Sunday, 12 October 2014

Review - Robot Wars (1993 - Dir. Albert Band)

(Many apologies for the lack of posts recently but I haven't been that well. It's even a bit of a struggle writing this. With luck I'll be able to get round to writing a review of the excellent Wolf Children soon too.) 

I thought that Barbara Crampton could provide us with the first major shock of the FA Cup of Actors. After Émilie Dequenne failed to make the most of her goalmouth chances in The Girl on the Train (only receiving a rating of 6/10), I thought that Crampy could sneak in a cheeky little last minute winner with Robot Wars. Robots fighting. Great stuff. And as long as it didn't turn out like the underwhelming BBC series of the same name, where the flamethrower and chainsaw attachments never really amounted to much, how could it go wrong?

Pacific Rim went for a similar formula of robots fighting monsters and the fights were pretty great. It was the completely useless story that the fights hung off that let the whole film down. Well in Robot Wars, there's a similarly useless story, but sadly, the fights are virtually non-existent.

The Earth has had a bit of a bad time due to the toxic gas scare of 1993 (must have been that jar of curried pickled eggs I had from the Abbey Friar). The survivors are at war with a rebel faction called the Centros who want to resurrect a hidden mega robot. Luckily they've got their own mega robot in the form of a mechanised scorpion complete with nippy little pincer things. Drake, (Don Michael Paul - sounds like his parents couldn't make up their minds on his first name so they gave him three) a mega robot pilot, teams up with archaeologist Leda (Barbara Crampton) to thwart those pesky Centros. And no, there's not a hint of Lara Croft style costumery.

Yep, the plot's rubbish but it's the fights that are unforgivable. The first battle consists of close ups of the scorpion mega robot loping along, occasionally shooting, and a tank that, again, occasionally shoots. This goes on for ages. There is never a sniff of a wide shot to show any kind of manoeuvring. The whole thing feels like the scorpion and the tank are in two completely separate locations (which they are) and as a viewer I felt completely removed from the supposed action. (To simulate this battle just stare at the first photo below for five seconds then look at the next. Then repeat. For added fun, make a few shooty noises.)

The second (and final) battle isn't much better. At least this time the two protagonists share the screen for a bit of what can best be described as wriggling. It's pathetic. Without great fights there's nothing else going on that's worth your time.

I know that Barbara Crampton isn't known for her stunning performances in art films, yet her films are generally enjoyable (apart from the dire You're Next). The best you can say about her performance here is that it at least paid for a few jars of industrial size Marmite. (It's ironic that Crampy knocked out Joan Fontaine in the last round who suffered from the same phoned in performance in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.) Given that, she's easily the best aspect of this sorry mess. (Apart from the fact that it only lasts 71 minutes.)

I wasn't expecting much from a Charles Band production but when one of the highlights is a Puppet Master joke you know things are getting desperate. So sorry, Barbara you haven't managed to knock out the odds-on favourite in a startling giant-killing fashion. Dequenne, you're through to the semi-finals.

If you like this you could also try:
Pacific Rim, Robot Jox.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Review - Fear in the Night (1947 - Dir. Maxwell Shane)

I was expecting all of the films listed in 'Nightworld' to contain some kind of monster or other, for example the umbrella creature in Not of This Earth. But no, this one only relates to the book by its title. No stupid low-budget monsters. Shame.

Vince Grayson (DeForest Kelly in his first film role) is a banker who has a rather nasty nightmare in which he kills a fellow in an octagonal mirrored room. Soon after he begins to suspect that it wasn't really a dream and maybe he actually killed the man. (He even says, "I'm a banker, not a murderer," at one point. Well, okay, that's a lie. He doesn't.) His brother-in-law Cliff (Paul Kelly) is a cop and decides to look into his case.

Based on a story by Cornell Woolrich called "Nightmare", Fear in the Night is a film noir thriller with the obligatory narration and moody shadowy atmosphere. The plot was probably quite original at the time but now it all seems pretty obvious what's happening from early on in the proceedings. Even so, I couldn't help but be gripped when the two blokes and their lady friends took shelter from a storm in a house, only for it to turn out to be the one from Vince's dream. There was a certain sense of inevitability about it all and I hoped that the rest of the film would be set in the nightmare house. It isn't though and a fair bit of atmosphere is lost from that point on. Especially when we learn the secret of the nightmare.

Again in 1947 the secret was only too plausible and scary. Yet now, it's common knowledge that the reason for his sleep walking murder spree just doesn't happen. It's a bit like a film's finale requiring the audience to believe that the world is flat. It wouldn't work in these enlightened times. So to enjoy the latter stages, a certain amount of "going with it" needs to be done.

Dr McCoy is great. One of the classic TV characters ever. Yet here DeForest Kelly looks a little wet behind the ear. His acting isn't entirely convincing and his narration seems forced rather than being a natural flow of thoughts emanating from his head. Fortunately the narration stops fairly early on and the more experienced Paul Kelly takes a more prominent role as the gruff no-nonsense cop.

On a positive note there are some quality screen cracking animations, similar in style to the one at the finale of City of the Living Dead. If that's not a selling point, I don't know what is.

Not the greatest of films then, seen in today's light but it is entirely suitable for a late Friday night. Switch off your brain for a while and it's not too bad.

If you like this you could also try:
Hollow Triumph, Somewhere in the Night.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Review - A Scanner Darkly (2006 - Dir. Richard Linklater)

Having never read Philip K. Dick’s novel, I came to A Scanner Darkly somewhat cold. It’s visually stunning, with a semi-animated style that feels like you’re watching a graphic novel that has come to life. The colours are rich, the effects are impressive and the acting shines through the stylised video filters. In short it should be a great film, but this science fiction adaptation left me feeling strangely empty and unfulfilled.

There’s some big hitters on the acting team; Keanu, Woody and Robert all put in suitably quirky, edgy shifts. And Rory Cochrane’s mentally tortured character steals the show at times with a sweaty, itchy performance perfectly in keeping with the story. His insect plagued introduction is the best scene in the whole film. Lovely Winona is her usual exemplary self and so much more natural and assured than that critically acclaimed show off Natalie Portman (Winona better than Portman!? No way! - evlkeith). Even in animated form, she’s a sensual, detailed and engaging character.

So what goes wrong in this tale of near future clandestine observation and designer drug culture? In some ways it’s a triumph for style over substance. The film looks and feels so great that the story seems a tad plodding and predictable by comparison. Basically, we’ve heard it all before; totalitarian states abusing our personal liberties and freedoms and it’s done so much better in both 1984 and A Brave New World.

As a graphic novel it would work perfectly; that slow release story unfolding before your eyes. As a filmic version of a graphic novel it all happens just too fast and the plot seems weak as a result. It’s a great and unusual experience and those more familiar with the novel may have taken more from proceedings than my limited grasp of the ‘Scanner World’, however it feels like a case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. In so many ways a classic film, but just like Substance D it ultimately leads you nowhere.

If you like this you could also try:
Renaissance, Cypher.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Review - The Girl on the Train (2009 - Dir. André Téchiné)

Back to the FA Cup of Actors again and here we are with the odds on favourite Émilie Dequenne. She faces Barbara Crampton in this match so surely she's got it all sewn up already. Let's see...

The Girl on the Train is similar to films like The Child and The Son in that it sets up a situation and then sees how people would behave in that given situation. This is a film of two halves even to the point of being broken down into two chapters. The first part shows what has been happening in the life of Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne) as she finds a new boyfriend (Nicolas Duvauchelle) and moves in with him as part of a caretaking duo. But there's something a bit suspicious about him. Maybe she should have worked this out when he plays a particularly nasty practical joke on her - I'd have been out of the door like a shot - but she sticks with the shifty little guy. Suffice to say things go wrong and Jeanne pretends to have been part of an anti-semitic attack on a train.

The second chapter deals with the consequences. At one point a young lad asks Jeanne why she did what she did. She doesn't know. I can't say I do either. I don't think that it would have been my course of action if I'd been in her position (if I was seeking attention I would buy a wide-brimmed pink felt hat, a fur coat, cigars and a chihuahua and then prance about, to a suitable disco soundtrack, through the back streets of Grimsby, that'd get a fair bit of attention) yet her choice to be a total liar does tie together lots of things that have been happening in her life. It's a shame that the boyfriend thread of the story seems to get lost though.

You then get to see people being people and dealing with the predicament they're in. It's interesting in its own way but is never convincingly gripping. There is a fair amount of following Jeanne around, she's normally rollerblading so the camera looks back at her as she skates along, but it's not quite as much fun as following a woodwork teacher around for ages and ages. And ages (The Son). 

I've got quite a binary character, 0 or 1, on or off, right or wrong, but this film actually managed to throw up some interesting grey areas: Is the boyfriend really that dodgy? Is it better to keep quiet about it all being a lie? And is Jeanne really to blame for the way that the incident is sensationalised? If you watch it, you can make up your own mind.

So what we have here is a well-acted (it's got Émilie Dequenne in it, what were you expecting?) slice of understated French drama set against a backdrop of anti-semetic attacks. I still find it quite hard to buy into Jeanne's actions, but seeing as though it's based on a real-life incident, people can obviously be driven to do these things. I found it entertaining enough and thought-provoking at times but it's not one of my favourites, although due to the quality nature of the film-making on show, I'm sure that there will be people out there who like this a lot more than I do. Maybe you are one of those people?

If you like this you could also try:
The Child, The Son, Rosetta.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Review - Space Battleship Yamato (2010 - Dir. Takashi Yamazaki)

Based on the anime series from the seventies, Space Battleship Yamato is a live action space based actioneer. I've never seen the original anime so I can't comment on how well it translates from 2D. From looking at screenshots though it seems that the character and ship design are pretty much spot on.

The Earth is under attack from an alien race known as the Gamilas. The planet is generally in a radioactive state so the Earth Defense Force decide to launch a counter attack at the pesky aliens. After a severe whooping things go from bad to worse until some crafty alien tech falls (literally) into the hands of our human chums. They rebuild the Space Battleship Yamato using this new and fancy technology and go in search of Iskandar, the co-ordinates of which came with the alien tech.

Space Battleship Yamato reminds me of two films in particular - well, actually a lot more than two but I'll come to that soon. The first would be Hell's Ground, a little known zombie film hailing from Pakistan. This was a film that heavily borrowed from loads of other horror films, but did so in a way that was fun and entertaining. Space Battleship Yamato homages Star Wars, Battlestar GallacticaStar Trek and to a lesser extent Serenity, and just about gets away with it. This is probably due to its desire to put on a large epic scale show despite a relatively meagre budget for this type of sci-fi thing ($23.9 million). I got carried away by the sheer exuberance of it all. Saying that, I'd be moaning if a big budget film had done the same. Maybe more time should have been spent at the script and planning stages to develop some more original ideas. That probably comes down to money though.

The other film it reminds me of is Casshern, another live action adaptation of an anime. Casshern is overlong and the pacing is all over the place. When I watch it I always end up slightly disappointed and think about what could have been if the editing had been different. Yet I still keep going back to it. Space Battleship Yamato feels very similar. The final act should be an action spectacular but it gets bogged down with lots of emotional chatting. It really drags. But again, I felt the need to watch it again.

This hasn't been too positive so far so you may be thinking, why bother watching it again. It does get some things right. The space battles, despite being way too short, are some of the best I've seen in years. They take their cue from bullet hell shooters and are suitably exhilarating with ships swooping through a barrage of laser fire. Admittedly the ships can do some pretty stupid things such as grow arms that can pick people out of space and give them a little cuddle, but that's all part of the fun.

The effects are pretty great too given the budget. They have stuck to one of the strengths of CGI: rendering hard metallic spaceships. There are some creatures and they don't look too hot but at least they are simple enough to be effective. They are normally only seen from a distance and in hordes so the effects don't come under too much close scrutiny. One of the highlights - and quite rightly so - has to be the reveal of the titular battleship as it rises from beneath the ground. It's a quality design and there's something delightfully quirky, in a Terry Gilliam way, of seeing what is basically a naval vessel charging about through space.

The characters are all fairly standard issue with only Yuki being that interesting (and I think that's only because she's stunningly attractive). Yet at the end, when little photos are shown in the credits of all the characters - many of which are killed within the film - I found myself looking back on them with fondness and wishing that they could all be in a sequel. There is something endearing about the whole production that is hard to put my finger on.

One example of this endearingness is also one of the funniest moments of the film. When something positive has happened in a space battle the action cuts back to the bridge and the characters cheer and give cheeky little fist pumps, yet it's all done without any accompanying music. It feels distinctly odd, but due to the fact that it happens about three times it gets funnier each time.

The music is also another source of quirk. When I watched some visual effects extras the soundtrack was playing along with the footage and I thought, crikey this music is pretty good. But in the film it's feels out of place at quite a few points, and at worst, exceedingly cheese ridden. There are also moments where you would expect music where it just doesn't appear (like the celebration scenes above). Again in all comes down to the editing.

Another positive though: the lead character Kodai has lovely luxurious locks.

It's hard for me to recommend this but it's struck a chord with me. I'm even considering shelling out £15 for the blu-ray.

If you like this you could also try:
Any of the above films that it thieves from.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Review - Not of This Earth (1957 - Dir. Roger Corman)

I haven't done very well trying to watch all of the films mentioned in F. Paul Wilson's 'Nightworld' but I'm going to try and rectify that in the coming months. So here we go with Roger Corman's Not of This Earth.

An alien agent from the planet Davana (sounds like a seventies variety act) comes down to Earth and cases the joint. He's after blood you see - aren't they always - and he uses his wily alien ways to kill unfortunates, nick their blood and performs his dastardly experiments. He enlists the help of a petty thief Jeremy and a nurse called Nadine (the saucy old devil). In fact, he pays the nurse to live in his house to "take care of him". 

I decided in true 'Nightworld' fashion to watch this at night and I'm glad that I did, much of the atmosphere would probably have been lost in a bright sunlit room. The film was made on an obviously shoestring budget but it still manages to impart a sense of dread. To turn Paul Birch into an alien, all the special effects fellows did was slap some white contacts into his eyes. Which you don't see for the majority of the film due to his Peters and Lee glasses. He is made even more alien by his Jedi mind tricks where he talks directly into people's minds. Again this is cheaply done by a bit of dubbing in post production. All simple things but, along with his performance it's pretty convincing stuff.

The music helps with the whole atmosphere thing. It is fairly typical of fifties sci-fi B-movies but it does the job very nicely. It all feels distinctly creepy and made me think that I was watching something that actually happened in 1956 and this was just a Crimewatch style reconstruction.

The story plods along in a standard kind of way. It's obvious where it's going from early on and I can't say that there's anything that memorable. Unless you count a doctor being attacked by an umbrella creature as memorable. Mmm, maybe. But the story does its job. 

As you may have guessed the special effects are poor, especially on the umbrella creature, but this also extends to the sets. One sliding door that features prominently doesn't so much slide as judder along a bit as it's pushed by some behind the scenes chain-smoking technician. It all adds to the charm, I suppose.

There was a remake of this made in 1988 as a result of a wager. Someone bet the director that he couldn't make it on the same budget (allowing for inflation) and in the same time frame as the original. This sounds quite interesting you may think, until you hear that the director was Jim Wynorski. Oh dear. On the positive side it starred ex adult specialist film starlet Traci Lords. Okay, it still sounds really bad.

Not of This Earth makes a change from the usual alien invasion stories we get nowadays. It's a lot simpler and a lot quieter experience. Yet it's surprisingly chilling at times. A good late Friday night film.