Friday, 30 September 2016

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)


It is the early 2020s, and a war is being waged between Homo Sapiens and mutant-kind.  It's a conflict that is leading to "the worst" of humanity coming to lead the anti-mutant side, and one that the mutants and the humans that support them are inexorably losing.  The principle reason for this is the Sentinels: an army of highly advanced robots capable of adapting to counter any mutant's powers.

The few remaining mutants hatch a desperate plan.  They will project the consciousness of one of them back in time fifty years, and attempt to prevent the event which led to the creation of the Sentinel program.  This event was the assassination of a mutant-hating industrialist named Trask.  His killer was Mystique, a mutant shapechanger.  She was captured after the murder and her metamorphic powers are the key to the Sentinels' adaptive capability.

The only mutant who can survive the journey into the past is Wolverine.  Once in 1973, he must find rival mutant leaders Magneto and Professor Xavier, and get the two to work together to prevent Trask's murder.

All of the above might sound a little hard to follow if you're not intimately familiar with the X-Men franchise, but it's not too bad in practice.  You might be a bit lost if you go in completely blind, but a casual awareness of the characters is probably sufficient.  Certainly I saw it in the cinema with my mother, and on DVD with my far-from-comics-savvy girlfriend, and they both followed along fine.

Containing some great action set pieces and a breakout new character in the form of a speedster named Peter, this is a fun superhero adventure.  If you like the spandex genre, check it out.

One thing to note: this version of the DVD comes with two versions of the film.  The theatrical release and a longer "Rogue Cut", which includes a subplot that was cut from the version shown in cinemas.  Chalk me up as thinking this is a case where less is more, and they were right to cut the subplot.  The theatrical release is a tighter film.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Lucy (2014)



So this movie is basically what you get when Luc Besson decides to re-make 2001, right?  I mean sure, it's only half as long.  And it ditches all that travelling through space stuff and the symphonic score and any semblance of scientific basis, and replaces it with gun play and car chases and international drug cartels.  But at the end of the day it's a film that's all about evolution, existentialism and the meaning of life.

So to address the elephant in the room: yes, the film's story relies heavily on the spurious "humans only use ten percent of their brains" nonsense.  Personally, I have no issue with this.  I can accept zombies, magic, and time travel.  So I can accept that in the world in which Lucy is set, human beings really do use only 10% of their brains.

The eponymous Lucy is a young woman with unfortunate taste in boyfriends.  Her new squeeze inveigles her into delivering a package for him, and as a consequence she finds herself press-ganged by gangsters into acting as a drugs mule.  A kilo of a strange blue powder is surgically implanted in her intestine.

With little other choice in the matter, Lucy goes along with the mobsters.  But an altercation leads to the drug bag splitting inside her.  The massive dose of this narcotic boosts her cerebral activity, allowing her to access for 20% of her brain, then 30%, and so on.  As the percentage increases, Lucy begins to manifest more and more exotic powers.  On the other hand, she also realises that her body is rapidly breaking down from the strain.  She has 24 hours to achieve something with her new abilities ... and at the same time she's got to deal with the drug runners who have no intention of letting go of their merchandise.

This isn't the movie I expected when I went into it, but I'm glad I watched it.  I don't know that I'd say it offers a particularly deep assessment of its themes, but it's definitely refreshing to see someone tackle these themes in a film that isn't three hours long and full of its own importance.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

World War Z (2013)



I'll start this review with three data points that have a significant impact on my reaction to this film:

  1. I've not read the Max Brooks novel on which it is read (though I have read a synopsis, which did not impress).
  2. I have read Brooks's Zombie Survival Guide, and my low opinion of it is the reason point 1 is true.
  3. I thought the trailers for this film looked awful.  In fact, I wouldn't ever have watched it if the DVD hadn't been gifted to me.

Now, bearing in mind that I had very low expectations of this movie, and that I care not at all that it deviates extensively from the book, I found myself tolerably entertained by this big dumb action flick.

And make no mistake that this is an action movie rather than a thriller.  There are a few moments that are played for tension, but the script's much more interested in spectacle.  Stampedes of people; stampedes of zombies; explosions and shouting and shooting, oh my.  These are the film's stock in trade.

Plot-wise, there's not a lot to tell.  There's a massive outbreak of the flesh-eating undead, which quickly sweeps the world.  Former UN investigator Gerry Lane gets tasked with the job of running around the planet trying to find out where the pathogen came from and how it might be stopped.  It must be admitted that the answers he finds probably didn't need all these world-trotting action shenanigans, but let's face it: the answers aren't actually the point here.  The shenanigans are.

If you're in the mood for a zombie action movie, and you've mainlined the Resident Evil flicks already, this film may scratch your itch.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Secret Diary of a Call Girl, Season 1 (2007)



Hannah Baxter is a typical young woman living in London, with a deathly dull job as a night-shift legal secretary for a multinational corporate lawyer.

Except that she's nothing of the sort.  Her actual job is that she's an exclusive - that means expensive - call girl.  She keeps this quiet from pretty much everyone except her clients and her agent.  Not even her best friend and former lover, Ben, knows of her occupation.

Secret Diary of a Call Girl is based on the memoirs of "Belle de Jour", a real life sex worker from London, who relied on the income while completing her doctoral studies.  The TV version of the character is in a bit of a different situation as she seems to be planning to pursue this as a career for at least some time, but many of the other characters and situations draw inspiration from the memoirs.

So obviously this show is going to deal with sex a lot, and it's certainly not shy on that front.  This season tackles jobs involving BDSM, foursomes, sex parties, and "gay for pay" lesbianism, to name just a few topics, and does so with a wryness and frankness that I find very appealing.  This is a funny show, as long as you're not easily shocked, with clever writing and an engaging cast.

Side Note: it's also quite fun to play "spot the British actor".  Fans of Doctor Who are likely to be particularly amused when Matt Smith briefly turns up and sleeps with Billie Piper's Belle.  Or maybe not, given how many people seem to hate Piper's character from Who (I'm not one of them).

Pretty much the only reason I can think of not to check out this show is if you're not comfortable with the subject matter.  In which case you should definitely stay away.  If that's not you though, I recommend you at least give it a try.

Monday, 26 September 2016

After.Life (2009)



Schoolteacher Anna Taylor is clearly unhappy with her life, but unable to even express her unhappiness, let alone correct it.  She has joyless sex with her boyfriend Paul; then denies that there's a problem when he asks her.  She pops pills - a prescription of some kind, though we don't know what for - on a frequent basis.  She always orders the same thing when they go out to eat.

Given the emptiness of her life, it's perhaps a surprise that Anna is initially so adamant that she isn't dead.  She's awoken, you see, in the morgue at a funeral home, and the funeral director is in the midst of preparing her for her own funeral.  He assures her she is dead - from a car accident - and even shows her the death certificate.  He explains that he has the ability to speak with the recently dead and help them come to terms with the own ending.  No-one else will be able to hear her.  Is he telling her the truth, or is this all some kind of twisted game?

As premises go, it's not a bad one, and the makers of After.Life have landed a strong cast, as you can see from the image above.  If only the script and characters lived up to the scenario and actors.  Alas, Anna comes across as rather passionless and passive in the film, and Paul - despite his obvious love for her - is not an especially likeable fellow.  It's hard to root for them, even if you assume the funeral director is lying to her.  And on that question I think the script tries to have its cake and eat it, too: it drops lots of strong hints that Anna is actually still alive, but in that case the funeral director has to be incredibly brilliant and lucky to carry things off.  Implausibly so.  Perhaps even more damningly, the film neglects to fully create stakes over the question of whether she is alive.  There's never a clearly stated negative impact for Anna insisting she is alive  In that context, why should she, and why should we care about her if she fails to do so?

Saturday, 24 September 2016

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)



I've seen Rocky Horror live and on stage something like a dozen times, and have owned it on DVD for about a decade.  I recently picked up a second copy though, because i wanted the movie it came with - the sort of sequel Shock Treatment - and it felt apropos to give it another viewing and this bonus review on the blog.

Now this is a 40-year-old film and a fairly well known one at that, so you've probably got a pretty good idea of what it's about, but just in case, I'm going to give a brief summary.  Oh, and it's a musical.  You should probably know that too, since some people are monsters don't like musicals.

Brad and Janet are a naive young couple who have recently become engaged.  They set off to tell the happy news to the man who originally introduced them, but have car trouble en route.  Fortunately they saw a castle a mile or so back, and they walk through the rain in hopes that someone will be home, and will allow them to call for help.

Someone is indeed home, but it is certainly no-one they would ever have expected.  Dr Frank N Furter is a flamboyant cross-dressing scientist who is on the verge of creating life itself.  Why?  So he can create the perfect male specimen to be his lover, of course!  Brad and Janet soon find themselves swept up in Frank's hedonistic and self-absorbed circle, which both intimidates and tempts them.  Will their relationship survive the night?  For that matter, while they?

Mix two parts 1950s SF cheapie with three parts omnisexual bedroom farce, then garnish liberally with simple-but-catchy songs, and you've got a pretty good summary of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  It certainly won't be to all tastes, but if that sounds like your thing, and you've somehow never managed to see it, you should check it out.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Turbo Kid (2015)



2015 was a pretty good year for post-apocalyptic films.  Obviously the big fish in the pond was Mad Max: Fury Road, but it also brought us this action-comedy ode to the 1980s.  Turbo Kid is certainly not a flawless film - we'll talk about some of the problems later - but I thoroughly enjoyed it nonetheless.  I certainly think it helps to have been a kid growing up in the 80s, though.  For one thing, you're not likely to understand the film's obsession with BMX bikes if you didn't.

I'll let the film's deliberately cheesy opening narration set the scene for you:

This is the future. The world as we knew it is gone. Acid rain has left the land barren and the water toxic. Scarred by endless wars, humanity struggles to survive in the ruins of the old world, frozen in an everlasting nuclear winter. This is the future... this is the year 1997.

We're then introduced to The Kid, a young man eking out a living by scavenging the wasteland and selling the ancient relics he finds.  He lives in an underground bunker filled with comic books and 80s bric-a-brac and travels around on his BMX.  Think Rey from The Force Awakens, if she was a nebbish 17 year old boy.  By tagging along with The Kid, we get to meet Frances - the toughest hombre around - and Apple, a quirky young woman who takes an instant-if-overly-enthusiastic liking to our "hero".

Which brings us to one issue that I have with the film.  Apple's an amusing and entertaining character, but she's very much in the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" mould.  Her script role is mostly to help the kid grow into the hero he's always wanted to be.  But she also impales a bad guy on a unicorn ornament, so I'm inclined to give her something of a pass.

Mentioning the impalement brings up something else that may be an issue to some folks: this is a very gory film.  Said gore isn't very realistic, but it is effusive.  Gouts of blood and internal organs shower the screen.

Why is there so much gore?  Well, in the manner of most post-apocalyptic films, there's an evil warlord out there.  This is Zeus (played by Michael Ironside, who is probably the only person in the movie you may have heard of), who leads your typical bunch of wasteland raiders.  Zeus's power comes from his command of the only source of water in the area: though what most people don't know is that his source of water is people.  I'm confident that this makes as much sense as "they use us for power" did in The Matrix, i.e. zero, but this is not a film that takes itself seriously, so I'm going to let it slide.

So The Kid and Apple and Frances naturally end up on the bad side of Zeus and his cronies, which sets up the core struggle of the film.

If you're of the right age group, have the necessarily off-colour sense of humour, and are willing to overlook the lack of female characters in the film, you'll probably have a good time with Turbo Kid.  I did.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

In the Blood (2014)



Gina Carano is a former MMA fighter who has transitioned into acting.  Her highest profile roles have been supporting turns in Deadpool, which I reviewed yesterday, and Fast and Furious 6.  She's also led a couple of less well known films, however, such as 2011's Haywire, which is a decent little thriller, and this film, which is ... not so good.

I'll start by saying the Carano is not the problem with the film.  She may still be at the "80s Schwarzenegger" level when it comes to the craft of acting, but like Arnie before her, she brings a physical presence to the screen that makes her watchable.  The fact that she's a genuinely skilled martial artist doesn't hurt for the action scenes, either.

Before I get to In the Blood's real problem (spoiler: it's the script), a brief precis of the plot: Ava was raised by her father, who trained her from childhood to be a lethal, self-reliant fighter.  Now in her mid-20s, she is marrying a wealthy young man named Derek. Derek's father is far from keen about the union, but it goes ahead and the happy couple jet off to an unnamed island in the Caribbean for their honeymoon.

After a week or so of fun and sun, however, Derek is involved in an accident.  Ava isn't allowed to ride in the ambulance with him and when she gets to the hospital, she's told no such man has been admitted.  She reports the matter to the police, but they - and Derek's father - seem more inclined to suspect that she had something to do with her husband's disappearance than mystery ambulances.  So Ava sets out to find out what happened to Derek, using all the skills at her command.

All of which is a perfectly fine if rather formulaic premise for an action film.  Where In the Blood fails is in its execution of that premise.  The script's rather slow in places, its explanation for what's happened to Derek is hugely contrived and doesn't really hold up to scrutiny, and the final act relies very heavily on (a) a whole bunch of random people putting their lives on the line for Ava and Derek without any real justification for it, and (b) Danny Trejo - who's had about a minute of screen time before this - turning up just as they need him.  It's rather unsatisfying, to say the least.

If you want to see Gina Carano kicking butt in a lead role, stick to Haywire.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Deadpool (2016)



I saw Deadpool in the cinema.  On Valentine's Day, with my then-new girlfriend (wonder of wonders, she's stuck around).  We both really enjoyed it, laughing a lot at the antics on screen, and when I saw the chance to pick up the DVD cheaply, well, it wasn't a hard decision to plonk down the cash.

Now I have to say that the film isn't quite as effective on a repeat viewing.  Deadpool is an astonishingly - and quite deliberately - crass and irreverent film and a huge amount of its impact comes the "I can't believe they just went there!" factor.   You lose that on the re-watch because you're fully aware of what line(s) its about to cross.

None of which is to say that I didn't enjoy the film a second time around, or regret buying the DVD.  I still enjoyed it a lot and hope for good things from the sequel.  Just something that really stuck out to me.

As you can probably guess, the "qualified" part of my recommendation comes from the film's penchant for crossing lines.  Though "crossing" might not be a strong enough word.  Deadpool is the kind of film where you need to start drawing new lines because it's blown so far past the old ones.  If you're at all sensitive to puerile humour, bad language, or violent or sexual content, this is not the film for you.  There's a reason the film's parental guide on IMDB is about three screens long.

So what's the film about, other than profanity, fart jokes, and murderising a whole bunch of people?  Well basically it tells the tale of one Wade Wilson, a hired thug who is diagnosed with advanced stage cancer.  Staring a death sentence in the face, and desperate not to be taken from the woman he loves, Wilson signs up for a black market "treatment" program, which saves his life and grants him superhuman healing capability, but leaves him seriously scarred all over his body.  Believing that the man behind the experiment is the only one who can make him look "human" again, Wilson sets out a bloody quest to find him.

If you're not easily offended, Deadpool is a fun time.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

The Sopranos, Season 6 (2006)



If you've noticed the 'Not Recommended' tag on this review you may be wondering if it has anything to do with the infamously controversial ending.  To which my answer is: only partly.  I personally was pretty thoroughly spoiled on the climactic scene some time ago, so I knew what was coming.  On the other hand, my girlfriend - who has been watching the whole show with me - was going in blind, and her response to the ending is not repeatable in this family-friendly environment.

So the ending is definitely a divisive thing.  And even spoiled ahead of time, I don't see that it's any better a conclusion than say that of season five.  And in my opinion, if a season of TV isn't going to give you a better ending than you already had before, then it needs to deliver a pretty darn good journey to justify the viewing time.  Dexter season 8 is an example of a show that catastrophically fails on both accounts.  And while the final season of The Sopranos is not Dexter-bad, it does in my opinion fall short.

It's not the performances, which remain good.  It's not even the minute-to-minute writing, which (with a couple of as-far-as-I-can-tell unintentionally farcical murder scenes aside) is also good.  Where this season fails is in its structure.  I suspect that being given 21 episodes instead of the usual 13 is the problem.  All that extra time available seems to have lured show creator David Chase into seriously over-indulging his sub-plots in the first half of the season.  We get a good hour of Tony's fantasy life while he's in a coma, for instance, where he thinks he's a defence contractor at a conference.  And there's a long subplot about one of his top subordinates being outed as homosexual.  I'm all for representation (though it would be nice to have it from someone who's not such a horrible person), but this subplot and its consequences get significant attention in something like a dozen episodes, while Meadow Soprano's break-up with her fiancee is handled in a single line of dialogue, or an all-out gangland war starts and ends in an episode and a half.  Time management in the season is very poor.

Ultimately, I think you can stop watching The Sopranos at the end of season 5 and be just as satisfied with the show as if you followed it to the end.  And on that basis, I can't recommend devoting ~20 hours of your time to it.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Big Hero 6 (2014)



I thought about giving this film only a Qualified Recommendation, but then I realised that the only qualifications were "you don't have a thing against superheroes, animated films, or both".  And in a post Marvel Studios, post Pixar world, are there really that many curmudgeons left?  Particularly ones who will be reading some obscure, nerdy DVD reviews blog?

The film revolves around Hiro Hamada, an intellectually-brilliant 14 year old with a passion for robotics.  Because Disney hate parents, he is also an orphan.  Bored and a little alienated, Hiro's scornful of his elder brother Tadashi's hard-working, conscientious approach to life ... at least until he sees the awesome robotics laboratory in which Tadashi conducts his research, and meets Tadashi's current project: a 'personal healthcare' robot named Baymax.

Unfortunately, Hiro's efforts to be accepted into the laboratory program will set in motion a series of events that bring further tragedy into his life (it seems Disney hate parents so much that even surrogate father figures aren't safe), and ultimately come to threaten the entire city of San Fransokyo with devastation.

Big Hero 6 is based on an obscure Marvel Comics property, and features a whole passel of technology-based superhero shenanigans.  In that respect it reminds me quite a lot of the animated TV series Iron Man Armored Adventures, which features a teenage Tony Stark as its protagonist (and which will be reviewed here eventually).  Being a Disney-branded film though, it also delivers a lot of comedic sequences and emotional resonance.

This is a fine film with smooth animation, strong voice performances, and an engaging script.  Fun for the whole family, not just the young ones.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Where Eagles Dare (1968)



If anyone tries to tell you that modern day films are over the top and ridiculous, you can point them to this near-50-year-old exercise in excess.  Where Eagles Dare is not content with mere double or triple crosses; nor with cars that hit the bottom of the cliff and then explode.  And we haven't even got into the matter of its body count.

Now I don't want it to seem like I am too down on the film.  It's a pretty fun time if one accepts the somewhat dated styling of its action sequences, its penchant for keeping major plot details from the audience, and the script's tendency to turn everything up to 11.  This is the kind of film, for instance, where when two enemies are escaping in a cable car, one does not merely heft the sub-machine gun one is carrying and let them have a good long burst.  No, instead one leaps onto the cable car, engages in a fistfight atop it while planting a bomb, and then leaps from the first cable car to one passing in the opposite direction just before the bomb goes off.

The ostensible trigger for all these cable car shenanigans - and a whole lot of other shenanigans beside - is that an American general has been captured by the Germans.  He was returning from a meeting in Crete with the Russians when his plane was shot down - a stroke of "damnable bad luck" given that no German fighters were expected to be in the area.  Doubly-so, because it seems this particular General is fully informed of the D-Day plans.  Dun dun dun!

Or maybe not so dun dun dun, since that word 'ostensible' is rather key, and there's a whole lot more going on than we're initially told.  I wonder if audiences in the 60s were supposed to realise that straight away.  Many of them would have lived through the war itself after all, so they'd have known that Crete was in German hands until the Nazis surrendered.

Be that as it may, an elite team of British agents - plus one American - are sent to rescue the General.  From the start though it's pretty clear that more than one game is afoot.  I won't spoil any of the twists and turns, but suffice it to say that your suspenders of disbelief will have to bear some serious strain!

I kind of want them to do a remake of this film.  Someone give Daniel Craig and one of the Marvel Chris's a call and see if they're free, hey?

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Sanjuro (1962)



This was originally conceived as a standalone film but after the smash success of Yojimbo, the script was re-worked to make the antihero from that movie also be the protagonist of this one.  No doubt it helped that Toshiro Mifune was on-board to play lead again anyway.

What we have here once more is a wandering samurai finding himself in a fight between two factions.  This time, however, there is a moral difference between the opposing side.  The smaller, weaker group are attempting to expose corruption among their clan elders while their stronger opponents are ... well, those self-same clan elders.

So with the previous film's "playing both sides against the other" motif not an option this time, we get a more generally straightforward story.  Which is not to say that Mifune's character isn't above some duplicitous strategies, because he certainly isn't.

Overall, I don't think this is quite the classic that Yojimbo was.  The supporting characters are a little thin and there are a couple too many fortunate coincidences in the plot.

Still, there's a lot to like about Sanjuro.  It's well shot, the script is mostly solid (and surprisingly humorous at times), and I very much enjoyed that the villains are given chances to demonstrate some smarts before their inevitable defeat.  I also like the thread of anti-violent commentary running through things.  While there are certainly several fight scenes involving Mifune, the film offers the theorem "the best swords are the ones that are kept in their scabbards", and he enters each with more reluctance than the last.  I've seen other action films that included "violence is bad, okay?" dialogue in them, but they've rarely felt sincere.  Sanjuro does.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Churchill: The Hollywood Years (2004)



So the website where I purchased this DVD for the princely sum of $3.88 had this as the description of the film:  American movie moguls are producing a movie about World War II. Following the first day of shooting, an ambitious executive discovers that their 'lead' is an old guy with a cigar, so they decide to replace him with a far more sellable leading man: the star of their most recent film - the tactfully entitled 'PUMP!'."

Maybe there's a cut of this film where that's actually the plot - and it is certainly a much better match to its title - but it's not what happens in the movie I just watched.  Instead, the framing story presented here was the son of the real Winston Churchill - who was an American GI who single-handedly saved the UK from Nazi Conquest and impregnated then-Princess Elizabeth in the process - demanding to know why history believes that his father was some fat old English guy.

Now I expect that 90% of the content of the film - which takes place in London in 1940 - would be the same, regardless of the framing device, but given the absurdity of said content, I imagine that the version from the website description would work a bit better overall.  "Adolf Hitler was a house guest in Buckingham Palace during the Blitz" makes a lot more sense as the result of ridiculous executive meddling than it does as the real history.

Not that working a bit better would be enough to save the film.  I mean, it's obviously intended as a parody of films like U-571 and Pearl Harbor, which ascribe to Americans the heroics of other peoples, but it seems like its only idea in this regard is to just exaggerate such tendencies a thousand fold.  Other than that it's all Carry On style silliness of the most tired sort.

There are some bloopers at the end which suggest that the cast were having fun, but I doubt too many people in the audience will be.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Magnum P.I., Season 3 (1982)



Thomas Sullivan Magnum certainly has his hands full in season three.  He has to tangle with a KGB agent (twice!), a samurai, the guys from Simon & Simon, and even a professional wrestler; the last of whom is played by none other than Ernest Borgnine.  Then there's the visit from another of Higgins's half brothers, his encounter with a cursed Hawaiian relic, or the time he dreams his way back to 1936 to solve a case.

I'm still not done.  We've also got a $50,000,000 inheritance falling into his lap, his wedding, and being relegated to supporting cast on his own show.  None of those three last longer than the episode they're in, of course.  The guy who left him the money isn't dead, the wedding's a charade for a case, and the last one's a backdoor pilot for a show that never got made (though apparently the bare bones of the idea got re-worked and became the seed for Airwolf).

So as you can see the creators of this show weren't afraid to go a little gonzo with their scripts.  I think that's one of its strengths, because this kind of episodic TV needs something like that to keep it from getting stuck in too much of a rut.  And part of what makes the gonzo work is that Magnum P.I. also has its darker moments.  The two-part season opener might have a bad guy plot straight out of a 60s spy film, but it also has (not all that graphic) scenes of torture and quite a shock ending.  Or later on there's an episode dealing with the PTSD suffered by veterans of the Vietnam War.

A little reading online suggests that seasons three and four were when this show was at its most popular, and based on the deft mixture of adventure, humour, and occasional darker themes, it's easy enough to see why.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Inside Man (2006)



I almost gave this film a qualified recommendation, because I did quite enjoy it while I was watching it, but it is one of those movies where every time you think about it afterwards you spot a plot contrivance or idiot ball moment that saps a little of your enthusiasm for it.

We start with Dalton Castle, who is apparently in a prison cell.  Despite this, he tells us he's carried out the "perfect" bank robbery.  We then get to see said robbery.  Dalton and his group enter the bank dressed as painters (including face masks), disable the cameras, and force all the staff and customers to dress in coveralls like their own.  Despite their seemingly well-planned operation, however, they make no effort to keep the robbery secret and are soon sealed in by a force of over a hundred police.

Detective Frazier is the man assigned to lead the negotiations with Castle.  The two men engage in a battle of wits, but Frazier has two complications on his plate.  The first is that the bank's owner has hired Madeline White, a "fixer", to protect certain possessions of his that are stored at the bank.  The second is that Castle isn't playing the game everyone thinks he is.

As I intimated above, Inside Man is an engaging thriller while you're watching it, but as we headed into the final fifteen minutes or so I found a number of niggling doubts about the plot popping up in my mind.  Those doubts have multiplied as I've thought more about the film since it ended.  I won't go into specifics since I think that would spoil any chance of you enjoying the film, but I will say that I think almost everything to do with the bank owner weakens the film - the exception is the acting, which is very good - and since that's a major component of the script, it rather sinks the movie for me.

Friday, 9 September 2016

The Cabin Movie (2005)



Ken and Maria are an unmarried but committed couple who are in a long-running and stable relationship.  Perhaps things feel a little too stable to them, however, because they have invited two other couples to join them at a secluded cabin for a weekend of sexual experimentation with each other.

Jason and Diana are the first couple invited.  They've also been together for a long time, but their relationship is much more volatile.  They've split up several times, and Jason throws a curveball into the plan when he shows up with Ginny, a sexually adventurous young woman he's known for only a week.  It seems he and Diana have split up again, though he blithely reassures Ken and Maria that Ginny "is into this stuff".  The idea that introducing a stranger might throw everyone else off balance seems not to have occurred to him.  But then, as we'll learn in the course of the film "thinking things through" is not Jason's strong point.

The final pairing are Catherine and Mark.  They're the only couple who are married, but they're also the most dysfunctional: we see that from their very first interaction, when Catherine collects Mark to drive out to the cabin.  Mark is also the most reluctant about the whole proceeding, to the point where it's not really clear why he agreed to come at all.  Based on his other character traits, possibly just because be kept putting off the argument he knew it would cause.  Catherine, you see, is deeply unhappy with their non-existent sex life and desperately wants something to happen this weekend.

All these issues collide in this low budget Canadian offering, which draws both drama and humour from said collision.  It's a generally engaging film, and manages to make the characters mostly sympathetic even at the time they're being jerks (and pretty much everyone acts like a jerk at some point in this).

I enjoyed The Cabin Movie, and if you're interested in stories about how sex, friendship and romance interact, it's worth a look.  It's not flawless but it eschews the most common developments you might expect from such fare.  In particular I liked that Ginny doesn't fall into the 'manic pixie dream girl' schtick as much as it first appears she will.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Yojimbo (1961)



I've mentioned before that this is probably the Kurosawa film with the most remakes, and it is not hard to see why.  It's got an engrossing, expertly-paced script full of ruthlessness and double-crosses; a compelling central performance from Toshiro Mifune; and it's beautifully shot.  Even though it is a black and white film in another language, I'm giving it a straight up Recommendation.  It's that good.

Given the many remakes (A Fistful of Dollars, Last Man Standing, The Warrior & The Sorceress, Django), there's no small chance you're familiar with the basic premise of the tale, but just in case you're not, here it is:

A drifter - in this case a lordless samurai - arrives in a town riven by a feud between two rival gangs.  He inserts himself into the conflict, playing a dangerous game of bluff and double-bluff in an attempt to bleed both sides dry.  He can rely on only his wits and his sword to keep him one step ahead of the men he's trying to destroy.

There's basically nothing to complain about in this film.  Some of the soundtrack choices are probably going to sound a little unusual to western ears, but I think that's purely an issue of different cultures.  It's visually stylish, with wide framing shots that would heavily influence the western genre; and Kurosawa is not afraid to tell his story visually, trusting the audience to infer what is going on.  It's even got the decency to be a taut 100 or so minutes in length, which makes it much more accessible than some of Kurosawa's epic length efforts like The Seven Samurai.

Well worth your time.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Zombie Hunter (2013)



If your reaction to the cover image above is "A zombie action film starring Danny Trejo?  Tell me more!" then I am afraid what I am going to tell you is that the cover image lies.

I mean sure, Danny Trejo is in  the film.  But he's in a far more minor role than the DVD cover suggests.  He's on-screen for well under ten minutes all up, in short appearances stretched over the first half of the film.  The film's protagonist is actually the guy standing behind Trejo.  Well, most the time, anyway.  Sometimes the film forgets that and makes the protagonist the woman in the white top.  Or at least, it gives her narrative voice overs, which are usually the sole prerogative of the protagonist.

Frankly I wish they'd made the woman the protagonist full stop, because the guy ... well, he's no Danny Trejo, let's put it that way.

So anyway the cause of the zombie outbreak in this film is a highly addictive drug called "Natas".  Yeah, I wonder how they came up with that name. eh?  If you use Natas for too long, you become a flesh-eating member of the undead.  This isn't a bad idea for how the outbreak could spread quickly - tens of thousands of users changing in a short period of time - but you can pretty much forget about it after the opening scene.  Is the zombification an intended side effect of Natas?  If so, who is behind it?  Could a sample of the drug be used to engineer an antidote?  These are all questions the film has no interest in asking, let alone answering.

Instead we get to meet "Hunter", a poor man's Mad Max pastiche in a post-apocalyptic zombie world.  Hunter falls in with a small group of survivors through circumstances too stupid to recount.  Their leader (played by Trejo) then gives him the big data dump of exposition that sets up the rest of the film's plot (such as it is).

One thing that Trejo's character doesn't mention - presumably he doesn't know? - is that there's also this mutant thing with big claws running around the place.  What this is, where it is from (other than being a pastiche of something from Resident Evil, I mean) and other such details are again things the film isn't much concerned with.

There's little to recommend here.  Most of the acting is bad, all of the effects are dodgy, and the script is entirely free of anything redeeming.  It's just dull and tiresome stuff that doesn't even approach "so bad it's good" territory.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Fraggle Rock, Season 2 (1984)



When I reviewed the first season of this Jim Henson production, I described it as less madcap and incisive than The Muppets, which I now kind of regret saying.  Not because it's not true, but because ... well, very few shows are as madcap and incisive as The Muppets was.  There was a reason it was Emmy-nominated for its writing in every year it aired.

There's also the fact that Fraggle Rock was then a show in its first year and to some extent the cast and writers were still finding their feet and establishing the show's voice.  There were bound to be aspects of the show that were still a bit rough.  Those aspects have clearly been refined in this second season.  Characters who were pretty much defined by a single characteristic get extra layers, or at least have stories based around their efforts to overcome the foibles associated with that characteristic.

There's also more time and attention paid to fleshing out the Fraggles' world.  In particular we get a few episodes centred around the Doozers - a race of tiny little green people who endlessly build crystalline structures in the Fraggles' caves.  The scripts revolving around these industrious little beings have a different tone and tempo to those that are based around the core Fraggles.  They therefore make a nice change of pace.

I thoroughly enjoyed the sophomore season of Fraggle Rock.  There's definitely a formula at work but it's a well-executed one.  There are plenty of amusingly oddball concepts at play in the various scripts.  It also doesn't hurt that I think the songs in this season - and every episode has at least a couple - are stronger than in the first.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Tombstone (1993)



Wyatt Earp and his brothers arrive in the boomtown of Tombstone, Arizona.  Wyatt has become well-known for his work as a Marshall in Dodge City, but his firm intent is to put aside his career as a law-man, get into a profitable business, and become wealthy.  Of course, life doesn't always work out the way you want it to, and tensions with a local band of outlaws who call themselves 'the Cowboys' soon escalate to the point where bloodshed seems inevitable.

So: there are two main reasons to watch Tombstone.

The first is the sequence covering the gunfight at the OK Corral.  This famous showdown forms the centrepiece of the movie and is a well-executed piece of film-making.  It does a good job of capturing the tension leading up to the actual fight, and then the chaos of the shootout itself.

The second is Val Kilmer's performance as Doc Holliday, which Roger Ebert singled out as "the definitive saloon cowboy of our time".  Kilmer's portrayal of the sickly, alcoholic dentist-turned-gunfighter steals pretty much every scene he's in.

These two positives have to weighed up against the film's central flaw, which is that it tends to sprawl a lot in terms of pacing and structure.  The opening act introduces a lot of characters, many of whom play only very minor roles, while the final act gets a little repetitive in its many scenes of men galloping across the countryside, shooting at each other.  It honestly feels like there may be as much as thirty minutes that could be cut from the run time, leaving a leaner, more focused film.

As far as the film as-actually-made goes, I feel the positives outweigh the negatives, but I'm sure that not everyone will agree.  Hence the qualified recommendation.

Friday, 2 September 2016

The Sopranos, Season 5 (2004)



I found it quite difficult to write my review of The Sopranos fourth season, because it basically amounted to "it continues to evolve its basic premise in a satisfying manner".  Thankfully this season gives me a couple of talking points, which will make writing it a lot easier.

Of course, when I say "talking points", I basically mean "things to complain about".  So I'd better begin things by confirming that this season also  continues to evolve the show's basic premise in a satisfying manner: the ongoing tribulations brought into Tony Soprano's life by his real family, his work family, and (most pointedly) his own indiscretions continue to make for highly engaging viewing.

That said, the show does have a couple of foibles.  Firstly, season five brings us the third iteration of the same basic character arc: an ambitious underling returns to the family after an extended absence, causes trouble for Tony due to their insubordinate actions, and comes to a bad end.  Now to be fair to the writers, they do significantly change things up in the details of each arc.  Tony's relationship with each man is different; as is the specific nature of their eventual conflict.  But watching the seasons quite close together like this does make the broad stroke similarities more evident.

The second issue is dream sequences.  I've never been a huge fan of their use in The Sopranos, as they've generally been used as an excuse for Tony to have some kind of epiphany: "such and such is informing on me", for instance.  It's always felt like a slightly lazy trick, but because the sequences were generally short I haven't worried about it too much.  The eleventh episode of this season, however, features a twenty minute dream sequence, which I found very tiresome indeed.

Neither of these is really deal breaking problems, though.  The show overall remains a strong one, with interesting characters, some genuine surprises, and a healthy vein of black humour.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

The Hidden Fortress (1958)



George Lucas credited this film as a heavy influence on Star Wars.  The initial draft of the latter film was apparently more-or-less just "The Hidden Fortress in space", without Jedi or Sith or any of the now familiar motifs of the series.  Obviously things evolved over time, but one or two elements of the Kurosawa movie made it to the final version.  In particular, C3PO and R2D2 draw heavily on two of the central characters of this film: a pair of bickering peasants who are the first characters we meet and whom we follow until they stumble into the main plot.

One major difference however, is that whatever their foibles, Lucas's droids are basically decent sorts.  Sure, Threepio is rather querulous and prone to cowardice, but he'd never betray someone to the Empire, or try to cheat Artoo, both of which are things that his analogue in this film attempts.  The Artoo analogue is just as big a jerk, attempting much the same things.  In fact, both characters are completely reprehensible for most of the film; hitting their nadir when they draw straws to decide which of them will sexually assault a sleeping young woman.

Yeah.  That was about the time when I started actively hoping these point of view characters would die horribly before the film was over.

The "main plot" I mentioned involves a recently-completed war.  A general from the losing side is attempting to get his princess and a big pile of gold to friendly territory.  Since he can't carry all the look without help, he enlists the two farmers as colleagues.

Given the pair's subsequent, regular attempts to either abandon or betray him, they're pretty much the worst possible allies he could have chosen.  Of course, if this is emblematic of his usual recruiting skills, then it would explain why his army lost.

Anyway, various shenanigans happen in the attempted escape, and some of them are quite neat set-pieces, but I found it ever more difficult to care about them, since the two schmucks still hadn't got their comeuppance (spoiler: they never would).