is my biggest disappointment with the film.  The modern setting is purely cosmetic: the characters speak the same Shakespearian lines, display the same Shakespearian morals, and suffer the same Shakespearian coincidences and contrivances.  Watching the black and white visuals of men and women in elegant attire, I couldn't help but wish that I was watching a film noir retelling of the story, with suitably updated script and dialogue.

Still, despite my disappointment and the fact that I think the Branagh version is better, this is a well-made adaptation with a likeable cast.  And if you're a fan of Whedon's other works you're sure to recognise a fair few faces.

Monday, 22 February 2016

River of No Return (1954)

About 55 minutes into this film, the 'hero' wrestles Marilyn Monroe's character to the ground in pursuit of ... well, at the very least a kiss, but in the context of the dialogue, quite possibly a lot more.  If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you can probably guess that this was the point where I shouted imprecations at the screen.

Not that I was rapturous about the film even before that.  I mean, it had been a tolerable enough little western, provided you were willing to overlook the casual 1950s racism and the way the camera-work lasciviously ogled Monroe, but nothing really to write home about.

A widowed farmer has his gun and horse stolen by a gambler.  Realising that he is now at the mercy of the natives - remember the casual racism I mentioned - he resolves to flee with his son via the only means available: the titular "River of No Return".  Accompanying them on the journey is Kay (Monroe), a saloon singer who has the misfortune to be the villainous gambler's fiancée.

So yeah, you know Kay and the kid are going to bond, and eventually the crusty old farmer will come to like her too (for the "I feel I have the right to manhandle you" definition of "like", anyway).  But first they'll have to deal with rapids, mountain lions, natives and other menaces.  It's fairly paint-by-numbers stuff.

There's some enjoyment to be had here from picking out the obvious sound-stage footage against the on-location stuff, and giggling at the awful green screen sequences when the main cast are "rafting" on the "river", but otherwise it's only worth your time if you are a Monroe fanatic.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Jupiter Ascending (2015)

I'm not sure what possessed anyone to spend $180 million dollars on a latter day Flash Gordon as told from the perspective of the Dale Arden character.  Perhaps the Wachowskis have kissed the Blarney Stone a whole bunch of times.  Or maybe they have some very incriminating photos of some very important people.

Whatever the reason, I'm glad it happened.  It's not that this is a good film, really.  Narratively speaking it is little more than a succession of action set pieces separated by scenes of gorgeous people wearing gorgeous frocks and spouting prose so overwrought that calling it 'melodramatic' doesn't seem to do it justice.  And yet, it's kind of compelling in its kitchen sink sensibility of baroque spacecraft, slinky catgirls, hunky wolfboys and sudden wingfic moments.

In order words, the only thing stopping it from being totally awesome is the absence of a stonking Queen soundtrack.

Trust me, I'm not the first person to notice the Flash Gordon thing.

The plot?  Oh, it's some malarkey about space vampires harvesting worlds for their life energy and the young woman who - thanks to said space vampires having some odd inheritance laws - is the only person who can prevent them from snacking on good old planet Earth.  And of course in the process she meets a handsome young man with a penchant for taking his shirt off.

But frankly, none of the last paragraph really matters, because it's all just an excuse for the kind of "turn the volume to 11" space opera that nobody makes any more.  Or ever, really.  This is not a movie that goes off the rails: it's a movie that never knew there were rails to begin with.

And for that, I and The Mary Sue salute it.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Pride & Prejudice & Zombies opens in cinemas soon, so I thought it might be time to watch this, probably the most famous screen version of the tale.  Before now, the only adaptation of Jane Austen's novel that I had seen was youtube series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which by virtue of its modern-day setting and format as a series of video-blog posts, made numerous changes to the specific events.  And honestly, having watched and enjoyed this more 'faithful' version, my admiration for The LBD has risen even higher: they made so many smart decisions in their adaptation.

However, I am not here to sing the praises of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.  I already did that.  I'm here to discuss the merits of this adaptation.  And as I said above, I did enjoy it.  It profits greatly from excellent casting.  Colin Firth was born to play the fundamentally decent but stuffy and awkward Mr Darcy character, as he would do again in Bridget Jones's Diary (I mean that quite literally: Helen Fielding's novel is a re-imagining of Austen's, and if wikipedia is to be believed it was this adaptation that inspired her to write it).  Jennifer Ehle meanwhile is a fine and feisty Elizabeth Bennet, capable of delivering the meticulously proper but scathingly barbed verbal jabs the role demands.  It's fun to watch their relationship evolve over the course of the show.

The rest of the cast is also very good, though I do think that there are perhaps too many minor characters flitting in and out the narrative, and that they largely lack depth and complexity.  I'm sure that in large part the very broadness of their character traits was a deliberate narrative device on the part of Ms Austen ... but just because an author does something deliberately does not mean I have to like it.

Still, any complaints I might have are very mild: this is a fine piece of television.  Well-acted and written, and often surprisingly funny.  Good stuff.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Hands of a Stranger (1962)

You may not have heard of the novel The Hands of Orlac but there is a fairly good chance you're familiar with the premise, as it's been adapted and re-used many times: a concert pianist has his hands destroyed in an accident.  He becomes the recipient of a successful hand transplant. However, the hands come from a deceased murderer, and the pianist begins to fear that they are continuing their homicidal ways when he is asleep.

This film makes no mention of the novel in its credits, but it's about a concert pianist who has his hands destroyed in an accident, receives a transplant, and then experiences violent impulses.  So the source of inspiration is clear, even if the resolution ends up being rather different.

I've never read the novel, but a review I found online described it as very boring.  And in that regard at least, it would appear that this film is a faithful adaptation.  It's an incredibly static piece of movie-making, full of drably-shot scenes of near-motionless actors spouting lines back and forth.  You wouldn't think a movie with multiple murders would be quite so dull, but it is.

Apparently the film was made in 1960 but then couldn't find a distributor for over 12 months.  It's not hard to see why.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Divergent (2014)

2014 was something of a banner year for dystopian YA fiction at the cinema.  It saw the release of the third Hunger Games film, the opening film in the Maze Runner trilogy, and of course, this movie.  I've been meaning to catch up on it (and the other franchises) since missing it at the cinema.  So when I stumbled across the DVD in a discount bin, well there was only ever going to be one outcome.

The film is set an undefined period of time after an undefined catastrophe.  Chicago has become a walled city, with the populace split into five factions based on certain personality traits.  The faction of Erudite for logic and reason; of Abnegation for selflessness and public service; Amity for harmony; Candor for ... well, candour; and Dauntless for bravery.  Each faction fulfils an important role in the community, and the ties of faction are more important than those of blood.  Through this structure, peace is preserved,

Children are raised in the faction of their parents, but at the age of 16 they undergo a test to indicate which is the faction for which they are best suited.  They aren't compelled to accept this test's outcome; they can choose another faction, if they wish.  But whatever choice they make is for life.

Tris belongs to an Abnegation family, but has never felt like she really fits.  When she takes her test, her misgivings are borne out: she is Divergent, an individual whose mind does not neatly fit into any of the factions.

Divergents are considered a threat to public safety and peace, and so Tris is very lucky that she gets a tester who has personal reasons to conceal her results.  Tris gets lucky like this a lot in the film, to be honest.  It's something I feel is a bit of a weakness in the narrative.

In any case, Tris still has to choose a faction.  She decides to join Dauntless: the city's soldiers and police.  This begins an intensive period of training where she not only has to fear washing out - and ending up factionless - but also the discovery of her Divergent nature.  Oh, and there's the little matter of a possible coup in the making.

As noted above, I feel like Tris gets helped out and rescued a little too often and a little too obviously.  I prefer my protagonists to survive on their own merits and skills as far as possible.  It's particularly galling to see this in the movie because in the book, Tris is more proactive and self-reliant.  Silly screenwriters.

Fortunately the film does have merits.  The cast is very strong, for one thing.  And it doesn't jettison all the good elements of the novel: for example they keep the recurring motif of people assuming Tris is softer than she really is.

Overall, this is a decent though not exceptional action adventure tale.  A shame it wasn't better, as this is my favourite of the books in the series.

Monday, 15 February 2016

How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)

This boxed set describes How to Marry a Millionaire as "one of the finest comedic performances" of Marilyn Monroe's career.  Which I think is over-selling it.

I'm not suggesting Monroe isn't good in the film.  She is.  But it's a paper-thin role that plays third fiddle in the script.  Frankly, she could do it with her eyes closed.  And given that the main "gag" they have with her character is that she's blind as a bat but won't wear glasses, it's quite possible that's exactly how she did play it.

Monroe, Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable play three models in search of wealthy husbands.  They rent an upscale, furnished apartment belonging to a businessman who has fled the country due to tax irregularities, figuring that there is more chance of meeting wealthy men if they live in wealthy surroundings.  To pay for the rent, they sell the furnishings.

If you're thinking "that seems like a rather dishonest thing to do", then welcome to the central dichotomy of the film.  For all that it's as light and frothy as the most delicate soufflé, underneath it all this is often a rather mean-spirited script.

This film naturally draws comparison with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  They were released in the same year, share a star in Marilyn Monroe, and both explore the theme of marrying for love as opposed to marrying for money.  Unfortunately for How to Marry a Millionaire, it's not a comparison from which it emerges well.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

This movie hits you like one of the souped-up combat cars that roar throughout its run time.  It's an astonishingly kinetic piece of film, so much so that I literally felt exhausted after watching it for the first time in the cinema.

A second viewing, now on a small screen, necessarily loses some of that impact, but I enjoyed the film even more this time around.  Make no mistake: I'm very glad I had that breathless big screen experience where I felt almost swamped by what I was watching.  But this is a work which profits from a second (and probably third and fourth) viewing.  The first comparison that springs to mind is The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra.  While that's a very different film in content and tone, it's another work where when you re-watch it, you notice new elements that you simply didn't have the time to appreciate the first time through.

In case you have somehow never heard of the original Mad Max films (the most successful of which was known in the US as The Road Warrior), the films posit a not-too-distant future where resource scarcity led to the collapse of society.  Some indistinct period of years after this collapse, a drifter - turned half bestial by the hard life he's lived - becomes the prisoner of a group of mad, irradiated warriors who need his blood to extend their shortened lives.  The leader of these "War Boys" is a barely-human figure named Immortan Joe.

The drifter - who is Max, of course - gets a chance at freedom when one of Immortan Joe's senior officers turns rogue.  Her motivation: the desire to get Joe's "breeders"; a group of young women whose role is unfortunately obvious; out of the warlord's clutches.  "We are not things", the women daub on their prison wall before they flee.

Immortan Joe, of course, is exactly the kind of thuggish brute who will go to any length to reclaim the women he sees as his "property", creating the running battle and vehicular mayhem that will drive the film forward hereafter and that propels Max on his own personal journey.

This is a really smartly-made film, offering up not just great action sequences but also a satisfying story that works on a couple of different levels.  I dearly wish it had done better at the cinema - it deserved to be a monster hit.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Waterloo (1970)

I am not one of those people who automatically discounts the use of CGI in films.  It can be very effective.  I do however think that there is often a weight and presence to practical effects that are often missing from their digitally-generated counterparts.

Obviously as a 45-year old film, Waterloo never really had the option of CGI effects, but even if it had, I definitely think this is one of those cases where sticking to practical effects would have been the right call.  Even though the 17,000 Red Army extras used in the film are only a faction of the size of the real forces that waged the battle, they are more than enough to convey the scope of the engagement.  A scope that I think would be lacking if we knew most the "men" in shot were computer-inserted images.

This Italo-Soviet co-production begins with the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte's empire and his exile to the island of Elba.  It then leaps forward ten months to his escape back to France and the "100 days" in which he overthrew the Bourbon monarchy and once more raised the armies of France.  Marching north from Paris, he engaged and fought the armies of the 7th Coalition (AKA "pretty much everyone else in Europe") in a series of battles that culminated with the one after which the film is named.

The even more terrible wars of the 20th Century sometimes tend to make us overlook the Napoleonic Wars, but the Battle of Waterloo represented Bonaparte's last throw of the dice after a decade-long conflict that claimed roughly five million lives and saw French armies range from Spain to Russia to Egypt (not to mention the subsidiary conflicts in India and the Americas).

This is a solid film, ably evoking the confusion and danger of battle in the Napoleonic era.  It also does a good job of conveying the uncertainty of the outcome as fortunes see-sawed back and forth over the long course of the day.  I do think the movie falls a little short of greatness, though: for instance, it would probably profit by excising the opening scene of Napoleon's first downfall and beginning things with the panic that arose in the Bourbon court when he returned to France.  Still, it's a fine if rather bleak picture with strong performances from the two leads.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

The Cold (1984)

It takes considerable chutzpah, or a complete lack of shame, to end a movie with a voice over that can be summarised as "well, that didn't make a lick of sense, did it?".  But that is what this film does.

You might think it would be a smarter play to, you know, make a movie that makes sense.  But that would require both competence and effort, and this is a Bill Rebane production.  Rebane's crossed our path often enough by now to know that neither of these can be considered strong points of his.

The premise of the film is that three bored millionaires have invited nine strangers to participate in a kind of tournament, which they call simply "The Game" (this is also an alternate - and more appropriate - title for the movie).  The rules of the game are somewhat vague, but the core of it appears to be that they will make it unpleasant for the nine contestants to stay, and whomever sticks it out longest will win a big cash prize.

This is a recipe not just for the millionaires to inflict simple discomforts such as turning the thermostat way down (hence the film's name) or messing with the electricity, but also for Rebane to indulge in all sorts of scary staples.  Spiders!  Snakes!  Sharks!  Oh my!  We should probably be grateful his budget didn't stretch to a Spider-Shark, though it did stretch to an "alien" that resembles the love child of ET and a chestburster.

Something entertainingly schlocky could probably have been salvaged from this setup - I have a perverse wish that Andy Sidaris had given it a go - but Rebane is not the man for the task.  Having persuaded his female cast to show some skin (often without regard to whether it makes any sense for them to do so: because seriously, if the place is cold then wandering around in next-to-nothing or less makes no sense) he seems to feel his job has been done and all he needs to do is film enough extra stuff to pad out the run time to feature length.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Requiem for a Vampire (1971)

Were it not for all the skeevy sexual violence, I might be tempted to give this a qualified recommendation, if only for the fact that writer/director Jean Rollin seems to have finally realised that dialogue is the weakest part of his films and has responded by deleting as much of it as possible.  This script features only about one third as many lines as The Shiver of the Vampires did, and instead relies on visual story telling to a much greater extent.  Since the visuals have always been one of the stronger parts of Rollin's films (subject to the limitations of budget, at least), this is a smart play.

Rollin emphasises the sparseness of the dialogue by making the opening 12 minutes especially terse.  This period features exactly five lines, averaging 2-3 words apiece.

The plot is simple enough: two young women, apparently on the run from the law, and for some reason dressed as clowns, stumble across an apparently abandoned château and decide to hide out there overnight.  After dark, however, they discover that the place is the lair of a bunch of Renfields, all of whom serve the last "living" vampire.

The vampire's supernatural powers make it impossible for the women to escape, and he informs them that they must become part of his "family" and help acquire food for the group by luring men to the château to be eaten.  Implicit in this decision is the threat that if they don't comply, they will either become food themselves, or end up in the Renfields' rape dungeon.  Because ugh, there is a rape dungeon.

With more money for sets and costumes (the sparseness of both is very evident as you're watching), and a lot less sexual assault, there's the potential for a decently creepy little thriller here, but alas what we get is cheap and nasty instead.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

This is the first Marilyn Monroe film I ever saw, when I watched nearly twenty years ago as part of a university course.  I was pleasantly surprised at the time by how much I enjoyed it.

I'm happy to report that I enjoyed it again on the re-watch.  Monroe and Jane Russell work very well together, with Russell playing the more intelligent but also more idealistic of the pair to Monroe's apparently-dumb-but-sometimes-wickedly-perceptive blonde bombshell.

Monroe is Lorelai Lee, a voluptuous showgirl (not the naughty type) who plans marriage to a wealthy young man named Gus ... the only thing is that Gus's father is really the one who holds the purse strings, and he has no time for this gold digger.  And make no mistake, wealth is most definitely a factor in Lorelai's calculations.  Her affection for Gus is genuine, but as she tells her best friend Dorothy "It's easier to love a man when you're not spending all your time worrying about money".  It's not for nothing that she later sings "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend".

It's refreshing to see a 1953 film deal frankly - if humorously - with the romantic needs and aspirations of women, rather than simply having them as an ornament for the man to collect.  There's even some some evidence of catering to the (heterosexual) female gaze, as exemplified by the musical number "Ain't there anyone here for love?"

The near flesh-coloured shorts are not an accident, I suspect

Now not everyone is going to like this film, not least because it is a musical, with all the song and dance interludes that entails.  But I at least found it a breezy, charming bit of fun with several laugh out loud moments.  Check it out if you want to see a female buddy movie and don't mind that the plot is more or less all about their romantic aspirations.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Life in the Freezer (1993)

No, this series is not about the unidentifiable bag of green stuff in the back of your ice box.  The "freezer" in question is Antarctica, a place which makes the inside of your coldest home appliance look positively balmy.

David Attenborough's three previous Life series all had a pretty epic scope: life throughout time, life across the world, and life through the lens of the challenges all living beings must face.  This series narrows the focus in all three respects.  It deals only with the life that exists today, only within the Antarctic region, and (with a few diversions) only with the challenges of mating and rearing young.

I think the narrowed focus definitely makes this series feel less grand than those which came before.  Given that all the creatures described must face similar challenges - brutal cold, strong winds, and a largely shared group of predators - the material here definitely has less diversity than the series which preceded it.  This is not to say there aren't interesting parts: there are.  Attenborough's overview of Antarctica's dry valleys, for instance; or the all too brief aside about Mount Erebus; really give an insight into a part of our own world that still feels truly alien.

Most of the run time, however, is dedicated to more photogenic forms of life than the lichen and algae that endure in the two areas mentioned above.  The series spends a lot of time with various species of seals and penguins, including the emperor penguin, whose arduous breeding cycle later became the basis for the March of the Penguins documentary film.

This is a good nature documentary, well made and informative, with some wonderful footage of a deeply inhospitable part of the world that few of us will ever get to see.  While I do not think it is as compelling as the three previous Attenborough series, that is a very high bar to clear indeed.  If you have an interest in the world around you, it is definitely worth a look.

The usual content warnings for nature documentaries apply, of course.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Jason and the Argonauts (2000)

In the original myth, when the Argonauts come to Lemnos and find it populated only with women, they spend two years in romantic dalliances.  Jason himself fathers twins with the queen of the island.  After swearing to her his eternal love and loyalty, he then sails off in search of the Golden Fleece ... and more royal ladies to whom he can make empty promises.

In this version, the Argonauts flee the island because the queen and her subjects plan to murder them all.  Which is just one of the times I was actively angry while watching it.  I mean sure, I get that you don't want to make your protagonist into the kind of colossal ass most mythical Greek heroes actually were, but perhaps a better option than "evil wimmins!" would have been to omit the sequence entirely.  It's not like there aren't other segments of the journey you haven't skipped.  We could have had the Talos sequence instead, for instance.  What movie isn't improved by a giant bronze automaton?

They probably skipped it because they didn't want to be shown up by this guy.

The mishandling of the Lemnos sequence is far from my only complaint with this miniseries, however.  Its selection of leading man leaves a lot to be desired.  Perhaps Jason London has qualities to recommend him other than sharing a first name with his character, but if so, this is not the script to show them.  He comes across as a weak and ineffectual person for much of the first half.  I know that "the hero growing into his responsibility" is a common arc, but it's a badly bungled one in this instance.

Also badly bungled is the skeleton warriors scene.  They were always going to struggle to measure up to the sequence from the 1963 film, but it's like they didn't even try.

My advice is to stick to the Harryhausen version.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

The Demons of Ludlow (1983)

From 1974 through 1988, Bill Rebane directed a movie roughly every 18 months.  Which is pretty impressive.  Doubly-so when you consider he did it from his own film studio on a ranch in Wisconsin, without any kind of major studio backing.  It would be triply-so if any of the movies were actually any good, but frankly they peaked at "so bad it's good" with the 1975 release, The Giant Spider Invasion.

Like a lot of the other Rebane films I have seen, The Demons of Ludlow feels very familiar in its basic plot concept, though it's not as obviously "inspired" by a specific work as say The Alpha Incident obviously is by The Andromeda Strain.

Ludlow is a small town - basically just five families - and like a lot of small towns it is slowly withering on the vine.  There's no new development and few jobs, and most of the younger generation have left for greener pastures.  The mayor's not willing to give up without a fight though, so he's arranged a big (by the standards of a town of 40 people) celebration for the town's bicentennial.  He's even managed to track down and retrieve an antique piano that belonged to the town's founding father.

Which is going to turn out to be a mistake, because the founding father had rather a falling out with the other townsfolk, back in the day.  The piano is inhabited by his vengeful spirit, and it's perfectly content to get revenge on the descendants of the folk who wronged it, now that it has the chance.

There is some fun to be had here mocking the terrible lighting, "unconventional" camera work, and dreadful scripting (not to mention the premise of a killer piano), but ultimately this film boils down to a bunch of scenes where characters we're given little reason to like are killed off by clumsily executed hauntings.  It's likely you'll be tired of mocking well before the film has had the decency to reach its muddled and arbitrary conclusion.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

The Shiver of the Vampires (1970)

Jean Rollin's 1968 film The Rape of the Vampire was an evocatively shot but incomprehensible mess of a film, and to describe some of the sets as looking "horribly cheap" would be to insult most horribly cheap films.

Two years later, more richly financed - one suspects because "lots of attractive naked ladies" was a sure fire way to win eyeballs, at least before the internet came along - Rollin came up with this offering.

Le Frisson des Vampires, as it was known in the original French, is certainly a more visually opulent movie than its predecessor, not least because Rollin now has access to colour film.  This is something he's clearly quite excited about, as he frequently drenches his shots in blood red lighting.

Such as here, in one of the few shots of these two characters that is appropriate for all ages

There's also a lot more set dressing in evidence this time, though it remains rather amateurish on the whole.  Crudely constructed demonic faces and skulls don't really impress.

Plot-wise, it's more or less your usual "arrive at the old family estate, get seduced by vampires" thing.  The narrative is a lot more comprehensible than that of the earlier film - it's hard to imagine how it could not be - though still plagued by an excess of clumsily portentous dialogue and deliberately odd delivery.  And it is certainly not short of perplexing script moments.  For instance, the vampires are killed by sunlight, but their leader keeps her coffin outdoors.  If this somehow was relevant later I guess I could accept it as clumsy foreshadowing, but it is not.  And then there's the scene where the minion vampires rape their boss - an event which is never mentioned again, and which does not result in any apparent change in their relationship in later scenes.

You probably only need to see this it if you have a thing for crushed velvet outfits or French bosoms, as it offers plenty of both.

Monday, 1 February 2016

We're Not Married! (1952)

A bumbling justice of the peace conducts six marriage ceremonies before he is actually empowered to do so.  Two and a half years later, his mistake comes to light when one of the six couples attempts to divorce.  As a consequence, the governor's office dispatches a letter to each of the remaining five couples, advising them that legally speaking, they're not married.

So what we have here is basically an anthology piece, where we meet each couple, see the state of their current relationship, and then how they react to the news that they aren't husband and wife in the eyes of the law.  Each couple basically gets 10-15 minutes for us to be introduced to them and learn how things unfold.  That's not really enough to get very invested in any of them on an emotional level, of course, so the tone is definitely light and comic.

Or at least it's intended to be light and comic.  Some of the intended humour hasn't dated well.  The segment involving Marilyn Monroe, for instance, attempts to get laughs from the fact that her husband is the one doing the house work and raising their baby while she pursues a career.  A career as a beauty contestant, mind you.  Hysterical, it really isn't.  Though at least it is better than the segment with the guy who apparently decides to stay married because dating is too expensive.

There are some mildly amusing elements of farce in the other three segments, but on the whole this is a film that stretches its premise mighty thin by the time it is done.