Saturday, 31 December 2016

Singin' in the Rain (1952)

With the recent passing of both Carrie Fisher and her mother, it seemed like an appropriate moment to revisit what was probably Debbie Reynolds' most famous role: the film of which she once said "Singin' in the Rain and childbirth were the two hardest things I ever had to do in my life."

It is 1927, and the two biggest stars in silent film are Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont, whose on-screen romances thrill millions.  Gossip magazines swirl with rumours that the cinematic chemistry extends to their private lives as well, but the reality is actually quite different.  Lina (Jean Hagen, in a frankly scene-stealing performance) is shrill, brassy and common, quite at odds with her glamorous appearance.  Don is most definitely not interested in kissing her anywhere other than on film.

One night while escaping from some excited fans, Don ends up in the automobile of Kathy Selden, a young woman to whom he takes an immediate shine.  When he tries his movie star charms on her, however, she shoots him down hard: Film isn't really acting, it's just crude pantomime.  Real acting happens on the stage, and that's where Kathy intends to make her mark.

Of course, Don and Kathy will be seeing each other again sooner than either of them expects, much to the annoyance of Ms Lina Lamont, and all of their lives are going to get a lot more complicated when The Jazz Singer explodes on the scene and overnight signals the death knell for silent film.

Singin' in the Rain is a fine film.  It's frequently funny, packed with justly-famed musical numbers, and the cast all do great jobs.  You'd never believe, watching the relentlessly cheerful "Good Mornin'", that Reynolds' feet were left bleeding by the shoot.  My only real complaint with it is that the "Broadway Melody" section goes on rather a bit too long, especially in light of how tangential it is to the film's plot.  But that is a minor thing when placed against the entertaining whole.

Friday, 30 December 2016

Successive Slidings of Pleasure (1974)

A woman is murdered in her apartment.  The woman's female partner insists that a man broke in and performed the deed, but the police suspect her of being a lesbian femme fatale.  She is placed in custody at a prison run by nuns while the investigation continues.  Once there, she shows a significant propensity for taking her clothes off at apparently random moments, and makes claims to her lawyer that the nuns indulge in sado-masochistic sexual relations with their prisoners.  Whether these claims are legitimate or merely the fantasies of the suspected murderer will not ever be made clear.  Like pretty much all of Alain Robbe-Grillet's films, all narrators here are unreliable.

The prisoner's lawyer, by the by, looks exactly like the murdered woman: in fact she may actually be the murder victim.  Chronological cause-and-effect is not something Robbe-Grillet cared much about (though unlike in N. Took the Dice, he does not have an authorial stand-in flat out tell the audience that, this time).

So we have again got a film where the events depicted are not shown in their actual order, and in fact may or may not have happened at all.  Which from a structural perspective rather requires each scene of the film to be interesting and engaging purely in and of itself, since it cannot rely on the interlocking support of other scenes to give it consequence and weight.  Not an easy goal.

Alas, most of Successive Slidings of Pleasure falls short on this ambitious objective.  Or it does unless "attractive naked ladies" will suffice to keep you entertained.  Because it certainly has plenty of those.

Though to be wholly fair, the frequent nudity, while certainly very prominent, isn't the only selling point of the film: I rather liked the opening ten minutes or so, for instance, and Robbe-Grillet continues to show strong visual flair.  But what merits it does have aren't in my opinion enough to make up for the (deliberately) muddled story.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Roar (1997)

The following is fictitious.  Probably.


Shaun Cassidy: "Hi!  I've come to pitch my new show!"
Exec: "Good morning, Mr Cassidy.  What have you got in mind?"
Cassidy: "You know that Hercules the Legendary Journeys show?"
Exec: "It's a huge hit, and we make it, so yeah."
Cassidy: "It's that, but in Ireland."
Exec (slowly): "... okay.  Do you have anything else to distinguish this show other than the setting?"
Cassidy: "Well, we're planning to film it in Australia, rather than New Z--"
Exec (impatient): "Anything else?"
Cassidy: "Of course!  You know how light-hearted Hercules is, with quite a lot of outright comedy and pop culture references?  Well we're going to have none of that.  We're going to be much more serious and stuff!"
Exec (baffled): "... so Hercules ... without the fun?"
Cassidy: "Yeah! We're going to kick off with all kinds of tragedy.  Our hero is Conor, a young prince whose family are murdered by the Romans.  He's played by Heath Ledger."
Exec (brightens!): "Oh hey!  Heath Ledger.  Great casting.  That guy's going to be awesome in ten years.  Good enough no-one will even notice that The Dark Knight is a deeply stupid film!  So tell me about this Conor guy."
Cassidy: "Well, his family gets murdered by the Evil Empire and he has to fight back against them with a rag tag band of rebels.  Fortunately he's got the power of the Roar to help him -"
Exec: "The 'Roar'?"
Cassidy: "Yeah, it's basically The Force but we can't call it that or Lucasfilm will sue."
Exec: "... Conor doesn't have to rescue a Princess or something does he?"
Cassidy: "Nope!  Though he's in love with one.  Princess Claire is the daughter of his enemy.  We got Keri Russell to play her -"
Exec: "What a coup!  She's going to be in the best thing on TV in 2015!  And the conflicted loyalties for the character will make great drama!"
Cassidy: "- but we weren't sure there was enough tragedy in Conor's life so we're going to kill her off in the first episode."
Exec: "..."
Cassidy: "Genius, right!?"
Exec (glum): "Tell me about your villain.  Claire's dad, yeah?"
Cassidy: "Well, that's how it looks at the start but we kill him off in the first episode too so we can reveal the real enemy: an immortal Roman centurion named Longinus, who is looking for the Spear of Destiny!"
Exec: "Longinus is your main villain?  Saint Longinus?"
Cassidy: "Yeah!  No-one will see that coming!"
Exec (resigned): "If I give you money, will you go away?"
Cassidy: "Absolutely!"
Exec: "Finally some good news."

So yeah, it's not too hard to see why this show got cancelled after only eight episodes.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Road House 2 (2006)

Road House was not a particularly successful film at the cinema, but did quite well on home video and ultimately gathered something of a cult following.  I guess said cult following probably included some of the people behind this sequel, which emerged no less than 17 years after the original.

Our hero now is Shane Tanner, a DEA agent and son of the now-deceased James Dalton.  When Tanner's uncle Nate is attacked and hospitalised, the younger man ditches his complaining boss and drives down to Louisiana to take over running his uncle's bar until Nate can get back on his feet.  And if you think that in doing this he's going to run into some local bad guy of some kind, which will inevitably lead to them having some kind of explosive showdown involving lots of mano a mano action, well you'd be exactly right.

If you were instead thinking that running out on the DEA without permission should get Tanner in all sorts of trouble, well, you're entirely too sensible to be wstching this movie.

So Road House 2 riffs on the original film in ways both big - the basic plot outline is more or less the same, up to and including the love interest with a personal connection to the bad guy - and small, such as callbacks to particular scenes or lines of dialogue.  Though how many of the latter you'll notice if you haven't recently watched the first film, I'm not sure.  Probably only the ones that the movie really pointedly emphasises, such as Dalton's Three Rules.

Like the original film, Road House 2 is a big old ball of cheese.  However whereas part of the original film's appeal came from its seeming obliviousness to how goofy it was, the sequel feels much more purposely schlocky.  Fortunately it's good-natured enough about that schlockiness that I found it quite good fun: there's a sense of affection for the original material here, unlike in the case of some recent Hollywood remakes that basically seemed to be about mocking the source material.

Road House 2 also profits from having much better fight choreography than the original, and from actually giving the love interest something to do other than be the love interest.  Still, unless you're part of the cult following I mentioned above, or you just loving watching Jake Busey chew scenery as a bad guy, I'm not sure there's really enough here to actually recommend it.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Robot Chicken, Season 2 (2006)

If ever there was a show which was pitched specifically at people born in the first half of the 1970s, Robot Chicken is it.  That's certainly not to say that everyone born in that period will like it, of course.  Nor that those born in other years won't ever be amused; they sometimes riff on more recent stuff, such as Mario Kart and Grand Theft Auto.  But this is most definitely a show which profits if you're of an age to have grown up with Gobots on the TV and a Commodore 64 in your home.

As I mentioned in my review of the first season, this is a stop-motion comedy sketch show, with sequences lasting from a few seconds to a few minutes.  It has no continuity to worry about - very occasionally a gag might do a call back to an earlier sketch, but if so it is just a momentary 'easter egg', not the focus of the scene - and just focuses on hurling absurdist, often twisted, frequently very nerdy jokes at the screen.

How absurd, twisted or nedy?  Well, how about a skit based entirely around the Spy Hunter arcade game?  Or a Terminator pastiche featuring the cast of Inspector Gadget? or an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on The Beastmaster?

Yes, this Beastmaster

Then we've got ethnic cleansing in Care-A-Lot, unicorn sexual predators, and a whole lot of poop jokes.  The latter are my least favourite part of the show, but to give the writers some credit, they're generally short or have some kind of additional pay-off at the end.

Wildly anarchic and featuring a lot of very dark humour, Robot Chicken will certainly not be to all tastes, but I generally laugh out loud at least once an episode.  If you think you sound like you're the target audience, you should check it out.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Sunshine on Leith (2013)

The Proclaimers Musical.

For some people, those three words are probably all they need to know about this movie in order to decide whether or not to see it.  Either because they hate musicals (and also presumably rainbows, puppies, chocolate and bacon) or because they're already trying to find a copy so they can bellow "And I would walk 500 miles" along with the cast members when that number makes its appearance in the script.

Davy and Ally have just mustered out of the army and returned to their families in Leith, Edinburgh.  Ally is keen to renew his relationship with Davy's sister Liz, and she is just as pleased to see him, but its entirely possible that they have very different plans for the immediate future, which might possibly jeopardise their relationship.  Oh okay, yes, it's totally going to jeopardise their relationship.

On the other hand Davy's just looking to get his feet under him and enjoy his parents' 25th wedding anniversary celebration.  He's certainly not looking for love, and if he was, it would definitely not be with an English woman.  Meanwhile, Liz's English friend Yvonne is also most emphatically not looking to meet a new man.  I'm sure you can therefore guess what happens when they meet.  Of course, they're not immune to their own set of miscommunications and misunderstandings.

And speaking of relationships in trouble, an old secret and a new discovery might very well combine to wreck that 25th wedding anniversary I just mentioned.  It's all drama in Leith.  And singing, what with this being a musical.

Sunshine on Leith is a fun, feel good film with an engaging cast.  I'm not 100% sold on all the song arrangements in the movie, but they're all capably performed.  And all the actors did their own performances, which is always nice to see.

If you're a Proclaimers fan, or just want a 'nice little movie' to while away a rainy afternoon, this is worth a look.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)

Samantha Caine is a school teacher who can't remember anything before the night, eight years ago, when she was found on a beach.  She was two months pregnant at the time and how has a daughter, a boyfriend who seems like a good guy, and a pretty contented life overall ... a life that's going to be thrown upside down when she finally stumbles across information about who she was 'before' - a lethally effective secret agent - and is plunged into the dangerous world of modern espionage.

I first saw The Long Kiss Goodnight when it was in theatres.  I loved it, bought it on VHS when it became available, and then on DVD when my VCR gave up the ghost.  When I sat down to watch it for this bonus review, it would be at least the fifth time I'd seen it, quite possibly more.  I was very much looking forward to enjoying all the bad-ass action once again.

However, I also read Clementine Ford's Fight Like A Girl recently.  I highly recommend it for anyone who has a genuine interest in gender equality and the experiences of women.  Just be aware that it'll impact the way you view media.

This film's bad-ass action remains bad-ass, it must be said.  But it's also a 1990s action film, and as my recent reading made me much more apt to notice, those can have some problematic attitudes.  There's a scene where a man tries to grab the female lead's breast while she is trying to drive, for instance, and said scene frames this as a basically harmless bit of old man lechery.  Well, harmless until fending him off causes her to crash the car, anyway.

So there's some problematic elements in the film, to go along with the good.  For instance, on the one hand, I love the fact that it features a capable woman and that once the guns and chases start, no-one in the film ever makes a big deal of her gender.  They treat her based on her capabilities, not her sex.  On the other hand, the film none too subtly paints her life as "Samantha Caine, girlfriend and mother" as more fulfilling and worthy than that of "Charly Baltimore, Bad-Ass Spy".  I'm sure for some women it would be a more fulfilling life, but not all, whereas the movie kind of treats it as axiomatic that motherhood trumps everything else.

Despite these issues though, I still enjoyed the film, and if you want a rock 'em sock 'em action movie, it's definitely got you covered.

Friday, 23 December 2016

N. Took the Dice (1971)

Early on in this film, the narrator speaks directly to camera.  He criticizes the traditional form of fiction, with its mostly linear narratives, recognisable lines of cause and effect, and generally clear conclusions.  Mysteries on screen for together like jigsaws: they never have pieces missing, or left over.  Such stories are false and dead in his eyes, and do not reflect how real life works.

I've little doubt that this little speech is Alain Robbe-Grillet talking to us, simply using the narrator as his proxy.  All of his films to this point (and from what I've read online, his novels too) have rejected this 'classic' structure of fiction, and it's clear that he feels that structure to be easy, moribund and false, whereas his own work is challenging, fresh and real.

Frankly, I don't agree with Robbe-Grillet's conclusions.  While it is true that real life is rarely so neat as the stories we tell on screen or on page, I personally think that it requires considerably more craft to deliver a coherent and 'tidy' story than an inconsistent and untidy one.

So N. Rolls the Dice has a lot of work to do to persuade me that its "realistic" portrayal of a story is superior to a more straightforward and clear narrative, and Alain Robbe-Grillet doubles down on that challenge in the way he made the film.  You see only a small portion of the scenes here were actually shot for this movie.  Most of the footage used is either scenes from Eden and After, or additional footage shot for that film, but not used in the final product.  I think Robbe-Grillet's done this to underline the artificiality of traditional narratives - he's saying they only make sense because they are deliberately structured to make sense.

With a different narrator and different (as well as differently-ordered) events, the story here is similar but different to that of the earlier movie.  We now have some sort of conspiracy against a young woman the narrator calls 'Eve' - it's not her real name, he tells is, but he can't remember what is - which sees her kidnapped for unspecified purposes.  She escapes with the aid of some magic powder, and begins pursuing a painting, which may or may not have had something to do with her kidnapping.  She's not the only one looking for it, though.

So how does this bold challenge to traditional narrative work?  Well, not very well, frankly.  The film's twenty minutes shorter than Eden and After but is tedious enough that it feels twenty minutes longer.  A lot of the narration - and there is a lot of narration - feels very forced, too, as the narrator tries to fit scenes filmed for another reason to the story he is telling.  And then there is the dubbing-in of dialogue: when characters speak they almost always do so from off camera, because of course they originally spoke different lines, so their lip movements would not match up.  This is very obvious and distracting while watching the film.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Demolition Man (1993)

So to get the obvious out of the way right up front: this is a very silly movie.

On the other hand, Demolition Man is clearly aware of how silly and absurd it is, and breezily unconcerned by that fact.  That it's tongue-in-cheek is made clear from the opening scene, which is set in a dystopian, 'society in collapse' version of 1996 - i.e. a mere three years after the movie itself was released.  LA is a war-zone in this reality, with a large section of it under the control of a dangerous gang-leader named Simon Phoenix.

Only one man is tough enough to bring Phoenix to justice.  John Spartan - known as 'the Demolition Man' for the fact that his methods, while successful, tend to cause a lot of collateral damage.

While Spartan does bring Phoenix to justice, the gang-leader manages to frame him for manslaughter.  They both get cryogenically frozen, during which time they will be subject t re-education programs.

36 years later, society has become so strictly controlled and confined that cursing is punished with a fine and a single act of graffiti is considered a major crime wave.  The police force, such as it is, is thus wholly unequipped to deal with Simon Phoenix when he mysteriously escapes from jail and starts murdering his way across the city.  How helpful that they have a genuine 'old time' cop available to catch an 'old time' criminal, then!

Combining broad humour, some minor if not exactly subtle social commentary, and a cast who fully commit to the often goofy plotline, Demolition Man is dumb but fun.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Road House (1989)

"Pain don't hurt."

There are a few ways you can interpret Road House's most (in)famous line of dialogue.  The most obvious is that it's nonsense.  Clearly pain does hurt.  That's what "pain" means.  But since the line is delivered by our protagonist, we're probably not supposed to be uncharitable.  Indeed, since the film is overtly positioning said protag as a "warrior philosopher" - and I do mean overtly, since the same conversation will establish that he has an actual degree in philosophy - the intent would appear to be either that pain is something that a properly disciplined mind can rise above, or that physical pain is nothing compared to spiritual torment.  Because of course our warrior philosopher is spiritually tormented.

Said warrior philosopher is James Dalton, a nightclub bouncer who is renowned for his ability to keep things calm within a club and in those rare cases where things do get violent, for his ability to end them quickly.  Dalton gets hired to come clean up a bar named the "Double Deuce", which has become so rowdy that there's "blood on the floor every night".

It will soon emerge that there's a reason the place is getting so out of control: Brad Wesley, a local businessman-slash-extortionist, is turning the town into his own personal fief. Naturally some of the big trouble makers at the Double Deuce are personally connected to Wesley, which puts him and Dalton on a collision course.

So what we've basically got here is your typical knight errant tale - he comes to town, meets a woman, and falls afoul of the evil baron - updated to the 1980s.  And make no mistake, this film is so very, very 1980s, from the hair to the fashion to the complete lack of nuance in the script.

I saw Road House back when it first came out and enjoyed it a lot: but then it had plenty of topless ladies and fight scenes, and when I was 17 that was pretty much all a film needed to keep me interested.  Watching it today, I'm much more aware of the clumsiness of both the script and the fight choreography, of how uncomfortable Patrick Swayze looks in the tough guy role, and of how weak the acting is on the whole.

Movie-making techniques have developed a lot in the past couple fo decades, and Road House shows every one of its 27 years at this point.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Weeds, Season 2 (2006)

One thing to keep in mind about Weeds is that all the major characters are pretty terrible people.  This doesn't mean that they're unlikable.  Some of them are, of course, but many of them are capable of being quite charming.

It also doesn't mean that they're entirely devoid of positive qualities.  For all her faults, for instance, leading character Nancy Botwin clearly and genuinely loves her children, and is fiercely protective of them both.  On the other hand, she tends to be selfish, deceitful, and recklessly over-confident.  All these qualities (good and bad) will be on show in this season, as she tries to establish a marijuana-growing operation while both continuing to act as a suburban mother to her boys and maintaining a relationship with a Drug Enforcement Agent.

As you might imagine, that's not an easy trio of objectives to handle, even before Nancy has to deal with the feuds breaking out between her friends and family, and the general craziness that tends to break out amongst them.  And given her own failings, her attempts to juggle it all often tend to escalate the situation, rather than defuse.

Weeds remains a darkly humorous and often hugely inappropriate show during season 2.  There's a lot to laugh at here - though you sometimes might feel a bit guilty for doing so - provided you're not easily offended.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Smokin' Aces (2006)

The four words that sum up this film for me are "Quentin Tarantino fan fiction".

Quirky opening conversation?  Check.
Ensemble cast of recognisable but not big money names?  Check.
Many different agendas working at cross-purposes? Check.
Over the top characters?  Check.
A whole lot of swearing and highly stylised, gory violence?  Double check.
Early Tarantino's ability to make it all work?  Ehhhhh.

Mob boss Primo Sparazzo puts out a hit on one Buddy 'Aces' Israel.  Israel's a stage magician who carved out a niche in organised crime.  With Sparazzo out for his blood - the kill orders specifically call for his heart to be carved out of his chest - Israel is now hiding out in Lake Tahoe while making a deal with the FBI to turn state's witness.

The scent of a million dollar bounty brings out a host of potential claimants.  There's a master of disguise, a pair of street-savvy hitwomen, a stone cold torturer known as 'The Plague', and a trio of neo-Nazi rednecks.  Finally there's the mysterious 'Swede' Sparazzo has apparently brought in specially for the job.  Oh, and let's not forget the FBI themselves - whose agenda may be more complex than it initially appears - and a group of bail bondsmen who are also looking for Israel.  Put it all together and well, a whole lot of people are going to dead, often in spectacularly gory fashion.

Smokin' Aces certainly has some of the style of a Pulp Fiction, but it always felt a little bit fake and forced to me.  I suspect a big part of the problem is pacing.  The "setting things up" stage of the film drags on rather too long, and once the action starts, the film spreads its attention too thin, which rather undercuts any momentum it tries to develop.

A lot of talented people appear on screen in this film, but the result is less than the sum of its parts.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Eden and After (1970)

This is Alain Robbe-Grillet's first colour film.  Apparently he had the resources to make them before this, but deliberately chose to work in black and white because he hated the colour green.  Or at least, so the review at Electric Sheep Magazine tells me (warning: images in their review contain nudity).

Certainly Eden and After is entirely bereft of that verdant hue, instead being saturated with blues and whites, highlighted from time to time with blood red splotches.  And yes, the use of the term 'blood red' was a very intentional and specific one.

A group of young French dilettantes assemble at a cafe each day and play-act various debauched or macabre scenarios: rape, suicide, murder and the like.  Their unsavory games remain just that, however, until the arrival of a stranger known as 'the Dutchman'.  He escalates their activities significantly, to the point that the play-acting begins to blur more and more with reality.  Our central character, Violette (played by the gorgeous Catherine Jourdan, who was apparently cast only 3 days before filming started) is stalked through the canal docks by shadowy figures and then finds the Dutchman lying dead ... only for his body to be gone when she takes her friends there later.  The only proof of her story is a postcard she found on his body.

Violette owns a valuable painting, and the postcard appears to depict the building on which it was based.  So when the painting goes missing, Violette believes she will find it again at the location on the card, and travels to North Africa to locate it.  This also initiates a twenty minute or so stretch with a lot of nudity and bondage-themed imagery, which I imagine could be either a positive or a negative factor depending on the viewer, but definitely seems like something you should know about ahead of time.

Eden and After is not going to be to all tastes.  In addition to the confronting themes, it's a surrealistic film.  There is a plot, but it is one that must be inferred by the viewer rather than being clearly explained, and there's plenty of imagery that is clearly metaphorical or entirely in the imagination of the characters.  I did however find it much easier to follow along with than most of Robbe-Grillet's works, and he's certainly got a flair for eye-catching imagery, which has become all the more obvious now that he's working in colour.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Jonah Hex (2010)

This is one of those movies where everybody mumbles and then the action scenes are REALLY LOUD, which makes it hard to find a volume level that works.  And it's not like the effort is really worth it, frankly,

Jonah Hex was a Confederate soldier until his commanding officer, General Turnbull, started committing atrocities against civilians.  Hex turned against Turnbull, but came out on the losing end: his wife and child were murdered, and he was disfigured and left for dead.  Thanks to the intercession of Native American medicine men, Hex survived, but any thoughts of revenge were stymied by Turnbull's death in a hotel fire.

Of course, this is a movie, so Turnbull's not dead.  He's just in hiding, and planning to put together a steampunk superweapon that can destroy entire cities.  US President Grant tells his agents to get Hex on the case.

And that's more or less the entire plot of the film.  I mean sure there are a bunch more details - Hex's close brush with death has left him able to speak with corpses, for instance, which he uses to good effect in tracking Turnbull down, and there's a romantic subplot - but it all pretty much just exists to justify the next action sequence, in a rather pro-forma and perfunctory way.

Being pro-forma and perfunctory is the film's big problem, really.  As a case in point, consider the romantic subplot.  Hex visits prostitute Lilah relatively early in the film.  She tries to persuade him that they should be a full time couple, but he demurs on the basis that people who get close to him tend to end up dead.  This is the only time they'll be on screen together until the inevitable "Turnbull threatens to kill her to make Hex surrender" scene in the final act.  You need to work a little harder to make stuff like that work, guys.

Even at a mere 80 minutes in run time, Jonah Hex feels stretched thin.  Lazy writing will do that.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

The Great St Trinian's Train Robbery (1966)

There was a six year gap between The Pure Hell of St Trinian's and this, the fourth film in the franchise.  This gave time for any number of new cultural elements to become targets of the film's less-than-subtle parody.  The most obvious is - unsurprisingly - The Great Train Robbery of 1963, but it also takes cues from a new film franchise about some chap named "Bond", as well as at British politics of the day.  The last of these three, naturally enough, has the least resonance today.

Something else that the march of time brought to the film was colour.  This is the first St Trinian's movie that's not in black and white.  I guess this was inevitable, eventually.

The film begins with a meticulously-planned robbery of a mail train.  This nets £2.5m (about £50m in today's money), but the robbers are forced to conceal the haul in an abandoned building until such time as the "moon and tide are right".

Unfortunately for the crooks, while they await the proper time, various shenanigans are going on at the Ministry of Schools.  As a result, the heretofore empty building becomes the new premises of St Trinian's.  Two hundred screaming hellions now stand between them and their loot, so some clever plan will be necessary to sneak the cash out.  A plan that will doubtless become more complex if any of the girls finds the money beforehand ...

This film was quite successful at the time of its release, and I can see it being moderately entertaining for the young crowd, but the St Trinian's formula does feel a little thin by this time.  I think the writers knew that actually, as a great deal of the movie focuses on the crooks and their efforts to get the loot, rather than on the school itself.

Probably for die-hard St Trinian's fans only, I'd say.  At least there's no suggestion of sexual violence this time around (though there is some blackface, alas).

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Nikita, Season 1 (2010)

The organisation known as "Division" is an off-the-books black ops operation founded by the US government to perform the tasks that public agencies such as the CIA cannot.  Unfortunately the man in charge of Division has turned the organisation into his own private mercenary force.  He claims this is because the government shorts him on funding; the government in turn overlooks his freelance work because he still completes the missions they have for him; and because he has a series of 'black boxes' tucked away which contain all the dirty secrets they're trying to hide.  Anything happens to him, everybody suffers.

Nikita Mears was one of Division's finest agents.  However, the organisation's growing corruption eventually turned her against it and she has now gone rogue.  Her plan: find and destroy the "black  boxes" so that Division and its corrupt leader can be safely neutralised.

Of course, that's a huge task for one person, even when that person is a highly-trained and motivated James Bond type.  So it's a good thing that not everyone inside Division is quite as loyal to the organisation as they appear to be.  But even so, can Nikita and her small band of allies really hope to take on the powerful agency?  Well this is a TV show, so the answer is "of course they can".

This is the second TV series to be developed from the French film La Femme Nikita.  It's a mostly fun ride in this opening season, with entertaining characters, solid acting, excellent action choreography, and plenty of narrative twists and turns.  Said twists and turns actually get a bit over the top in the last two episodes of the season, to be honest.  It's clear that the status quo will be quite different in season two - many characters will now have different alliances and agendas - and an awful lot of the necessary plot points get hammered through in the last eighty minutes of the season.

That plot-compression issue aside, however, Nikita is an entertaining action-thriller TV show.  If you fancy watching improbably gorgeous people engage in high tech action skulduggery, it's got you covered.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964)

This Rat Pack musical updates to the Robin Hood legend to Chicago in the 1920s.  The city's top mob boss has just been murdered, and a new man - one Guy Gisborne (Peter Falk) has seized control.  Only one crew - headed by Robbo (Frank Sinatra) refuses to tow the line.  The two men are soon engaged in a fierce battle: a confrontation that will become substantially complicated by two related factors.  First, the arrival in town of the former boss's daughter, and second, an off-hand act of charity on Robbo's part that has unexpectedly far-reaching ramifications.

I've noted before that I believe a musical needs catchy songs to really work, and despite its potent cast (Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr and Bing Crosby all also star) this is one area where Robin and the Seven Hoods conspicuously falls down.  In my opinion, only one song - Crosby's "Mr Booze" is at all likely to stick in your memory.  Well, that and the rather bizarre experience that is watching Peter Falk try to sing.

Script-wise, I'm also not really a fan.  For one thing, the story plays a bit too loose with some of the characters of the Robin Hood legends for my tastes; though I will admit that the final pay-off for those licenses is almost worth it.  The bigger problem, however, is that it's simply a bit too complacent in its pacing and its plotting.  Much like the rather half-hearted soundtrack, it feels like the writers just assumed the charisma and talent of the cast would carry the film.

Charisma and talent can get you a long way, but not even Crosby and the Rat Pack can pull off the kind of con job necessary to make this film look like a winner.

Friday, 9 December 2016

The Man Who Lies (1968)

This film begins with a man, who is dressed in contemporary clothes, being chased through a forest by WW2-era German soldiers.  He is ultimately gunned down and killed, but after a few moments he calmly rises to his feet and tells us via voice-over that he will now tell us his real story, to the best of his ability.  Which sounds fair enough, until you consider the title of the film.

Entering a small town, he approaches a group of three beautiful women.  These are the wife, sister and maid of Jan Rabenau, a resistance fighter who has been missing since the war.  The man, who calls himself Boris, claims to be a comrade of Jan's, though his story quickly proves to have many holes in it.

Not that these holes matter, as Boris changes his story in pretty much every scene of the film.  Jan was a traitor who betrayed the resistance.  Jan was a hero but is dead.  Jan was a hero and Boris resented him, so Jan had Boris killed.  Boris is Jan.  None of these tales a maintained for longer than a few minutes before Boris has a new one.  Heck, sometimes the pictures of Boris's accounts don't even match the words he is speaking, giving us two different stories at the same time.

Now you may be expecting some Rashomon-esque conclusion where the truth is finally revealed, but writer/director Alain Robbe-Grillet has no intention of anything so satisfying.  The film ends with Boris(?) being gunned own for the third time in the movie, then rising and promising that he will now tell us his real story ... to the best of his ability.

There's a review of this film which makes the point that "movies are lies anyway, fabricated stories we tell ourselves are true for two hours", and that this film may be playing with that concept.  Which is an interesting thought, but I have to say that if that is the game being played here, it's not a game I found very enjoyable.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Z for Zachariah (2015)

An unspecified but radiation-related apocalypse has all but destroyed humanity.  A young woman named Ann lives alone in her home valley, which is somehow protected from the fallout.  Her entire family used to be there, but her parents left to look for other survivors, and her brother to look for their parents.

Ann has all but given up on the hope of seeing another human being when John Loomis arrives.  He's a scientist, protected by an experimental suit, though an accident means he is suffering from radiation sickness nonetheless.

Ann nurses John back to health, and in the nature of such situations, at least in media, the two begin to move toward a romantic and sexual relationship.  John at least seems to be thinking in terms of kids, which suggests that whatever sort of scientist he was, he wasn't a geneticist.

The prospective fly in the ointment of this idyll comes in the form of Caleb, another survivor.  He's young, handsome, and socially and culturally much more like the rural, religious Ann than John is.

So, I went back and forth between 'qualified recommendation' and 'not recommended' on this film.

On the one hand, its "two men are rivals for the last woman on earth" plot is not exactly fresh or original.  And it is quite slow paced.  And the symbolism that one of the two is a man of science while the other is a man of faith is rather heavy-handed and obvious.

On the other hand, it has some lovely cinematography and all three members of the cast deliver good performances.  So I was torn, at least until I read a synopsis of the novel on which it is based.

The book of Z for Zachariah, you see, makes Ann its main character, and introduces only one man into her life.  A scientist named Loomis who rapidly becomes domineering and demanding.  Every time Ann tries to compromise and share the valley as separate individuals, he tries to browbeat and control her.  Ultimately, her only option for safety is to leave.

So in other words the writers of the film took a female-led story with obvious themes about abusive and controlling relationships ... and made it all about the men.  Even though they had to add a man to the story to do it.  Sigh.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The Pure Hell of St Trinian's (1960)

St Trinian's fourth form have pulled off their greatest accomplishment yet: they've managed to burn down the whole school.  Though successfully prosecuted by the crown for their malfeasance, the girls escape punishment when the judge (who is smitten by one of the sixth formers) accepts the offer of one Professor Canford of the University of Baghdad to fund the establishment of a new school to rehabilitate the "poor, misguided children".

If the generosity of Canford's offer seems a tad suspicious to you then congratulations, you are officially smarter than any of the characters in this film.  He's the somewhat-unwitting dupe of a Middle Eastern sheikh, who plans to kidnap the entire sixth form to act as brides for his many sons.

Of course, when word of this makes it back to England, both the authorities and - rather more effectively - the fourth form swing into action to effect a rescue.

By the third film in a series, the core concept is often starting to wear a little thin.  This is certainly the case with The Pure Hell in St Trinian's.  You'll be hard-pressed to find an original joke in the whole thing, and at least one sub-plot is pretty much recycled-in-whole from the previous movie.  Now at the time of the film's original release this was probably much less apparent.  It had been three years since the preceding film in the series, after all, and the days of VCRs - let alone DVDs and streaming services - were still in the future.  The common schticks between the movies are much more apparent when you're watching them within the space of a few weeks, as I am.

Even without easy access to the immediately preceding films, though, this is not a terribly good movie.  The sheikh's plot is really very icky if you think about it for even a few seconds, since it boils down to the kidnap and attempted rape of young women.  I know 1960 was a different age, but I'm still surprised this was considered appropriate material for a "family friendly" comedy series.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Magnum P.I., Season 4 (1983)

Season 4 of Magnum, P.I. kicks off with an episode which has no case, no villain, and no attractive woman for Thomas M to flirt with.  It's quite a departure from the show's usual formula, and the writers continue to experiment throughout the season.  Nearly half the episodes focus strongly on other cast members, whether it be Higgins helping an old chum who thinks he's Sherlock Holmes, Rick dealing with an old friend who's either a crook or a CIA agent (or both), or the occasional visits of blustering St Louis PI Luther Gillis (which always seem to land Magnum in jail at some point).  Then there's the episode which recounts Thomas working two different cases for the same woman, five years apart (naturally, she is attractive).  Or the season finale, which is basically "Magnum does Rashomon".

Now as with every highly episodic show, there are ups and downs here.  The Mikado-themed episode has some very funny moments and a great fistfight, for instance, but the there are a couple of plot points that aren't well explained.  Or there is the new recurring character of Carol Baldwin, whose aptitude for landing Magnum is serious danger is apparently intended to come across as funny, but mostly seems incredibly callous.  On the other hand, the episode "Operation: Silent Night" may be one of the most genuinely amusing (albeit deeply silly) Xmas-themed episodes of any show I've ever seen.

Overall I'd say this season of the show is the most overtly comedic to date. Magnum has always been light entertainment, but there are more "aiming for laughs" scenes here than in any season before, and none of the darker themes that occasionally popped up in season three. It's still recognisably the same show, though, so if you've enjoyed it thus far, you're likely to still enjoy it.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Q: The Winged Serpent (1982)

Some kind of menace is tearing the heads off high-rise window-cleaners and snatching sunbathing ladies from the roofs of their homes.  Simultaneously, small-time crook Jimmy Quinn is failing in a half-hearted attempt to go straight and instead finds himself taking part in robbing a jewelry store.  This robbery goes rather astray.  Quinn escapes, but he gets hurt in the process and loses the loot.  That's not going to sit well with the rest of the gang when they catch up to him, but ol' Jimmy has a more immediate problem: his choice of hiding places leads him straight to the nest of some giant avian monster.

Strangely enough, this last misstep might actually be good news for Quinn.  He's fortunate enough to not attract the beast's attention, so now he's the only one in New York who knows where it makes its nest.  Which is about to be the question on everyon'e lips, as even in movies, people will eventually notice an eighty-foot long dragon flapping around the Big Apple and snacking on folks.

Q: The Winged Serpent (which is sometimes known just by the first word, or by only the second through fourth) does try to explain people's apparent inability to see this monster - it's smart enough to attack from out of the sun.  Which I guess makes sense as to why its victims can't spot it, but it does kind of fail to justify how it evades the other ten million eyeballs in the city - particularly since that nest I mentioned is in the Chrysler Building, which has thousands of people going in and out of it every day.

Of course, this is a movie in which an 80 foot stop motion dragon, summoned to life by a crazed priest of the Aztec gods, menaces New York.  So coherent story-telling is not really its strong point.  Being gonzo, on the other hand, is something it's pretty good at.

While not in any technical sense a "good" film, I found Q to be a thoroughly enjoyable one.  If you're at all a fan of giant monster antics, it's worth your time.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Trans-Europ-Express (1966)

It seems that the structure of narrative - and in particular, the subversion of the typical forms of those structures - was a particular point of interest to Alain Robbe-Grillet.  His first film, which I reviewed last week, deliberately depicted events out of order, or with loud noises obscuring the dialogue, or showed us characters lying to each other without ever explaining why they were doing so.  This film also plays with the conventions of narrative, though in a less opaque manner.

Trans-Europ-Express begins with three people on a train.  They're in the film business, and begin discussing a possible script idea involving a train ride.  Through the course of their own journey, we see their work of fiction unfold.  A drug mule named Elias travels to Antwerp to collect cocaine; it is his first time working with this particular cartel and they put him through a series of tests to make sure he is not a police informant or an incompetent.  As his adventures unfold we switch back to the trio as they question actions taken in the narrative, sometime deleting or altering events and re-telling them with new details.  The longer the film goes, the more and more blurred the lines between the framing film and the film-within-a-film become.

Robbe-Grillet was also involved in BDSM activities, and this interest is also apparent in the film, both through a great deal of imagery of chained women, and in the fact that Elias can only enjoy sex when there is the illusion of non-consent.  This may be a pretty triggering topic for some viewers, though I feel I should make it clear that the word 'illusion' is an important one, there.  All sexual activity depicted in the film is consensual.

The first half of Trans-Europ-Express is really quiet good fun and playful, but I feel like it loses steam around the midpoint.  Just as Elias gets frustrated with the run-around he's been given by his new contacts, so fatigue set in for me as I waited for something to happen.

Overall, despite my misgivings about the pacing, I'm going to give the film a (very) qualified recommendation.  Its games with narrative are quite engaging at times, and it is much more accessible than the earlier The Immortal One was.  But if you're not interested in such structural shenanigans, or are put off by the stuff in the third paragraph (and faie enough if you are), you should skip it.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Harvest Lake (2016)

So there's a pretty easy way to tell if you're not on the list of people that will watch this film (and I suspect most of you aren't): it concludes with a slimy, oily orgy involving five humans and at least one Lovecraftian horror.

It starts, however, with a young couple make love in the woods near a lake.  Midway through their copulation, they suddenly and inexplicably stop to drink a liquid that's dripping from off-screen.  Then, vacant-eyed, they calmly drown themselves in the lake.

We're then introduced to the main cast of the film.  This is Ben, his girlfriend Cat, Cat's former roommate Jennifer, and Jen's gay friend Josh.  They're all off to stay at a house by the lake for the weekend, as part of Ben's birthday celebrations.

At first everything seems pretty idyllic, with the four friends enjoying a swim and then sunbathing by the lakeside, but it quickly becomes apparent that there is something in the lake, and it desires ... well, desires humans.  People spending time near the lake begin to exhibit stronger and less discerning sexual impulses than normal, and the woods in the area abound with strange, somewhat sexual looking plants that seem to give off powerfully attractive pheromones - presumably that's what ensnared the first couple.

So the question quickly becomes, will the foursome - plus a fifth that they meet at the lake - escape the tentacles of the sexually supercharged shoggoth beneath the waves, or will they fall into its slimy, oily clutches?

Well, given my first paragraph, I've probably already spoiled the answer to that one!

I personally quite enjoyed Harvest Lake.  The acting's a little hit and miss it is true, but it's got a memorable if rather bizarre ending, surprisingly good effects for the obviously low budget, and a few genuinely funny snippets of dialogue before Shub-Niggurath's sexy times.

Still, you should probably only check this out if you're pretty blasé about the whole concept of "Shub-Niggurath's sexy times".