Friday, 29 December 2017

Goodbye World (2013)

"Goodbye World".  The message flashes from cell phone to cell phone, propagating out to people's address books without their consent.

At first the phenomenon seems to be just a curious exploitation of a flaw in the cell phone system, but then cyber attacks strike at the technological infrastructure of the modern world.  As cities devolve into riots, eight people - most of them former college friends now estranged to greater or lesser degrees by the events of intervening years - gather in the isolated mountain home belonging to two of their number.

This home has its own well water, enough solar panels to be totally off-grid, and a huge supply of food and medicine on hand.  It is, in other words, the perfect place to hide out from the collapse of society ... assuming said collapsing society leaves you alone.  And assuming that your group's own unfinished business won't break you apart.

Goodbye World has pretty mediocre ratings on IMDB, and I suspect that's at least in part because it presents as an 'end of the world' type tale, but the apocalypse is frankly just a backdrop for, and occasional motivator to, a relationship drama.  The characters tend to be much more interested in their personal grievances with each other than with the end of civilisation as they know it, despite the ever increasing signs that the end of civilisation is interested in them.

Benefiting from a strong cast (Gaby Hoffman is particularly good), this is a pretty low-key film on the whole - certainly that DVD cover is highly misleading - and I can see why plenty of potential viewers would be upset with the movie they actually got.  But if you go in with an openness to the idea of watching a film about how people (often fail to) engage with sudden and seismic change, it may well be worth your time.  Certainly I don't regret seeing it.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Magnum P.I., Season 7 (1986)

A couple of times recently I have seen people refer to the 'Kirk Fallacy'.  This refers to the fact that the conception of James T Kirk in popular culture and the actual character who appears on screen are actually rather different.  We all tend to think of Kirk as some interstellar Lothario who roams the galaxy seducing beautiful women, but he doesn't actually act that way in the original Star Trek TV series.

This is relevant to a review of Magnum P.I. because there's a similar fallacy in popular culture about the nature of this show.  It's remembered as a very light dramedy notable mostly for the weekly parade of beautiful women romanced by the lead, while he wore a very small pair of shorts.

And to be fair, the shorts were short

But Magnum P.I. was actually much more diverse than this popular conception suggests, and nowhere is that more noticeable (at least so far) than in this seventh season.  Initially conceived as the final year for the show, the season has a decidedly more mature tone than is commonly associated with the program, such as the case that starts with the rape and murder of a child, or the episode where a major character's loved one is suffering from Alzheimer's.  And then there's the final episode of the season, which as I said was originally intended to the final episode ever.  While it has its moments of humour, it's most definitely not "light dramedy".

Not every episode of the show is a winner, but Magnum P.I. was a more ambitious and inventive program than people remember.

Monday, 25 December 2017

Gremlins (1984)

I don't normally post reviews on Mondays any more, but I wanted to provide a bonus blog instalment for Xmas Day.  You just have to promise not to expose it to bright light (especially sunlight) or to water, or to feed it after midnight.

Yep, it's Gremlins, a film to this day associated with Steven Spielberg even though he neither wrote nor directed it (he was an "executive producer", which mostly means he was a money man, though to be fair it appears he had some input to specific script elements and to casting).

Billly's dad buys Billy a mogwai named Gizmo as a Christmas present.  Mogwai are cute, intelligent, musically-inclined little dudes, but it's very, very important that you follow the three rules I mentioned above when you're looking after them.  If you break them, there will be consequences.

Surprise surprise, it really won't be too long before Billy's managed to goof up the whole trifecta.  But let's be fair, watching what happens once he goofs up is kind of the whole point of the film, isn't it?

So yeah, when you break all the rules, Gremlins happen.  I don't think I'm exactly spoiling anything by saying that: it's right there in the title and the cover image, after all.  The little beasties are going to make this a holiday season Billy is never likely to forget ... assuming he survives!

Gremlins is a horror-comedy, with the emphasis much more on the latter than the former.  It's anarchic and silly and despite its body count I doubt its villains will give any but the most timid audience member any really chills.  In fact, the most unsettling scene has nothing at all to do with little green monsters.  But it's a fun romp, and if you're in the mood for something slightly dark and very goofy, you should have a good time.

Friday, 22 December 2017

Bunraku (2010)

In a post-apocalyptic world without guns, the most powerful man is Nicola the Woodcutter.  Backed by his nine Killers, who are numbered two through ten - the implication presumably is that Nicola himself is number one - and an army of red-clad soldiers, the Woodcutter is pretty much a feudal lord.  His goons extort money from the local businesses, run all the local vice, intimidate the workers, and generally make life miserable for everyone.

And then two strangers come to town, each with their own agenda, but each equally destined to come into conflict with the Woodcutter and his flunkies.  Brought together by a local barkeep, whose own motivations involve a woman that Nicola stole, the pair punch, kick and swordfight their way to a final showdown with the bad guys.

Bunraku obviously owes some debt to Yojimbo (via A Fist Full of Dollars) in its script, though it jettisons the iconic "playing two groups of bad guys off against each other" theme to just make it a straight up revenge/justice tale.  That more simple structure doesn't do it a lot of favours really, and neither does the overwrought and far too frequent narration that bangs on and on, telling you stuff that they could have just shown you.

The film takes its name from a type of Japanese puppet show, and the most memorable aspect of the movie is its visual style, which appears to be consciously modelled on the sets and design you might expect from said puppet show.  There's a scene where characters look through a set of trees that look like they're woodcut models, for instance.  This concept often works quite nicely, but there are times when it goes a bit astray.  Still, it's probably the main reason to check out the film at all: I certainly wouldn't recommend it for the script.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Planet Earth (2006)

In 1984 the BBC produced The Living Planet, a truly excellent nature documentary series.  Just over 20 years later they brought us Planet Earth, which could just have easily been titled "The Living Planet: the Next Generation".

Planet Earth has the same basic structure as the earlier series - touring the world biosphere by biosphere, moving from say mountains to deserts to plains to the sea - and the same narrator in the eternally velvet-voiced David Attenborough.

There are some differences between the two series, of course.  Planet Earth benefits from twenty years of additional research and technological innovation, for one thing, which allows it to show you scenes that would not have been possible in the earlier program.  Not all the changes are for the better, though.  Planet Earth is very much more about animals than it is about other forms of life.  Plants and fungi get much less attention this time around, and I do feel like the more narrow focus is a disappointment.  I get that animals are more active and probably make better footage for that reason, but it just feels a little less ambitious.

The second disappointment is that Attenborough's role is purely voice-over.  Again, there are probably good reasons for that - he was pushing 80 when this show was produced - but his enthusiasm when he appeared on screen was always so unfeigned and so infectious that its absence here was very notable to me.

These quibbles aside, though, Planet Earth is a genuinely excellent documentary, and being "not quite as good as The Living Planet" is still high praise indeed.  If you've an interest in the natural world, you're sure to learn plenty of fascinating things from watching it.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)

Three Wise Men follow a star to Bethlehem, in order to give homage to a new born child as the Son of God.  They find him in a stable.  Unfortunately, it rapidly becomes apparent that it's the wrong kid, and they scurry off down to the next stable to give their gifts to Jesus, instead.

The next baby over to the Son of God is Brian, who grows up into a rather diffident young man in the shadow of his domineering mother.  Brian seems destined for a life of little note until his efforts to impress a young woman lead him to join the People's Front of Judea, possibly the most inept of the many inept organisations attempting to end Roman control of Jerusalem.

Suffice it to say that Brian isn't going to do much to improve the overall quality of the PFJ's personnel, and that his adventures are only going to be come more absurd from this point on.

The anarchic antics of the Monty Python team are in full effect here in their second original film (and third film overall).  It's a fine bit of farce, though carried in large part by the comedic charisma of the Pythons themselves: describing the jokes simply wouldn't do the film justice.

If you like your comedy broad, silly and off-the-wall, and you're not easily offended by political and religious satire, you might well find Life of Brian a sharply funny bit of work.  If you don't fit that criteria, you will probably think it's just stupid.  Put me down in the "sharply funny" camp.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Breaking Bad, Season 3 (2010)

A lot of people seem to love Breaking Bad, but I find myself a bit ambivalent about it.  The main reason for that is pretty simple: I find Walter White a repellent and reprehensible individual.  It's hard to thoroughly engage with a show where I dislike the protagonist quite so much.  At least for me, ol' Walt lacks any of the charisma or empathetic traits that might make his deeply narcissistic self more tolerable.  I mean, even Dexter Morgan and Frank Underwood at least know that they're bad people.  Walt, on the other guy, is convinced he's the hero and that the world owes him something for the (admittedly tough) hand he's been dealt.

What I'm saying is that when your script has hired killers plotting to murder your main character and my main reaction is irritation that they won't succeed, there may be a problem.

So why does this season still get a qualified recommendation?  Well mainly because of the second half of its run, where it seems like Walter finally starts to try and act a bit less like a jerk.  I mean sure, his motives for doing so are still pretty selfish, but we can't have everything.

And you know, there are other characters in the show than Walt, and they're often a good deal more likeable than he is, so I can watch and enjoy their stories, and lament at the inevitable pain they suffer whenever their lives intersect with that of this horrible, horrible individual.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Power Rangers (2017)

A group of variously troubled or outcast teens stumble across an ancient spaceship, where the electronically-stored consciousness of an alien warns them that the Earth is in immediate peril of destruction.  They have 11 days to unlock the secret of the morphing field and embrace their destiny as the planet's protectors: The Power Rangers.  If they fail, everything goes boom.

I've seen a lot more films at the cinema in 2017 than in a typical year: about 20.  Many of those films have lived up to my expectations, while several have fallen short, either because they simply weren't as good as I'd hoped (Beauty and the Beast, John Wick 2) or because they were a cinematic blight that further defiled the corpse of a once great franchise (Alien: Covenant).

Only one film, on the other hand, proved to be markedly better than I expected it to be.  I freely admit that in this regard, Power Rangers had a pretty low bar to clear.  I was expecting maximum cheese and endless toy shilling.  Instead I got The Breakfast Club with robot dinosaurs and alien superpowers.  And how could I not enjoy that?

Power Rangers offers up an engaging cast, a scenario that the characters always treat as serious even when the details might be a little goofy (the villain's name is Rita Repulsa, after all), and is a genuinely fun SF action movie.  Sure, it's not going to be to all tastes, but if you're at all a science fiction fan, it's certainly a far better way to spend two hours than say Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.  I'm pleased to hear that toy sales and a strong showing on home media might be enough to justify a sequel.  I'd certainly hit the theatre again if there is one.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Orphan Black, Season 4 (2016)

Season 3 of Orphan Black had some issues with cohesion.  The plot-line revolving around one of the 'core four' clones felt very divorced from that of the other three.  This season does a much better job of getting all of the quartet interacting on the same things, and ironically it does so by revealing a lot more to us about a fifth clone: the dead police officer Beth, whose suicide was pretty much the opening act of the entire show.

I'm generally pretty wary of the "now let's flashback and show a bunch of stuff that happened a long time ago" as a story-telling technique, as it can often be a pretty heavy-handed and clumsy way of changing the meaning of past story events in order to correct a story that has gone off course.  In this case though, it works well: the events that are revealed generally reinforce the plot direction taken at the end of the last season.  That plot direction wasn't one I felt was all that well set-up back then, but I have to admit it was probably smarter to leap into it before doing all this flashback material, so good call by the show's writers on that front.

As always, the cast remains very strong.  Tatiana Maslany has rightly been lauded for her work on the show, but she is ably supported by pretty much everyone she works with here.  The casting is a real benefit to the show.

Fingers crossed that the fifth and final season will deliver a solid ending to what has been an enjoyable show over the past four series.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Salt (2010)

Evelyn Salt is a well-regarded CIA agent who suddenly finds herself accused of being a Soviet-era mole from the KGB.  Fearing for her husband's life - "when they try to burn you, the first thing they do is burn your family" - she breaks out of CIA custody and goes on the run.  Or that's what she claims is her motivation, anyway.  The people chasing her, of course, can't take the luxury of assuming she's on the level.  Certainly not with the life of the visiting Russian president on the line ...

I saw Atomic Blonde a few months ago.  It was a stylish action movie with a strong female lead, and plenty of secret agent high jinks and double crosses.  It was also ultimately a bit unsatisfying to me, because no matter how great the fight choreography or how enjoyable Charlize Theron's performance was, the film was an extended exercise in technical sophistication obscuring narrative weakness.  None of the characters' motivations or actions make a lick of sense, and the movie just seems to hope that a thumping 80s soundtrack and Theron being a bad-ass will distract you from that fact.

I mention all this because Salt is another spy action film with a tough female lead and plenty of double crosses.  On the other hand, the motivations and actions of the characters in this film make sense.  Or at least, make sense if one is willing to accept the basic "let's re-create the Cold War" motivations of the bad guys.  Which is admittedly quite a lot to swallow.

Salt is not a film that offers a transformative cinematic experience.  But it is a solidly crafted modern day espionage movie and overall a pretty entertaining watch in a pretty clearly James Bondian mold.  I'd certainly be more interested in seeing Salt 2 than Atomic Blonde 2, a stale Jason Bourne sequel, or - for that matter - yet another Bond movie.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

House of Cards, Season 4 (2016)

I generally watch shows and write their reviews 6-10 weeks before the reviews actually get posted.  Normally that doesn't really matter, but in this case there were some rather ugly revelations about leading actor Kevin Spacey that will inevitably cast a deep shadow over this show.  With the exception of this paragraph and one edit in the final paragraph (which I've marked as such), this review remains as I originally wrote it, before the news about Spacey became known.

Frank Underwood is President of the United States, which you'd think would be a pretty sweet position to occupy, but it's proving a thorny throne indeed.  He's fighting a bitter selection battle within his own party, and even if he prevails in that he's staring down the barrel of a formidable Republican candidate in the younger, more glamorous William Conroy.  It's really not a good time for reporters to be sniffing around some of his shadier past dealings, or for his relationship with his wife - usually the main foundation of his strength - to be on the rocks.

But there's an old saying about never backing a rat into a corner, and when the chips are down, Frank is certainly as mean as rattus rattus, and might well be at home in a pack of James Herbert's murderous, man-eating rodents.

A couple of times in the past I have praised the US House of Cards for taking a longer form approach to story telling than that of the UK original, because I felt that Francis Urquhart (as he was named in that version) had things go his way rather too easily, overall.  The risk of such longer form tales though is that they can begin to collapse under their own weight, and I think the structure of House of Cards is definitely starting to look a bit shaky here in its fourth season.  The need to "outdo" what has come before in terms of bastardry and machination is definitely starting to tell on the series overall plausibility.

Now if you're a fan of the show, (edit) and you're not completely put off by the recent news about Spacey, (end edit) then I still think it is worth watching, even at this stage.  The performances remain strong, and there is certainly some black humour to be found in the various sordid events.  But the shine has gone off the show just a little.

Friday, 24 November 2017

The 47 Ronin (1962)

This is my third review of a film based on the 47 Ronin in as many weeks, so hopefully you are familiar with the basic plotline by now.  But if not, you can always go read one or the other of them, because I'm not going through it in detail again.

This is the 1962 Japanese version of the tale, which went under the title ChÅ«shingura: Hana no Maki, Yuki no Maki in its home country.  Don't be fooled by the "starring Toshiro Mifune" byline on the cover, by the way.  He is in the film, but it is a relatively minor role: he's not even one of the 47.

First things first: I have in the past made some affectionate jabs about the length of Seven Samurai.  That film clocks in at over three hours but the key thing about it is that it earns your attention for that time.  This film is every bit as long, but for my money it rather fails at the "earning it" part.  It's just long, rather than epic.

So we've got your standard set-up for the tale here, with the samurais' lord falling foul of a rival and being forced to commit seppuku.  This film spends longer on that than the other adaptations have, but then it spends longer on everything.  Frankly, for all that the rival is kind of a jerk, it's hard as a 21st century westerner to feel much sympathy for the lord: it's explicitly his pride that leads to his fall and while he makes a big deal of talking about how he hates corruption, he's also very wealthy.  It's easy to be scornful of "gift giving" when you're drowning in cash already.

But of course these characters aren't 21st century westerners and despite the fact that the lord put his own personal honour ahead of the well-being of his family and retainers, his samurai begin a long and involved plot to kill the rival and reclaim their lord's honour.  The film doesn't do a very good job of explaining why the plot is so long and involved, mind you: the rival doesn't seem that well protected at first, and it is only later that he accumulates an army of bodyguards in his newly-built, fortress like house.

Slow-paced, with too many characters doing too similar things to each other, this film is interesting as a native interpretation of the story, but it's not actually something I can recommend as a movie.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Nikita, Season 3 (2012)

The first two seasons of Nikita dealt with her (and her allies) battle to bring down Division, the ultra-secret covert ops organisation that took care of the missions too sensitive (and often too immoral) for public agencies like the CIA to handle.

Now in the third season Nikita's group find themselves leading Division, at least on a temporary basis.  Their remit: to close out the ongoing operations, bring the agents home, and close the organisation for good.  Of course, not all of those aforementioned agents are going to accept the change of regime.

It took me a long time to complete this season: I watched the first ten episodes and then it took me about two months to bother getting around to the rest.  That "eh I'll get to it later" reception sure isn't a good sign, and it's thus no surprise that I've slapped a "not recommended" tag on this review.  But what are the reasons I cared so little?

Well, there are several related problems at work.  But mainly it's an issue of competence.  The continued decay of Alexandra continues, with her only glimmers of capability being when she's executing a plan that was brainwashed into her by the villain.  "Only good at screwing up" is not really a by-line you want for a character who is supposed to be an elitely-trained secret agent.

The villain is also a competence problem.  Having been treated as basically outclassed in season two (where she was manipulated and ousted from leading Division by another villain), and then forced on the run when Nikita's group took over, she is now somehow outwitting them at almost every turn.  Having setbacks for your heroes is fine.  Having setbacks when they seem to hold all the cards - such as an elite cadre of agents with a well funded and equipped base - just kinda makes them look like chumps.  The show does eventually reveal that the villain has the backing of an even more secret, even more powerful group, but it's too little too late, particularly when said group's agenda is so "what a twist!"-tastic that I'm kind of mordibly curious to see what contortions the show will go through in season four to justify it.  Eventually.

Also: I really dislike the pose they've forced Lyndsy Fonseca into for the DVD cover.  Symptomatic of the whole treatment of her character, really.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Last Knights (2015)

I wavered back and forth between giving this film a qualified recommendation or not.  It is a better adaptation of the tale of 47 Ronin than the 2013 film, for one thing.  Ultimately I decided not to recommend it, because I felt that "If you want an adaptation of the 47 Ronin, and don't mind that the setting's been rendered into generic medieval empire so that the cast can be multi-racial (though of course, mostly caucasian), then this will adequately fill your needs" was perhaps a bit too qualified.

So, in the aforementioned generic medieval empire we've got a bunch of different lords, all of whom have loyal soldier-retainers who live by a code of honour.  It's all pretty flagrantly 18th century Japan, only full of white people.

Anyway, the emperor's chief adviser is a corrupt sort who expects the nobles to provide him with opulent gifts if they don't want anything unfortunate to happen to them.  Given that the emperor seems to be condoning this attitude, most of the lords knuckle under.

But of course there's always got to be one stiff-necked troublemaker, and it's Morgan Freeman, turning up for a brief period to add some gravitas to proceedings before coming to an inevitably sticky end.  This house is destroyed, his family and retainers driven off the land, and he himself is killed.

The wicked adviser expects reprisals from the dead man's former retainers, and for the next year he turns his home into the most heavily fortified place in the empire, while also spying on all those who he thinks might take part in any reprisals.  Surprise surprise, it's only when he finally believes that they've given up any thoughts of revenge that they spring their desperate plan to make him pay: a plan which even if successful, will probably lead to their deaths.

As I said at the start, if you want a narrative that's close to the classic Japanese story, and don't mind the white-washed setting, this film is probably adequate to your needs.  It has some decent action scenes and the basic plot structure is sound, if not exactly innovative.  However, I suspect the audience that does care about an adaptation of The 47 Ronin is probably also an audience that cares about the setting.  And they might be better served by one of the Japanese language adaptations.  Perhaps even the one I plan to review next week :)

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Breaking Bad, Season 2 (2009)

Walter White's plan to quickly a build a nest-egg for his wife and children has hit something of a snag.  Several snags, in fact.  First of all, there's the fact that getting into the drug-dealing game means working with drug dealers, many of whom are violent and impulsive types, especially when they've been sampling the product.  Plus can you really trust them?  They are criminals, after all

Then there's the fact that you're in competition with other dealers, and the territorial squabbles that come with it.  And if the other dealers don't get you, then maybe the cops will.

And then there's all the lying and deception that the job requires, inevitably driving a wedge between Walter and the very people he's ostensibly doing all this for.  Because surprise, surprise - your wife starts to get a bit crabby when you're receiving mysterious phone calls, disappearing without explanation for hours at a time, and otherwise acting in a hugely suspicious manner.

To be honest, it's not hard to see why Walter's "nice middle class man" demeanour is starting to fray a little, revealing a hard, angry edge to the world.

Much as with season one, this series of Breaking Bad is intermittently very good, but it has some tonal and pacing issues.  Certain sections drag on far longer than they probably ought to, and the climactic events seem frankly a bit rushed as they're pretty much all jammed into the final three episodes.  But on the plus side it continues to have strong performances and some fine character writing.

If you're up for a show where the protagonist is headed down a dark road, and you don't mind that said road's sometimes got traffic jams and detours, then it's worth checking out.

Friday, 10 November 2017

47 Ronin (2013)

The story of the 47 Ronin is probably one of the best known tales of Japanese history.  In the 18th century, a feudal noble was forced to commit seppuku after attacking a court official.  Forty-seven of the dead noble's samurai then plotted for a year to assassinate the official and reclaim their master's honour.  Then they too committed seppuku, since in the eyes of the law they had committed murder.

This American adaptation of the story embellishes events in a number of ways.  The court official becomes a malevolent rival lord who deliberately goads the samurais' master into a dishonourable act.  He's aided in this plot by a shape-changing witch, who uses her sorcerous powers to beguile animals and humans alike, while the ronin appeal to the tengu (forest demons) for aid in their quest.  And it also adds a romance subplot between the dead lord's daughter and one of the 47.

Honestly, I'm okay with all of the above additions if they make the film more enjoyable. Spoiler: at least for this film, they don't.  I'm also rather less than thrilled about the decision to make the central character and love interest for the daughter be an alleged "half breed" played by the not actually Japanese at all Keanu Reeves.  Where there really no Japanese American actors (or part Japanese American actors) who could have carried the role?  It's not like Reeves was exactly a major box office draw at the time, as the film's catastrophic financials show.

I'm sure you could make a good adaptation of the 47 Ronin with added supernatural shenanigans and romantic sub-plots, but this isn't that film.  It's a disjointed collection of scenes that don't ever really gel together, and that often don't even measure up as individual sequences in and of themselves.  Keanu's final encounter with the witch, for instance, is simply not terribly interesting to watch.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Castle, Season 5 (2012)

There's a dilemma facing every show that relies heavily on unresolved romantic tension between two leads.  On the one hand, if you don't pull the trigger on the relationship eventually, then your audience might get frustrated and turn against you.  On the other hand, if you do pull the trigger, the whole status quo of your show is going to change, and your audience might not like it and turn against you.  TVTropes has a whole page dedicated to this concept of "Shipping Bed Death", which you should not look up, because it's TVTropes and you will be lost for hours.

The Beckett/Castle romance has been one of the two defining features of the show, the other being the goofiness of the crimes they investigated.  Without getting into specifics, I'm pleased to say that this season of the show does a pretty good job of cutting through the "Will they or won't they?" Gordian Knot.  It's definitely a big step up from season four's rather laboured efforts to maintain the status quo.

On the other hand, every silver lining has a cloud, and I think it is fair to say that the "goofy crimes" element of the show is starting to get a little tired.  If you'd told me before watching that season that "the episode where the murder weapon is a Star Trek phaser is not the silliest thing they'll do this year", I would not have believed you.  But there's a two-parter this year that is sillier than both that and the "Santa falls out of the sky" episode.  A two-parter which frankly compounds the sin of its own goofiness by seeming completely unaware of how stupid it is.

I also suspect that I'm going to be a bit disappointed by the start of season six, because the last couple of episodes of this season dangle the idea of a fresh and interesting direction for the show, but I'm pretty sure they won't have the gumption to go through with it.  So instead we'll just get more of the same basically entertaining light dramedy.  Which isn't a terrible outcome, I admit, but I'll always have that "What if?" feeling now.

Friday, 3 November 2017

The Eclipse (2009)

I originally intended The Eclipse to be part of my October review list, and it is a genuinely creepy film at times - certainly it has more legitimate scares than drek like Zombie Apocalypse - but at the end of the day I decided to defer it into November.  Because despite the effective spooky elements, at the end of the day I feel that the focus of this film is on the human drama, with the scares as a spicy addition rather than the main ingredient of the cinematic meal.

Michael Farr is a widower, still struggling with grief from the death of his wife two years earlier, while trying to raise two children, hold down a job, and assist with running a local literary festival.  For this year's festival he's been assigned to help a writer of ghost stories, which might (or might not) go some way to explaining why Michael begins experiencing some decidedly spooky visitations.

The Eclipse is anchored by a compelling central performance by Ciaran Hinds.  He's excellent as the grieving, yearning widower.  He's ably supported by a strong cast and by the film's very effective combination of everyday drama and possibly otherworldly experiences.  Any film that can creep you out just from seeing someone walk across a room is doing something right.

I think in part the scare scenes in this movie are so effective because it's not a horror film.  The Eclipse constantly lures you into the "mundane" story it is telling, which means that the creepy just genuinely surprises.

If you're at all a fan of well-told romantic drama, and don't mind occasionally being a little bit freaked out, The Eclipse is well worth your time.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Trick 'r Treat (2011)

Anthology films are common enough in the horror genre that Horror Movie A Day has totted up an impressive 48 reviews of them during its lifetime.  Many of these tend to just string a series of short films together, one after the other, such as with Tales from the Darkside.  This film, on the other hand, takes a more complex approach with four different but related stories each evolving over the course of the movie.  It does a pretty good job of this integration, and - probably even more importantly - the individual stories are also pretty fun.

So as you might deduce from the title, Trick 'r Treat is a Halloween-themed film, which made it a natural choice for my review on October 31, really.  All four of its stories revolve around Halloween festivities in the same small town, with the characters from each subsection interacting with each other in more or less significant ways.

Without going into too many spoilers, the four basic subsections of the film involve a serial killer, a group of young women on the prowl, a bus full of murdered children, and the charming little fellow in the image above.  His name is Sam.  Sam takes Halloween seriously.  Sam does not like it if you don't treat the holiday with respect.  And you trust me, you don't want to upset Sam.

Deftly balancing creepiness and (dark) comedy, Trick 'r Treat is a fun little horror film with a surprisingly recognisable cast.  If you like the spooky and the ooky, give it a watch.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

The Girl With All The Gifts (2016)

Every morning, the soldiers come to Melanie's cell-like room.  One of them covers her with a rifle while the other straps her into a wheelchair, binding her feet, hands and head so that she can't move any of them.  Then they wheel her to her lessons.  On good days, Ms Justineau will be there to teach the class.  She's the only grown-up who doesn't treat the children like rabid animals, and Melanie idolises her.

Of course, there are very good reasons most of the adults treat the kids the way they do, and before too much of the film elapses, Melanie will get a first hand demonstration of them.

So I doubt I am spoiling anything much by mentioning that this is a zombie film.  Even if you hadn't guessed something of the fact from my first paragraph, the quote in the DVD cover image above drops that spoiler on you.

You shouldn't believe everything in that quote, though, because The Girl With All the Gifts is actually a much better film than 28 Days Later.  The nature of the zombie menace is more interesting, and we have a much more interesting group of characters through which to experience it.  All the main players have their good and bad points, and when they act - for good or for ill - they do so for sound and solid reasons.  There's no need for handwaves like "oh well Chris Ecclestone's character is just a nutter" here.

If you're at all into zombie movies, put this on your list.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

The Day (2011)

A man scavenges through an abandoned suburb, looking for food.  As he does so, unseen assailants abduct his wife and child.

Some time later, the same man walks along an isolated road with four others.  The colour in the film has now been desaturated to the point of almost-but-not-quite black and white.  The five travellers are nervous about "Them" being in the area, but with a storm approaching and one of their number already ill, they decide to take shelter in an isolated farm house.

Of course, a building can be a prison as easily as a protection, and if "They" come, then the quintet will find themselves under siege.

So far, so Night of the Living Dead, and I know of at least one person who turned the film off right about here on the assumption it was just another Romero rip-off.

But I'm pleased to say that unlike some of the other films I've reviewed this month, The Day actually has a few surprises to spring on the audience.  It also has conspicuously better fight choreography than is the norm for lower budget offerings, with most of the action feeling very convincing and visceral.  There are a few times where the CGI gore is somewhat unconvincing, but when characters swing weapons in this, it genuinely feels like they are trying to land a blow on an enemy.

I'm not going to spoil the wrinkles that The Day has to offer, because I think the film profits from having you discover them as you watch.  But if you've ever enjoyed a zombie film, I think this movie is worth adding to your list of things to see.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Manhunt (2008)

It's interesting watching this film so soon after Them, because it really does bring home the technical skill of the French/Romanian film.

Like Them, this film (named Rovdyr in the original Norwegian) features a group of everyday people unexpectedly coming under persistent and unexplained assault by an anonymous group of aggressors.

The everyday people in this case are a group of soon-to-be college students, plus a couple of incidental folks they encounter, and the scene of the attack is up in the isolated backwoods of the Norwegian countryside.  Our protagonists are there for a hiking trip, though mostly they seem to be squabbling with each other, even after they start getting targeted by pyscho-killers.

Manhunt is an adequate enough slasher film of the "the entertainment is mostly in the imaginative violence" kind that was so prominent back in the 80s.  The gore effects are good, the acting - as far as I can tell, given it's in Norwegian - seems fine, and the script moves along at a decent pace.

But if you're not a full-on slasher aficionado (and possibly even if you are), you're likely to find yourself asking "is this it?".  Manhunt is so busy ploughing through its violent plot points that it very rarely stops to take a moment to actually be tense.  Despite all the gory antics, the film lacks any real sense of menace.

If you want something scary, you need to look elsewhere.  And if you just want to see a bunch of teens getting murdered in the woods ... well you'd be better off watching one of the better Friday the 13th films; say number 4 or number 7.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Zombie Apocalypse (2011)

I guess on the plus side, when you call your zombie apocalypse movie Zombie Apocalypse you are doing your prospective audience the service of providing advance notice of how creatively bankrupt your film is going to be.

So what we have here is your standard "flesh-eating undead destroy civilisation" type premise.  Six months after the collapse, three young people emerge from the isolated cabin where they've been hiding and go in search of other survivors.  What they find instead is zombies.  One of them is killed, and the other two look set to join him, when four strangers turn up and slaughter the undead in an orgy of badly choreographed melee and gunplay action.  Get used to seeing actors awkwardly swing swords and hammers at zombies that aren't actually on screen with them: it's a really cheap if thoroughly unconvincing way to stage a fight scene.

The six survivors join forces and set off toward Catalina, as the newcomers have heard that there is a safe zone on the island.  Along the way, they will naturally run into a bunch more undead.  Distractingly, the same recognisable extras will be used in a couple of scenes that are supposed to take place many miles apart.  It's that kind of movie.

It's also the kind of movie where they position one character as the audience surrogate / point of view character, set up what looks like the start of an arc for her, and then kind of shrug and forget about her in the last forty minutes when they introduce several new characters and suddenly promote some of the other survivors to more prominent roles.

Anyway, zombie "action" ensues for a while, and the film finally delivers some memorable if extremely random cheese in its last ten minutes, and then it ends.  That final, amusingly stupid scene can't redeem the ninety minutes that came before it, and they certainly aren't enough to make me give the film any kind of recommendation, but they do make me a little less bitter about the time I spent watching this when I could have been re-watching Mega-Python vs Gatoroid instead.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Them (2006)

As you can probably tell from the image above, this is not the wonderful 1954 film about giant ants.  Instead it is Ils, a French-Romanian film about a young couple terrorised in their isolated home by a mostly-unseen group of attackers.

Because the film's premise requires that there be only two characters for much of its run time, we begin with a largely unrelated sequence where a mother and daughter are forced off the road late at night, and then killed.  This five minutes or so relates to the main plot only in that one of the main characters sees the dead women's car the next day, and the perpetrators of the attack are presumably the same group.  The sequence does however establish the main basic shot of the film, which is to have the camera linger on the face of a terrified person as they glance wildly around, nervously reacting to every slightly-too-loud bit of background noise.

That probably sounds dismissive, and on some level it is.  Them/Ils is fundamentally a very slight film, content-wise.  In that regard, it is something of a triumph of style and technique over substance, as it does genuinely build and maintain tension through much of its relatively short run time.  On the other hand, the actual specifics of the plot are more than a little shaky, and its sympathetic characters are drawn in only the sketchiest of manner.  In the latter case, I'm reminded of James Herbert's The Rats, where he would repeatedly introduce a character, give you a page of backstory on them, then have them savagely killed and eaten by mutant rodents.

Of course, sometimes less is more.  The lack of information we have about the attackers is part of what makes them scary, and frankly the more the film reveals about them the less effective they become as a source of menace.  I suspect the movie would be even more effective if we never learned anything about them at all.

At the end of the day, if you just want a scary movie and you are willing to switch your higher cognitive functions off to get that animal brain chill thrill, then Them delivers.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Nosferatu: the Vampyre (1979)

Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania to sell a house to the reclusive Count Dracula, despite the manifold warnings of the locals that the Count and his castle are bad, bad news.  When the unnerving, rat-toothed Count becomes besotted with an image of Harker's wife (who has been inexplicably re-named Lucy, instead of Mina), old Jonathon starts to regret his pigheadedness ... for death now draws close to his home and family.

If you search online for reviews of this remake of the 1922 classic Nosferatu, you'll find glowing accounts from multiple sources, including the late Roger Ebert.

I have no idea why.

Yes, the film is visually quite striking at times.  But artfully shot landscapes and re-mixes of the clever imagery of the original film do not make a good movie.  Not by themselves, anyway.

Perhaps the film works better in German.  It was filmed in both that language and in English, and given the heritage of the actors and writers it's entirely possible that the acting and the script both suffered in translation.  Certainly I hope that it did, because in English they're both at a community theatre levels.  When you're making a sombre horror film and the dialogue feels like a retread of Monty Python's Cheese Shop sketch, something has gone wrong.

Ironically, this is a remake of a silent film that I suspect would itself work better as a silent movie.  Mute all the dialogue and add a few text interstitials, and the film would at least be a treat for the eyes without being an assault on the ears.

Or you could just watch F W Murnau's original film, instead.  That's what I'd do.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

The Ruins (2008)

If you're a horror movie fan, you can skip this review: just go get yourself a copy of The Ruins and have a good time.

For the rest of you, I'll try to convince you it's worth your time to see.

Four American tourists befriend a young German man while on holiday in Mexico.  He tells them that the next morning he is travelling to a remote Mayan ruin to collect his brother, who previously went there with a lady archaeologist.  With varying degrees of enthusiasm, the foursome agree to accompany him to see the ruin.

Given that this is a horror movie, you can be sure that the trip doesn't end up being an especially jolly one, but I'll refrain from going into any more details about the plot, because I think that the film does a very good job of slowly unfurling the true threat, and to just state the details baldly would not do it justice.

I will, however, take some time to praise the film-makers.  They've done very good work here.  This is by no means a "big budget" film (it cost about $8 million) but it's technically very proficient and you never feel like you're watching a cheap movie.  In particular the casting team has done a great job.  All the core group of actors deliver solid performances, and it is no surprise to see that they've generally gone on to bigger (though not necessarily better) things.

About the only complaint I might make of this film is that once it hits the end game, it feels like it rushes through things just a little.  But when the worst thing you can say about a movie is "gee, I wish they'd given the last couple of scenes a few minutes more to breathe, so they were as effective as the earlier parts" ... well, it speaks pretty well of the film as a whole, I think.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

A Killing Strain (2010)

A group of strangers shelter in an isolated farm house as the zombie apocalypse begins.  Can they work together to survive or will the rivalries and disagreements between them prove even more dangerous than the horde of flesh-eating undead outside?

If you've ever seen Night of the Living Dead you're probably thinking "gee, that sounds familiar".  And it should, because in the expansive realm of low budget zombie flicks, A Killing Strain's primary claim for distinction is the extent to which it borrows from the film that defined the genre.  Not that this movie is like Romero's masterpiece in all ways, of course.  It has a confirmed cause for the zombie outbreak, for instance, which the older film avoided.

Oh, and A Killing Strain is also different from Night of the Living Dead in that it's terrible.  The acting's mostly bad, for one thing, though to be fair to the cast it's hard to imagine anyone making some of the scenes in this script work.  For instance, there's an awkward conversation about fried coke that goes on for several minutes.   It's a scene that would land with a thud even if much of the performance wasn't stilted and uncomfortable.

Just in case bad acting and scripting wasn't enough, though, you can be sure this film also delivers bad action choreography and effects work.  It's nothing if not consistent in being of poor quality.

The world is full of low budget zombie films, presumably because it's comparatively easy to make them.  There's a very good chance I'll see at least a couple more in the course of this month, in fact.  I can only hope that if I do, they offer something at least a little more interesting than this film does.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2016)

The conclusion to 2012's Resident Evil: Retribution had the heroes teaming up with their former arch-nemesis Albert Wesker for a final stand against the mutant zombie horde that has overrun the planet.  I'm not sure what writer/director Paul Anderson originally planned to do with that scenario, but I suspect that the delays in making this film - it was originally intended for 2014 release, and instead only just snuck into the 2016 season - probably changed them significantly.

We start here with another account of the "T virus", which caused a zombie outbreak and the collapse of civilisation; and with the news that the apparent "last stand" was a trap.  The only survivor - other than the villainous Wesker - is Alice (Milla Jovovich, returning to punch and shoot zombies for a sixth and presumably final time).

After being chased by monsters for a while, Alice stumbles into another big dump of exposition that justifies all the rest of the being-chased-by-monsters she'll do in the rest of the film.  Humanity's last remnants will be destroyed in 24 hours, and only Alice can save them.  How, you ask?  Why, by penetrating to the heart of the evil Umbrella Corporation and releasing an anti-virus that destroys the T-virus, and anything infected by it.

Which includes Alice herself.  Tough break.

If you've ever seen a Resident Evil film before, there's absolutely nothing to surprise you here.  It's the sixth instalment in the franchise and it's very much in the footsteps of those that have come before it.  Alice teams up with a bunch of other folks, and they tangle with monsters until almost none of them are left, and then she faces off with scenery-chewing bad guys.

So yes, it's pure formula.  But - for me at least - it's a fun formula.  If you like the idea of monster-action, you could well have a good time.

(The first movie is still by far the best in the series, though)

Saturday, 7 October 2017

American Mary (2012)

Mary Mason is a gifted medical student, but one whose considerable financial difficulties are putting her future at risk.  When she applies for work at a massage parlour that promises "no sex required", the interview unexpectedly spirals into an opportunity to do a little off the books medical treatment, and from there into the world of black market body modification.

Mary's not looking to make a career of such illicit work, just using it to pay the bills while she finishes her training for a legitimate career, but her plans change after she is sexually assaulted by the surgeons who are training her.  The underworld contacts she's made help her "disappear" the primary culprit, who becomes her unwilling 'guinea pig' for practicing new procedures (can't say I feel any sympathy for him, really), and she launches a new career catering to those who can't get the surgery they want through legal medical channels.

Of course, a surgeon can't disappear without someone taking notice, and Mary's breaking all kinds of laws with her new occupation, so this isn't exactly a safe or stable career she's chosen.  Can she stay ahead of anyone who might wish her ill, or will she end up, so to speak, on the cutting room floor?

I've seen other reviews describe American Mary as nausea-inducing, but I honestly didn't find it that confronting.  Still, there are some surgical scenes, and several minor characters with real life body modifications such as tongue splitting, which I guess may make some folks uncomfortable.

More problematic for me was the plot, which was rather fractured and disjointed, with various sequences that kind of came and went independently of each other, and a romance subplot that just kind of existed, without much establishment or resolution to it.  I feel like the script needed a good bit more work before it would really have been ready to shoot.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

The Shallows (2016)

When her mother dies of cancer, med student Nancy Adams takes a break from her studies to travel the world.  One of Nancy's key objectives is to locate and surf at an isolated beach that her mother visited in the early stages of being pregnant with Nancy.

At first, the beach seems to be everything Nancy hoped it to be, but when she follows a pod of dolphins out into deeper water, things go awry.  There's an injured whale here, and - perhaps attracted by the injured animal - there's also a great white shark lurking beneath the waves.

Luck allows Nancy to survive the shark's first attack, but she's now trapped hundreds of metres from the safety of the shore, and the great white clearly intends to finish the job.  The shark has all the physical advantages in this situation, of course, so Nancy will have to rely on her wits to survive ...

The first half hour of The Shallows is excellent, with some lovely underwater photography and a growing sense of tension and menace.  Things remain quite strong through the middle as well, once the shark makes it attack.  Sure, it seems very unlikely that a great white would bother spending hours stalking a single woman when there's an injured whale right there, but if you're willing to overlook that - and the film does ultimately offer a figleaf justification for the beast's obsession with eating our heroine - then it's got lots of decent set pieces.

In the last 30 minutes alas, the scenario does start to collapse under the growing weight of its own implausibility.  There were a couple of moments where I laughed out loud at developments: something that very much breaks the tension and I am sure was not intended.

If movies-that-make-you-jittery are your thing, then this is certainly worth seeing for the first hour, at the very least.  For the rest, well, just don't think about it too much.  Though it did occur to me afterward that if you treat this film as a sequel to Deep Blue Sea, with this killer shark being an escapee from that movie, then the whole thing makes a lot more sense.  For certain definitions of sense, anyway!

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Swamp Devil (2008)

A girl is murdered in some woods, and then seventeen years later, a teenage woman is also killed.  Not longer after this, Melanie Blaime receives a call telling her that her father - whom she coincidentally hasn't seen in about seventeen years - is dying, and asking her to return to her old hometown to see him.

Daddy Blaime isn't actually dying, though: instead he's the prime suspect for the more recent murder, even though the evidence against him seems to amount to "he says there's a monster in the swamp so he must be crazy".  Of course, being the kind of movie this is, it's no spoiler to say that Pops is right on the money about the monster thing.

Making genuinely scary movies is actually a pretty tough thing to do well, which is why a lot of horror films don't bother to try.  Check out the later entries in just about any slasher franchise, for instance, and the overall tone is likely to be more pitched at shocks and thrills than building any real atmosphere or tension - to the point where it's debatable if they are horror films at all.

Swamp Devil is similarly bereft of any real scares, not least because the monster encounters are staged more as action sequences than anything else, but I think its claim to being a horror film is pretty sound, nonetheless, as it hits a lot of tried and true 'vengeful spirit' story beats.  I also give it points for not dragging out the mystery too long, allowing it to get down to monster antics around the halfway point of the film.

The restrictions imposed by its made-for-TV budget mean that Swamp Devil is probably only worthwhile for hard core horror film aficionados.  That's something of a shame, though, as there's the kernal of a decent film in here, and I could certainly see myself raiding the basic plotline for use in a Halloween roleplaying game.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

2017 October Schedule

During October, I'll be posting reviews on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, for a total of 13 reviews over the course of the month.  They'll all be horror-themed reviews, so if nominally scary movies aren't your thing, then feel free to take a month's break from this blog :)

The normal Tuesday and Friday schedule will resume in November, with the first review for that month appearing on the 3rd.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Secretary (2002)

Lee Holloway is an emotionally sensitive young woman who uses self-harm to cope with her feelings of awkwardness and isolation.  After learning to type, she wins the job of secretary of uptight lawyer E. Edward Grey.  Grey warns her that the work is dull, but Lee simply answers that she "likes dull".

It soon becomes clear that Grey is sexually aroused by Lee's compliant and obedient nature; an arousal he attempts to quell with vigorous exercise.  After he becomes aware of her self-harm, however, he orders her to stop, and the pair begin a BDSM relationship.  Unfortunately, Grey remains deeply conflicted by his own desires, and this quickly becomes a threat to their relationship and the happiness Lee has found in it.

Secretary is a film full of awkward, uncomfortable moments between two awkward, uncomfortable people, but - provided you're okay with the BDSM elements, and if you're not you probably won't be watching it to begin with - it's also a quite touching romance.  The two main cast members are both very strong, and do a great job of conveying the tension and passion between their characters.  I do think the film overplays things a bit in the final act, which undercuts the impact a little, but overall it's quite effective: I found it easy to like both parties and to hope for their happiness together.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

House of Cards, Season 3 (2015)

Frank Underwood has clawed his way to becoming the most powerful man in the world, but his savage campaign to seize the top job has left his own party bloodied and battered.  President Underwood faces a hostile congress that emphatically rejects his political agenda and a rebellious party that doesn't want him to run for re-election.  Oh, and there's the little matter of a flare-up in the middle east and an adversarial President of Russia to deal with.

Of course, Underwood didn't get where he is by wilting under pressure, and you can bet he'll fight hard and dirty to keep what he's gained and to secure his own legacy.  And any collateral damage he inflicts on others who are in the way ... well, that's too bad for them, but it's the price they pay for trying to mix with the ruthless and powerful.

I enjoyed this season of House of Cards considerably more than I did season two.  It feels more grounded, and the rivals with whom Underwood faces off feel more compelling and real than those of last year.

If you like your political fiction (as opposed to your political reality!) bleak and Machiavellian, this is solid stuff.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Bedevilled (2010)

Hae-won is an over-stressed, confrontation-averse bank officer.  When the pressure finally overwhelms her, she's forcibly instructed to take a vacation.

Initially, Hae-won follows this instruction by moping around her apartment and drinking heavily, but then she decides to spend a week visiting the isolated Mudo Island, where she spent holidays as a child.  Given some of the things we later learn about those holidays, you might wonder what would prompt her to return at all, but nothing can really prepare her for what she finds on arrival.  The island has fewer than ten inhabitants, and her childhood friend Bok-nam, who is the only young, able-bodied woman, is more or less treated as a slave by the men and older women.  About the only two things that make Bok-nam's terrible existence bearable are her love for her daughter and her hope that her old friend Hae-won will help her, and so this visit may ignite events that Hae-won never could have imagined.

This is an ugly film.  Most characters are outright evil and even those that aren't are rather broken.  The film rarely flinches from depicting the full ugliness of Bok-nam's life, and the few times it does show circumspection, you'll be glad of it.  It's not quite a "video nasty" in the style of say I Spit On Your Grave in that it doesn't generally have the skeevy titillating atmosphere of those films, but it's certainly every bit as graphic.  And it does occasionally overplay its hand into unintentional absurdity, especially during the final act.

Ultimately I feel like Bedevilled falls a little uncomfortably between two different camps.  It's much too grim and stark to fit into the sensationalised sex and violence oeuvre so successfully adopted by shows like Game of Thrones, but at the same time it veers in that direction often enough that it doesn't quite gel as the harrowing, impactful experience it might otherwise have been.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Banshee, Season 1 (2013)

Banshee's premise was explained to me as "Jewel thief gets released from jail and then pretends to be the new sheriff of a small town as he attempts to track down his former accomplices".  From that, I kind of went in expecting something dry and a bit quirky.

Not so much.  While I was thinking it would maybe be like Northern Exposure meets Breaking Bad, what I actually got might be better described as "a car crash meeting of Riverdale and Spartacus: Blood & Sand".

So yeah, dry and quirky isn't Banshee's thing.  Sex and violence, on other hand, most definitely is.  There's frequent nudity and numerous sexual scenes, and even more frequent (and often rather unnecessarily protracted) bloody mayhem.

This isn't to say that the premise that was described to me is inaccurate.  It's not.  The show is very much about a jewel thief pretending to be a small town sheriff while trying to reconnect with his former accomplices, but it's also about that jewel thief trying to stay one step ahead of the dangerous Ukrainian mobster who wants him dead.  And about the ruthless crime boss who pretty much runs the town in which our main character is carrying out his sheriff-impersonating shenanigans.  So many people get bloodily beaten or killed in the course of the season's ten episodes that things occasionally venture across the line from "ferocious" to "farcical".

If you don't mind the deliberately shocking content, and the rapidly escalating implausibility of the premise, there's fun to be had with Banshee, but it's very much exploitation-level stuff, on the whole.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Operation: Endgame (2010)

It is the inauguration of Barack Obama, which is bad news for the black ops agency The Factory.  It's been allowed to get up to all sorts of inappropriate mischief in the previous eight years, and that's all about to come to the light of day.  Or at least, it should.  Some within the Factory are determined to ensure that their tracks are covered.  And they don't really care what they need to do in order to achieve that goal.

Apparently the original script for this film did quite well in screenwriting competitions back in 2004.  It was presumably at least somewhat different back then, what with Obama's election being several years in the future.  I wonder if it was also funnier back then, because while I did laugh a couple of times during this ostensible comedy, there was an awful lot of macho posturing type stuff that I think was supposed to be comically over the top, but didn't really work for me.  It was over the top, certainly, but I didn't find it to be so in a manner that was funny.

Things do improve once the action elements of the film kick off, as the film at least has momentum then, but it's best not too think too closely about the plot.  It's one of those complicated triple-cross things which only work if everything falls exactly into place.

There's a great cast here, of recognisable if not exactly A-list names.  I just wish they were assembled for a better film.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Orphan Black, Season 3 (2015)

The writers of Orphan Black seemed to have created a rod for their own backs.  By far the most engaging and entertaining of the various clone sisters in the show is the uptight soccer mom Alison, but she's also the one that's got very little to do with the whole "secret cloning/genetics experiments" storyline at the heart of the show.  Everyone else has some skill or ability that ties into this.  Cosima has the science; Helena the special forces skills; while Sarah has both street smarts and is the only clone able to have children of her own.  Alison ... well, she used to help with the finances but even if this was still necessary it's not exactly something that keeps her front and centre in the show.

What this means is that season three sometimes feels like you're watching two different programs, as most of the characters feel like they're in something like The Americans while Alison's apparently turned up to work on Weeds.  Both solid shows, but not exactly an easy mix.  The writers do what they can to generate reasons for other characters to get involved in Alison's story arc, but they can't so readily resolve the problem of the different tones.

Fortunately, the show does a better job handling its other challenge: maintaining a core mystery and moving it forward in a satisfying way.  There is one major plot twist that I don't think was entirely earned, but other than that it holds together quite nicely.  I'll certainly be checking out season four.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Wonder Women (1973)

Renowned athletes are mysteriously disappearing.  On the hook for half a million dollars of insurance over the latest disappearance, Lloyds of London hire ace investigator Mike Harbor to find the missing man.

Harber (played by Russ Hagen, who looks kinda like a cut price Dirk Benedict) is the kind of man who keeps a sawn-off shotgun in his safari suit, but even he isn't really ready for where this case is going to go: black market brain transplants, pubescent assassins, murderous mutants, and an army of kung fu femme fatales.

The sad thing about Wonder Women is that it takes that gonzo list of ingredients and produces such a tepid final product.  A big part of this is that it doesn't really build or integrate the components at all.  The killer kid, for instance, disappears out of the film about halfway through without any kind of resolution, while the mutants are clumsily introduced all of five minutes before they're needed for their murderous rampage.

The film's second major flaw is the pacing.  Even at about 85 minutes, it feels pretty stretched at times, with one chase scene in particular going on and on and on and on.  And on.  It does have a couple of moments of quite neat stunt work, I have to admit, but that doesn't really compensate for how interminable it feels.

At the end of the day, if you're looking to get your "70s cheapie" groove on, there are better options than this out there.  Black Mama White Mama comes to mind, for one.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

House of Cards, Season 2 (2014)

There's an explosive plot development in the very first episode of the second season of House of Cards.  It's a stark and shocking moment.

The problem with explosions though, is that while they can start fires, they can also snuff them out.  And for my tastes, the latter case applies here.  As I said, the moment itself is stark and shocking, and honestly it was probably inevitable that it would happen at some point.  But while doing it early gives the opening of the season some real impact, it has some significant drawbacks that I think hamper the rest of the episodes.

For one thing, it deprives the show of one of its most interesting interpersonal relationships, and while the writers make an effort to fill the gap in a couple of different ways, one of them never really gets out of second gear, and the other takes a while to build up.  I do have hopes it will pay off in season three, but honestly, it needs to, as pretty much all the original conflict of the show has been resolved now.

Overall, House of Cards is still an enjoyable show in season two, but the sophomore offering does definitely feel like a step down from the first year.  It will be interesting to see how it develops - and whether it recovers or falters further - from here.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Gun Woman (2014)

A sadistic monster rapes and murders a woman, then cripples his victim's husband.  Said husband is a successful doctor, who applies his brilliant mind and large sums of cash to getting revenge.  This won't be easy, because the villain also has vast sums of money, and is protected by an entire platoon of armed guards.  In fact, the only time the bad guy is vulnerable is when he makes a visit to a secret compound that caters to necrophiliacs.

The doctor's scheme for revenge is thus rather elaborate: he will train a woman to be a deadly killer, then surgically conceal the components of a gun inside her body, give her drugs so she appears to be dead, and have her deliverable to necrophilia central, where she'll wake up, rip open her own body to get at the gun, and execute an inevitably gory revenge in 22 minutes or less, because that's how long she'll have before she bleeds to death.

Gun Woman consciously evokes the exploitation films of the 1970s in its look and feel, and it starts as it means to go on: with a naked woman, who is promptly murdered.  Nudity and gore are pervasive throughout the film, especially in the final act, where Asami Sugiura spends a solid 15-20 minutes killing folks while stark naked and covered in blood.

Obviously, given the deliberately gratuitous content, this will not be a film for all tastes.  But if you are in the market for a trenchantly exploitative 80 minutes of sex and violence, it certainly has you covered!

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Breaking Bad, Season 1 (2008)

High school chemistry teacher Walter White discovers that he has lung cancer, and the prognosis is that he'll be dead within two years.  Walter's already working two jobs to try and support his family, and they'll be left pretty much destitute once he's gone.  So of course the obvious thing for him to do (at least on a TV show) is start making crystal meth.  With the proceeds of this illicit activity, he should be able to leave a substantial nest egg ... assuming he doesn't get caught by the cops (who include his own brother-in-law) or killed by an irate criminal.

Armed only with his chemistry skills, and the dubious assistance of a former student who has become a low level drug-dealer, Walter sets out to make a mountain of money, and doesn't intend to let anything stop him from that goal.  Not the fact that he knows pretty much nothing about criminal activity, not that he's suffering from a debilitating disease (and/or its debilitating treatment), and not even that his new partner is a drug-using slacker with impulse control issues.

Naturally, things don't go entirely to plan.

When Breaking Bad is slanted more toward drama and really black comedy, it's very good work.  A fine cast, good writing.  Thumbs up.  Unfortunately, at least in the first season, the writers do seem to throw in a lot of quite slapstick-oriented physical humour, and that's not so successful.  There were a couple of times where I turned to my phone for amusement while waiting out a particularly persistent scene of this kind.

Overall though, so far Breaking Bad is pretty good.

Friday, 25 August 2017

The Rocketeer (1991)

Cliff Secord is a struggling pilot in 1930s California.  He makes ends meet with crop-dusting and other odd jobs, but his main goal is to participate in the national aviation tournament.  That seems impossible, however, when his new plane is written off in an accident caused by a pair of crooks trying to escape the FBI.

But then Cliff stumbles across the experimental rocket pack that the crooks were trying to steal, launching him into a new career as "The Rocketeer", just in time for him to tangle with hoodlums, a giant hit man, and Nazis.

When I was seven or eight years old, I used to love re-runs of King of the Rocket Men on TV.  Which makes it pretty surprising that I never got around to seeing this film when it hit cinemas.  It should have been right up my alley.  And it makes it doubly surprising that I'd never seen it at all until now.  Especially since I've seen many people mention it fondly.

Having finally corrected this oversight, I can report that the film is ... okay.  The cast is personable enough (and Timothy Dalton is great) but the script and action leave a fair bit to be desired.  In particular, I think there are several occasions where the film aims for (and misses) laughs when it should have aimed for (and hopefully hit!) excitement.  It's not a bad film: I was more or less entertained through the run time, but - other than Dalton's performance - I never felt it lifted above "modestly enjoyable".