Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Boxer's Omen (1983)

Unless you have spent your life watching Asian horror films I doubt you've seen anything like this. This is one of the most mind blowing or mind bending films ever made. You will marvel at the bizarre twists and turns this film takes, not to mention the on-the-cheap monsters, full frontal nudity, and magical confrontations.

The plot has a young Chinese man seeking revenge on a Thai boxer who attacked his brother after a fight and broke his neck. Heading to Thailand, he ends up falling in with a band of monks. They need the young man to help fight an evil wizard who has killed their leader just as he was about to achieve immortality. It seems the monk (who's disembodied spirit keeps appearing to the boxer) and the boxer were twins in a past life and have some sort of connection, so that what happens to one will happen to the other (a spiritual Corsican Brothers sort of thing). The only one who can fight the evil is the boxer, who agrees to become a monk so that he can save the spirit of his twin, and his own life. What follows are a series of would-be gross-out sequences as the boxer fights the evil wizard, takes on the Thai boxer who paralyzed his brother, and so much more.


Good looking, but with special effects that are a bit silly (when they aren't employing real animal offal), this is a movie that will make you laugh with (and at) it even as it's bending your mind. This is a one of a kind movie that mixes up a variety of genres into a truly unique blend (you may have seen similar things before, but not all in one movie). It's a serious story but with the presence of mind not to take itself TOO seriously. Clearly it knows the effects are less than stellar, and it uses that to it's advantage by playing those scenes a bit light-hearted, as if to say "we know they're cheap, just go with us". And you will WANT to go with it, since the film's anything-can-happen attitude makes this a one of a kind viewing experience.

See this movie. If you like action films or horror films I'd give this film a try. Those looking for unique cinematic experiences need to put this on their must see list.

This is currently out on DVD.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The New York Film Festival

Ticketing for the New York Film Festival began today. Film Society members got to start to hand in their ticket requests. I've sent in mine, we'll see what I end up getting seats for.

In honor of that I'm going to say a few words about the Grand Dame of the New York film festivals.

This is the 48th festival and what a long bumpy ride it's been. It's a festival that has a great deal of prestige, but which of late has had some of its thunder stolen by some of the other festivals, such as Toronto and Venice, both of which seem set up to get the big fall films.

This isn't to say that the festival has lost its luster, only that it gets a few less big films. This year all of the hype surrounds the three tent pole films; David Fincher's Social Network, Julie Taymor's Tempest, and Clint Eastwood's Hereafter. Outside of those three titles many people I know are scratching their heads as to what the films are.

Truth be told the festival's strongest point is that it tends to find great films that no one has really heard of, but which suddenly become a big to-do. All one need do is look at the schedule over the past few years and you'll see it's full of films that made you wonder what they were thinking until you saw them. Last year had Lebanon, Mother, Vincere, The White Ribbon, Kanikosen, Ghost Town, Antichrist,and Art Of The Steal. This year the festival is hyping that this was the place that Last Tango in Paris was first shown and how that changed everything. The fact that they can pull out films that surprise you is one of its great strengths.

The films for the most part tend to be good, or if not good, interesting enough to warrant notice. That doesn't mean they don't pick some dogs; every year there are a few real bad ones, or at least ones that make you wonder what were they thinking (two recent ones which spring to mind are Serbis, about life in an adult movie theater in the Philippines, and Police, Adjective, which some people love, but I find like watching paint dry, or at least watching someone eat soup).

My first trip to the festival was to see Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books. It was a head trip and a wonderful experience because I actually got to see Greenaway in person doing a Q&A. For me it was almost like seeing god. The fact that I got to see the director was such a huge plus it hooked me on the festival. (I always groan when the directors don't show up)

This really is a film festival that does some amazing things not only in the main slate but in the sidebar, where you get things like the director dialogs, consisting of a director, an interviewer and an audience full of questions. You also get this year's talk by Mike Leigh about filming in London, or last year's talk on Raymond Chandler and the movies, which was supposed to run 90 minutes and instead had to be stopped at close to two hours because it was threatening to overrun the film that followed it. For me the sidebar is the place where everything is really special since that's where you get events that will never be repeated.

Of course it's not without its flaws.

First off the festival is expensive. The main slate films are $20 for members and go up to $40 a seat for the opening night film Social Network (it's even more for non-film society members). I understand the festival makes a great deal of money for the Film Society, but in many cases those films are coming out within weeks of showing at the festival (Social Network starts a week later). Granted the sidebar events are cheaper (about $12 for members), but it's still a tough nut to crack if you want to see a great number of movies (see our coverage of Tribeca, New York International Children's Film Festival or the New York Asian Film Festival for how we do festivals).

The festival also tends to be a bit too snooty with the main slate. If you look at the main slate for this year you'll see that the festival isn't really daring in its subject matter. Yes there is a cannibal film (We Are What We Are), but at the same time the description makes it out to be less about blood and guts and more about the relationship of the family. Sure every now and again you get a wild film, but it's usually only one Host, Police Story, Ashes of Time, or Paprika. I really wish the festival was more daring, especially in light of the programming that has been going on at the Walter Reade with The New Directors New Directions, NYAFF and the Summer Meltdown.

For me the real disappointment this year is the weekday scheduling. For whatever reason over the last few years the festival seems to have been creeping toward the schedule that they have this year, which is films only at 6pm and 9pm. Where are the earlier screenings? Where is a variety of start times? As someone who has to commute I find the start times perfectly wrong for me. I either have to lose a chunk of a day from work in order to get into the 6pm showing or with the 9pm screenings I have to miss any Q&A in order to get a train home. It could be argued that I'm not the audience since I want to see it all, but at the same time if the schedule affects me it will also affect others, probably more so, since I'm willing to change my schedule for a movie, whereas most people won't. I know most of my friends who don't work in Manhattan are only looking for weekend screenings because the times are all wrong.

Complaints aside I still wouldn't miss the festival for the world. I mean lets get real, I love movies and here is (hopefully) a whole bunch of great films.

My choices for this years festival, or at least what I've put in for tickets:

The David Fincher Dialog. An hour of talk with a favorite director, I'm there (even if it may get me in trouble with a family obligation).

My Joy. A Russian film about a truck driver getting lost in the back roads of the country.

Of Gods And Men. How monks deal with religious extremism.

Oki's Movie. A woman in love with two men (full disclosure-its a 6pm film that fits with My Joy's 9pm screening.)

The Robber. Marathoner who doubles as a bank robber.

The Hole. Joe Dante's low budget film about a hole in a basement that leads to some place black. Oh yeah, it's in 3-D.

Nuremberg. Restored film on the trials along with a post film discussion.

Mike Leigh Shooting London. Master filmmaker talks about how the city is a character.

There are a good number of other films I would love to see but I can't really fit them into my schedule. Hopefully I'll get to a few more screenings, but it all depends upon what I can move about.

I'll keep you posted.

Holy Virgin Vs. The Evil Dead (1991)

(Let me save you some time and cut to the chase: look at the title, and if it interests you at all then there is no point reading the review, just go find the movie and watch it. If the title doesn't interest you then no matter what I say is going to change your mind...go find another movie to watch...)

This movie is a blast. It's an over the top martial arts horror mixture that's got great fights, monsters, gore, nudity and everything you go to the drive-in for, even if it's only your living room.

The plot has something to do with the return of the "moon monster", who is trying to find the right girl to rape to get his power back. Along the way he kills a good number of people, is temporarily killed himself, and has to contend with the police, a teacher suspected of his killings, and a beautiful princess, who are all out to stop him. It didn't make a great deal of sense to me (mostly because the subtitles of the print I was watching tended to blend into the background). Then again I didn't care, this movie is just a good deal of fun to watch with earnest performances, great action, some gore, and numerous I-can't-believe-they-are-doing-this moments.

No, it's not the best film to come down the pike. It meanders a bit too much, and as much as I enjoyed it, it was just a tad too cheesy in execution. Still, if the English title of Holy Virgin Vs. The Evil Dead instantly makes you sit up and want to know more or see this film, then you've come to the right place.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Crawling Eye (aka The Trollenberg Terror) (1958)

Something weird is going on at a mountain in Switzerland. There is a strange cloud that never moves, and people who go into it either die or behave strangely. Heading into the village below the mountain comes a troubleshooter, played by Forrest Tucker, and two sisters, one who has psychic abilities. It soon transpires that what's in the cloud isn't human, or even from the earth, and that the giant tentacled creatures lurking inside it want to take over.

One of the best of the 1950's sci-fi films is probably one of the most unheralded classics of the genre period. This is a masterpiece of science fiction that got it's start as a British TV production before it was bumped up to the big screen (the original production is now lost).

The film moves along at a really good pace, never pausing to give you a moment to think about what is happening. Weird things just keep happening, with the monsters kept mostly off screen until near the end (we see perhaps just a tentacle before that).

The thing that sells the film are the performances. The cast of solid British actors really put over what is happening on screen. Brought in for international sales was Tucker, who most people remember from F Troop on American TV. Tucker kind of got lost after F Troop, reduced to silly kids shows with Larry Storch and the odd TV guest shot. It's kind of sad that happened since if one looks at his film work prior to F Troop there is this really good, really solid body of work that shows him to be a strong leading man and a damn fine actor. Say what you will, it's very hard to be serious when you're making a movie about giant bug eyed blobs from space.

One of the reasons I love this film is the monsters. Huge blobs with a single eye and long tentacles, they are monsters that seem to have been dredged up from some Lovecraftian nightmare. On some level they look dumb, but at the same time they are creatures that work on you in a subconscious way. Their danger to man is stressed by several off handed remarks about their appearance elsewhere in the world.

I really like this film.

What I like is that if you pulled out the monsters and inserted some other menace the film would still work. The monsters are ultimately just a selling point.

This is a great, great movie.

Get some friends, get some drinks and snacks and give it a go. Even if you don't become a fan odds are you'll still have a good time.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Attack Of The Crab Monsters

This weekend at Unseen it's really my choice of films. This time out of the box we're going to take a look at two of my most favorite films in the world Attack Of The Crab Monsters and The Crawling Eye (which is tomorrow's film).

Crab Monsters is a film that scared the living crap out of me as a kid. Growing up in the late 1960's and early 1970's I tried to see this every time it was on. I think the first time I saw the film was around the time we were heading home from an aunt's house and I caught part of it on the TV. Whatever it was, probably some shot of the giant crabs, the film hooked me.

The plot of the film has a group of scientists going to a small island that's being used as a research post to find out what happened to the previous group. They also have to try and find out why the island appears to be shrinking. Along the way people are killed, heads are chopped off, giant crabs with telepathic ability and the desire to tunnel are discovered and a fight to the death occurs...and it all takes about an hour.

High art it is not. Pure fun it is.

I freely admit that the film is as stupid as a stick but at the same time the earnestness of the direction (by one of my heroes Roger Corman), and the performances of the cast make this more than just another bug-eyed monster film.

I suspect that everyone working on it knew this was a dumb movie, but they tried to sell it, with the result that the film actually has tension and less silliness than you might expect.

I also love the giant crabs, which are these huge, real, things that don't really move all that well but still are rather creepy because they don't move quite right.

I just love this film.

This was the first film I converted when I was moving over my video tape collection to DVD.

Fortunately you don't have to go out of the way to dig up a copy. This film is available on an official DVD so feel free to give this monster classic a try.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Updates 8/27/10

Things move on and its time for a few updates and links:

The first part of Mesrine has opened in limited release today. The second part starts next weekend. We reviewed the film a few weeks back and now the critics are chiming in with Roger Ebert giving it three and a half stars and the New York Times giving it a good review.

The Last Train Home about the migration of workers from the city to country and back again for Chinese New Year begins a theatrical run next week. I saw the film back in April and really liked it. Time Out New York gave it one of it's very rare five star ratings.

Cinematical puts Michael Caine in the running for the Oscar for Harry Brown.

If you follow this link you’ll see some beautiful test films of early Technicolor film.

The full schedule for the New York Film Festival with show times is up at their website. I’m currently making plans to attend several of the screenings. I’ll post exactly what I’m going to see once I get my ticket order in on Monday. Mostly I’m hoping to get tickets to the sidebar events since they involve some special things that are unlikely ever to be repeated (Mike Leigh talking about filming in London? It's a must see). It appears what I attend may be more limited than I would have liked with familial commitments and scheduling conflicts making what I can see less than I would have liked. (I won’t get into the insistence that almost all the weekday screenings are at 6pm or 9 pm making them too early or too late for me to get to easily)

One event I won’t be seeing but would have liked to is a special look at Segundo de Chomon who is considered a Spanish counterpart to Georges Melies. The announcement of the talk/screening at the festival had me looking at some of his films on You Tube. I’m listing links to three of his films that really knocked my socks off.

Electric Hotel

A Trip to the Moon (after Melies)
Le spectre rogue

Lastly they’ve posted Satoshi Kon’s "final words” on line. It’s a touching read. Also touching is the New York Times obit by AO Scott. The one semi-happy thing is the mention that Kon was finishing work on a new film, so perhaps we’ll get one more treat from the master.

Riverside Murder (1935)

A rich man is killed in his home. There appears to be no reason for the murder, however there are several suspects: the housekeeper, two house guests, and a mysterious woman who left just before the murder. The Police dispatch two detectives to take charge of the case and it soon transpires that there is ample reason for numerous people to bump off the dead man.

This is one of those mystery movies that you'd watch even if the mystery wasn't good, simply because the characters are so much fun to watch. The detectives in this case are Basil Sydney and Alastair Sim, and they make a fine team. Sydney is a charming detective with a slightly smart-ass style. Watch for how he deals with the small child who's lost his mother, it's very funny. Sim is his second and is typically a bit of a bumbler, but nicely he is not a complete idiot. Mistakes are made but more often then not they are honest ones.

The mystery is a good one with the murder having no apparent motive, then suddenly taking on one, and then turning and twisting as suspects come and go. The plot moves rapidly and we actually get a decent reason why everyone is cooped up in the house where the murder takes place. The side trips outside the crime scene's confines are also logical. I'm also pretty sure that the movie plays fair with the solution, or at least mostly fair (I'm not quite sure because I was tired when I watched this and may have missed something.) This is a grand little movie that seems to have been unjustly lost to the ages. It's a sterling little mystery that's almost in an Agatha Christie sort of way, which isn't surprising since the film is based on a mystery novel of Christie's heyday.

This is a movie to search out and find. It's a movie that belongs in your video player while you have a bag of popcorn and a soda.

Check with Sinister Cinema about getting a copy.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

On the Passing of Satoshi Kon

DB here. Please give me a moment of your time before you go off to the next thing.

For those who aren't familiar with the work of Satoshi Kon are both an fortunate lot and an unfortunate lot. You are fortunate because when you do run across the work of Kon you will be in for some truly amazing treats. You are unfortunate because you can't understand what a HUGE loss the passing of Kon is.

Kon is, was, forgive me, I can't get my head around his death, Kon was one of the greatest filmmakers that I've ever run across, be it animation or live action. Kon knew how to tell a story and the best way to do that just happened to be animation.

Kon only turned out a handful of features and a TV series but all of them are magical gems that went from a Hitchcock style thriller(Perfect Blue), to drama(Millennium Actress) to whimsy (Tokyo Godfathers) to a science fiction film with a romance at its center (Paprika). Some where in there he did a TV series called Paranoia Agent, which broke the rules about what a TV series should be. The films are some of the best films of each of the years they came out and even the one I wasn't sure about (Tokyo Godfathers) has turned out to be a magical film on second and fourth viewings.

When Eden told me about Kon's passing I was heartbroken. I was and I still am really beyond words. What I just said about Kon was easy to write because it's straight reporting.
Rarely does the passing of someone I don't know, except through his work reduce me to tears, but Kon's passing did. I still can't really explain what he meant to me and to film. Desperate to have his passing marked I asked Eden to please write something, anything, because he was some one who mattered (As Wednesday evening, The New York Times, the so called paper of recorded still hadn't noticed).

Eden did better than I could hope to do and found the words to really say something, especially since I know his death touched her as well.

However one review isn't enough. As Randi said, you have to do what Turner Classic Movies does and pre-empt your programming for a proper retrospect. And that's what we're going to do. At the start of October we scheduled a week and a bit of films to tie in to the New York Comicon being in New York. I'm scraping the final three days of the series and I'm going to see about getting three good pieces written and cover Perfect Blue, Paprika, and Three Godfathers.I know it's a little bit off but I don't want to just have anything put up. I mean he gave us his best so we should do likewise.

While we get our pieces together, do yourself a favor and go rent Kon's films and find the wonder that those of us here at Unseen Films have found in his work.

Millennium Actress (2001)

On Tuesday, anime director Satoshi Kon died of pancreatic cancer at age 46. While his filmography isn't extensive, the quality of what he left behind is powerful and all worth watching.
Documentary filmmaker Genya Tachibana and his cameraman Kyoji Ida meet up with legendary actress Fujiwara Chiyoko. When Chiyoko was a teenager, two things happened: she was courted by a movie studio and met a young man who was on the run from the law. These two events set the rest of Chiyoko's life's course. As the movie progresses, the filmmakers begin to find themselves interacting with scenes from both Chiyoko's life and her movies.
Millennium Actress, in some ways, feels like Satoshi Kon's most personal film. It's the only of his full-length films to not be based on any pre-existing material (while Tokyo Godfathers is his story, it's still recalling the Western The Three Godfathers). It's a love-letter to cinema -- especially Japanese cinema -- and how movies allow someone to live on after their death.
So watching it now is especially poignant.
One of the things I love about this movie how fluid the reality is. Satoshi Kon never felt the need to explain just when and where everyone was, but just let it happen. There is something of dream logic to the movie, but it's more like how one memory will lead to another. In a tragic scene from World War II, the young cameraman asks "Is this science fiction?" believing it to be a scene from one of Chiyoko's movies. Likewise, moments from Chiyoko's real life -- interactions with her husband and mother -- are interpreted as movie scenes.
As things change from moment to moment, it becomes less about what is happening and more about what it means. For Chiyoko, she's been chasing after a man for her whole life, but she understands it's more she was chasing herself. For Tachibana, it's about how he wanted to reach out to the woman he'd always admired -- and loved -- from a distance. For the audience, it's a beautiful meditation on growing older, on cinema and art, and on Japan itself.
Kon was often asked why he worked in animation when his movies could just as easily be live-action. I always thought that was a silly question. Watching his movies -- especially this one -- make it clear that animation is the perfect choice for what he was doing. It's more immediate and more personal. It allows him to jump from time to time without it being jarring, and allows the audience to get lost in what Kon is conveying.
It's impossible to know what Satoshi Kon would've done had he lived, but we can be thankful for what he has done. Even though his catalog isn't extensive, it's deep and influential for what it is. Millennium Actress seems to be the one of his films that tends to get overlooked, and undoubtedly, it's his most quiet and calm. I do find it to be his most beautiful and the one I want to revisit the most. I found myself unexpectedly crying when I watched it tonight -- not just for what could have been, but for what it is.
Satoshi Kon will be missed, but we were lucky to have what he's left behind.

White Spider (1963)

This film has been identified as one of the German series of Edgar and Bryan Wallace based films made in the 1960's. While it may have been made as part of the series, since the film plays very much like the others, it really can't be considered a Wallace film since it's not based on a book by either Bryan or Edgar Wallace.

The plot of the film centers around a woman whose husband has died in a fiery car crash outside a gambling club. Broke from her husband's gambling debts and the cost of the funeral she tries to cash in his insurance policy. The insurance company is suspicious, partly because the amount of the policy was recently raised and partly because there have been other suspicious deaths recently. Making matters worse is a lawyer who shows up on her door step wanting to be paid for covering some of her husband's debts. Unable to pay anyone the lawyer gets her a job working for a reform society that helps convicts get back into the world. The woman also attempts to confront the people in the gambling club for what she feels is the real reason for her husband's death. All of this leads her down the rabbit hole as she comes face to face with the White Spider, a gang of murder-for-hire killers. She also is hounded by the police who think she may have had something to do with her husband's demise, and a recently released convict who seems to want to do more than help.

This is a good little thriller that is a nice way to spend an evening in front of the TV. The plot moves along nicely and isn't so complicated that we can't feel superior that we're a couple of steps ahead of the characters on the screen. It's well acted (though slightly less well dubbed), and moves along at a good clip. It does have that uniquely German feel of the Wallace films which are supposed to be set in the Soho district of London, England, but look and feel nothing like Soho, or anywhere else in England for that matter.

If you like the German Wallace films this is a must. If you like neat little thrillers with a smart edge and witty dialog this is also a must. Anyone else looking for a good excuse to spend two hours eating a bag of popcorn in front of the TV should also try this movie since it's a very good mystery thriller for an evening's entertainment.

Currently out on DVD from places like Sinister Cinema

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Jimmy Maclaine Films

In 1973 and 1974 David Essex starred in two films that told the story of Jimmy Maclaine , a young man who found himself in music, and what music took from him. The films appear not to be available in the US, and I ended up picking up the UK release (see picture) because I really wanted to see Stardust again, seeing as it stayed with me since I had seen it many years ago on cable TV. Since the films play better if you see them in tandem, that's how I'm reviewing them.

That'll Be The Day (1973)

David Essex stars in the first of two films about Jimmy Maclaine, a young man who wants to be a rock star. Here we follow Maclaine as his father comes home from the war, then leaves his family. Maclaine grows up, running away from home as a teen to make his future in the world, first by the sea, then at a holiday camp, and finally in a carnival. Eventually he returns home to start his own family. A slice of life film in late 1950's/early 1960's as rock music was shaking everything up and the post war kids were looking for a way out. I had always heard this was the better of the two Maclaine films (Stardust being the second), but I wasn't really impressed. For whatever reason I couldn't really connect with what was happening on screen. Perhaps I was waiting for something that the film isn't; the sequel charts Maclaine's rise and fall as a pop star, so I was waiting for a music film instead of a family drama and character study (come on you have Ringo Starr, Keith Moon and Dave Edmunds in the cast don't you think it'll be a music film?). On some level it made watching the sequel better, but ultimately it wasn't something I need to see again. You may feel differently since the film isn't bad, just one that I didn't connect to.

Stardust (1974)
Follow up to That'll Be The Day has Jimmy Maclaine starting a band called the Stray Cats, rising to international success, and then having it all go away. I originally saw this on HBO back in the late 1970's/early 1980's and it hung with me ever since. Until I saw the film again I couldn't tell you anything about it other than it had to do with a reclusive rock star. Seeing it again I find that it's a good film, but I'm at a loss as to explain why I recall seeing it. A much better film than the one that preceded it, the story of a band that comes together and breaks up is one I could relate to. I find that even the drama that carries over from the first film plays better here and less like a soap opera, though now having seen the first film I find that having the backstory does help clarify some things. I like the film and I'm glad that some 25 years on I got to see it again. I don't know if I need to see it any more, but it is a neat little time capsule and a reflection of the music scene at a specific time and place (and more timeless since the way groups and their leaders come together and break apart will always happen in ways close to this). Worth a look.

Last Legion (2007)

Re-imagining of the Arthurian legends via ancient Rome.

The plot of the film has a young boy crowned emperor in literally the waning days of the Roman empire. When the Goths invade he is captured by them and thrown into prison. Rescued, he and his few remaining men go to Britain to find the last legion. (And I forgot the bit about Ceasar's lost sword)

Based on part of a novel by Valerio Manfredi this film suffers from compression. There is simply no way that the amount of plot in this film can be held in 100 minutes. It's not possible. Well actually, it is possible since that's the case on screen. This epic tale screams to be at least an hour to an-hour-and-a-half longer (miniseries anyone?). The removal of any number of plot details leaves little time for anything but action, action, and more action. The action is quite good but the investment in the story is lessened since all we have are the characters heroic efforts to build character and plot points. For example the villain in Ben Kingsley's past is given way too little screen time to really be much of anything.

Over all I really liked the film. It's a perfect rainy day movie. Granted I didn't pay 11 bucks to see this in theaters, rather seeing an import DVD, so I was saved from overpaying for it. This is now out in the US on DVD so you can throw it into your Netflix cue. To be certain some of the sequences seem to have been filmed with TV in mind; still the sets are opulent, and the cast, especially Kingsley, are dynamite. As I complained rather loudly above the flaw of the film is that it's much too short to do all the things it wants to do. If you can forgive that and enjoy the look of the movie and the action you'll have a good time. Just remember to make lots of popcorn.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Alatriste (2006)

Viggo Mortensen stars as the veteran soldier and brawler in this Spanish language adaptation of all of the novels by Arturo Pérez-Revete. As the film opens Alatriste has been asked by a dying friend to raise his son when he returns from the war. Back in Madrid Alatriste begins to care for young Íñigo Balboa while trying to earn a buck as a hired sword. Quickly things are set in motion as Íñigo spies the girl who will haunt his life, and the good captain gets involved with some intrigue that will play out over the next decades.

I like what I've read of the first book and my enjoyment of that made me go out and pick up an import DVD of the film. What I had seen prior to actually watching the entire film made me think that this was the film that got the look and feel of the novel right. Now that I've seen the whole film I can honestly say that it looks and feels exactly as I had pictured it in my mind. We are in Spain and Flanders and everywhere else in the seventeenth century. This is a gorgeous film to look at.

The performances are dead on and everyone seems to inhabit their roles. Viggo is excellent as Alatriste and I can think of no one who could do it better. He's a wonder to watch in both the dramatic scenes as well as the numerous sword fights and action sequences (which are excellent)

The problem is that the script doesn't work. I mean it really doesn't work. Pulling material from several novels there is no plot as such. Things happen, people come and go, and then we're on to the next episode. I kept waiting for things to tie themselves together and they never did. There is no sustained drama, it's just incidents in the life of Alatriste. The result is what should be emotional high points and hooks just sort of lay there. The romances of Alatriste and his actress paramour (wife of a good friend) appears in fits and starts. The other romance of Inigo and Angélica skips through the tale in such a way that nothing is ever resolved, and you have no idea what they see in each other (certainly her early lines about keeping Alatriste alive to raise the boy for some grand plot comes to naught). We skip through the life and times of the Captain to no clear purpose. It might have helped had the film had the same sort of narration that the novels do (the stories are told from Inigo's point of view), since it might have been used to bridge the many "What am I missing?" moments.

Whose idea was it to do all of the books in one 140 minute movie? It was a major mistake and it makes the entire enterprise feel as though it was three days long. The movie doesn't end, it just stops. That kind of makes sense, since the movie is so bland and flat there is no way it could ever have a climax, as it never builds to anything. Some of the sequences however - like the opening attack in and out of the water - are mini masterpieces.

Okay, you're probably wondering why, if I have so many reservations, am I putting this into a film blog of lost good films? Simple, this film is technically one of the best recreations of any time period other than our own that I have ever seen. All films should be like this. They aren't, but they should be.

I'm also putting this on the blog because I love the character and Viggo Mortensen's portrayal of him. It's such a good character that I want you to go out and read the books, which are much better than this abridgement.

Although not currently out on DVD in the US, there is a chance you might still run across it, and ultimately it's good enough that I think you might want to at least get your feet wet and take a look at one of the best feeling senses-of-place ever put on film.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Screamers (1995)

As we begin another week of random titles with an action theme I am going to take a look at another title recommended to us for inclusion.

Screamers is a small scale science fiction action horror film that's based upon a Philip K. Dick story called Second Variety. The plot of the film concerns a bunch of space "marines" who are on a planet where robotic blade-wielding assassins called "screamers" have been set loose to help wipe out the enemy. The problem is that not only have the robots begun to see all biological life as the enemy, but what were once small robots have begun to evolve into more terrible forms that aren't always detectable. The last survivors now have to struggle to find a way off the planet before they are all killed.

On some level you've seen something similar before, since the film is somewhat cliched, and the the source story has been unofficially raided over the years. However the film manages to overcome the feeling of having been there and done that thanks to a good cast, headed by Peter Weller, some nice plotting, and some really good action scenes which crank up the tension.

It's a film that recently inspired an awful sequel that took too many science fiction cliches and put them into a blender and spit them out; actually spitting is the wrong term, since it involves the wrong end of the anatomy.

I don't specifically know what it is about this film i Like, but I find it to be a minor joy. The action is good. The sense of being on another world is there. There is tension. The effects are good. It's all there, and I'm forced to ask what more could you want?

For me there is nothing like a small little film that does what it does well for its allotted running time, and then gets off. Screamers is such a film. This isn't brain surgery; it's action horror, a genre that isn't really done well since most filmmakers tend to go heavy on the action and then overdo the blood.

Forgive me, it's hard to really write about this film because it's just a neat little engine of entertainment that does what its supposed to do effortlessly. It's kind of a friendlier version of the creatures of the title.

Recommended. This is currently out on DVD so go get some popcorn and enjoy.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

St. Trinian's (2007)

Girl Power weekend continues! Take Hogwart's, populate it completely with Slytherins...Slytherin girls only, at that...remove the service to the Dark Lord and substitute a general personal love of calamity, crime, violence and misfortune—now that's England's most infamous boarding school: St. Trinian's School for Girls. Created by illustrator Ronald Searle in a series of magazine cartoons and books in the late '40s and early '50s and populated by schoolgirls who would make Wednesday Addams look like Pollyanna:

St. Trinian's

St. Trinian's

St. Trinian's

A series of films based on the cartoons began with 1954's The Belles of St. Trinian's, starring Alastair Sim. The series slowed down after four films through 1966, sputtered once for a fifth in 1980, and the franchise has remained dormant until 2007.

St. Trinian's

The 2007 St. Trinian's takes its cue from contemporary young girl-friendly movies like Mean Girls, John Tucker Must Die, Clueless, Bring It On, and, yes...like Spice World, with a modern pop-music soundtrack and female-empowering (altho', unlike the cartoons, seldom fatal) attacks on authority. In fact, while credit is justly given to Searle's original work, most of the teeth of the Belles have been pulled, and the film often sacrifices black humor for glamour.

St. Trinian's

The setting's suitably macabre enough: crumbling, seen-better-days St. Trinian's in the English countryside, surrounded by warning signs and a few shrunken heads on spikes. I'd guess that swing set in the foreground has served more likely as a gallows.

St. Trinian's

Against her will, young, fresh, guileless schoolgirl Annabelle Fritton (Talulah Riley) is dragged by her slick, shameless father Carnaby Fritton (Rupert Everett) to the school run by his sister, Camilla Fritton (Rupert Everett).

St. Trinian's

No, you are seeing double here: as in the original with Alastair Sims, Everett plays both Annabelle's crooked art dealer dad and the gleefully if feloniously cheerful headmistress. I think we've all had situations where we've felt our teachers were no better than our parents wearing a dress, and Annabelle ought to feel right at home, right?

St. Trinian's

Annabelle's taken under the wing of head girl Kelly Jones (Gemma Arterton, Quantum of Solace's "Strawberry Fields") in quite possibly the least believable subplot of mentorship since that episode of The Apprentice where the winner got to play Scrabble with Martha Stewart. Annabelle will later show off her prowess in field hockey and larceny, but at this time there's no real reason that Kelly is interested in shaping Annabelle except that the plot demands it.

St. Trinian's

Annabelle gets a quick tour of the schoolgirls of St. Trinian's; the movie stuffs them into contemporary social roles (chavs, emos, geeks, posh totty) without giving the girls much personality beyond that. While Searles's cartoon Belles were mostly nameless and interchangeable, these characters are eminently forgettable and despite their appearance throughout the rest of the film, may as well not have character names at all.

St. Trinian's

Exception: Tara and Tania (Holly and Cloe Mackie), ten-year-old twins and demolition experts, who manage to pull off a wicked glee at destruction and mayhem better than the actresses twice their age. If you're looking for a gender-reversed version of the Menendez Brothers, Hollywood, have I got the actresses for you. In the entire history of film, only one actor has intoned the phrase "You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!" better than them.

St. Trinian's

The chaos and pandemonium wrecked by the schoolgirls, however, seem to be oddly blunted for this modern version: really, they dump glue and feathers on Annabelle? No setting her hair on fire? No arsenic in her soup? No live cobras in her bedsheets? Shame on you, St. Trinian's. Your patron saint would be rolling in her grave, if she hadn't been chopped up into many pieces and scattered around the Holy Roman Empire to keep her from returning.

St. Trinian's

Cameo appearances by British stars? Oh, this movie's got 'em by the cartload. Colin Firth (who apparently hides out at night on movie sets and then pops into frame in the morning whether he's written into the script or not) is at least suitably vinegary as the Minister of Education with a secret romantic past with Rupert Everett. The one in drag, that is. (Otherwise, it'd be a completely different kind of movie, and yet, one in which Colin Firth would be pleased to appear.)

St. Trinian's

Mr. Katy Perry, Russell Brand, continues his contemporary reign of terror on modern cinema as a character from the original films: Flash Harry, the girl's criminal accomplice. The finest compliment one can give to Mister Brand's performance is that he certainly can be said to be "acting."

St. Trinian's

Colin Firth's out to shut down St. Trinian's, which may be a moot point: the school's bankrupt—curiously, it having the highest concentration of larcenous minds in Britain after Wormwood Scrubs.

St. Trinian's

The film receives a boost of adrenaline when it seems to introduce an intriguing "fish on fire" subplot that sadly, never gets mentioned again. I for one ask the producers and writers of St. Trinian's to give the "Fish on Fire" storyline a full film treatment. Two hours of flaming fish: sheer cinematic magic.

St. Trinian's

Is the film at least funny? Well, at moments, but it's more often silly than witty. The best laughs...and curiously the ones most true to the source material...come from short background gags while the action takes place around them. It's probably the best reason to keep your eyes open during the film, and kudos to the set director. If only the script were as clever.

St. Trinian's

St. Trinian's

St. Trinian's

But for the most part, Searles's trademark black humor and implied violence is blunted for an impressionable audience. Look, I'm not asking for gore flying out of the screen and body parts being ripped into (please save that for the next Julia Roberts movie, if you will!), but when the most violent moment of a cutthroat St. Trinian's field hockey game versus their rivals is an (excuse the phrase) ball in the mouth...

St. Trinian's

...and when the most mischief that schoolgirls let loose in London can wreck is a police constable dunked in a fountain...

St. Trinian's

...well, it leaves you checking your watch and wishing there were at least a few more moments where stuff blows up real good:

St. Trinian's

It's well into the second half of the film before the real storyline gets underway: the girls plot, with the precision of Danny Ocean's ten to twelve cohorts, but with shorter skirts, to rob London's National Gallery.

St. Trinian's

Their target? Well, as one of the Posh Tottys incredulously exclaims, "We're going to steal Scarlett Johansson?"

St. Trinian's

Somewhere in the middle of this high-tech theft, St. Trinian's has to cheat their way to the top of academic quiz program School Challenge, hosted by none other than the only man who makes more appearances in British films than Colin Firth:

St. Trinian's

(If you're having flashbacks to The Young Ones episode "Bambi," well, good for you, and you may enjoy taking the St. Trinian's disc out of your DVD player and replacing it with The Young Ones.)

Of course, no grand-theft-Johansson is complete without a total beauty makeover montage, which changes plain-jane Annabelle...

St. Trinian's

...into dead-faced Maxim-fodder supermodel stock, complete with microskirt and gartered stockings. So clearly the moral of the story is...um...well...er...I got nothin'.

St. Trinian's

The girls return the Vermeer painting...wait a minute, St. Trinian's does the lawful thing? I call shenanigans, movie. Even tho' the National Gallery gives them a reward, I still say real St. Trinian's Belles would have sold the painting to a Arabian prince for some under-the-table black market money and then poisoned him with an arsenic-and-champers cocktail to steal the painting back. But hey, we're making a movie for impressionable young would-be female criminals, so no point in giving all your secrets away, right?

St. Trinian's

The reward money of fifty thousand pounds (plus money swindled from Annabelle's father) is apparently enough for them not only to save the school from bankruptcy but also to hire UK girl group Girls Aloud to perform at their celebration rave. Yup. That's the way the movie ends.

St. Trinian's

So 'round about now you're no doubt sayin', "Hey, you loved the Spice Girls movie; what's up with this?" And that's a very good question. St. Trinian's is a perfectly serviceable mindless fluff movie, and it's a perfect DVD to toss on the barbie for a sleepover of a gaggle of preteen girls. But it lacks the tongue-in-cheek, larger-than-life attitude of Spice World, and its humor is so slight and blunted that the original black-and-white 1950s films are grand art beside this. (The originals aren't perfect, but they've got some brilliant moments, and yes, I'm going to review them here one day.) Perhaps the biggest crime St. Trinian's commits is the lifelessness of its characters. With the exception of Rupert Everett as Headmistress Fritton and the two tiny twins of terror, it just doesn't look like anybody's having any fun in this film, and while the characters hit their marks and look gorgeous and pouty and athletic, it all adds up to a stack of pretty empty performances, acting where you don't even remember...or care...what the character's names are. Talulah Riley as Annabelle has a lot to carry on her shoulders as the movie's main POV character, but the script doesn't give her much to work with. I wonder what a similar yet more experienced actress (say, maybe, Anne Hathaway?) could have done with this role.

St. Trinian's qualifies for this blog by being barely seen in the US. I was actually looking for it to come out in the theaters and I believe its only American run was about two and a half days at the Bayberry Drive-In Theater in Broxton, Oklahoma. But in the UK, this movie was incredibly popular with young girls, and rightfully so. There's nothing wrong with making a movie for a target group that is eager and ready to buy merchandise and tie-ins. I just wish there could have been a little more rebellion and revolution taught to this audience. If there is a lesson being taught by this movie, it's the oddly conventional "stick by your friends and be true to yourself." Not a bad moral in and of itself, but not especially fitting for a school with the anthem

We are the best, so screw the rest
We do as we damn well please
Until the end, St. Trinian's
Defenders of anarchy

Ah well, it's over now, and St. Trinian's ain't gonna bother us again.

St. Trinian's

Oh bugger.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Spice World (1997)

We've all seen this movie, right? It's as familiar to each of us as the crackle of the needle dropping on the first LP we ever bought. Or, for you young'un's out there, as familiar as the frustration in trying to get the CD packaging open. British literary critic Christopher Booker...or maybe it was British furry enthusiast Christopher Robin...once said that there are only seven basic plots to fiction. And he said this before Stephenie Meyer started publishing! Well, if that's true, at least one of those plots probably involves jet packs, giant super-powered robots and kung fu princesses, but one of the other universal plots, a story as old as time and engrained in our civilization as firmly as Homer's Odyssey, Cervantes' Don Quixote, and that episode of Davey and Goliath where Davey did something wrong and Goliath scolded him with words from the Bible until Davey made good his mistake...one of those plots must be the story of a pop band...

A Hard Day's Night

...pursued by crazed, obsessed fans...

A Hard Day's Night

...answering journalists' questions with quirky and irreverent wit...

A Hard Day's Night

...under the watchful eye of their over-protective manager....

A Hard Day's Night

...donning increasingly-outrageous outfits and costumes....

A Hard Day's Night

...and their misunderstandings that lead to run-ins with the law...

A Hard Day's Night

...but still they find time to have wacky, youthful, running, jumping, standing-still fun...

A Hard Day's Night

...finally culminating in their triumphant, broadcast around the world concert!

A Hard Day's Night

Yes, I think we all know the name of this movie, right? Right?

A Hard Day's Night

Wrong! While this movie follows all the above tropes, it doesn't star John, Paul, George and the other one. Instead, feast your eyes on Ginger, Scary, Baby, Sporty and Posh Spice! (Not pictured: Penzey Spice, Kessel Spice, or Old Spice)

A Hard Day's Night

...all starring in the 1997 classic but seldom seen Spice World!

Spice World

For those of you who, like Captain William "Buck" Rogers, were frozen alive in 1987 and awoken five centuries later to scenes of global devastation and annoying robots, The Spice Girls were a UK mid-1990s girl pop group that ruled the world with their iron thumbs and massive platform shoes, serenading the nations of the earth into submission with infectious and poppy beats like "Wannabe," which gave culture the now-popular phrase zigazig-ha. Before their eventual defeat by the forces of rock 'n' roll led by General Gene Simmons, the Spice Girls sold over seven hundred thousand billion records, which, if placed end to end, would fall over because it's really hard to stack round things.

Nowadays, left behind except for the occasional two minute feature on I ♥ the '90s and the punchline for a Graham Norton joke, the Spice Girls can look back on their history and shrug and sigh and say that at least they got a few infectiously poppy singles out of their early careers. And a pretty fun and funny, if mostly insubstantial, motion picture.

Yeah, I said it...Spice World is a really fun movie. That it's not in the pantheon of decent music-group motion pictures is probably only the still-too-recent backlash against pre-fabricated pop groups, so perhaps by the more enlightened year of 2525 (if mankind is still alive), they'll appreciate Spice World as ninety minutes of short skirts, really high heels, celebrity cameos, pop music, girl power and more than a few giggles. Really, don't take it so seriously—this is a movie in which the Spice Girls (uncannily accurate in the roles of themselves) cruise around London in their double-decker headquarters, "The Spice Bus."

Spice World

Like another great British mode of transport, the Spice Bus is bigger on the inside than outside, giving each girl her own personal living space. (A nod to the shared living quarters of the Beatles in the movie Help?)

Spice World

But did the Beatles have Meat Loaf driving their home? They did not.

Spice World

Mister Loaf is by no means the sole big-name star appearing in Spice World: you've got Richard E. Grant (Withnail and I) as Clifford, the girls' harried and long-suffering manager...

Spice World

...Alan Cumming (The Anniversary Party and Josie and the Pussycats, two movies anyone should be proud to have on their resumé) as hapless and ineffectual documentary filmmaker Piers Cuthbertson-Smyth, making a special about the Spice Girls...

Spice World

...Barry Humphries, leaving his Dame Edna Everage drag behind to play Kevin McMaxford, ruthless media baron and thinly disguised parody of Rubert Murdoch...

Spice World

...who hires super-sneaky photographer Damien (Rocky Horror's Richard O'Brien)...

Spice World

...to publicly discredit everyone's favorite pop princesses! Oh no!

Spice World

Meanwhile, movie producer George Wendt ("NORM!" from Cheers), wants to make a Spice World movie (whoa, meta!)

Spice World

Meanwhile, the Spice Girls (oh, I'd forgotten about them) are rehearsing for their massive world-wide concert broadcast live from the Albert Hall, but they've always got break-time to hang out with their best mate Nicola, who's played by Naoko Mori. Genre fans might know her better as Toshiko "Tosh" Sato in Torchwood. And you know what that means, Doctor Who fanboys? The Spice Girls are in canon! Yes, it's only a matter of time before The Doctor takes Posh and Becks on as his new companions. Nicola's massively pregnant (probably, if I know my Torchwood plots, by a rift-traveling alien), and you get the idea that she could have been the sixth Spice Girl (Torchwood Spice?) if she hadn't gotten that interstellar bun in the oven. In short, it's an excellent moral for the young girls who are the main target audience of the Spice Girls: use condoms or you don't get to be in the world-wide musical sensation band.

Spice World

Aside from the main players, the film's chuck-a-block full of cameo guest appearances from big names in the UK music, film, and comedy world. Here's Elton John, quite possibly in the only role where his wardrobe is out-glamoured by five girls:

Spice World

Here's BAFTA and Golden Globe winner Bob Hoskins in a six second (count 'em, six) cameo...

Spice World

AbFab's Jennifer Saunders swaps fashion gossip with Posh Spice...

Spice World

Elvis Costello moonlighting as a bartender...

Spice World

...and Stephen Fry (known for his roles on every single television and radio show produced by the BBC) as a judge in a dream sequence which predicts the Spice Girls's fall from fame: "You've been charged with releasing a single that is by no means as kicking as your previous records. Nor does it have such a dirty phat bass line. You are sentenced to having your next record enter the charts at 179 and having it fall completely out the following week."

Spice World

There's a genuine hammy glee to each of these celeb cameos and you have the feeling that they took the role not only because teenage daughters/nieces/girlfriends begged them to, but because they're actually having fun, probably no one more than Roger Moore. Yes, The Saint, James Bond, ffolkes himself as 'The Chief," Richard E. Grant's boss, dispenser of zen coping advice and stroking, upon each appearance, an increasingly bizarre small lap animal:

Spice World

Spice World

Spice World

Not to mention Bob Geldof, Jools Holland, Hugh Laurie, Jonathan Ross, Richard Briers...whoa! That sounds like a lot of guest stars, a lot of subplots, and a confusing mess of a film. Well, it really isn't. Not unlike a Spice Girls song itself, each scene is no more than a few minutes, and altho' the plot and dropped-in subplots are manufactured, fluffy, and light, well, so is Cool Whip, and I think we all know how delicious that is.

The comedy and parody is fun but so gentle that, a couple extremely mild sex jokes aside, this is the perfect film for a pre-teen girl slumber party, and the tone of complete non-seriousness makes the background flashback of five young girls struggling to get a break in the music business while scrimping and saving at Bryan Brown's tea shop.

Spice World

Quite a retcon from the real Spice Girls history of a manufactured band gathered by producers to compete with the equally manufactured boy band groups like Take That and the Backstreet Boys. Which, while true, would not be as fun a flashback of them dancing and singing "Wannabe" in the café, making promises to each other that they'll always stay together when they hit it big.

Spice World

And you want a big action climax? You've got it, mate! How about Posh Spice saving the day by driving the speeding Spice Bus towards their big gig, all the time the clock ticking...

Spice World

...and doing it in stiletto heels at that!

Spice World

A clever poke at the tropes of action films: George Wendt narrates the chase as a movie scene, leading up to the dramatic leap the bus must make across the opening Tower Bridge, providing an amazing stunt scene. "That'll be expensive," doubts Richard E. Grant.

Spice World

"Not necessarily," points out George.

Spice World

Happy endings? Why, of course. Tosh has her beautiful alien baby girl, thus forever cementing Earth's relations with interstellar space...

Spice World

...and the Spice Girls rule triumphant in their smash concert that ends war, famine, disease, crime, and those little fiddly bits at the bottom of a bucket of popcorn that look like you can eat them but usually wind up cracking your teeth. Ouch!

An Unseen Film? Well, maybe by the standards of some of the films on this blog, not really. According to Wikipedia, "the encyclopedia where you can write in the margins!" the motion picture Spice World made one hundred billion zillion trillion dollars and was seen by every man, woman, child on Earth. Even Sting. I'm not certain I trust this Wiki entry edited by "gingergeri123." But there you have it.

But: it's a film that deserves to be seen more widely, because it's not the pop-culture fast-buck rip-off film you might suspect it would be. The humor is light, the plot is virtually non-existent, the music is poppy and historically probably insignificant, but you know what? I laughed a lot...and I came out of the money theater when I first saw it with a big smile and a "That was so much better than it had any right to be!" on my lips.

No, it absolutely is not A Hard Day's Night, even tho' it follows the same tropes and lightweight plot. But it succeeds where so many pop band-centered movies don't: it's colorful, bright, fun and silly. Maybe that's the brilliance behind the creation of the Spice Girls and their alter egos after all: their Spice names instantly gave them personality, even if two-dimensional ones, and where movies like From Justin to Kelly and Glitter fail is perhaps a key to the next producer of a movie opus starring Carrie Underwood or Justin Bieber: make sure the stars have personality as well as musical chops. The best movies starring rock or pop or rap musicians...think not only Hard Day's Night but Purple Rain or 8 Mile...succeed not on the musical but on the dramatic or comic performances of the stars. It might not have been asking much to have the Spice Girls play themselves, but really, nobody else could.

And really, when the Spice Girls peer out at the movie-attending or DVD-watching audience and break the fourth wall during the end credits, it reminds us that there was an age when prefabricated girl groups roamed the earth, scaling the Billboard charts and musical-guesting Jonathan Ross, lipsynching their way to the toppermost of the poppermost. After all, ain't that what it's all about...Girl Power!

Spice World