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Bahubali: The Beginning (2015)
Not being all that familiar with Indian cinema or pop culture, I really didn't know what to expect when I added this to my Netflix queue, just that it looked colorful and might be entertaining. Being not all that fond of musicals, I almost bugged out of the movie about fifteen or twenty minutes in.
But something made me stick with it, and I'm glad I did.
Take one part "Machiste" muscleman sword-and-sandal flick, one part "Lord of the Rings", add a liberal dose of Shakespearean tragedy, and season the result a bit too heavily (for my taste, anyway) with lavish musical numbers (Okay, I did like the Mahishmati anthem: It's a stirring and very catchy composition.) Garnish with some jaw-dropping wackiness -- from a Western perspective, anyway -- and you've got "Baahubali".
I have to admit I found the second movie somewhat better than the first, but by the end of "Baahubali: The Beginning" I was captivated by its larger-than-life characters and epic storytelling. This and its sequel are well worth watching, even if like me you're not a big fan of Bollywood films.
I've watched almost all these episodes, and I have to say that although some of them are quite good, this is one of the most eminently forgettable ones I've seen so far, even though Richard Matheson did this adaptation of an August Derleth story. The problem is, John Newland is a terrible actor -- and not a particularly good director, either. Far from being frightening, the titular character swans around in a black cape that makes him look like a Dollar Store Dracula. If anything, he reminds me of the dentist Ed Wood, Jr. got to substitute for Bela Lugosi in "Plan 9 from Outer Space". Bentley's demon "familiar" is a nice effect, but the creepiness is quickly squandered because all it can do is stand around and make groping gestures. Even the presence of stunningly beautiful Antoinette Bower can't salvage this tripe.
Mediocre, but Robert Vaughn makes it watchable
If you've ever seen the movie "Hangover Square", you'll find this episode of "Thriller" strangely familiar. They even use the same aural cue -- a ringing bell -- to trigger the protagonist's psychotic blackouts, and the same sort of camera tricks to show he's about to have one of his nasty spells.
Unfortunately, the 50+ minute running time of a TV show doesn't give the story the time the feature movie had to make the title character sympathetic. In fact, Vaughn's 'Dr. Cordell' comes across as something of an idiot as well as a jerk: After the first murder, he had to have strongly suspected he was the perpetrator when he found that he'd kept one of the victim's earrings. Yet not only did he not turn himself in to the police, but he insists on working alone in the lab with his fiancé, at the same time he must be aware there's a chance that at any moment, without warning, he could become a maniacal killer. It's even more gob-smacking that he doesn't appear at all concerned that he might have one of his fits while working with the components of nerve gas. On a crowded college campus.
Rather negligent of him, if you ask me. And considering that the items he keeps from his three victims are all *bells*, but despite this blindingly obvious hint, he decides to have one last meet-up with his lady friend in a church -- which he knows has a bell tower -- it seems pretty obvious that that unknown gas to which he was exposed significantly lowered his I.Q., too.
Unless you're a Robert Vaughn fan, there's really not much to recommend this episode. Definitely one of the weakest entries in the series.
Thriller: Well of Doom (1961)
Nicely Creepy Episode
This one gets off to a cracking good start, as Robert Penrose (Ronald Howard) and the manager of Penrose's estate 'Blackmoor', Jeremy Teal (the inimitable Torin Thatcher) are on their way to Robert's bachelor party when they're waylaid at night out on the fog-shrouded moors by the sinister Squire Moloch (Henry Daniell) and his excessively large henchman, Master Styx (Richard "Jaws" Kiel). Styx disposes of the chauffeur, while the Squire holds Robert and Jeremy at early-19th-Century pistol point. They're then marched off to a deserted building. When Jeremy tries to make a break for it, Moloch appears to kill him by merely pointing his finger at the fleeing man.
My only quibble -- and admittedly, it's a minor one -- is that after a great buildup, the story clues you in that there's nothing at all supernatural going on here a bit too soon. I mean, seriously, someone who implies he's Satan or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof, a demonic character who just supposedly killed someone with a gesture, is doing all this to force the hero to sign away his power of attorney? At that point, you'd have to be pretty dim not to guess what's going on and who's really behind it.
But Daniell's performance is what makes this story eminently watchable from the moment he appears. He plainly revels in his role as the seriously weird and menacing Squire Moloch, whose costume and makeup must have been inspired by Lon Chaney's character in the lost silent horror film "London After Midnight".
The Earth Dies Screaming (1964)
Good, But Not Great
Okay variation on the "What Happened to Everybody?" sf genre. Though it loses steam about two-thirds of the way through, it starts off well enough, creating a fairly eerie and desolate atmosphere as a small group of survivors copes with the usual issues, after a mysterious event has killed off most of the human race.
The actors are competent enough, although Dennis Price is sadly wasted in his role as "Taggart", the obligatory rotter. (Am I the only one who thinks of Slim Pickens and "Blazing Saddles" whenever I hear that surname?) As always, the aliens -- actually, they're robots who for some inexplicable reason wear spacesuits, complete with backpacks and helmets -- have an easily exploitable Achilles heel. Their ability to revive the dead as mindless zombies is rather creepy, though how the zombies are supposed to see where they're going when their eyes have supposedly "turned to gray goo" is a bit hard to fathom. (Those contacts look really uncomfortable.) Worth a look, though it's not up to Terence Fisher's usual standard.
Another Take on a Familiar Theme
That is, a familiar theme for the director, Luc Besson. Lucy, the protagonist, is very much a cross between Nikita and Leeloo the Fifth Element, with a touch of the anime 'Akira' and Chayefsky's 'Altered States' thrown into the mix. There were some great moments in this movie, but, on the whole, I have to say it wasn't as dark and intense as 'La Femme Nikita', or as entertaining as 'The Fifth Element'.
Don't get me wrong: Johansson gives an excellent performance, as an initially carefree student who through a very nasty set of circumstances is trapped into serving a drug kingpin as a mule, carrying a surgically implanted packet of a new drug with some ... shall we say ... remarkable properties.
When she resists a rape attempt by one of his goons, this suicidally stupid henchman kicks her in the stomach several times, rupturing the packet. Since unless they just hired him that day, you'd think this flunky should have some inkling of what his sadistic, cold-blooded killer of a boss would do to him if he found out -- and he pulled this stunt in front of another henchman -- all I can say is, the guy must have had a major death wish. Or very poor impulse control. Or the IQ of something from the back of the refrigerator. Or all of the above.
Anyway, through the miracle of scientific-sounding mumbo-jumbo (as tediously expounded by Morgan Freeman -- what a terrible waste of a fine actor!) we find out that the drug which has leaked into Lucy's bloodstream is expanding her consciousness and giving her superhuman abilities. This leads to lots of special effects and general mayhem, as well as the obligatory car chase.
I don't mean to sound dismissive of this movie: far from it. Generally, anything Besson directs is well worth a look. There are some marvelously trippy sequences showing the effects of the drug on her perceptions, and some humorous moments, like when her body tries to rebel while she's on an airliner. Johansson deftly manages her mental transformation into something both more and less than human, making her performance chilling and touching, sometimes both at once.
A slight correction to the IMDb blurb: it's true that at first, the drug turns Lucy into a ruthless killer. But as her consciousness progresses to a higher level, she stops killing, even though it would have been easy for her to squash people like bugs.
Not Besson's best, but still a nice alternative to your usual mindless summer blockbuster. Worth seeing.
Wedding Rehearsal (1932)
Bertie and Jeeves It Ain't, But Still ...
Although the basic plot is straight out of P. G. Wodehouse -- wealthy relative threatens to cut off playboy's allowance if he doesn't get married to one of the "acceptable" girls on her list, so he sets out to preemptively marry them off to someone else -- along with its leisurely pacing, "Wedding Rehearsal" is something of a hit-and-miss affair. This is more a pleasant comedy of manners in the British mode, with a dollop of social commentary, than a romantic farce. If you approach it as such, it has its small rewards, some nice comic characterizations and occasionally witty dialog.
You certainly can't fault the quality of the actors, or the production values, not to mention the location shots of London in the early 30s. There are some great moments, such as when the dowager steels herself to give her twin daughters the "what to expect on your wedding night" speech on the eve of their double wedding, while the twins try their best to look innocent.
I wouldn't recommend "Wedding Rehearsal" to most modern viewers, but if you're a fan of actors like Roland Young and Merle Oberon, and like that between-the-wars British aristocratic milieu, you might find yourself enjoying the film. I did.
Starts Out Well -- But Ultimately Disappoints
For about the first forty minutes or so, this wasn't a bad movie at all. Neve McIntosh plays the distraught mother convincingly and Shaun Dooley does a fine job as a one-night stand who winds up really regretting that impulse. Despite a few minor stumbles, the film develops an engrossingly claustrophobic atmosphere of terror and paranoia.
Which then crumbles under the weight of its muddled storyline and pedestrian plotting. For example, one particularly annoying "twist" occurs when they have Dooley attacked and pulled out of sight by the (still-unseen) monster while he's trying to climb into the attic, only to pop back up outside a few minutes later with no visible injuries and only a slight limp to show for the encounter.
I guess mutant hell-beasts are like bears: play dead and maybe they'll leave you alone.
The director was certainly smart not to show us much of the creature -- because what you do see isn't particularly frightening. (In fact, it reminded me of nothing so much as one of the boogeymen in the old Laurel and Hardy film, "March of the Wooden Soldiers".) But that's forgivable, so long as you don't climax your story by having your fearsome super-fast, super-strong monster -- which in the last hour and ten minutes has offed several of her neighbors and made mincemeat out of some heavily-armed special forces dunderheads -- summarily dispatched by a fireplace poker!
I get the "frantic mom protecting her cub" angle, but it has to make you wonder what all the fuss was about. Maybe they should have equipped those SAS guys with sticks with a nail in them instead of assault rifles.
And I know people don't always act reasonably when they're under extreme stress, but a daughter who looks her mother square in the face while deliberately locking her outside -- when she knows a savage, murderous creature is lurking about -- then just turns and walks away, all on account of some abandonment issues? That's cold. It completely destroyed any sympathy I might have had for the selfish, spiteful little drama queen.
This was a good try. I'd have no hesitation about checking out another film by this director. It's not so bad that I'd urge people to give it a miss entirely, but it's disappointing to see a movie which initially had so much going for it end up missing the mark so badly.
Valérian & Laureline (2007)
Excellent Animation of a Famous Series
This adaptation of the long-running, highly influential French comics series is a visual and intellectual treat. Although the story line differs in major details from the comics which inspired the series, it retains many of the marvelous, sometimes hilariously off-kilter concepts and alien creatures (like the Grumpy Convertor) which made the series so immensely popular.
The animation -- a combination of hand-drawn and computer graphics -- is well-executed, in a mostly faithful reproduction of the richly textured universe created over four decades by writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières.
This is light-hearted space opera, with plenty of action and humor, and yet surprisingly sophisticated for family fare, with a strongly humanistic -- though never preachy -- point of view. Highly recommended.
Daisan no kagemusha (1963)
Watch What You Wish For ...
Kyunosuke, a farmer's son and descendant of samurai, dreams of leaving the farm and winning fame and fortune as a renowned warrior. When a retainer of the ambitious Lord Yasutaka shows up one day and offers to employ Kyunosuke, even advancing him money for clothing and weapons, it seems his fondest wish will be fulfilled.
But this apparently lucky turn of events conceals a less palatable reality: Kyunosuke was hired only because he bears an uncanny resemblance to Lord Yasutaka. He is to be the third of the lord's "shadow warrior" doubles. Although he receives samurai training, it's only to make his impersonation of Yasutaka more effective. The pay is good, but since his existence must be kept a secret he gets few opportunities to enjoy his new station in life.
When at a critical moment in a battle Lord Yasutaka is wounded in his left eye by an arrow, Kyunosuke takes his place and wins the day. His reward: he and the other doubles get to lose their left eyes,too. As the distinctly unpleasant side of his duties makes this indelible impression on the Third Shadow Warrior, he begins to rue the day he left his father's farm.
Shortly after his eye is removed by the court surgeon, a sneak attack by a treacherous ally throws the lord and Kyunosuke -- now the only surviving double -- together as the two flee for their lives. Yasutaka is wounded again in the desperate fight to get away from the castle, receiving a cut which nearly severs his left arm. In terrific pain, he orders his double to finish the job and strike off his arm.
Kyunosuke reluctantly complies, then realizes that if he succeeds in getting Yasutaka alive to the castle of another ally, he'll have to have his arm amputated, too. He naturally rebels against this prospect, and tells Yasutaka so. Raving and cursing, Lord Yasutaka tries to cut him down for his disobedience; Kyunosuke kills his master in self-defense and leaves his body for the crows.
But Kyunosuke will not escape his fate so easily. While trying to flee the province, he's recognized on the road by another fugitive, the same retainer who first hired him. Kyunosuke is given a choice between immediate death, or taking Yasutaka's place for real.
The Third Shadow Warrior understandably chooses the latter option, but again, he will live to regret it. In the Japanese tradition of "cruel histories", maintaining this illusion will cost him everything: his identity, his family, his love. Though he is supposed to be a lofty samurai lord and commander of an army, every attempt to take charge of his destiny ends with Kyunosuke further ensnared and confined, a puppet dancing to another's tune.
Besides having a very Buddhist take on the nature of illusion, the film has quite a bit to say about class distinctions as well. Beautifully shot in black-and-white in a widescreen format, with an excellent cast -- particularly Ichikawa, who provides two very convincing performances as both the arrogant, brutal Lord Yasutaka and conflicted Kyunosuke -- Third Shadow Warrior in no way deserves its apparent obscurity.