Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Forbidden Planet

Monday, 27 February 2012

Review: Damnation Alley

Damnation Alley (1977)

An all-out nuclear war devastates the Earth and throws the world off its axis.  For two years, the globe is blasted by freak storms, radiation as mutated insects start to emerge.  In the deserts of California, a US Air Force ICBM base is barely holding together when a gas explosion kills all except four men.  Using a pair of state-of-the-art military vehicles called Landmasters, they strike out for the possible source of relief: Albay, New York, where the only radio signals have been detected.  In between are thousands of miles of storms and and radiation.

20th Century Fox had high hopes for this film, as opposed to the one they thought would sink without a trace–a little effort called Star Wars.  Heaven alone knows why, because this is such a bland, anaemic effort that never goes anywhere.  Maybe that's because one can say with confidence that repetitive scenes of a road trip through a wasteland ceilinged by weird clouds isn't really all that interesting.  Also, there's no real conflict here.  The trip to Albany is so matter of fact and so linear that the plot never builds, the curves of the arc never leave a straight line and, frankly, this is a story where all the good stuff is in the beginning and it just petters out as it goes along until the film grinds to an anti-climactic stop.

George Peppard as Major Denton does his best to flesh out a thin role, but he's hampered in having to drag along co-star Jan Michael Vincent who is as lightweight as is imaginable.  Paul Winfield is pointlessly killed off too early on and additional cast Jackie Earle Haley adn the vapid Dominique Sanda are so pointless after their introductory scenes that the might as well have been stored in the overhead luggage.

An episodic, one-level pedestrian effort, it's no wonder that author roger Zelazny, whose book was the genesis of this, hated every frame with a hard, gem-like flame.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Review: Fantastic Voyage

Fantastic Voyage (1966)

A defecting scientist from behind the Iron Curtain is mortally wounded while trying to flee to the West and it's up to a American intelligence agent Grant to keep him alive during the brain surgery needed to save his life so he can pass on information vital to the survival of the Free World.  It's no ordinary surgery because it involves having the operating team, including Grant, placed in a submarine and then shrunk to the size of a microbe before injecting them into the stricken scientists body.  Unfortunately, there's an assassin among the team.

Oh, and the process only works for 60 minutes, so they have to work very fast.  That doesn't help matters when a string of accidents sends the tiny submarine off course and the miniature medicos must take an unscheduled tour of the human body.

Often copied and usually blatantly ripped off, Fantastic Voyage was one of those "event" films that kept cropping up in the 1960s.  It was lavish, boasted a budget that put every penny on the screen and had it been much longer (100 minutes; a long time in those days), they probably would have added an intermission.   The plot is a pretty simple one, the team must find a way to the injured section of the brain while fighting such menaces as driving through a beating heart, replenishing lost air via the lungs and battling hostile white blood cells.  Meanwhile, Grant must discover who the assassin is who keeps arranging "accidents" and will stop at nothing to kill his target.

It's a bit bare, but deliberately so just as the characters are defined rather than explored.  That's because the  director Richard Fleischer is concentrating attention on what the audience has paid to see:  Raquel Welch in a skin-tight wet suit.  That, and an incredible array of sets showing bits of the human body blown up to thousands of times their normal size.  It isn't often you see the cochlea of an inner ear the size of a cathedral or nerve fibres like bridge cables.   Today, this would all have been done with green screen, but this being the '60s, the only option was a mixture of miniatures, process shots, front projection screens, and full-size mock ups for the scenes with actors in them.  All of this, of course, occurs inside the human body, so, except for one scene inside the  air cavity of the lungs, the characters are swimming about when they leave their submarine.  There was no way that the studio was going to compound the cost of the sets by immersing them in a tank, so the "swimming" actors are actually all on wires.

The pacing is a bit slow in the beginning, but that's because of the need to sell what was then a novel concept and make it believable, so every step of the miniaturisation process is followed in detail.  However, the Grant character is a brilliant idea because he is a) the fish out of water whom we need to identify with and people get to explain things to, yet b) he's a active agent trying to solve a problem, so he isn't just sitting about asking questions.

Actually, the more brilliant idea was Raquel Welch's character, who wears a skin-tight wet suit.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Trailer: John Carter (2)

A fan recut that actually give some plot and context to the action scenes

Monday, 20 February 2012

Review: The Secret World of Arrietty

The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)

The Clock family (father Pod, mother Homily and 14-year old daughter Arrietty) are Borrowers; four-inch tall people who live under the floorboards in people's houses and borrow things from the "Beans" (human beings) that they need to survive.  Their home is a box inside a pile of breaks in the foundations of an old house with spacious grounds in a suburb of Tokyo.  It's a quiet place, but Pod is concerned when a young boy comes to the house to rest before going into hospital for a heart operation.  Being seen by Beans is the worst thing that can happen to a Borrower and it usually means having to move house.  His worries prove justified when Arrietty goes on her first borrowing expedition and is seen by the boy.  Though the boy wants to be friends with the littler Borrower girl, the result is a chain of events that put the Clocks in danger.

Produced by Studio Ghibli, the same production house that created Howl's Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke,  The Secret World of Arrietty is based on the 1952 book The Borrowers by Mary Norton and the love of the filmmakers for the source material definitely shows through.

Before anything else, this is a first-class piece of animation with an attention to detail that is stunning.  It isn't often when a cartoon takes such pains to show a changing facial expression in such detail or choreograph the fall of raindrops or the panic of a crow caught in a window screen.  It's beautiful to see, though one sometimes wonders if a little too much attention has been taken on a minor detail.   The Foley work is almost excruciatingly  complete with every motion accompanied by the appropriate sound to the point where even soundless actions like the opening of a hand gets its spot on the soundtrack.

This is also a hard story to screw up so long as the screenwriters and director are smart and stick to the book.  The plot here is just right for the material and is a refreshing departure from most modern family films that need some sort of slam-bang climax.  Instead, this is much more subdued and gentle even in the most harrowing moments.  That being said, it's also a very slow film that moves with a very rhythmic, deliberate pace and there are many spots which should have been speeded up.  Also, the story loses something from being shifted from England to Japan.  It's rather as if the heart of the story was lost in transit.  This is a charming film; beautiful in places and with a bittersweetness that is never cloying.  However, what is lost is the whimsy of the original novel.  There isn't that sense of cheerfulness and acceptance of this strange world being right next to ours that is utterly normal to those who inhabit it.  We can definitely see father Pod using all his resourcefulness to provide for and protect his family.  We can't really imagine him setting back with a pipe and telling stories.  Homily is just a bundle of nerves and Arrietty, while a courageous character, lacks that spark of English cheerful truculence that made her literary counterpart so endearing. And if anyone smiles, it's always a wan thing.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Terror at 12A

Over at Den of Geek, Mark Harrison takes to task the 12A certification that The Woman in Black received and wonders a) what went through the studio's collective mind and b) does letting in the moppets hurt the film because they won't belt up?

The latter question is easily resolved by my view that anyone who chatters in the cinema should be put in the stocks. As to the former, I've had strong views on this ever since I resaw The Masque of the Red Death (1961) on cable in the States and had to hunt under the couch for my jaw when I saw that it was rated G.  This is the equivalent to a U certificate in Britain and places the Vincent Price horror masterpiece on the same footing as Bambi.

I am convinced that the ratings/certification system must use one of those on-line forms that populates a spreadsheet that then tallies up the points and spits out the answer (X for blood, Y for gore, Z for breasts, etc.).  That is the only way that a film that has very little sex and violence yet is one long white-knuckle festival can get such a low pass.

It's the same with The Woman in Black.  This is the first truly scary film, as opposed to nauseating, that I've seen in years.  When that face appears in the window behind Daniel Radcliffe, I want to take a page from my six-year old Dalek-fearing self and hide behind the seats.  And it gets a 12A?  Did anyone watch this thing?  It's  good, old-fashioned nightmare fuel.   The only reason, aside from lobbying by the studio, must be because it doesn't have any of the bits that throw up the red flags.  Never mind that the whole film is one big red flag.  

That's where these systems fall down.  They aren't intended as real indicators of the appropriateness of the film's content nor are they meant as a way for parents to make informed judgements.  They're a way to deflect criticism and dull outrage.  A film can be as corrosive as acid on public morals as inappropriate for teenagers to see as pornography, but it doesn't matter because it has its little vetting code on the marquee.

This isn't a call for censorship.  By no means.  I can think of many films that I've enjoyed that would be regarded objectively as pretty strong meat, but I've always preferred it when it's appropriate for the audience and the audience knows what it's getting.  What I am objecting to is the mechanical nature of the ratings system and how it takes no notice of the content of the film itself.  The old Hays office and British Board of Censors may have often been prudish and a little silly, but they at least paid attention to the films.  An Island of Lost Souls would easily get the same rating as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein with the check list system used now, but the BBOC in the '30s quite rightly pointed out that the former skirted too close to depicting bestiality and banned it for twenty years.  Today, it's available in Britain (which is fine), but it just gets a UK-PG.  I guess today, bestiality rules okay,

I'm waiting for 2022 when The Wicker Man gets shown on Nickelodeon.  At lunchtime.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Review: The Woman in Black

The Woman in Black (2012)

Arthur Kipp is a lawyer tormented by the memory of his wife who died giving birth to their only son.  His career is on the verge of ruin and his only hope of saving it is to take an assignment to travel to a remote sea-coast village in north-east England to settle the estate and sell the house of a woman who died some years before.  When he arrives, Kipp is looked upon with hostility by the inhabitants and their fearful children; all of whom want nothing more than for him to go back to London on the next train.  More important, they don't want him under any circumstances to visit the house of the dead woman.  Why?  That is a very good question.

The Woman in Black is Hammer Films first attempt to go back to the Victorian horror that marked its glory days.  It hasn't been very well received by critics–largely because this is a slow building haunted house drama without the usual lashing of gore, dead teenagers or torture porn that have been the staple of the genre over the past three decades.  Instead, this is film that works very hard to establish that all-important trait of a good horror film: Mood.  As Kipp leaves London he is plunged into a world of fear and confusion; of hidden secrets and grim evils.  The start is slow, but this is deliberate and by the time the pay off comes, it is with some very genuine scares and an almost painful tension as we await the climax.  More than that, the film doesn't feel compelled to make a load of pointless cuts just to keep the average shot length down to under five seconds.  We not only see the scary bits, we get a good, solid look at them.

The director James Watkins took G K Chesteron's observation to heart:  What is frightening about a ghost is not what it can do to us, but what it is.  Kipp, played by Daniel Radcliffe is never in direct danger from what is haunting the house, but we are frightened out of our wits because Watkins does a very thorough job of convincing us of what it is.  Radcliffe, working very hard to shed his Harry Potter image despite a long shot of a steam train that screams "Hogwarts Express", does his best to step up to the role.  It's clear that he will probably never be a major actor, but it won't be for lack of trying.

The running time is a refreshing 95 minutes (only five minutes over Szondy's Law), which is about as much time as the premise will bear.  The only major criticism I can make is that the tension is almost relentless.  In Hammer's old days, there would have been a point where Michael Ripper would have walked on as a comic-relief poacher to lighten the mood for a couple of minutes, but here the screws are tightened down and never let off even at the end.

It's a good start for Hammer.  Now to see if they can keep it up.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Review: The Thing (2011)

The Thing (2011)

I loved John W Campbell Jr's short story "Who Goes There", I think that it's 1951 screen version The Thing From Another World is a beautiful gem of film making that is worth watching over and over again, and I'm even willing to concede the brilliance of John Carpenter's 1984 remake, The Thing, even though I thought it leaned too far into the gore-for-gore's-sake territory for my taste.  That being said, what insane venal impulse motivated Universal to green light this remake/prequel/abomination?

This dross is horrible.  Not only is there absolutely no point in this quasi-remake, it isn't even a good film in it's own right.  Once again, we have the ancient spaceship found in the ice of Antarctica, the monster that can imitate anyone and the paranoia of being trapped with it, but all of that it lost in a story utterly lacking in tension, humour, atmosphere or even logic.  It's like some weird party game where you're told to paraphrase a script and lose points for every time you make a direct quote.

The direction and writing are phenomenally lazy. Instead of ringing new changes on the story, the film makers merely assume we're up to speed with the concepts and run with it.  There's no attempt to capture the horror of the situation or the spine-tingling moment of coming into contact with the impossible Other.  This is just giant claws and stalking monsters with neither alien nor human showing a bit of sense.  Worse, we are once again lumbered with Action GirlTM, who weighs about seven stone yet can effortlessly carry a fully loaded flame thrower that must weigh as much as she does (where the hell did they get these, anyway?) and has the scientific insight of Doctor Who despite looking like she hasn't even finished her master's degree, though no one ever adequately explains what the deuce she's doing there other than to be The Heroine. Worst, the pace is slow, the monsters are unconvincing, it's too long and the Antarctic setting is virtually an afterthought.

The short review:  This is modern Hollywood at its cynical worst.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Review: Real Steel

Real Steel (2011)

on 4 October 1963, the CBS television network transmitted an episode of The Twilight Zone called "Steel".   Based on a story by Richard Matheson and starring Lee Marvin, it concerns a down and out boxing manager in the year 1974 when the sport has been outlawed and only human-looking robots are allowed in the ring.  Desperate for a fight for his robot, Marvin gets a gig in a hick Midwestern town, but the robot breaks down at the last minute, forcing Marvin to make a potentially fatal choice.

It's the sort of gritty morality tale that Rod Serling's anthology series was famous for; a story about a man who is slowly being ground away by a changing world and in the end is literally forced to fight for his manhood.  It's a episode marked by believable, grown-up performances that sell that absurd premise and a "New York" writing style that works beautifully.

Fast forward to 2011 and Hugh Jackman stars in a pointless remake of that classic now called Real Steel.  This time, our hero is a jerk with the maturity of an eight-year old who keeps making wild all-or-nothing bets that end up with his giant Transformer-like robots getting needlessly destroyed.  Naturally, he is lumbered with his 11-year old son whom he hasn't seen in ten years.  Said son has the maturity of a 35-year old and is an expert robotics engineer that allows him to drag an old robot out of a scrap heap, repair it, modify it and set it up as a fighting machine capable of beating all comers.  This the kid then uses to make wild all-or-nothing bets that in his case are sensible gambles because he wins.

The kid is also unbelievingly annoying.  So, does this become a gritty tale of Jackman recovering his dignity and self-respect?  No.  It becomes Rocky meets Rock 'em, Sock 'em Robots as the kid's robot becomes a media darling and within weeks is facing off with the undefeated world champion, which it defeats as father and son bond.

Meanwhile, I sit in stunned amazement at how far Hollywood has abased itself in its unending quest for sequels, remakes and exploiting every brand under the sun.  It's one thing to remake something and do it better, it's another thing to do it in the name of CGI crap that jettisons the source material entirely.  The effects are overloaded and unconvincing, the plot is as predictable as a train timetable, Jackman's character has nowhere to go, the female lead is completely wasted and the kid is something of such abysmal annoyance that I haven't seen the like outside of old Japanese sci fi.

Do yourself a favour, skip this and find the original on DVD or on line.  It's much shorter and orders of magnitude better.