Thursday, 31 March 2016

Delta Delta Die (2003)



Tobias has a problem.  He's pretty sure one of the sororities at his university is a den of serial killers.  Male students go into the sorority house, and are then never seen again.  He's raised his concerns with the Dean, but the older man either doesn't take them seriously or is outright colluding with the murderers.

In desperation, Tobias turns to Rhonda Cooper.  She is one of the founding members of the sorority and a close personal friend of the current sorority mother: but she is also a woman who parted ways with the organisation many years before.

And in the process we hit one of the (several) narrative flaws with this movie: because while the audience has been told about Rhonda, it was via other characters. We never see anything that explains how Tobias learns about her, or how he tracks her down.

Now to be fair, this is clearly not a film which intends you to take it seriously.  It's unabashedly a black comedy "horror" film in the style of Nightmare Sisters (Rhonda is even played by one of the stars of that film) and at the end of the day what it's really selling is exactly the same thing as the earlier movie: topless ladies.  It does also offer some naked guys too, for those who prefer that, but mostly it's about the bosoms.

Where Delta Delta Die falls down in comparison to the earlier film is the general sense of laziness that pervades it as a production.  Now I'm sure they were working on a comparatively much lower budget - it's a Full Moon production after all, and those are bargain basement - which would limit the sets available the number of takes of each scene they could do.  But there is a definite sense that the writers and director didn't care over much.  Admittedly, it's far from the worst film I've seen in this regard - few things can compare to Invasion of the Pod People for sheer ineptitude - but it's definitely not a production that seems to be trying very hard to be good.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Dr Tarr's Torture Dungeon (1973)



In 1845 Edgar Allan Poe published a dark comedy short story in which a young man visits a mental institution in order to learn more of its revolutionary new treatment method known as "the system of soothing".  He is surprised to learn that the system has recently been replaced by another process modeled on the works of "Dr Tarr and Professor Fether".  Still, he does not think anything is truly amiss until he sits down for a very strange dinner party with the institution's staff ...

If you've already guessed that the "staff" are actually the inmates of the asylum, who have overthrown and imprisoned the real doctors and orderlies, then you are somewhat brighter than the Poe's narrator (to be fair to Poe, the stupidity of his narrator is openly acknowledged by the leader of the inmates).  Fortunately for the young man, the real staff break free of their imprisonment and save him from the tender methods of "Tarr and Fether".  I trust I don't need to explain what they are.

This 1973 Mexican film - also known under the title Mansion of Madness - is an adaptation of Poe's short story.  The brevity of the original tale naturally requires considerable padding to be added to the script: padding that mostly comes in the form of people being chased through the woods that surround the institution.

Mixing comedy and horror can work very well, but it's a difficult mixture to get right, and this film definitely struggles with the issue.  It has some genuinely quite ugly moments in the early going, for instance, but things get more and more surreal and comedic as the film goes on.  Overall, I preferred the nigh-slapstick sequences toward the end, but neither of them really felt like they captured the right feel to me.

If you have an interest in surrealist film - and are willing to endure some scenes of sexual violence about 15 minutes in - then you may well find something of interest here.  It does have some nicely done visual elements.  Outside of that niche though, I don't think it really delivers: it's sometimes ugly, but never really scary, and the comedy is hit and miss.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Dead Set (2008)



Night of the Living Dead in the Big Brother house.

From the sound of that, you might expect a comedy (albeit a dark one), and there are certainly parts of Dead Set - mostly near the beginning - that aim for laughs.  But this is principally a straight-up zombie apocalypse story, with a tone and narrative much more in keeping with George Romero's 1968 film than say Zombieland or the first half of Shaun of the Dead.

Set during a fictitious season of the still-running UK version of Big Brother, this series postulates a zombie outbreak during one of the "eviction nights", on which huge crowds gather outside the Big Brother house to cheer for their favourites and boo the housemates they hate.  The rampaging undead swiftly sweep over the entire United Kingdom, killing millions, including the crowd at the Big Brother house.

The housemates themselves of course are completely unaware of the disaster.  They're cut off from TV, radio or any other form of outside news, and are locked inside one of the most secure non-military buildings in the country.  And of course, when someone from the outside finally makes it inside the house, they initially believe her tales of the walking dead to be some strange gimmick of the show: a belief of which they'll be pretty quickly disabused.

Clocking in at a tightly plotted 2 hours and 20 minutes (including the "previously on" segments at the start of each episode), Dead Set is a fine example of the zombie genre.  It's got a fine mix of characters, heroic and villainous alike, and does a better than normal job of making the actions of the "jerk" characters seem relatively plausible in the extreme circumstances they're facing.

If you're at all a fan of zombie media, check this one out.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)



I've seen this film before, of course.  I am a nerd of a certain age, after all.  But I didn't pick it up on DVD until quite recently.  One of those "huh, I can't believe I didn't already buy that" moments.

For those of you who somehow don't know, Big Trouble in Little China is the tale of wise-cracking trucker Jack Burton, who stops off in Chinatown one night for a friendly game of Fan-Tan and - quite without intending to - finds himself embroiled in a supernatural turf war between rival fighting tongs.

There's naturally a 'good tong' and a 'bad tong', who colour-code themselves in yellow and red for audience convenience.  Backing the bad guys up, however, is a lot of mystical firepower.  First there is a trio known as 'the Three Storms', who can fly, throw around lightning, and other crazy stuff.  But more importantly there is the evil sorcerer Lo Pan, cursed two thousand years earlier to a life without physical form.

Lo Pan can restore his mortal body only by marrying and then murdering a very special, green-eyed woman.  He's chosen the fiancĂ©e of Jack's best friend for this less than desirable role, and soon Jack, his friend, and a local lawyer named Gracie Law are embroiled in desperate efforts to get her back.

Big Trouble in Little China's main gimmick is that our protagonist is the guy who would normally be the mouthy comedy sidekick, as Jack's friend Wing is far more capable than Jack in almost every way.  This allows the script to blend in plenty of humour, including within the numerous action scenes.

This film received mixed reviews on original release but has become something of a cult favourite for its blend of goofy comedy, over the top martial arts, and supernatural shenanigans.  I thoroughly enjoyed it the first time I saw it, and every time since then.  If you're looking for an action film with a more light hearted feel to it than the average, this particular Chinatown might well be the right destination for you.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Xena: Warrior Princess, Season 3 (1997)



This is a show that's never been afraid to "borrow" inspiration, as this season clearly shows when two of the first three episodes are Groundhog Day by way of Romeo and Juliet and an obvious pastiche of The Dirty Dozen.  There's also an episode inspired by the Poseidon Adventure adventure later in the series, in case we'd forgotten their fondness for such shenanigans.

(It must also be said that the Groundhog Day episode - named "Been There, Done That" - is one of my favourite episodes of the show.  Good stuff.)

But as I mentioned in my last Xena review, this is a show that refuses to confine itself to a niche.  It definitely continues that in season 3 - throwing out a bizarre combination of angsty drama, over the top action, and ludicrous farce that shouldn't work and yet somehow does - and even escalates the theme of experimentation by delivering the first truly extended story line in the show's history.  The "Dahok" arc involves the efforts of an evil deity to be born into the world so that it can destroy all life, and features in no less than nine of the episodes for the season.

Of course, this being Xena, said arc also involves Caesar, Boadicea and a wuxia-inspired trip to ancient China.  And when, partway through the arc, the traumatic consequences of Dahok's schemes drive a seemingly irreconcilable wedge between Xena and her sidekick/best friend/probably lover Gabrielle?  Well, that gets resolved in an Alice in Wonderland-esque musical episode.

I'm not even kidding.

Xena is consistently a show where everyone seems to be having a great time making it, and that makes it very easy for me to like as a viewer.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Future Sport (1998)



I suspect this is what happens when someone desperately wants to make a Rollerball remake but can't get the rights.  Probably because their script is (1) dreadful and (2) insane.  So while I can't actually recommend this movie, on account of the first point, I personally had a fine old time watching the unfolding lunacy due to the second.

In 2025 the hottest game in the world is "Futuresport", a violent affair involving hoverboards, weapons and an electrified ball.  And the game's hottest player is Tre "The Pharaoh" Ramzey: a self-centred dudebro whose grand-standing causes his team to lose the world championship final.

But Ramzey soon has bigger problems than his own lack of teamwork.  Evil Hawaiian separatists want to kill him!

Heh.  Evil Hawaiian separatists.  I'm sorry, I can't type that sentence and keep a straight face.  Hawaii does have several sovereignty movements, but the idea that they would suddenly morph into armed terrorists wreaking havoc on the streets of Los Angeles is about as plausible as ... well about as plausible as Australia and New Zealand being part of an anti-US alliance a mere decade from now, or as plausible as the two opposing power blocs following Tre Ramzey's suggestion to resolve their dispute over Hawaii by having a game of Futuresport.  All of which are things that happen in the film.

Mind you, none of those things are half as implausible as Wesley Snipes's accent.

Delightfully stupid.


Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (1966)



Now there's an efficient movie title.  Not only does it pretty much tell you the plot of the film ('pretty much', because it is actually Frankenstein's granddaughter that Jesse James meets) but just from reading it you probably already know whether you'd have any interest in seeing the movie.

Filmed alongside Billy the Kid vs Dracula – with which it was shown as a double feature – this movie posits that the descendants of the famous Doctor Frankenstein have emigrated to the United States due to mounting hostility toward their experiments in their native Austria.  Since said experiments involve murdering people in the hope of reanimating them as obedient slaves, it's easy to see why they were no longer welcome in Vienna.

Notorious outlaw Jesse James gets involved when he brings an injured friend – wounded in a robbery gone wrong – to the Frankensteins' new home.  Lady Frankenstein quickly determines that the wounded man is a perfect candidate for becoming her slave, due to his great physical strength.  And as for Jesse James, well she has other more pleasant duties in mind for him.

The outlaw spurns Lady Frankenstein's advances, however.  That's an answer that doesn't sit well with the vindictive woman, of course, and she resolves to get him out of the way and ensure he cannot interfere with her plans for his friend.

The cheapness and quick production time of this film are evident throughout its 85 minute running time.  The interior sets look stagy and are flatly lit, while the acting wobbles between weak and adequate.  Though to be fair it must be hard to bring much life to a script that mostly consists of people telling each other the plot.

The idea of combining classic horror monsters with the western genre is actually a potentially pretty interesting thought.  Alas, the execution fails on every respect.  Heck, even the film's title shows how quickly they gave up on trying.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Misfits, Season 1 (2009)



When I first saw Misfits, I got to the end of the first episode and my reaction was "I genuinely don't know if I liked that or not".  There were definitely parts that I liked, but other bits were so deliberately obnoxious and crass that I wasn't sure about the package as a whole ... and I was going to say that Misfits is the kind of show that make an off-colour joke about the word "package" there, but that's not actually true, because Misfits does not bother with euphemisms like "package".

As you may have guessed from the fact that I subsequently bought the DVDs, I ultimately became a fan of the show (the first two series anyway - I've never seen the third and later seasons), at least partly because of how deliberately crass and obnoxious it is.  I have to admire its commitment on that front.

The show focuses on a group of young offenders who have been assigned community service for their various acts of 'anti-social behaviour'.  During their first day, they get caught in a strange storm and - though they don't immediately know it - receive super powers.  Which probably sounds great for them, but these kids definitely aren't the Avengers, either in temperament or in power sets.  They mostly don't have conscious control over their powers, and they're quickly faced with the problem that their probation officer was also caught in the storm, and it turned him into a homicidal rage monster.

They survive the experience of course (there wouldn't be much of a show if they didn't), but the probation officer does not, and the ever-increasing problems arising from their efforts to conceal his death are one of the major threads of the rest of the series.  The other thread, of course, is their interactions with other people who've been affected by the storm.

Misfits is loud and lewd, full of bad language, bad people, and situations that you know you shouldn't laugh at but that it will make you do so anyway.  And if it sometimes remembers to be touching or insightful in between all the potty mouthed shenanigans, well - that's what keeps it interesting.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Grizzly Rage (2007)



Yes, I know that I have no-one to blame but myself.

So obviously this is a terrible movie.  I'm sure you can tell that just from looking at the DVD cover above.  And so could I.  But it was really cheap and I have this thing about really cheap DVDs.  It's like a sickness.

Four college students decide to go on a camping trip.  Their intended destination is a place that they've visited before but at the last minute they decide to press on another hour to a more remote location: one festooned with "no trespassing" signs.

Naturally, with geniuses like this as your cast, it's not long before things go badly awry.  They smash their SUV into a bear cub (apparently: we don't actually see the impact, just the dead cub afterward) and then plough into the undergrowth.

Idiot Cast Member: "I don't believe this!"
Me: "Yeah, you were just driving at high speeds down a dirt track you'd never been on before.  Who could possibly have foreseen an accident?"

So anyway, mama bear turns up and the clueless quartet skedaddle as soon as they manage to get the car up and running.  Not very far though, as it soon overheats due to a damaged radiator.  And of course, they have exactly one full bottle of water on them.  Though for some reason, they have a good dozen empties.  So they go looking for water ... and find mama bear, who is still after them.

And thus the pattern of the film emerges: humans do something dumb, bear turns up.  Humans do something dumb.  Bear turns up.  Or sometimes "bear", since a few sequences are clearly not a real animal but a guy in a suit.  The latter group includes literally every scene where the human cast and the "bear" are even remotely in shot together.  Clearly the production's insurance didn't cover having an actual bear near their actors.  As you can imagine, that's a factor that severely undercuts any potential for generating a real sense of threat.  Though just in case there was any chance, the movie makes sure it is squandered by splashing CGI blood across the camera every time the bear makes a kill.  It's kind of hysterically awful.

Frankly, you'll probably end up wishing the bear would hunt down the director and writers of the film, as well as the actors.


Friday, 18 March 2016

The Tribe, Season 1 (1999)



A viral pandemic sweeps the globe.  It is 100% contagious and 100% lethal ... but it only affects adults.  Anyone under the age of about 18 seems to be completely unaffected.

Six to twelve months later - the show never gives an exact time period - most kids in the unnamed city where our action takes place have splintered into groups of scavenging "tribes", fighting for territory and resources and cosplaying Mad Max.

The bad guys!  Though somehow, "Zoot" doesn't have quite the same ring as "The Great Humongous"

As you might have guessed from the show's title, it follows one such tribe.  Actually, it joins them before the tribe has even formed, as several small groups of previously unaffiliated kids band together out of necessity.

It's not really practical to try and cover all the plot-lines the show goes through: with over a dozen core characters and a whopping 52 episodes in the season, there's simply too much going on.  There are however a number of core themes.  First there's the struggle for the basics of life: security, food, water and other supplies.  Food and water in particular get a lot of attention, and are often mentioned to be in short supply.  Hair care products, on the other hand, are clearly easy to find.

A lot of time is also put into the internal struggles of the group; firstly over the direction the tribe will take - with some characters content to play the same thuggish game as the other tribes, and others wanting to build toward a better future - and secondly over the division of labour and the need for everyone to pull their own weight.

I'll give the show credit, they also don't shy away from some relatively weighty topics: teen sex, post natal depression and bulimia all get plot-lines, for instance.  Unfortunately the execution doesn't always match up to ambition.  Which is something of a problem throughout the show, really.  I mean, I kind of like the kitsch of the low rent Road Warrior look, but the acting and writing are clearly uneven, and both would probably have benefited more time being taken over fewer episodes.

Probably the biggest issue the show has to face is that it's now over 15 years since it was on TV and the goal posts are in a very different place now.  There was nothing else like it when it first aired.  These days it has to match up against shows like The 100, and that's not a comparison that makes The Tribe look good.

Probably worth checking out only if you're the kind of person who has a penchant for curious relics of past TV.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Centurion (2010)



The question of what happened to Rome's Ninth Legion has been a subject of much debate.  Records show the legion was stationed in Britain, but then mentions of it abruptly cease.  Was it annihilated in battle, and if so why is there no account of the event? Or did it leave the country, and if so, why is there no later record of it elsewhere?

What do you get when you take this intriguing historical mystery and add a strong cast and a talented director?

A film that is less than the sum of its parts, apparently.

It's not that Centurion is a bad film.  It's a decent enough little action movie on the whole, in fact.  It just never quite seems to gel in the way that Dog Soldiers and The Descent - films from the same director, and featuring the same "small group must band together to survive an implacable enemy" narrative structure - did.

A large part of the blame can be laid at the feet of the script.  We're clearly supposed to root for the survivors of the Ninth (spoilers: the film goes for the 'annihilated in battle' explanation) as they try to escape their Pictish enemies, but it also underlines that Rome is the invader here, and that Roman tactics of torturing and raping civilians are what has galvanised Pictish resistance.  I guess the writers were going for shades of grey, but they mostly just made things a murky mess.

Overall, it's not a bad way to spend 90 minutes - I was pretty entertained throughout the film - but it is neither as exciting or as memorable as it should have been.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

The Ghost (1963)



Let's start with the ways in which this is a bad film, because they are obvious and significant.  I'll cover them in the order I noticed them.

The first was that the premise is so hackneyed and derivative that ten minutes in I literally had to stop and check I'd not seen this film before, even though I knew I had not seen this film before.  It's Grand Guignol 101: unfaithful wife persuades lover to murder wealthy husband, but the Will proves much less generous than they expected and things start happening in the house which suggest the deceased is not resting peacefully.

The second was the audio dub, which is hamfistedly awful.  Like a lot of 1960s Italian films, the dialogue was added in post production.  Which can work okay when care and attention was paid to the task, but it's pretty clear that no such effort was made here.  This is problematic both from a purely technical perspective and from the negative impact it has on the cast's performances.

Finally there's the conclusion, where the truth behind events is revealed ... and is revealed to be absurd.  It's the usual magical logic nonsense where it all ties up with the events of the movie, but it would only work if you knew the script of the movie in advance.

So is there anything to recommend about the film, then?  Well, actually, there is.  The haunting scenes themselves are effectively done, as is the mounting suspicion between the wife and her lover, and the violent altercation it eventually provokes between them.  Oh, and the black irony of the very final minute will appeal to those of you who (like me) have an appreciation for such things.

So if you have a particular love for the melodramatic and sensationalist branch of horror in which this lies, you'll probably be quite entertained despite the movie's flaws.  But I suspect that only a small number of you meet that description.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Carmilla, Season 1 (2014)



Like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, this is a modern, video-blog style reinterpretation of a 19th century novel.  Though in this case, I think it would be fair to say that this is more "inspired by" the original work - Sheridan Le Fanu's 1871-1872 serialised novel Carmilla - rather an "adapted from".  The LBD moved its narrative to modern times, but largely kept the structure of the plot in place (albeit updating things to account for different social conventions).  By contrast, this series really takes only the same basic starting point as the book: that a young woman named Laura becomes the target of a cabal of vampires.  One of these vampires (the eponymous Carmilla) also happens to appear to be a teenager, and is the cabal's main agent.

Rather than following the novel's pretty standard "work out there's a vampire and kill it" narrative, Carmilla the web series instead recasts itself as a reluctant love story between between two young women who are temperamentally polar opposites - not to mention one of them being a 400 year old undead.

Laura becomes a naive but courageous college student who finds herself enrolled at the distinctly unusual Silas University, where the words "School Spirit" have a rather different meaning than their usual one.  When Laura's room-mate Betty mysteriously vanishes, she begins searching for answers.  This is complicated by the arrival of her new room-mate: Carmilla, of course.

Carmilla, for her part, is a jaded soul who finds Laura's idealism infuriating - but also, to her own disquiet, rather charming.  What will she do when she finds herself trapped between the demands of the cabal and her growing affection for Laura?  Well, to be honest you can probably guess.

Carmilla is a fun show.  It's true that it occasionally suffers from the nature of its video-blog format: we never see any location except Laura's dorm room, and we sometimes hear large blocks of exposition about action sequences that occurred elsewhere.  Which has the advantage of being cheaper and easier to film, I am sure, but still feels a little awkward.

Fortunately, they've assembled a fine cast (I'm particularly fond of some of the secondary characters), and the scripts have enough funny and/or touching moments to overcome the few moments of weakness.  As long as you aren't homophobic or one of those people who turns their nose up at romantically themed stories, there's a lot to enjoy.  And you don't even have to pay to see it, if you don't want to.  While I bought the remastered digital download, the original versions of the episodes are freely available on youtube (first episode here).

Monday, 14 March 2016

Some Like It Hot (1959)



This film was denied approval under the production code then applying to motion pictures, due to its themes of cross-dressing and homosexuality.  When it became a massive commercial and critical success, it significantly contributed to the abandonment of the code and a freeing up of the kind of content that films could include.  And for that, I salute it.

Alas, although it's still a highly regarded comedy in most circles, I didn't much care for it.  I mean sure, the cast is good - Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon all know their stuff, after all.  But the script ... eh.  First of all we have the fact that our romantic lead (Curtis) is a character who we are supposed to find charmingly roguish, but is frankly the kind of man who thinks nothing of lying to and stealing from the women in his life.  Admittedly, he does eventually realise he's a no-good jerk ... but that of course just means that he gets the girl at the end of the film.  You know, the one he's been lying to all film.

Lemmon gets the comedy relief character, and he is good at the role.  But alas the "humour" is mostly based around the idea that it's funny that he spends most of the film pretending to be be a woman and being romantically pursued by an older man.  And yeah, I get that the film is nearly sixty years old and it was pretty brave to depict the concept at all, but it's still a case of "Homosexuality is so weird!".

Why is Lemmon's character dressed as a woman?  To hide out from gangsters.  You see, he and Curtis's character witnessed a mob murder.  Needing to get out of town and lay low, they dress up as women so they can join up with an all-female band that is heading to Florida.  Said band of course includes Monroe's character.  Shenanigans ensue.

I can see why this, the last film in this box set, was a success at the time of its release, but I can't really recommend it, personally.  Instead, I'd say if you wanted to sample Monroe's career, you'd be best served by seeing Love Nest (as an example of her pre-fame roles), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (for Monroe the leading lady) and Niagara (for a real change of pace from her normal "dizzy blonde" routine).

Friday, 11 March 2016

The Private Life of Plants (1995)



After Life in the Freezer it might have been expected that Sir David Attenborough would continue his Life series of documentaries by focusing on a different environment each time, perhaps dealing with deserts or jungles.  Instead, he switched themes: this and every series after it (at the time of writing, anyway) is centred around a particular form of life, instead.

The title of the series makes it pretty obvious what form of life is the focus here, though Attenborough does spend some time on what might be considered "plant-adjacent" forms of life: fungi, lichens (which are composite life forms of a fungi and a plant which cannot survive separately) and coral (which trap algae within themselves and hijack the food produced by the algae's photosynthesis).

As seems to the pattern for these series, Attenborough builds each episode around a particular concept or theme.  The first episode, for example, looks at how plants move.  Which, as the show demonstrates through the use of time lapse footage, they do a lot more than we realise.  Other episode themes include how plants get food, how they reproduce, and how they survive hostile environments.  There are also two episodes dedicated to exploring how plants interact with other living things (whether animal, fungi, or other plant).  For my money, these last two episodes contained some of the most startling bits of information: like the fact that hollow oaks are the result of a fungus eating the dead wood at the centre of the tree, and that this hollowing-out process is actually all good news for the oak.  For an entirely random, undirected process, evolution is sometimes bloody clever.

This is a strong documentary series, packed with interesting information that - assuming you care about such things at all - will remind you just how diverse, bizarre and beautiful our world can be.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Sherlock Holmes (2009)



Sherlock Holmes has been enjoying something of a popular culture renaissance in the last six years or so, with modern-day TV series being produced in both the UK and US, and a pair of big budget Hollywood adaptations.

This is first of the feature film adaptations, and a fine one it is too.  I think one of the biggest things it gets right is its Doctor Watson.  Many past adaptations have tended to make Holmes's associate something of a buffoon, to whom everything must be slowly and clearly explained.  So treated, he becomes merely a narrative crutch: an audience surrogate to whom Holmes can render exposition.

The John Watson of this film, on the other hand, is a tough, two-fisted ex-soldier.  He may not be as brilliant as the mercurial Holmes - though who is? - but he is an expert in his own fields of medicine, fisticuffs, and firearms.  He's also considerably better at dealing with other people than his irascible partner.

Holmes and Watson are called in to deal with the crimes of a certain Lord Blackwood, who has been murdering young women.  They catch him and he is executed, all within the first fifteen minutes of the film.  So it's rather a short movie, then.

Well, except that of course Blackwood's death is merely the beginning of the real mystery, as the villain returns from beyond the grave and begins amassing the support of powerful men with his apparent command of sorcery.

Is Blackwood truly a master of the Dark Arts?  And how does Irene Adler - Holmes's former paramour and the only criminal to ever outwit him - fit into the matter?

This film offers the answers in a rollicking ride that is helped immensely by the strong performances of all the central players.  Fun stuff, and worth a look as long as you're not the sort to get all sniffy about it being an action film first and a detective story second.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Track of the Moon Beast (1976)



Man gets hit by moon rock and turns into were-lizard.  Sure, why not.

The first thing you'll probably notice about this film is how bad the acting is.  Because oh boy, there are rocks more animated than some of the people in this film, as they stand around smiling in that slightly strained way that people do when they're stuck in a conversation with someone whose name they can't remember.

So basically the premise here is that a meteor hits the moon, causing a massive cloud of pulverised moon rock to rain down on the Earth.  A tiny sliver of lunar material embeds itself in the forehead of a mineralogist.  Apparently it doesn't really hurt though, and he calmly toddles off home with the larger meteorite that landed nearby, and a young woman he's met while out playing with rocks.

After contriving to ruin his chances with the young woman, at least for that night, our rock-lovin' buddy gets zapped by some kind of energy arc between the meteorite and the fragment in his brain.  This soon leads to him going all man-lizard at night and rampaging around.  Of course, werewolf style, he remembers nothing in the morning.

The authorities start investigating, and show a remarkable broadness of mind in their theories as to what's doing all the killing: at one point they seriously consider the option that a T-Rex has somehow been running around undetected in New Mexico all this time.

Eventually though, they realise it's all got something to do with an ancient Navajo legend ... uh huh.  They even figure out that mineral-boy is the culprit, and - after giving him a medical exam - how his affliction came about.  Alas however, modern science is powerless in the face of moon rocks, and he is condemned to inevitable molecular destabilisation.  Whatever that's supposed to mean.

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that were-lizard monsters are no match for Navajo moon rock arrows, and the mineralogist bites the dust.  Which he's probably pretty used to, amirite?

Terrible, and not even amusingly so.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Urban Gothic, Season 2 (2001)



I felt that the execution of season one of Urban Gothic fell far short of its ambition.  Is season two any different?  Yes, yes it is.

Alas, the difference is that they appear to have abandoned any ambition.

Season two continues the theme of having scripts that feel under-cooked, but - if I may stretch the metaphor - it's like they've stopped even bothering to check if their ingredients are fresh.  For instance, one of the episodes in this season is flat out just "a bunch of people are trapped in a house besieged by zombies".  Yeah, thanks guys.  I think I may have seen that already, and you're no George Romero.  Or there's the episode about a TV game show where the contestants can win a car ... by standing there the longest.  Because that sounds like a TV someone would actually make.  I mean, this is a horror show so of course something starts killing them off, but that's no excuse for not coming up with something better.  And it's not like the horror elements are any better: What's killing the contestants? And why? Eh, motives and explanations would just get in the way!  And mystery is spooky, amirite?

No show, you are not right.

There are a couple of tolerable 22 minuters here, though ironically one of them isn't even a horror story.  I mean ... it is about necrophilia, which is certainly gross, but there's nothing actually scary in it.  Not that much of the season is scary, really, beyond hackneyed "people in a dark building, something might jump out at them" kind of way.

It's not hard to see why this was the show's last series.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Bus Stop (1956)



Thor is pretty much the only Marvel movie I consciously chose not to see at the cinema.  This is because I knew they were doing his origin story and that would require him to be a jerk for the first half of the film before finally getting his act together.  Now "A jerk learns to be a better person" is certainly a valid character arc (in real life even moreso than fiction!), but I find jerk-protagonists really heavy going.  So I figured I'd wait to see in a venue where I could pause it whenever I started to get annoyed and go blow off steam by playing a computer game for a while or something.

All of which is relevant to this film because my word the protagonist is insufferable: and for a good deal more than half the film.  Beauregard 'Bo' Decker is a 21-year old ranch owner making his first trip to the big city (Phoenix, Arizona).  He's going there to participate in a rodeo.  He also hopes to find love, though his plan for doing so is ... well, I'm not going to watch it again to get the quote exactly right, but from memory: "A steer don't want to be roped, but I rope him.  Why should a girl be any different?"

... yeah.

Just in case you think this is just talk, by the by, when he does meet the woman of his dreams (I expect you can guess who she is), he quite literally, this is not a euphemism or exaggeration, kidnaps her and forces her onto the bus back to the ranch.  This plan only comes unstuck because the bus driver and one of the other passengers (ironically, a friend of Bo's) physically force him to let her go.

Naturally, when Bo finally sees the error of his ways and apologises the young lady falls in love with him.  Because of course she does.

Oh well, at least it's not High Plains Drifter.

Friday, 4 March 2016

The Sarah Jane Adventures, Season 1 (2007)



The relaunched Doctor Who generated a couple of spin-off TV shows.  The first of these was the supposedly more "grown up" Torchwood, which I was never very impressed with.  The second was this series, of course, which launched on the same day that Torchwood's first season came to an end.  It was produced by Children's BBC and therefore took a very different tack.

I'm pleased to say that I enjoyed this spin-off a lot more than I did Torchwood.  In fact, for much of this show's run I liked it more than I did Doctor Who itself.

Sarah Jane Smith was a companion of the Doctor's during that show's original run.  In 2006 she made a guest appearance in the relaunched program, where she was shown to have continued her career as a journalist after leaving the Doctor - and also to have continued investigating potential alien threats to Earth.  From there, of course, it was only a short step to giving her a show of her own.

That this is a kid-focused show is immediately apparent from the fact that Sarah Jane is joined in her adventures by three high school aged characters - Maria, Luke and Clyde - who not only help her protect the planet but also have to deal with real life issues like divorced parents, fitting in at school, and the like.  Thankfully the show deals with the non-alien challenges with a very deft touch.  They're included and acknowledged, but not allowed to become the focus of the show.  That remains the extra terrestrial threats.

With bright and breezy stories and a charming cast, this is a fun show.  Like any series with multiple writers the episodes do vary in quality, but on the whole the first season maintains a consistent tone and is enjoyable throughout.  I also think it profits from being able to draw on the vast history of the Doctor Who franchise without being as tied to that history as the main show itself is.

Worth a look, especially if you know any young SF fans.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Dragon Warriors (2015)



This is another film that I backed on kickstarter, pretty much on the back of a referral from the Mythica guys and the line in the pitch that said "we combined what we love about classic fantasy films of the 80's with the amazing CGI elements of the epic films of today".

I should have taken the time to watch the pitch video, which does a much more thorough job of explaining the kind of movie they wanted to make.

A "funny" one.

Look, I get that movies like Hawk the Slayer and Krull and The Beastmaster and Conan the Destroyer were often packed with cheesiness and goofiness, but they were hot generally intentionally funny ... and when they were, the humour was not at the expense of their own central premise.  You never had characters mocking each other for their goofy fantasy outfits, for instance (and if ever there was a movie that merited mocking for its outfits, it was The Beastmaster).  Nor did their scripts lampshade the goofiness of their characters and situations, or throw in gratuitous pop culture references ("Ha ha! Look how we just riffed on Titanic!  And on Star Wars, over and over and over again!").

As you've probably guessed, Dragon Warriors does all these things, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it almost never succeeds in actually being funny, and continually succeeds in undermining any emotional or dramatic weight to the plot.  I mean, there's a scene near the end of the film where one of the main characters finds his brother has been killed, mourns over him, then remembers that he has a magical ring of healing ... and we get the "hilarity" of a scene where he struggles to find a finger small enough to fit it on (and yes, he tries all of them before "try the little finger" occurs to him).  Ha?

This film is also known under the title Dudes and Dragons, which I think gives a much more accurate sense of the kind of movie it is.  Ugh.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

The Demon (1981)



This 1981 South African offering, also known as Midnight Caller, is either a partially completed film that's had 50 minutes of unrelated footage added to make it up to feature length, or one of the most comically inept films I've seen in a while, or both.

Quite probably both.

The film begins with a masked man breaking into the house of a mother and her teenage daughter.  He ties up the mother and puts a plastic bag over her head, then abducts the younger woman.  Fortunately for mom, dad gets home in time to save her from asphyxiation, but by then their daughter is long gone.  When the cops fail to find the missing girl, the grieving couple hire a psychic former marine (not something you write every day) to look for her.

Meanwhile, we see that the killer has started stalking an attractive young school teacher.  By which I mean "she keeps catching glimpses of him, even in places he couldn't actually be standing".  Whether this "he's somewhere he couldn't be" thing is paranoid delusion, or killer super powers, will go unresolved.  But that's okay, this is a movie which can't decide from shot to shot whether or not the killer wears a mask.  I mean literally shot to shot: at the end of the film, when the final girl stabs him, we can clearly see his face.  He then falls into the bath.  Another clear shot of his face.  We cut away, cut back: plastic mask, clear as day.

Yes, I did just spoil the end of the film.  It's not like you're missing anything.

So how do the psychic and the school teacher cross paths?  Answer: they don't.  Like I said, it's almost like this is two completely separate bits of film that have been jammed together (which is not unknown to happen).  The psychic investigates for a while and starts to get close to the killer, but then one of his clients shoots him in the head, under the delusion that the psychic was the real killer all along.  This happens a good half hour before the movie ends - got to fit in an extended sequence of the topless school teacher being chased around her house by the bad guy, after all - and is then never mentioned again.

There are one or two neat ideas in this: for instance I liked how at one point the school teacher tried to escape by climbing up into the ceiling and levering up tiles on the roof, and the way she finally gets the drop on the killer is fun if very contrived.  But really, unless you're the kind of person who would want to marvel at the fundamental incompetence of it all, you can skip it.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Doctor Who, Season 2 (2006)


I've watched every episode of the 21st century Doctor Who, which just wrapped up its ninth season, but this is the last series that I have enjoyed enough to purchase on DVD.

Varying quality has always been a fact within the show, with classics and clangers dotted through every series since its launch in 1963.  And it's not like this season is any exception: the Xmas special is pretty poor and Fear Her is a complete stinker, for example.  Heck, even otherwise good episodes like School Reunion have their moments of stupid (the bad guys are allergic to themselves?  They really couldn't have come up with something better than that?).

Overall, however, season two is the last time where I felt like the good far outweighed the bad.  The first episode of the season proper, New Earth, has some genuinely funny sequences - notable in a show that frequently goes for laughs and gets eyerolls, instead - and also some touching ones.  Then there's The Girl in the Fireplace, which remains my personal favourite episode of the show's history, and three solid two-parters, including the season finale which I think is the strongest of any series since the show's return.

So yeah, I think we have a strong set of stories here as the Doctor (now played by David Tennant after regenerating at the end of series one) and his companion Rose Tyler careen through time and space, invariably stumbling into one crisis or another as they do so, whether it be in Victorian Scotland, on a 51st century spaceship, or in a parallel reality where Zeppelins rule the skies.

Solid family-friendly SF.