Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The Scourge of Worlds: A Dungeons & Dragons Adventure (2003)

This is basically a DVD-version of those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books that were popular back when I was a kid, and which are making something of a comeback in the modern day with "visual novels" and the like.  Basically the format is that you get 3-5 minutes of video footage of the characters doing their thing, and then the DVD pauses until you choose one of two (or very occasionally, three) options for what they should do next.

For instance, the film/game starts with a scene where the main characters have been hired to apprehend an old friend.  When they catch up with the person in question, he says he is searching for an ancient artefact which can eliminate all evil from the world, and asks them to let him go.  You have the choice of whether they take him into custody as they are being paid to do, or do as he asks and let him continue.  Depending on which you pick, the next scene either involves them deciding which route to take the guy back, or has them sitting in a tavern trying to work out what to do for money since they just blew their job.

Depending on the choices you make, everyone can end up dead, you can basically save the day, or something in between.  The Scourge of Worlds does a pretty decent job of giving a sense of their being multiple routes through the story, despite a relatively low number of different actual scenes (less than 30 overall).  After a couple of play-throughs it becomes apparent this is accomplished by having only a couple of 'key' decisions that you get funnelled into by different routes.

So how is it?  Well, the CGI wasn't exactly cutting edge in 2003, so it looks pretty rudimentary now.  I mean, it's by no means the worst I have seen, but the characters' movements tend to be ungainly and their expressions pretty static.  The voice-acting isn't terrible, but it's not up to the task of overcoming the stiff animation or the rather leaden dialogue.  Plot-wise, I doubt it will offer any real surprises: you'll figure out what's going on pretty fast, and then it is just a matter of finding the correct set of A or B decisions to get the best ending.

This is an interesting curiosity for players of Dungeons & Dragons, but for anyone else it is probably not worth your time.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

The Sarah Jane Adventures, Season 5 (2011)

Due to the passing of lead actor Elisabeth Sladen, this season of The Sarah Jane Adventures runs for only six episodes, as that was all that had been filmed prior to her death.  That it manages to put together a coherent mini-arc is therefore quite impressive, since the writers' original plans for said arc extended over the full series.

Said arc involves a new alien child in Sarah Jane's life: Sky, who is mysteriously left on her doorstep as a baby but grows through a metamorphosis to become a teenager when her purpose is revealed.  She was genetically engineered to be a doomsday weapon in an alien war, you see.

Naturally Sarah Jane, Clyde and Rani prevent Skye from being used as a weapon, and she joins the team.  Equally naturally this causes a little bit of friction with Sarah's first alien adoptee Luke, who is a mite taken aback to come home from college and discover his room has been taken over by this new 'sister'.

The original plan was that at season's end Sky would have been revealed to have been part of a plan by perennial villain The Trickster, but because of the shortened season they actually bring things to the end with Luke accepting Sky's place in Sarah Jane's life and the theme that "the story continues ... forever".  Which is as close to a heart-warming conclusion as you can get in the circumstances, I think.

That the show conducts this little arc while also delivering six episodes that are solid in their own right is a credit to the cast and crew alike.  Good stuff.

Monday, 29 August 2016

The Baby's Room (2006)

A young couple purchase their dream house, move in with their infant son and begin to renovate it.  Everything seems perfect ... until they start to hear strange things on the baby monitor, including what seems to be a man's voice.

Fearing a prowler or burglar, they purchase a more sophisticated security system, and also a more advanced baby monitor.  This one features infrared video as well as audio, allowing them to literally keep an eye on their child.  And if you think either of these efforts are going to be very successful, then I can only assume you're not too familiar with the concept of a horror movie!

The ongoing phenomena provoke the husband to what, to his wife, appears to be dangerous and erratic behaviour.  She takes the kid and leaves the house for a while.

Now alone and starting to believe something more than a simple prowler is at work, the husband steps up his efforts to discover what is amiss.  He buys dozens of the infrared baby cameras and sets them up all over the place.  Is he right in his growing suspicions of a supernatural menace, or are the things he sees on the screens merely the result of the pressures of being a new father?

Well to be honest this Spanish film includes a prologue scene that rather tips off the answer to that last question, but this remains a pretty effective little horror movie with a nicely creepy atmosphere.  If you like 'haunting' type films and don't mind reading subtitles, it's worth checking out.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

The producer known only as Swan is the most powerful man in the music industry.  Becoming his next 'discovery' is a near sure-fire ticket to stardom.

So singer/songwriter Winslow Leach is understandably excited when the Great Man takes an interest in his music.  Unfortunately for Winslow, his music is all that Swan wants.  He himself is surplus to requirements, and when he persists in his efforts to recover his stolen work, he soon finds that Swan's wealth and fame give the producer power outside the music industry as well.

Winslow's efforts to get satisfaction leave him horribly scarred, and he becomes a shadowy, masked figure, haunting Swan's new music venue "The Paradise" with murder on his mind.  But he might still have underestimated the other man's resources ...

So basically what we have here is Phantom of the Opera meets Faust by way of 1970s excess.  Director Brian de Palma - who is probably best known for his bloody epics Carrie and Scarface - also wrote the script, and he fully commits to the melodramatic goth-rock-opera feel of the film.  He's ably assisted by Paul Williams as amiable sociopath Swan (amusingly, Williams also provides the singing voice for sort-of-hero Winslow).  I'm also a fan of the debuting Jessica Harper, who does her own singing and who we will see again when I get around to reviewing Shock Treatment.

I first saw this film on VHS around 20 years ago, and it's stuck with me all that time.  While its mix of melodrama and black comedy won't be for all audiences, if you found any of the above intriguing at all, you should check it out.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Throne of Blood (1957)

There have been several American re-makes of Akira Kurosawa films, but he in turn was not reticent about adapting English-language works.  However, he mostly looked to the stage - and specifically to the works of William Shakespeare - for his source material.  Thus The Bad Sleep Well is inspired by Hamlet and Ran by King Lear.

Likely his most direct adaptation, however, is this film, which can be pretty succinctly summarised as "Japanese MacBeth".  A few other details of the plot are changed; for instance there's one spirit instead of three witches, and the film omits the 'no man born of woman can kill MacBeth' thing, presumably on the eminently sensible basis that 'a forest that moves' is more than enough of a prophetic symbol for his defeat; but basically it's the Scottish play turned into a samurai movie: J!MacBeth receives a prophecy he will become lord of the local castle, and is then goaded by his wife into treachery and betrayal in order to fulfil said prophecy.  He succeeds, but in doing so creates the very enemies who then overthrow him.

The familiarity of the story is more or less why I don't give this film a recommendation.  It's an adequately executed adaptation of MacBeth - albeit one with rather thin characters and a curiously lethargic first 20 minutes - but that's all it is.  It all just feels a bit stale to me.  Even the translation from Scotland to Japan doesn't really do much to shake things up.

I do find myself hankering for a good "SF MacBeth" film, though.  That sounds like it could be a fun time.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Blow-Up (1966)

The US release of Blow-Up (or Blowup - both seem to be used as the title) came in direct defiance of the then-current 'Production Code', due to its for-the-time-explicit sexual content.  That it then proved a monster hit was probably one of the proximate causes of the Production Code's demise two years later and replacement with the current MPAA ratings system.

Said explicit for the time sexual content, by the by, amounts to a few bosoms and some foreplay for a fade-to-black threesome.  Pretty tame really.  As a review on Roger Ebert's site notes, "Much was made of the nudity in 1967, but the (main character's) cruelty toward his models was not commented on; today, the sex seems tame, and what makes the audience gasp is the hero's contempt for women".  I have no qualms in calling that change in attitudes a change for the better.

So what's the film about?  Well ... ennui and misanthropy, maybe.  The film follows a photographer in 60s London.  He seems to hate almost everything except, from time to time, the process of taking and developing photographs.  It's only when he is capturing a shot he truly wants, or making an enlargement of an image that intrigues him, that he shows much sign of enthusiasm for anything.  Even the aforementioned threesome is quickly forgotten when he has photography to do.

What has so captured his attention about these particular photos is that they appear to depict a murder.  He sees something that could be a man with a gun in the bushes, and then a shape that might be a body.  For the first time, something other than his art breaks through his shell and he returns to the park where he took the shots.  There he does indeed find a body, but he gets spooked by noises and flees the scene.

And then ... well and then nothing much else actually happens.  This is a film about how the maybe-murder affects the photographer, not about whether the murder actually happened or who was responsible.  Which, depending on your perspective, might be art; or it might be a cheap way to get out of writing a real ending.

What it definitely is, is a film that I would not recommend.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Cleopatra 2525 (2000)

I don't even need to write a review today.  There's a simple 60 second test you can take to work out whether or not you'll like this show.

Just play this video

Now chances are that if you watched the above clip, you had one of two reactions: either "that looks stupid!" or "that looks stupid ... and awesome!".  Whichever one it was, you should act accordingly.

And that's that.  My job's done for the --- what?  You didn't watch the video / don't fall into one of those two groups / want me to stop slacking off and actually write something?  Well ... fine.

So the premise is that by the year 2525 humanity has been driven off the surface of the Earth by robots known as "Baileys".  The survivors live underground, in tunnels and shafts that span the globe.

In this dystopian future a shadowy figure known as Voice coordinates various teams in a campaign to seize the surface back from the Baileys.  One of her teams consists of Hel (played by Firefly's Gina Torres) and Sarge.  In the course of fighting a Betrayer - which is pretty much a low budget version of the bad guy from Terminator 3 - they stumble across a young woman who has been frozen in suspended animation since 2001.

This is Cleo, who'll become the designated "character who needs everything explained to them so we can deliver exposition to the audience", and the third member of their team.  Together, they'll face all the dangers of this strange future: the Baileys and Betrayers of course, but also a rogue psychic, mutants, criminals, and the odd psychotic clown.

I'm not kidding about the psychotic clown thing.

It's all very silly, schlocky nonsense, very much in the tone of the more goofy Xena episodes (not surprising, since it is by the same production company).

Personally, I like it a lot.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Plague Town (2008)

Killer kids are kind of a Thing in horror movies.  There's The Omen, Devil Times Five, and more Children of the Corn films than I care to count, just to name a few.  And we can add this little offering to the list.

We begin with a scene where an expectant mother is clearly terrified of the child she is about to bear.  Not of the process of childbirth, you understand, but of the child itself.  A priest consoles her, but when the babe is born, he quickly stuffs it into a bag and prepares to shoot it.  He's stopped - lethally - by the child's father.  "We must love these children, despite what they are." says the new dad.

Fourteen years later, a vacationing American family of four, plus the English boyfriend of the elder daughter, are visiting the area.  They miss the last bus home and, in searching for assistance, stumble into the village where the earlier events took.  It seems all the children born here are (a) deformed in some way and (b) homicidal.  Though frankly, the five strangers should probably be more worried about what the adults have in mind for them.

So right out of the gate Plague Town commits two pretty big sins.  Number one, there's no real effort to make us like or care about our protagonists.  Quite the opposite, if anything.  And number two, it doesn't let them actually be protagonists; at least not outside of one brief ten minute stretch about an hour into the flick, when it seems like the writers are actually going to let the two still-surviving characters drive the climax of the film (spoiler: they're not).

On the plus side ... well, one the mutant kids is actually genuinely creepy, and the performances of the cast as a whole are mostly solid enough.

Alas, they're given very little to work with by either the direction or the script.  In particular, the first two kill scenes are pretty laughably constructed.  Also, the sound department seems to have not bothered turning up every day as some parts of the dialogue are near inaudible.

Not recommended.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Dark Portals: The Chronicles of Vidocq (2001)

Eugène François Vidocq was a criminal who later switched sides, becoming the founder and head of the French National Police.  He was also the founder of the first known private detective agency, and is considered to be the father of modern criminology.

Vidocq was, in other words, quite a character, and while in the real world he never obviously never actually tangled with a supernatural assassin who possessed the secret of eternal youth, I'm certainly willing to accept it as the premise of this stylish French action/thriller.

The film begins with Vidocq confronting said assassin, and apparently being killed in the ensuing struggle.  Naturally the word "apparently" is pretty important there, though I don't think I'm really spoiling anything by telling you that Vidocq's not actually dead.

The film then follows Vidocq's biographer, Etienne Boisset, as he attempts to piece together the details of the great man's last case.  This began when Vidocq was called in to investigate a series of murders committed by means of lightning strikes.  Boisset starts with Vidocq's partner in the private investigation business, then moves on to an exotic dancer, a journalist, and the widow of one of the murder victims.  Each step takes him closer to the identity of the assassin, but also brings him more and more to the attentions of the police.  Oh, and possibly of the assassin as well, since some of the people he speaks to start turning up dead ...

Dark Portals (known simply as Vidocq in its native France) is a fun bit of supernatural nonsense.  It's got a good cast, an enjoyable if far-fetched plot, and some stylish visual elements.  Some of the digital effects it employs haven't aged all that well, but there are precious few turn-of-the-century films where that isn't true.

If the premise sounds like something you might enjoy, then I suggest you check this film out.  I found it a highly entertaining way to spend an hour and a half, and the DVD even includes an English-language dub for anyone who is allergic to reading.  As always, I went with the subtitled version myself.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Seven Samurai (1954)

Some people are never going to watch Seven Samurai because it is:
  • in black and white
  • in Japanese
  • over three hours long
If you aren't one of the people for whom that's an instant deal breaker though, then the film has a lot to offer.  It's the first and longest of Akira Kurosawa's samurai films, and probably the most famous.  It's also attracted at least one re-make in The Magnificent Seven, and which itself has a re-make coming out this year.  Of course, that still puts it well behind Yojimbo in the re-makes stakes.

For those of you who somehow don't know either this film or its western re-make, the film's basic premise is simple enough: a farming village finds itself the target of a group of bandits.  The farmers can't defend themselves from the heavily-armed raiders, but a local elder has a plan: hire samurai to aid them.  Of course, finding samurai willing to work for nothing more than food and board - which is all they can offer - sounds almost as impossible as fighting the bandits does.

Of course though, it's not actually impossible, or the film would have to be called "Zero Samurai".  And would presumably be quite a bit shorter.  The villagers do manage to recruit a group of seven defenders.  But whether that will be enough against a force of forty well-armed bandits is still far from a sure thing ...

Overall, I like Seven Samurai better than the Hollywood remix (though I have to say, the trailer for the new version of Magnificent Seven looks like a lot of fun).  For one thing, the western version invents a plot-twist at around the 90 minute mark that I really didn't like.  For a second, the Japanese original makes the villagers much more significant and involved in their own defence.  And for a third, I like the staging of the action scenes here a lot better.  Modern audiences might find them to seem clumsy compared to the smooth choreography of today's action movies, but I think the rough chaos they involve feels very visceral and real.

The one thing I would say is a weakness is the pacing of the film.  It does feel a little long at times.  Overall however, it's easy to see why the movie is so highly regarded.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Infestation (2009)

Generally, when you buy a DVD on the basis that it was cheap, you soon learn that there was a very good reason for that fact.  Occasionally though, you find a diamond in the rough.

Now calling Infestation a 'diamond' might be overstating things a bit, but it's at least a semi-precious stone of some kind.  A garnet, maybe.

Cooper's a 20-something slacker with a strained relationship with his father and a job he's on the verge of losing due to his complete disregard for the work.  It's pretty evident he got forced into taking the job by his dad and is in turn deliberately forcing his boss into firing him.

Said firing is interrupted by a strange, deafening noise.  Cooper and his boss both black out, and when Coop finally recovers consciousness, it's to find that at least a day has gone by and that he's wrapped in a cocoon.  He manages to struggle free, but almost immediately finds himself hunted by a giant insect: imagine a stag beetle about three feet long and you've got a pretty good idea of it.

Coop somehow prevails against the bug and begins to free his boss and colleagues, but it soon becomes apparent that whatever has happened, it effects a lot more than just their workplace.  The city - perhaps the world - has been overrun with giant insects.

Infestation is a comedy-horror with a surprising number of strengths.  It sensibly keeps the comedy elements mostly in the dialogue and human interactions, rather than playing the monsters for laughs (it does break this pattern at one point, alas).  It also skips the usual tortured explanations of where the monsters came from, which is a smart call from a pacing perspective.  Plus it boasts a surprisingly strong cast and decent physical effects (the CGI, on the other hand, is rather weak at times).

If 'giant bug movie' is not an instant turn-off for you, Infestation is worth a look.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

The Sopranos, Season 4 (2002)

Life just keeps getting more complicated for Tony Soprano.

That's how I started the review for season 3 of The Sopranos, but it is frankly no less true this time around.  The complications come from his underlings; including rebelliousness, substance abuse issues and interpersonal conflicts.  They come from his fellow mob bosses; disputes over money and conflicting agendas.  They come from the FBI, who of course are still out to get him and who are slowly infiltrating his organisation.  And they come from his increasingly strained relations with his own family; strains that stem to a great extent from Tony's own behaviour.

So on the plot side things are basically "more of the same, except different".  It's a pretty clever balancing act that the show has been playing for some time now: finding new ways to initiate, evolve and resolve the same basic conflicts.  The writers do an excellent job of meeting the challenge in this season: I was thoroughly engrossed while watching it, always keen to see the next episode.

Of course, the writers can't take all the credit.  Something I haven't spoken about so far is the cast of the show.  They're uniformly strong.  Obviously being Tony Soprano was the role which really catapulted James Gandolfini to the status of a recognisable star, but he's far from the only one doing good work here.  The show delivers a bunch of interesting characters, well-performed.  Whether it be Tony's nephew Christopher, who wants to live up to his uncle's ambitions for him but who isn't really smart or mature enough to do so; or Christopher's long-suffering fiancee Adrienne; or Tony's even more long-suffering wife Carmella, there's almost always someone on screen whose story is of interest.

I've reviewed four seasons of this show by now, so you've probably already made up your mind about it, but in case you're still on the fence: it's definitely worth your time if you don't mind having a main protagonist who is far from a good person.

Monday, 15 August 2016

We All Fall Down (2016)

I like to support independent productions on this blog - as much as I can given my small readership, anyway! - which is why I am disappointed that I didn't much care for this Arrowstorm Entertainment film.

Originally conceived as a web series of eight 8-10 minute episodes, We All Fall Down posits a world in which a plague has turned every adult into a flesh-eating monster.  Let's call them zombies, since the film-makers do, though they're not your traditional kind, as we'll discuss later.  Age 18+ seems to be the cutoff for suffering these effects, but as with The Tribe, I'm not sure how the plague goes about checking the age of its victims.

17-year old Todd is trying to keep his little brother Benny safe in this new world while trying to ignore (a) his own incipient transformation into a zombie and (b) the fact that he's probably gone crazy, since he has hallucinatory arguments with a little girl on a pretty regular basis.

Complicating Todd's plans still further is Matrah, a young woman who's got herself quite the Lord of the Flies thing going on.  She functions as a kind of high priestess to a bunch of feral kids, preaching that the only way to avoid becoming a zombie is through strength, and the way to prove your strength is to kill and eat the zombies.  She wants Benny for one of her followers, a fate Todd is determined to prevent.

So let's get the positives out of the way first, before I complain: We All Fall Down is (on the whole) capably acted, and well shot.  I like its use of sun-drenched blue skies as juxtaposed with the grimness of the world below them.  The early scene-setting is solid.

Alas, then we hit problems.  First is the lack of zombies in the film.  They have one brief appearance early in the film, where we see that they appear to feel pain and can be killed in the same ways as a normal human - like I said, not the traditional kind of zombie - and an even briefer and less plot-relevant appearance near the end.  Other than that, they seem to exist purely to explain where Matrah's group gets their meat.  If you promise me "Lord of the Flies meets the Walking Dead", as this film did, you need to deliver a bit more big Zed action.

Second and more important is the fact that Todd's not a very interesting protagonist, and that the plot tends to happen to him, rather than him driving it.  It's not a terribly effective combination of traits.

Third is the decision to change to a feature film rather than a web series.  In terms of pacing and structure they're quite different beasts which means we've ended up with a film that doesn't flow right: it seems to take a long time to get to the point, and then to wrap up too fast.   I think that more script changes needed to be made for the change in format to really work.

We All Fall Down is an earnest but alas very flawed attempt to deliver on an interesting premise.

Friday, 12 August 2016

The Losers (2010)

An elite special forces team is sent on what seems to be a routine mission: mark a drug smuggler's compound for destruction from the air.  Things become complicated, however, when the team realise that there are over twenty children in the compound.  They attempt to abort the mission, only to have their mysterious handler "Max" refuse their pleas, while making it clear that he had known about the children all along.

When the team rebel against these orders, they find themselves targeted for death and - when they succeed in concealing the fact that they're not dead - posthumously blamed for the children being killed.  They go to ground in Bolivia while trying to find a means of gaining revenge on a man they've never met and know almost nothing about.  Which obviously seems like rather a vain hope; but then a mysterious young woman turns up with an offer: she'll help them get to Max if they'll help her kill him.  Which sounds like a perfect match, right?  Surely nothing could possibly go wrong.

The Losers drew comparisons to the A-Team on its release, and it is easy to see why: elite special forces team accused of a crime they did not commit and trying to prove their innocence; each member of the team a specialist in a certain discipline; and a similarly over-the-top, action/comedy style.  I suspect this film is a little more grounded - no-one flies a tank in it, at least - but only a little.  For instance, its villain is cartoonishly evil; he shoots a woman for not holding an umbrella correctly; and there's a scene involving the theft of an armoured car via use of a giant magnet.

I had a pretty good time with this movie, though it is certainly no classic of modern film.  If you're in the market for a 'dumb fun' action film with a likable cast though, then it fits the bill.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

She Wolf Rising (2016)

A young horror film buff meets his favourite scream queen, Gina Skylar.  It seems like all his dreams have come true when they hit it off, and he readily agrees to help Gina look for the footage of her latest film, which has been stolen. The girl of his dreams may turn out to be a nightmare though, because it seems rather likely she is a werewolf ...

So first things first: at no point is this movie something you'd call "good". The acting - other than the two leads - is generally wooden; the effects work is dreadful; and there's a regrettable amount of casual homophobia in the dialogue.  And yet for the first thirty minutes I was actually having a good enough time to consider giving it a qualified recommendation

So what did I like about it, at least at first?  Well, Tiffany Shepis is almost always better than the material she's in, and she and Timothy Mandala work well together as the central couple.  There's a playful sense of waiting for the penny to drop as to Gina's real nature, particularly since for much of the first act it is not clear whether or not she is sincerely interested in him or secretly stalking him as prey.

Alas in the second act the film starts to get some serious script wobbles: there's the deeply silly means by which Gina's transformations are triggered, for one thing, and there's a significant loss of momentum in the story at around the same time.

And then, at about the 70 minute mark, just as the film appears to be getting back on track, they seem to have completely given up on the whole thing and just thrown any old rubbish up there to pad things out to a 90 minute run time.  Very disappointing.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

The Professionals (1966)

The wife of a wealthy landowner is kidnapped by a Mexican bandit chief.  The landowner hires four men for the task of getting her back.  All they have to do is make their way to the kidnapper's fortified mountain base, get inside, get the woman out, and then make it back to the US ahead of the bandit and his 150-strong band of soldiers.

Simple enough, right?  Especially since there is absolutely no chance of there being any unexpected complications ...

So the first thing you my notice about this film is that it has quite the cast.  Most of the big names are shown in the image above, though I'll also give a shout-out to the one and only Woody Strode: a former footballer and professional wrestler whose film career would extend over 6 decades.  Other than his Oscar-nominated supporting role in Spartacus, this movie was probably Strode's highest profile success.  Had he been born 50 years later, I think he would be where Idris Elba is right now.  But the 60s were a different time: a time when it was acceptable to cast Jack Palance as a Mexican, for instance.

The Professionals is a well-made western film of its era.  The action sequences don't compare to those of modern films in terms of technical execution, perhaps, but they get the job done and they show consideration for mood and style.  The characters aren't especially deep, but they're easily distinguishable and well-played.  The story has plenty of twists and turns and my only real complaint would be that the final denouement rings a little bit hollow for trying too resolutely to be upbeat.

I'd love to see a modern stab at this story.  In the meantime, we have this solid effort to tide us over.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Kessler (1981)

Fourteen episodes were filmed for season 3 of Secret Army, but the final episode was never aired in the UK, and is not included the DVD box set of that series.  There were apparently concerns about the degree of anti-communist rhetoric in the script, and a feeling that the thirteenth episode made a better conclusion to the series in any case.

The 'missing' episode was set 25 years after the war, and featured a group of Nazi hunters attempting to expose a German businessman as being SS officer Kessler, who was the principal villain of the show.

And thus we get to this series, which takes up the same idea, but stretches the search out into a six-part serial.  Kessler has adopted the role of an industrialist in West Germany, and uses his business to help finance the Kamaradenwerk: a secret organisation of Nazis who work to keep war criminals (i.e. themselves) from retribution and who at least nominally also seek to establish a Fourth Reich.

Kessler has a grown daughter, whom he has raised to be an ardent national socialist like himself.  She and the other young adherents of the cause have little confidence in the "senile old men" of the Kamaradenwerk and want Kessler to divert the funds to them, instead.

But Kessler has a bigger problem, in that accusations about his past are about to be plastered all over Belgian TV, as part of a documentary series that draws the attention of an honest, anti-Nazi German official named Richard Bauer, and a feisty young Israeli woman named Mical Rak.  These two will become quite the thorn in his side.

Overall, the premise of this show; the chase of Kessler and the rising tensions among the Nazis; is a sound one.  Alas, the execution leaves much to be desired.  The pacing is often languid, and even by the standards of TV Nazis - rarely a terribly effective group - the bad guys here are colossally incompetent.  They make three separate attempts to kill Mical in the first two episodes of the show, with the following results:

1. they kill the wrong woman
2. Mical kills the guy they sent
3. they beat Mical and dump her in a river without actually checking she's dead.  She's not.

They avoid looking quite so incompetent for the next few episodes, mostly by not trying to kill her any more, but when they finally make their 4th and 5th attempts, they contrive to make the first three efforts look good.

Poorly-paced and far-fetched.  A considerable disappointment after Secret Army.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Starship Rising (2014)

One of the worst films I have ever seen was 2006 indie SF film Battlespace, which was written and directed by Neil Johnson.  It was excrutiatingly dull, with a lifeless story, lifeless characters, and lifeless narration.  All of which is relevant to this review because Starship Rising is also written and directed by Neil Johnson.  So the obvious question is: has eight years of additional experience improved his work at all?

Well, he's certainly become more ambitious.  Even if we discount all the green screen work, this film is packed with special effect sequences, boasts a much larger cast of characters and revolves around much bigger, more epic events.  Specifically, a looming interstellar war between two immense empires, and the small group of rebels trying to prevent it from occurring.

Unfortunately, ambition is not execution, and on that front Johnson falls short.

His direction is mostly adequate.  I'm not all that impressed with the way he constructs his scenes and uses his camera, but he displays a basic understanding of the technical aspects of what he is doing.  He's also done a pretty good job finding effects people, as the film looks pretty good for a small budget SF flick, especially one with so many panoramic shots and spaceship sequences.

His writing, on the other hand, remains monumentally bad.  I mean, it's not as awful as say Scavengers was: for all that Starship Rising fails to communicate a coherent narrative, is packed with barely-distinguishable characters spouting second-rate dialogue, and lacks an actual ending, it does actually seem to be trying to be a movie.  Johnson might write terrible exposition and trite plot points, but he at least remembers them later in the script.  Still, "Not as bad as Scavengers" is praise so faint as to be invisible.

Stay well away.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Gone (2012)

Jill Conroy was kidnapped from her bed and dumped in a pit in the middle of a forest.  She found human remains in the pit with her, and when her abductor came to add her to his list of victims, she stabbed him with a broken shard of bone and escaped.

Unfortunately, there are no signs of forced entry at her home, she has suffered no injuries, and investigators are unable to find the pit.  This lack of physical evidence causes local police to write off her story. This is especially true after Jill is forcibly institutionalised for a time, and then becomes a regular visitor to the precinct whenever another young woman goes missing, claiming that this is another victim of the man who took her.

Naturally then, the police are not terribly interested when Jill claims her sister Molly - who has a history of problems with alcohol - has been abducted.  They consider it far more likely that Molly has gone on a bender and is sleeping it off somewhere.

Just as naturally, Jill isn't willing to accept that answer, and begins her own investigation into Molly's disappearance.

I don't think it is much of a spoiler to tell you that Jill has a better idea of what's going on than the police do, is it?

This film has a very bad rating on Rotten Tomatoes (11% at the time of writing), with most of the complaints centring on the fact that the tension and suspense aren't consistently maintained and that Jill, however right she might be, acts like a crazy person.  I'm not sure the latter complaint is really fair.  I'm pretty sure most of would be somewhat irrational in her situation.  There may be some truth to the former accusation, though I personally quite liked the lower-key approach of the film and the fact that it eschewed the normal two-hours-and-change run time for a more slender 90 minutes.

If you enjoy thrillers, you might find this a pleasant diversion.  I did.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Jack the Giant Killer (2013)

Despite sharing a title with yesterday's review, this film has nothing to do with the 1962 movie of the same name.  It is instead a mockbuster of Jack the Giant Slayer, which also came out in 2013 and was more an adaptation of Jack and the Beanstalk than the folktale from which it took its name.

Like the big budget flop that it is aping, this film focuses on the beanstalk.  Unlike that film, on the other hand, it features exactly zero giants.  Which may make you wonder about the title.  I shall explain ... to the extent it is possible to do so.

So Jack lives on a farm somewhere in the UK, where he tinkers with the giant mech he's building in the barn with his girlfriend, and maintains a slightly frosty relationship with his step-father.  Jack's real father, you see, disappeared just before he was born.

On his 18th birthday, Jack receives a gift from an old friend of his father: two large beans.  He chucks one away and keeps the other, and of course the next day there is a giant beanstalk in the field where he threw the first bean.  Jack ends up ascending the stalk, of course, though his jacket - which has the other bean - does not make the journey with him.

Finding himself in a floating realm above the clouds, Jack is reunited with his father - who believes only 19 days have passed since he arrived - and discovers that this strange land used to be home to a race of giants.  However, his dad killed them all (offscreen, naturally), and now only Pops, a bunch of six-eyed dinosaur things, and a powerful witch named Serena still live there.

You know, given that he's only been here 19 days, and he's wiped out a race of giants, learned how to operate a flying castle, and clearly had a romance with Serena, Jack's dad has been a busy boy.

Anyway, if you think everyone's going to somehow end up back on Earth with the dinosaur things rampaging and Jack having to fight them with his home-made battlemech, then you are correct!  And you are also imagining a far more awesome conclusion than this film actually gets, because it's an Asylum film so of course they cheap out on things and we have what may be the least exciting dinosaur vs giant robot battle you could actually put on film.

Jack wins, of course, and gets dubbed "Giant Killer" because the dinosaur was really big.  Yes, that's actually what they went with.

"Jack and the Beanstalk with dinosaurs and mecha!" deserves better than this.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Jack the Giant Killer (1962)

If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, then The 7th Voyage of Sinbad can confidently feel flattered.  Jack the Giant Killer borrows not only the earlier film's leading man, but also its villain and director.  It features several plot points that are eerily reminiscent, too.  A genie in a lamp becomes a leprechaun in a bottle, for instance.  Heck, they even manage to come up with a reason to set half the film at sea.

Finally, it features stop motion monsters that are, shall we say, heavily inspired by Ray Harryhausen's cyclops from that film.  Heavily inspired.

Left: this film.  Right: Sinbad's cyclops.

Even with the small images above, you'll probably notice immediately that the stop motion work in this film isn't as good as that of the masterful Ray Harryhausen (though what stop motion work is?).  The monsters are more crudely sculpted - especially around the head and face - and animated.

What's interesting to me is that, despite all these re-heated elements and the weaker effects work, I like this film quite a bit better than 7th Voyage.  Sure Harryhausen's work in the earlier movie is superlative, but it's more-or-less the only real reason to see the film.  Kerwin Matthews is kinda bland as Sinbad.  He's much improved here and has better chemistry with his leading lady.  This film's also quite a lot more light-hearted, often to the point of cheesiness, but in an unashamed, straight-forward way that I find quite endearing.

The basic premise is your usual "evil wizard tries to kidnap princess; heroic young man tries to stop him" stuff.  If a family-friendly fantasy film is something you're looking for, then you should find a pleasant 90-minute diversion here.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Weeds, Season 1 (2005)

When Judah Botwin dropped dead at the age of 40, his wife Nancy had some pretty major problems.  Judah was the breadwinner, and his death left her with two sons to raise - and to help deal with the unexpected death of their father - and no income of her own, nor the qualifications to readily acquire one.

Demonstrating the kind of not at all impulsive or short-sighted decision-making skills that will drive much of the action in this show over its multi-year run, Nancy's solution was to become a marijuana dealer.  Initially it's a small scale thing, selling to her acquaintances in the planned community of Agrestic, but that's not really enough income for Nancy to maintain the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed.  Naive and over-confident, she is soon looking to branch out and expand her operations, without really understanding the risks of the business in which she has become involved.

Weeds is a fine black comedy/drama with a strong cast, taking as its running theme Nancy's tendency to make bigger and bigger gambles to try and compensate for the last gamble going awry.  Mary-Louise Parker is great in the lead role, managing to bring across each of Nancy's many facets: caring mother, grieving widow, pot trade ingenue or aggressive businesswoman.  She's ably supported by the rest of the cast, each of whom turn in strong performances, albeit in roles that do not require quite so much versatility.

Those roles include Nancy's sons (the youngest of whom is not dealing well with his father's death), her man-child brother-in-law, her street savvy supplier, and her bossy sort-of-best-friend.  Plus several others, including a number of men who would like to be more to Nancy than just acquaintances.  I'm probably not spoiling anything by saying that Nancy's decision-making skills in her romantic life aren't much better than the ones she displays elsewhere, am I?

If you like your humour on the dark side, give Weeds a try.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Deathstalker (1983)

When Roger Corman got his start in the movie industry in the mid 50s, he worked on a simple theory: make a movie cheaply enough, and you can't help but turn a profit.  It worked pretty well for him.

Then the 70s and 80s rolled around, with their increasing permissiveness about content, and Corman twigged to something else: cheap movies with bosoms make even more money than cheap movies without.  It's a formula that goes a long way to explaining why Deathstalker grossed roughly thirty times its own budget; and to be frank, other than the fact that it could trade on the success of the previous year's Conan the Barbarian, there is pretty little else to explain it.

The ludicrously-named Deathstalker is a warrior in some nebulously defined fantasy realm.  He's also a man who says that "heroes and fools are the same thing", but who nonetheless seems to wade into pretty much every fight he comes across to bail out the victims.

During his travels, Stalker (as his friends call him) will encounter a magic sword, an evil sorcerer, terrible hair cuts, and an assassin who has been transformed into Playboy playmate Barbi Benton.  He's also encounter a whole lot of bosoms.  So many bosoms.

Frankly, you're not going to be watching this movie for either the script or the acting.  The former is just a bunch of fantasy tropes crudely stitched together by copious scenes of nudity, and the latter is what you get when you cast more for looks than talent (and where a lot of your minor cast are dubbed in via post-production because you made your film in Argentina).  The guy playing the villain isn't bad but other than that the most you can really hope for out of any of the cast is 'not entirely wooden'.

Of course, times have changed a lot since 1983, and nowadays if your goal is to see naked ladies, there are probably easier ways to do it than watching this film.  So unless you have a passion for schlocky 1980s fantasy films (like me!) you can definitely skip it.