Thursday, 31 July 2014

Dragon Wars (2007)

I'd be hard pushed to characterise this as a 'good' film.  The pacing's very wonky, the script is pretty much jam-packed with deux ex machina moments, and the acting ... well, let's be kind and call it 'uneven'.

I still thoroughly enjoyed it the first time I saw it, and quite liked it on the re-watch.  Why?  Four words: rocket launchers on dinosaurs.  There are two set piece battle sequences in the film, the first in 16th century Korea and the second in the modern day, and they're definitely the highlights of the film.  The latter in particular is a wonderfully over the top action sequence with helicopters and tanks dueling the saurian-equipped hordes of the evil snake god villain of the piece.

If you remember the poster for Reign of Fire, and felt you were been short-changed when the film didn't really deliver on its promise of machine vs monster mayhem, then you should check out this film, because it delivers on that promise very nicely indeed.

The film kicks off with a flashback within a flashback, with lots of fairly tedious narration around it.  This is not a smart call, even if it does give us our first battle scene.  It would have been better to kick off with the battle and then just jump to "500 years later".  Anyway, the flashback sets up that there's a good snake god and a bad snake god, and a girl with a dragon birthmark, and whichever snake god absorbs the energy of that birthmark will become a dragon.  Which is even better than being a snake god.

The girl in 16th century Korea dies before her energy can be absorbed, but 500 years later she is reborn in Los Angeles, as is her lover.  Cue return of the evil snake god (the good snake god overslept and will not be seen until the movie needs its final deus ex machina), who chases the not-so-happy couple.  For the rest of the movie.  Because honestly that's kind of the whole plot of the film: humans run away from big snake.

Then there's a big battle, which is great fun, and then the humans finally get caught by the big snake and there's a climactic fight between good and evil which is frankly rather less entertaining than the big battle was, but hey you can't win them all.

This is schlocktastic, but fun.  It's just a bit of a shame it peaks 15 minutes before it ends.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Firefly (2002)

This is a review where I commit geek heresy.

That heresy is not that I haven't given an unqualified recommendation to one of the few science fiction shows that is near-universally acclaimed among nerds.  I think I'm on solid ground there.  As much as I like the show - and I do like it a lot - it got cancelled after one short season, depriving it of a chance to explore most of its mysteries, and of a satisfying ending.  It's true it got an ending, if you factor in the movie sequel Serenity, but I wouldn't call it a satisfying one.

The show was focused around the crew of a small spaceship on the verges of civilized space.  It combined consciously western tropes and visuals: most frontier planets were dusty places where horses were still used as transport, despite the spaceships, while the weapons mostly resembled items from the 19th and 20th century, with the occasional laser or other high-tech gadget thrown in.  Honestly, it was a bit of an incoherent mess, setting-wise, but I can let it slide on rule of cool.  I do take issue with the show's Independents vs Alliance backstory though.  It too closely maps to the US Civil War in its rhetoric and uniforms, and I have serious issues with the Confederacy analogues being the good guys.

Anyway, where the show really shone was its cast - who were uniformly excellent - and the characters.  They were a rabscrabble bunch, living hand to mouth half the time and more than willing to take on an illegal job or three if it kept the ship running, while still retaining an ethical core.  The only one I'm ambivalent about is River, who got treated more as a plot device than an actual character for most of the series.  That was just beginning to change when the show got cancelled.

Why did such a 'universally acclaimed' show get cancelled?  Well, because it wasn't rating.  Passionate support from a small group of fans has kept a show afloat in the past (or got it a sequel film, like this one), but if it fails to find a mainstream audience then the major networks aren't likely to keep it around.  Fox gets a lot of flak for the failure of Firefly to find an audience.  I think some of that is deserved - certainly they failed to make me interested, in the lead up to the show's launch, and I was pretty much the definition of an easy sell when it came to SF TV back then - but some of it is not.  The financial failure of the feature film suggests that the wider audience just isn't going to go for quite so literal a 'cowboys and spaceships' fusion.

Ultimately, if you haven't seen the show and it sounds at all appealing, you should check it out.  If you do, I recommend starting with The Train Job, rather than the first episode on the discs.  Because that's my real geek heresy: one thing I think Fox did right is knocking back the original pilot and making them film The Train Job as a replacement.  It's a much snappier introduction to the series, fits the tone of the overall show better, and some of the characters come off better than in the original pilot.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Gang Bullets (1938)

A few weeks ago in my review of Don't Look in the Basement, I talked about how one good idea does not rescue a film if the rest of it is mediocre.

This is another such movie.  In fact I would say the 'one good idea' here is better than in the other film.  It's sadly let down by many aspects of the execution, however, not to mention some socio-political sentiments I found distasteful.

Those socio-political sentiments begin the film, when we get a text scrawl lamenting the ineffectual laws of American society, and in particular the laws that require presumption of innocence.  The law is a game of chance, it tells us, where the rules favour the criminal.

The film (which is also known as The Crooked Way) will return to this theme several times, with one of the characters explaining that those laws had made sense when a tyrant could murder a citizen for no reason, but that they had lost their meaning in modern society.  Keep in mind that this is 1938, and Hitler and Stalin are both in power, when thinking about how true that might be.

But enough of that: what of the plot?  Well basically a police chief gets fed up of being outwitted by mob boss Big Bill, so he stuffs him on a train out of town.  The film fails to explain why Bill couldn't just come back once he gets off the train, but as it happens he decides he likes the new town he is in well enough.

As you might imagine, the DA and cops of this new burg aren't real pleased to get someone else's trouble dumped on them, but there doesn't seem to be much they can do about it.  Big Bill and his lawyers run rings around them on every front, and soon the press is baying for them to be fired and printing accusations of corruption from an anonymous source.

The film's one good idea is in how they finally catch Big Bill.  I know it's good, because ten minutes into the film I thought "I'd get this guy by doing X", and lo and behold, that was their solution :)

Alas, like I said, even if we ignore the awkward political attitudes, the film's execution is not good.  The acting is stilted, and the script ... well to be fair the writer probably hacked it out in a matter of days, but it surely shows it.

Monday, 28 July 2014

The Firing Line (1988)

The film begins with a group of guerillas being attacked by overwhelming forces and all but annihilated.  Only one female guerilla survives to escape back to their base, while the commander of the unit and a second woman are captured alive.

That might sound like a pretty exciting way to kick things off, but there's literally no dialogue or anything else to give context to the scenes of nameless extras running through trees and dying when there's an explosion nearby them.  Even the fact that they are guerillas has to be inferred from their mismatched outfits, mixture of male and female troops, and lack of heavy equipment.

Then the dialog starts and people try to act, and you wish they'd let you infer the whole movie.

In any case, the rebel leader is brought before the American advisor who orchestrated the attack.  Said American is a stand up guy, of course.  But as soon as he is gone the authorities murder the rebel leader and then rape and murder the other captive.  Surprise!  The government is evil!

Well, duh.  It's the 80s and they have US backing.  Being anti-communist was much more important than not being brutal thug, especially in Central America, where this appears to me.  Google Rios Montt some time, if you doubt me, but don't say I didn't warn you.

Enjoying some R&R and flirting with an allegedly beautiful woman, Our Hero runs into a cynical journalist who sneers at the suggestion the rebel will get a fair trial, what with him being dead and all.  Our Hero ditches the woman and sets out to discover if this is true, and soon finds himself on the wrong side of the government he was just helping.

His escape ends up encompassing his earlier date for not every well-explained reasons, and the two of them end up in the jungle where they naturally hook up with the guerillas and engage in a series of poorly staged battles and one of the most perfunctory romances I have ever seen on screen (and I have seen a lot of perfunctory romances, let me tell you).

If you imagine a Schwarzenegger film from the same period, but with a lead who has 5% of the charisma and a script that's about 10% as good, you've pretty much got this film.  The main entertainment value comes from the frankly atrocious editing.  Hint to the film-makers: if you choose to show a character's face while we can hear them talking, you should choose a shot where their lips are moving.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Revenge of the Nerds (1984)

I loved this movie when I was 15.  After all, it had nerds triumphing over cool kids, and a bunch of naked bosoms.  It was like geek catnip.

I picked up the DVD about 7 years ago, because it was cheap and I had a rish of nostalgia.  Then I remembered some of the stuff in it, and felt bad.  Which is why it hasn't been watched until now.  But we'll get to the bad stuff in a bit.  Let's give credit where credit is due.

Because this does have some stuff going for it.  It has a surprisingly talented cast (seriously, what are Anthony Edwards and John Goodman doing in this), and some refreshing inclusiveness, what with there being a gay nerd.  I mean sure, he's an over the top stereotype gay man, but at least he's there and not one of the bad guys.  Heck, the film's even mildly amusing: the script's jokes are generally pretty juvenile and obvious, but the actors have a pretty good command of physical and visual humour, and make a lot of it work better than it should.

Unfortunately, there are some major issues with the movie.  After the various persecutions of the cool kids finally become unbearable, the nerds decide to fight back.  I can overlook the 'comical' scene where they douse the football team's jockstraps in some version of deep heat.  Sure, it'd be recklessly dangerous in real life, but in a film I can pretend that's not true.

Installing cameras in the cheerleaders sorority house so they can spy on naked women, though?  That's way over the skeevy line.  And lets not even get to the part where one of them tricks a woman into sleeping with him (he's wearing a mask, and she thinks it is her boyfriend).  And these are the 'heroes' remember.

So yeah, there's a whole heaping mess of wrong in this. Even for the 80s, which were not exactly an enlightened time in cinema.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

A Shriek in the Night (1933)

This film stars Ginger Rogers - pre Fred Astaire - as one of a pair of rival reporters after the same story.  There are no prizes for guessing that the two newsies will be a couple at the end of the movie.

We begin with the death - whether accident, suicide, or muder is unclear - of a wealthy businessman with shady friends.  Reporter Pat Morgan has been investigating the dead man for some time, and has spent the last three weeks as his secretary in attempt to learn more of his connections to organised crime.  Unfortunately, her scoop gets snatched out from under her by her rival Ted Rand, and she loses her job.

This doesn't exactly endear Ted to Pat (nor to me, since it's a rather jerky thing to do), but it does later lead to a rather nice Gift of the Magi moment later in the picture, so I will retroactively forgive it.

Alas, shortly after the Gift of the Magi moment, the film - which until then had been moving along in a quite satisfactory manner, if one overlooks the rampant racism and slightly less egregious sexism - stalls pretty badly.  It just feels like the momentum drains away.  Which is a shame, because the actual story behind the businessman's death isn't a bad one when it is finally revealed.  Alas, the movie doesn't do a good job of sustaining interest until we got there.

If you want one of those comedy/drama 'rivals who become lovers' kind of films, there are plenty of better examples.  This is interesting only because it is an example of the early work of a woman on the verge of becoming a star (Rogers would first team up with Astaire later the same year).

Friday, 25 July 2014

Beast from Haunted Cave (1959)

This is one of the scores of ultra-cheap movies Roger Corman produced in the 50s and 60s, often two or three at a time.  In this case, it was filmed alongside Ski Troop Attack, which I reviewed about six months ago.  The two films share the same four principal male cast members, though this one also has a fairly significant female role.

The basic plot: a group of criminals pretend to be tourists at an alpine resort, and book a cross-country skiing trip to an isolated cabin with local instructor Gil Jackson.  The crooks plan is to commit a burglary, then ski up to the cabin and ... lay low for a while, I guess.  Exactly what they are going to do isn't ever very clearly explained.

Anyway, the boss crook has a lady friend who is clearly taken with Gil, which causes some tension even before they set out on their journey.  Also causing tension is the wild story of one of the lesser crooks.  You see, this fellow took a local girl out for a date, but came back without her.  He claims some thing grabbed her, when they went for a look around a local mine, and he certainly seems pretty wild-eyed and shaky from whatever happened.  But his story is so preposterous it couldn't possibly be true, right?

Well this is a movie, so of course it could, and after arriving at the cabin, Gil and the crooks find themselves the target of the monster's hunger.  Not that a man-eating creature will stop Gil and Gypsy - the aforementioned lady friend - from their budding romance.  Said romance isn't badly done, actually.  Easily the best part of the film.

At its core, this film has exactly the same script as the later Creature from the Haunted Sea (which I reviewed in November).  Unlike that film's spoof approach however, it plays things as a straight critter-thriller.  If I didn't know before hand that the two films were both re-writes of the same script (originally shot as Naked Paradise), I probably wouldn't have picked up on it.

I'd say overall that this is technically a better film than Creature from the Haunted Sea , which perhaps makes it unfair that I give this a 'not recommended' when the other film got a qualified recommendation ... but the later movie had an irreverant attitude and silliness that allows me to overlook its flaws.  This one drags a little, and the monster - while not as clownish - is still not very scary.

Worth checking out only for afficiandos of ultra-cheap 50s monster films.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Pleasantville (1998)

I must confess, I sat down to watch this DVD with only tepid enthusiasm.  I saw and liked Pleasantville when it was at the cinemas - that's why I own the DVD - but I've never really felt in the mood to re-watch it.  I only did so now because it was the last remaining movie that I bought before 2007 and had never watched.

So it was (appropriately enough) a pleasant surprise to find myself really enjoying the film.  It's not a subtle movie, at least on the surface, and the ending leaves one rather important question unanswered, but it does what it does very well.  And there is perhaps a layer going on under the surface.

The premise is simple enough, if a little exotic: two squabbling siblings, one a dork, one a rebel, find themselves sucked into the black-and-white millieu of a Leave It to Beaver-esque TV show.  They take the place of two of the principal characters, and must attempt to navigate their new surroundings until they can find a way out.  Fortunately, the dorky male sibling has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the show.

Unfortunately - or so it appears at the time - his rebellious sister isn't interested in sticking to the saccharine sweet and G-rated script.  She introduces sex to the high school kids, for whom hand-holding has been the 'big one' to date, and inadvertently begins a cascade of cultural changes that slowly see more and more of the townspeople turn technicolor(tm).

This phenomenon is used for the movie's subtle-as-a-brick attack on racism, with 'no coloreds' signs appearing in shop windows as those who are still black and white rally against the new element within their society.  The book burnings and other antics are also a pretty clear critique of censorship and attacks on free speech.

But there's also a little more going on in the film, I think.  Dorky brother's initial efforts to stop his sister from 'ruining' the town stem out of the fact that he sees the other people here only as characters in a story.  As he gets to know them and like them, his efforts to stop her cease, and he becomes the greatest agent for change.  And there's something in that: the message that we can best understand and work with others when we start seeing them as fully rounded individuals. "Imagine other people complexly", as author John Green would say.

So yes, I really enjoyed this: solid performances all round, and a fun script which is only slightly marred by its refusal to provide the answer to one rather obvious question (you'll know what it is when you see the movie).  Worth your time.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Urban Gothic Season 1 (2000)

The back-of-case text promises that this show takes British Horror "out of the museum and into the city", which I'm pretty sure is a nicer way of saying "not just re-heated Hammer Horror scripts, we promise".

Does the show deliver on the implication of something new and different?  Well, from Hammer, certainly.  There's definitely a focus on urban settings, and on stories involving working class or socially-disaffected characters, especially teenagers and young adults.  One of the episodes might be described as "Grange Hill goes slasher movie", for instance.  Also, there's a lot more ethnic diversity in this show than in anything Hammer ever did (but then, that's not a high bar to clear)

More important than newness and difference: is it any good?

Wellllllll ....

It's uneven.  It's not helped by a weak start, either: the first episode in particular is a poor one, I think.  That said, even the stronger episodes tend to have issues with their execution.  I feel like the weekly anthology format probably was a little beyond them: it's tough to have to introduce characters, set stakes, and have a satisfying conclusion at the best of times, let alone while packing it into 22 minutes.

So what we tend to get is stories that don't feel like they've been 'fully cooked'.  Several of the episodes have interesting premises, but almost every episode feels like the scripts could have done with two or three more drafts to iron out all the issues.  They aren't always huge problems (though they sometimes are: the end of the Grange Hill episode I mentioned above is a terrible one, for instance), but they are noticeable.  An example: the werewolf episode relies on certain points on the lycanthropes exhibiting similar behavioural traits to lions.

One would think that if you specifically identify them as werewolves, that their behaviour should be wolf-like, no?

Some people might appreciate the rough and unpolished outcomes, but I wish they'd had more time to develop their scripts.  If they had, I probably would have felt comfortable giving them a qualified recommendation.  As is, check it out only if you have a thing for horror-themed short stories.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The Girl from Chicago (1932)

Blaxploitation was a 70s phenomenon, but in the earlier days of the movie industry we had 'race films', which starred African-American casts and were marketed to African-American audiences.  As with blaxploitation films of course, many of these were financed (and the profits pocketed) by white-owned companies.  But there were a couple of exceptions, the most successful of which was the Micheaux Film Corporation.

This is a Micheaux film, made on a shoestring budget with a mostly non-professional cast.  If the internet is to be believed, that was typical of the studio's output, as is the inclusion of several song and dance numbers to 'pad' the running time.  Frankly though, one of the dance numbers was probably the best part of the movie, as irrelevant to the plot as it might have been.

The movie starts with Secret Service agent Oscar White returning to the US after several months working with Scotland Yard.  I'm not sure any of that's very likely, but then this film also has White's romance being reported by the society pages, so realism isn't high on the agenda.

So White gets sent to look into some nefarious activities in Mississippi, where he meets a girl from Virgina and they fall in love.  The film helpfully has a text scrawl to tell us about the blossoming of the romance, since it neglects to y'know, actually show it.

White's not only girl-chasing though, he's also bad guy chasing, which he does with such success that he gets his man about half way through the film.  You might wonder what the film is going to do, if the lead has got the girl and the villain by the 30-minute mark, but not to worry -- the girl helpfully introduces a whole new subplot and so it is off to Harlem for the completely-unrelated-to-the-first-act-second-act.  In which White tracks down the killer of a numbers banker (not actually a thing the secret service does).

You might have mentioned that there's no mention of Chicago in any of that summary, and I don't recall it being brought up in the film either.  Where the movie got its title - other than Micheauc being based in Chaicago - I'm not exactly sure.

This is interesting only as a historical curiousity (well, and for that one neat dance number, though you can find better online if that's your thing).

Monday, 21 July 2014

The Island Monster (1954)

There's no actual monster in this film, just the metaphorical one of a wicked man.  One might suspect that part of the title is an attempt to cash in on the fact that Boris Karloff is in the picture.

The film does take place on an island though, so that puts it one ahead of Kong Island.  Alas, that's the only measure by which this movie gets ahead of any other film.  Because this, my loyal readers (both of you!), is terrible.

I've said before that just about the only sin a film can commit which I cannot forgive is to be boring, and my word, The Island Monster is that.  Unremittingly tedious, with long scenes of absolutely zero interest being interrupted with brief snippets of nothing much going on.  Even scenes that in principal ought to have some excitement - the kidnap of a child, and a car crash - are rendered soporifically dull.

And that dullness is quite the shame, because with the hysterically bad dubbing and the egregiously awful child - seriously, kid characters in films are often painful, but they're nothing on this singularity of annoyance - this had the potential to good-bad, rather than just bad.

The plot?  An undercover policeman is assigned to investigate a drug smuggling ring.  He's terrible at his job (not an intentional aspect of the script, as far as I can tell), and the bad guys work out who he is and kidnap his daughter to get leverage on him.  Frankly, he should be thanking them for getting rid of the brat, but he doesn't, he just very slowly looks for her for a very long time.  The bad guys do nothing about this, because ... because it was the 1950s and you couldn't chop a kid's fingers off on screen back then, I guess.  Eventually the kid is saved and the useless cop gets his just desserts by having to spend time with her again.

Boring, boring, boring.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

The Vikings (1958)

A couple of years before making Spartacus together, Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis played the rival leads of this period piece.  They're joined by Curtis's then wife Janet Leigh, and a scarily young Ernest Borgnine.  The latter plays the father of Douglas's character, despite Douglas actually being older than Borgnine in real life.  Ahh, the movies.

Not many films can be a Spartacus of course, and this isn't one of them.  Borgnine is pretty entertaining as the bluff viking chief Ragnar, and Douglas has all the swagger necessary to play his bloodthirsty son, Einar.  But things are not so rosy on the 'white helmet' side of the equation.  Curtis and Leigh are capable enough performers, but the script gives them nothing much to work with.  In particular, their romance is laughably thin.

The movie begins with the crowning of a new king in Northumbria.  The previous king was killed by the vikings, and his queen raped by Ragnar.  She is secretly with child, and after the boy is born she sends him off to Italy to be raised.  Then twenty years go by.

The current Northumbrian King, Aella, arrests one of his nobles as a spy for the vikings, but the man escapes and - his treachery being real and not just the king's imaginings - runs off to Ragnar.  There he meets Einar and the slave, Eric, who he recognises as the former Queen's missing son due to a stone the young man carries.

Einar and Eric don't like one another very much, of course, and that rivalry escalates to attempted murder in very short order.  It escalates still further, if such is possible, when the vikings kidnap King Aella's intended bride, Morgana.

I've already identified one of the weaknesses of the film, which is the blandness of Eric and Morgana.  There are two more.  The first of these is the relative weakness of the climactic battle scenes.  There's a lot of 'I will stand here awkwardly with my sword raised until you turn around, and then I will attack you'.  It's probably harsh to criticise the film for this, given its age, but if you're used to the much more slick choreography of modern films, you'll notice it.

The other weakness is a lot less excusable: the film can't decide who its bad guy is.  It starts out as Aella, becomes Ragnar and Einar, then just Einar, then Aella again, before Einar gets a last hurrah as the antagonist ... followed by a heroic burial.  I guess if you squint you could see this as an attempt to portray a more complex ethical situation than we normally see in films, but it comes across as a muddle in execution.

This isn't a bad film by any stretch, but there's really nothing especially memorable or interesting about it.  Not something you need to seek out.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Prison Shadows (1936)

A boxer accidentally kills an opponent in the ring and is sentenced to three years in the Big House.  Upon his release, he hopes to be met by the woman he loves, but we in the audience know that she does not reciprocate his feelings.  It's cold hard cash that she loves.

Our hero is met at the prison gates by another woman, however.  She brings his dog along with her, so even if she wasn't clearly besotted with him, you'd know this was who he was going to end up with.

Lacking any skills other than his killer right hand (and yes, they go there in the film). he heads back to the boxing ring.  Unfortunately for him, not everyone involved in the fights is on the level, and their plans might cut short his chances of a new start.

This is a pretty slight film, as you might expect for an eighty-year old B movie with a sub-70 minute running time.  The plot is pretty ropey, and the re-use of sets perhaps more obvious than the film-makers had hoped.  The boxing sequences are also ... well, this is no Rocky, you know what I mean?

Is there anything to recommend the film?  Well, the love interest has a good rapport with the leading man.  They actually come across as two people who like each other's company.  So yeah, the romance (though a bit rushed at the end) is a highlight.  Not enough of one that I would actually recommend the film, but with films in these cheapo packs, you have to savour every glimmer of quality you can find :)

Friday, 18 July 2014

Savage Journey (1983)

So this film depicts an account of the foundation of the Mormon faith.  A little googling suggests it is not endorsed by the Mormon church, though it certainly does seem pretty positive toward the founders of the religion.

How accurate is it?  I don't know.  I suspect it is fairly fictionalised though, since it does depict Brigham Young as a rather saintly fellow.  It also lets him get the last word on the contentious subject of polygamy ("It is better for a woman to be the third wife of a loving husband than the only wife of a man who beats her.").

For the record, despite claiming that he didn't like the idea of polygamy, Young ultimately accumulated 55 wives.  Fifty-five.  Not a typo.  I'm sure you'll be shocked to learn that some of them were far, far younger than he.  The movie doesn't mention that.  Nor the fact that Young banned people of African descent from the church.

Questions of bias and historical accuracy aside, however, is the movie any good?


For one thing, the guy playing Brigham Young simply isn't up to the task.  This needs to be compelling performance - after all, this is the guy who led the trek to Utah - and he's not able to muster much more than amiably pompous.

He's done no service by the script, either, which is basic in the extreme.  People are mean to the mormons for no good reason, so the mormons move on to somewhere they will not be persecuted.  New people turn up and start to persecute them.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

Not much to recommend here folks.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Queen Margot (1994)

This film opens with an opulent wedding and the revelry that follows it, then descends into a brutal orgy of killing.  This is the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre; an orchestrated wave of violence against French Huguenots (Protestants) by the Catholic majority.  It is also the grand set piece of the film, a shocking and unrelenting assault that remains with you well after the film has moved on.  Certainly, when I first saw this film over a decade ago, it was the part that I best remembered.

As fine (if unpleasant) a piece of film-making as it is though, the massacre also ties into the movie's biggest flaw: once it is done, two-thirds of the movie still remain, and they're simply not as memorable as that first act.

Don't get me wrong, there is still plenty going on, from the efforts of the King's mother to murder Henri of Navarre - the man she fears will take her son's throne - to the plans of Henri's followers to spirit him and his wife out of the King's clutches.

Henri's wife is the titular Margot, played by the luminescent Isabelle Adjani.  Margot is a Catholic, and her relationship with the Huguenot Henri is a reluctant one.  But having been forced to marry him, she works to preserve her husband's life.  This seems to come from a mixture of reluctant admiration for his comparatively ethical behaviour, and a belief that it would be a sin for her to do otherwise.

None of which stops her (or Henri) from taking lovers.

This is a well-staged costumed drama.  It's violence and sexuality will mean it is not to all tastes, and the lower-key plotting of the later parts of the film did not hold my interest so well on this second viewing as they did on the first, but if you've got an interest in one of the more turbulent periods of French history, it is worth seeing.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Lady Gangster (1942)

I did not buy this pack simply to get a copy of the 1932 version of Scarface, as I already owned that on DVD.  I did buy it hoping to find at least one other movie that was half as good, though.

Lady Gangster is not that movie.

It starts off promisingly enough, with a well-dressed and apparently respectable lady operating as a 'stool pigeon' for a group of bank robbers.  Their plan to get into the bank before it opens and rob the place relies an awful lot on luck and the lady's charm, but I'm willing to go with it.

Alas the plan doesn't seem all that well thought through in the post-robbery execution, and the cops aren't as dumb as they usually are in the movies.  They cotton on to the weaknesses in the story of this supposed 'innocent bystander' and she finds herself in custody.  The police only release her when a radio journalist - and old flame of hers - accepts responsibility for her.

Once released, the woman tricks her accomplices (who were planning to split without giving her a share of the loot) and gets all the money from the robbery.  She hides it for safe-keeping, and then - because old passions have been reignited - confesses to her former flame that she was involved in the robbery.

So he sends her to jail, because he's a moreally upstanding sort of fellow, and it apparently doesn't occur to him to get her to cut a deal with the cops.

Once our heroine (I guess that's the right term, even if she is a bank robber) gets to jail, the movie's plausibility, already slight, is completely thrown out of the window.  There's a lot of bickering and double-crossing, a rather random moment of cross-dressing, and the least likely prison break this side of Prison Break before the rather rushed ending.

So ultimately, a bit of a disappointment, especially after the reasonably entertaining start.

By the way: if you've never seen it, make sure you track down the 1932 Scarface.  I'm a pretty big Brian De Palma fan and I still think the original is a far better film than his remake.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Rattlers (1976)

A year or two ago, I saw the movie Sssssss.  That film had a mad-science main plot, but was enlivened mostly by the many scenes of snake-handling, which were kind of nerve-wracking even if you have no particular fear of snakes, and would have sent any ophidiophobe into the screaming meemies.

I mention Sssssss because of the contrast with this film: the snake scenes here simply aren't scary.  I mean, if you have a thing about snakes they probably are, but only because there are snakes on screen, not because the film does any kind of decent job of establishing a sense of menace.  The closest it gets is ironically in a scene featuring a cobra, rather than rattlesnakes.  A lack of scary snake scenes is kind of a big flaw for a movie about scary snakes, you know?

Rattlers kicks off with a trope that will be familiar to anyone who's seen a few killer critter movies: a rash of deaths all attributable to a specific kind of creature.  The animal in question is obvious from the title.  The local sheriff hires a herpetologist to investigate the snakes' sudden aggression, as well as a female photographer to assist him.

This being the 70s, the photographer's gender is the trigger for a tiresome subplot about women's liberation.  Tiresome because of course (a) the herpetologist is a sexist ass and (b) when the snakes turn up the woman is going to freak out and need to be rescued by the big strong man.  There's no guarantee a movie today wouldn't be just as filled with patriarchy, but it might not be quite so aggressive about it.

So anyway, they conduct their investigation, and begin to get an idea of why the snakes' behaviour has changed.  This is interspersed with various rattler attacks.  Those are probably an attempt to prevent tedium from setting in.  With the exception of a couple of inadvertently comical moments, they fail.

Eventually the cause of the trouble is confirmed, but the movie takes a sudden turn into shoot-outsville and the actual threat of the snakes, nor the reason for that threat, is ever actually addressed on-screen.  It's like the film-makers forgot they were making a killer critter movie.  But then, their critters were kind of forgettable.

There are much better options for 'when animals attack!'.  Heck, even Giant Spider Invasion is a step up from this.  Don't bother.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Sugar and Spice (2001)

When cheerleading captain Diane falls pregnant and is disowned by her parents, the rest of the squad vow to help give her baby a good start in life ... by putting their cheer skills to use to rob a bank.

Your reaction to that premise is probably a fairly good guide to whether you'll like this movie.  If you think it sounds like a goofy bit of fun, like I did, then you should check it out.  If you don't, I doubt there is anything in the movie itself that will change your mind.

Anyway, Diane is cheer captain, dating the cutest boy in school, and is BFFs with all the other members of the cheerleading squad.  "These are the best days of your life." she tells herself in the mirror. "For now."

Alas, the sunshine and roses come to an end when Diane tells her parents she's pregnant.  She and her boyfriend find themselves disowned, and while they manage to find an apartment and get part-time jobs, they'll never be able to stay afloat once she can't work any longer.

And that's where the bank robbery plan comes in.

This is not a movie that takes itself too seriously.  The characters are very exaggerated and over the top, and the film's events are far-fetched.  But in my opinion, that's a feature, not a bug.  This is not a premise that would work with nuanced characters and realistic plans.

I do like that the film is almost entirely driven by female characters.  There are men in the movie, but they're mostly plot devices or window dressing.  Which is a nice inversion of how the gender roles in too many films play out.

A fun bit of nonsense.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Teen Titans Season 1 (2003)

A friend of mine is a big fan of the Teen Titans cartoon, so when I saw season 1 for a good price, I picked it up to take a look.  I can see why my friend recommends it: there is a lot to like.  That's not to say I didn't have some quibbles (at least with this season).  But let's start with the positives.

I like the art.  That's actually a fairly important thing for me in an animated show, though I am quite flexible in tastes.  I think the art and animation in The Simpsons is fine, for instance, and I don't mind the anime-esque elements included in this show, though some comics fans were upset by them.

I want to call out the character designs as a strong point.  They're clean and uncluttered.  I especially appreciate the fact that Starfire isn't sexualised (though they do drift that way with Raven, sometimes).

I also like the rogue's gallery they use: there are few 'signature' villains, but plenty of goofily off-beat ones, which fits with the show's intended younger demographic (yes, I am a 40-year old man watching a kids' cartoon.  I'm OK with that).

The voice-acting is also excellent, with the whole cast doing a good job.  The show also does a good job of giving the characters their own voices; different patterns of speech and behaviour.  Sure, they're pretty broad archetypes, but that can be very useful when you're packing five leads and a bunch of story into every 20 minute episode.

Where this season falls down a little, at least for me, is in its structure.  The opening episode is perhaps the weakest of the season, which is never a good idea.  It's also in the wrong place for another reason: it uses the old 'someone quits the team' superhero schtick, but you can't have a character quit two minutes into the first episode and expect anyone to really care.  We need to have engaged with the team as a team before that.  It's further let down by having the quitter just turn up again at the end of the episode to help, without doing anything to set up that return in-character.

The other structural flaw is in the season arc: it's featured in three of the first four episodes, and then only reappears in episodes 9, 12 and 13.  It should have been pretty spread out across the season, to my mind, as that would have created a better sense of continuity and payoff.

Overall, however?  This is a fun bit of light-hearted superhero frippery.  It's not got the substance of a Young Justice, but it's not aiming to be that kind of show.  If you just want some costumed hijinks, Teen Titans has you covered.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

The Iron Giant (1999)

Five years before he made the excellent and hugely successful The Incredibles, Brad Bird made this excellent but sadly unsuccessful film, which just goes to show that sometimes good films simply fail to find an audience.

And make no mistake, this is a very good film, with all the heart and humour that makes The Incredibles such a joy to watch.

It's the height of the Cold War in 1950s America, and youngster Hogarth Hughes lives with his widowed mother in the small town of Maine.  A bright kid with a love of science fiction, Hogarth isn't popular with his peers, and spends a lot of time wrapped up in comics or movies or other lonely pursuits.  That is, until a strange object plummets to Earth.

That object is the titular character of the film, a gigantic iron robot of unknown origin and purpose, whom Hogarth comes to befriend.

Of course, there wouldn't be much to the film without some conflict, and that soon arrives in the form of Kent Mansley, an ambitious and borderline paranoid government agent sent to investigate strange reports from the area.  Mansley doesn't initially place much stock in the tales, until his car gets eaten.

That would probably change your outlook on things.

Anyway, with the tensions of the Cold War driving him, Mansley is determined to find and destroy the metal monolith, which he assumes must be of Communist origin, and he's willing to go to pretty much any lengths to achieve his goal.

The film has a likeable protagonist, a hissable villain, and a story that's packed with great little moments.  It's also lovely to look at: I really like the character designs and visual feel of the movie.

I heartily recommend this: it sets out to be a good movie on every level, not just a 'good film for kids' and it achieves that goal.

Friday, 11 July 2014

The Thing (1982)

An Antarctic Research station is infiltrated by a alien lifeform which is able to absorb and then mimic other creatures.  The 12-man crew must find a way to prevent the creature from replacing them all and making it to the outside world.
Short version of this review: unless you're completely disinterested by the concept above, you should see this film.

There you go.  Done.  You don't need to read any more.

What?  You want the longer version?  Fine.

Films that try to build tension and dread often falter on one of two flaws.  The first is that they assume that tension ends when you deliver on the threat.  They're probably remembering Hitchcock in this, when he talked about a bomb exploding being only a moment of excitement, whereas showing two characters talking, then showing the bomb beneath them, and cutting back and forth, could draw out that experience much better.  The problem with this, of course, is that they often turn into movies where nothing really happens for a long, long time.  And it's very easy for that to tip over into tedium. Yesterday's review is a good example of a movie that fell into this trap.  Not so The Thing: the script kicks off at a strong pace and keeps the shocks and thrills coming, without ever quite letting things boil over.  Good stuff.

The second common flaw is the 'idiot ball': elements of the plot that require the characters to act in grossly stupid ways in order for the threat to continue.  Again, The Thing successfully navigates this danger.  The actions of the characters generally  feel organic and natural given the situation in which they find themselves.  They make mistakes, but they're believable ones in the circumstances.

The skilled artisanry of this film extects to the technical aspects, as well.  The effects still stand up well today, and show a ghoulish inventiveness I really enjoyed.  The acting is all good, too.  Kurt Russell is the lead, and he shows that he can tone things back from the almost goofily badass Snake Plissken of Escape from New York, really conveying the sense of a man just doing his best in a situation he really can't control.

This is good stuff from top to bottom.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Legend of Hell House (1973)

This film begins with a text card, attributed to "Tom Corbett – Clairvoyant and Psychic Consultant to European Royalty", solemnly informing us that while the movie is fiction, all the psychic phenomena lie within the bounds of possibility, and that it could be true.  This perked my interest, because I hoped it meant that the rest of the film would be similarly crazy.

Alas, it is not.

Adapted from his own novel by Richard Matheson (who also wrote I Am Legend), the film covers the efforts of three investigators to uncover the truth of life after death by spending five days in a notoriously haunted house.  One of the three was part of an earlier investigation of the abode where eight people died.  I guess in 1973 the £100,000 each of them is getting was a big enough deal to risk your life again.

The three investigators are a physicist who denies the idea of consciousness beyond death, but does believe some sort of electromagnetic force may endure, and two psychics.  The physicist also brings along his wife, which seems ill-advised given the apparent lethality of staying there.

In any case, the four of them settle in and begin their explanations.  The physicist and the young female medium clash over just about everything, while the second medium - the survivor of the previous investigation - spends his time warning everyone else that they're doomed if they stay.

Soon enough, various scary phenomena occur, but they're interspersed with an awful lot of talking and theorising about what might be behind the falling chandeliers (yes, there is one) and other such weirdnesses.  That works to the movie's detriment, I think, because any momentum it is building keeps getting blocked off.  It also means that very little actually happens in the first hour or so.

The last act ratchets up the pace a lot, but it has one of the silliest weaknesses for an evil spirit that I've ever encountered, which makes the final confrontation more amusing than epic.  I'll not spoil it here, but you can find plenty of reviews online that will.

Solid performances from the cast can't save this from being on the dull side.  I think it would be a more enjoyable film if it were as gonzo as that opening text suggested.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Prisoners of the Lost Universe (1983)

My name is Adam, and I have been a Hawk the Slayer fan since I was 7 years old.

I mention this because Prisoners of the Lost Universe is written and directed by Terry Marcel, who gave the world the awesomely naff Hawk, and I am therefore pretty much incapable of being objective about the movie.  But for the next paragraph, I'm going to try.

This is not a good film.  The script's hokey, the acting's poor, the costumes and "effects" are dreadful, and the characters are a lot less likable than Marcel probably intended.  Unless you're a tragic Hawk fan like me, you should steer clear.  And that's why it got a "Not Recommended".

Phew.  Made it.  Now for the rest of the review.


The premise is admittedly a little different, at least at first.  Through a hysterically contrived set of circumstances, a TV presenter, the scientist she is interviewing, and some random guy she nearly had a traffic accident with earlier in the day end up being transported to an alternate reality.  In case that contrivance wasn't enough, the random guy is also a kendo master.

Anyway, time passes more swiftly in the alternate realm, so the TV presenter, who is the last to come through, finds herself alone when she does so.  She does eventually meet up with Random Guy, though. No, I don't remember his character's name.  Let's just call him Apollo, because he's played by Richard Hatch of Battlestar Galactica "fame".

And this is when the distraction of the original premise is jettisoned and we can get down to being "totally not Hawk the Slayer 2, honest".  Because there's a murderously evil overlord who pretends that he's a reasonable man.  And he and Apollo want the same woman.  So Apollo assembles a crack team to aid him in his struggle against the guy.  That team?  A giant, an elf and a dwarf.  Just like Hawk.  I mean sure, they call the elf a 'greenman', but if it walks like an elf and talks like an elf ...

Just in case the parallels weren't obvious enough, there's also the fact that the dwarf in this film is played by the same guy who was the dwarf in Hawk the Slayer.  And there are plenty more eerily familiar plot beats, too.

Sadly however, the music is much less cheesetastic than Hawk's.

So yeah: I had a blast watching this.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

City of Lost Children (1995)

There's a sequence, about 75 minutes into this film, with a wonderfully over the top sequence of coincidental events that rescue the heroes from a very sticky situation.  That was pretty much the moment when I decided that I really liked the film, rather than just quite liking it.

Of course, that was about 15 years ago, the first time I saw the film.  So I approached this with some trepidation, as more than once a film I enjoyed in my 20s has turned out to be not terribly good.

However, I'm pleased to say I still quite enjoyed this, though probably not as much as back then.  For one thing, I knew the convoluted sequence of happenstance was coming, which meant it didn't have the same "Oh!  That's cool!" impact.  For another, the hints of romantic interest from an 11 year old girl toward a grown adult were more pronounced than I remembered, which was a little icky.  At least I didn't see any sign he had a similar interest in her, because that would be really icky.

The plot is that a (probably mad) genius created a series of flawed clones and other test-tube grown humans, then vanished.  The most intelligent of these creations cannot dream, and is aging rapidly because of it.  In order to combat this, he has his henchmen kidnap children in the hope he can steal their dreams.  Unsurprisingly, the children tend to have nightmares after being dragged off by this freakish collection of steampunkish goons, which doesn't do our villainous not-so-mastermind much good.

The film really kicks off, though, when the goons grab the three-year old brother of circus strongman 'One', who sets off to recover his brother and is soon joined in his quest by Miette, the 11-year old girl I mentioned above.  One's not the brightest tool in the shed, whereas Miette is an Artful Dodger type, so she's more or less the brains of the operation as they tangle with the cyclopean henchmen of the villain, run from a nefarious conjoined twin, and fall afoul of a man with a magic flea.

This is a somewhat surreal film, in case you hadn't guessed.  Most characters are deformed in some way, and the sets are quite highly stylised.  There's also a considerable amount of scatalogical humour.  It seems the film-makers think poop is quite amusing.

If you don't mind the film's occasional forays into toilet humour, and the fact you'll need to read subtitles (unless you speak French, at least), then this is a pretty good steampunkish science fantasy; not a bad achievement given that it predates the term 'steampunk'.