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The Book of Daniel (2013)
God takes care of His people
The Book of Daniel dramatizes the Biblical record of the same name, and does so very well. Built primarily around the story of the Hebrew people's captivity in Babylon and under several different kings, the movie uses the narrative of its title character to portray how even when all seems lost, God is still with His own. The film is fundamentally quite well done, very well-written and refreshingly respectful of its Scriptural source, but as this is clearly a low budget production there are inevitably some cinematic weaknesses. There are no earth-shattering special effects and the overall sweep is somewhat limited. Quality of acting varies, though fortunately both of the actors portraying Daniel--Andrew Bongiorno as the "young" Daniel and Robert Miano as the "old" version of the same--are outstanding and capture the essence of the Biblical character excellently. Conversely, much of the rest of the cast seems a bit cobbled together, with a lot of bizarre American-English accents thrown into the supposedly Middle Eastern setting. Lance Henriksen is the most recognizable "name" actor in the cast, and while there's no doubt Henriksen is an outstanding performer it's questionable if he's the best choice to play the Persian King Cyrus, who holds a great respect for Daniel and fulfills Biblical prophecy by allowing the Hebrews to return to their homeland. It's also a bit disappointing the movie never explores the more Apocalyptic prophecies in the latter portions of the Biblical book, though including them would certainly have meant expanding the scope of the film considerably. But these are small criticisms, and overall The Book of Daniel is an inspiring and often moving cinematic portrayal of one of the most fascinating figures of the Old Testament. And the movie's overarching message--that God will always take care of His people, no matter how hostile or wicked the world around us seems to be-- remains a relevant one today and for all time.
Let's mix shark and human DNA. What could possibly go wrong?
Yes this is a b-movie, but it's a fun b-movie! Jeffrey Combs is perfectly cast as a crazy scientist who tries to save his son from terminal cancer by introducing shark DNA into the young man's body. The result, of course, is a shark-man hybrid with some very big teeth and an appetite to match. The ensuing monster madness is highly entertaining with a good combination of action and suspense in a nicely utilized island setting. The cast is excellent as well, as not only does the great Jeffrey Combs do a terrific job of chewing the scenery as the requisite mad scientist, but the wonderful Hunter Tylo steals the show as the beautiful and appealing heroine. William Forsythe does a good turn as well, and he and Tylo make for a great team as they try to lead the other people on the island to safety as the man-shark ruthlessly hunts them down. Special effects aren't top of the line, of course, as this is obviously a low-budget production, but they are adequate and the director does a good job of managing his resources so that everything looks fine. No, this is not Jaws or the Curse of Frankenstein, but as a sort of combination of both it makes a surprisingly effective sci-fi thriller.
Princess of the Nile (1954)
Exciting adventure highlighted by the amazing Debra Paget
This is the movie that made Debra Paget a superstar, and rarely has an actress dominated a film so completely as Ms. Paget does this one. From the moment she is first revealed--practicing an exotic dance, no less--to the the last scene of the film, Paget remains the apple of the camera's eye. Whether dancing seductively before spellbound soldiers, bargaining with duplicitous courtiers, or swinging a scimitar in defense of her people, Paget brings the film's eponymous character to life with a cinematic charisma that is never less than spellbinding.
But while the film is generally remembered as a showcase for Paget's incredible charms, it is in fact a fine all-round action/adventure movie. The ancient eastern setting is well-realized, and if the proceedings are limited to certain sets those sets are nonetheless sumptuous and beautifully crafted. The script and direction are fine and the several action scenes are exciting, with quite a bit of effective humor thrown in for good measure. Jeffrey Hunter and Michael Rennie are effective as the story's hero and villain, respectively, and their rivalry builds to a suitable conclusion. There's never a dull moment either, and between the marauding soldiers under Rennie's banner, the machinations of the seedy court shaman, and a den of surprisingly heroic thieves, the plot moves along at a rapid clip to a satisfying climax.
An excellent adventure from the days of classic Hollywood, Princess of the Nile is as enchanting as it is exciting and a colorful showcase for the wonderful talents of Debra Paget.
Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)
Here Comes Mr. Jordan is a nearly faultless example of Hollywood fantasy. The incredible plot works because the film is so wonderfully written and directed with standout performances from just about every cast member. In particular, Claude Rains delivers one of the most outstanding turns of his legendary career as the title character, conveying just the right combination of sympathy and authority as the angel who has to figure out a way to make things right. Robert Montgomery's performance is likewise excellent as our protagonist, and it's great to see Montgomery's character develop as he struggles to find his niche in his new life (afterlife?). The rest of the cast is outstanding as well, and the story moves along from one memorable moment to the next with an irresistible charm. As a comedy, the film delivers a host of hilarious moments but never descends to slapstick, relying instead on clever dialog and character interplay. Throw in some romance, a would-be murder, and a nice message about how things will somehow be made to work out for the best even when we as humans can't see a way, and you have a knockout movie that will continue to delight movie fans for many years to come.
Prisoners of the Sun (2013)
An interesting idea that goes nowhere
"Prisoners of the Sun" starts out with an interesting premise--the idea that elements of Egyptian mythology actually represent extraterrestrial powers who may be brought back to Earth when the signs are right-- but unfortunately fails to develop this idea very well. Admittedly, some of the problems the film has are the result of a low budget, but there are dramatic weaknesses that go beyond that. First and foremost, the script is incredibly tepid, and not much of anything happens for long stretches of time. Even towards the end, when our cast of characters are on the brink of a historic discovery in the haunted catacombs of an ancient pyramid, there is little action or suspense. Naturally, since this is a film about ancient Egyptian mysticism and curses, there is an undead mummy, but despite the mummy's prominent disposition in the film's trailer it actually has only a tiny role in the story and disappears from the proceedings pretty quickly. The screenplay needed a healthy dose of adrenalin to bring the admittedly interesting plot to life, but instead there is simply a lot of unconvincing exposition from one scene to the next. As a result, even the film's relatively short running time seems to go on interminably. One the plus side, the cast is for the most part decent and capable, though regrettably the one exception is the actor playing the part of Dr. Adler, the film's hero, as he is badly miscast as a scholar and is totally unconvincing in the role. Overall, "Prisoners of the Sun" is just too uninvolving and lackluster to recommend. There was the potential to make a respectable movie, but the opportunity is never realized.
Gåten Ragnarok (2013)
Hooked by a misleading trailer
There are certain things this Scandinavian production has going for it: the actors all do commendable jobs with what they are given; the wild scenery is beautiful; and there a few moments (not many, but a few) of very well orchestrated suspense. But none of that matters because "Ragnarok" simply isn't what its trailer leads one to believe it is, namely a scary monster movie. There is a monster, or at least a big creature which may have inspired certain stories from Norse mythology, but the monster action is decidedly limited and while there occasional moments of tension there are no real scares. I don't think the filmmakers had any real desire to make a scary picture, but rather an adventure story with a few ideas borrowed from American monster movies. The result is incredibly dry, boring, and unsatisfying, particularly the climax. If you're hoping for the kind of explosive grand finale "Jaws" gave us, forget it. Suffice it to say the creature from "Ragnarok" is only dangerous because our human explorers provoke its maternal instincts. As a longtime fan of both monster movies and Viking mythology, I really expected to like "Ragnarok." More's the pity.
DeepStar Six (1989)
Tepid underwater remake of Alien
Despite a very solid cast and some fairly good production values, DeepStar Six sinks under the weight of it own inertia. This is an extremely uneventful film, and though ostensibly a monster movie there is almost no monster action whatsoever until the final twenty minutes or so, and even then what we get is extremely lackluster thanks to some very poor special effects. The script presumably aims to build tension gradually and spends a lot of time focusing on the ensemble cast (with a little extra emphasis on our heroine, played by Nancy Everhard), but while this may sound like a good idea in theory, in practice it fails utterly, as even a character-driven story needs a certain amount of drama and tension, which DeepStar Six totally lacks. As a result, I zoned out at numerous points in the tedious plot line and found myself strongly considering the stop button more than once...but I persevered in the vain hope that at some point a monster would rear itself from the mysterious depths and serious havoc would ensue. Never happened, as even when the sea monster that is our villain finally awkwardly asserts itself, the resultant action is poorly executed and the creature effects are inferior to similar designs from the 1950s. Some quality performances from a respectable cast that tries hard are unfortunately wasted, and while the aforementioned Everhard does a good job as our likable but underdeveloped heroine, the best performance probably comes from Miguel Ferrer as a burn-out victim whose sanity is slowly slipping away from him after six months of arduous underwater duty. It wouldn't have taken a whole lot for DeepStar Six to have been a solid b-movie, or maybe even a little more than that, if only the script and direction had made action a higher priority and perhaps developed a couple of the key characters a bit better. But as it stands, DeepStar Six is simply monotonous and underwhelming in the extreme.
The Hideous Sun Demon (1959)
The sun demon may be hideous, but the movie is wonderful
The Hideous Sun Demon is an overlooked winner from the legendary canon of 50s science fiction/monster movies. The eponymous "sun demon" is actually quite impressive and hideous indeed, a reptilian nightmare on two legs and, in a neat twist, summoned forth by the rays of the sun. Robert Clarke does a yeoman's job as not only the lead character--a flawed but likable young scientist who finds himself cursed with a monstrous alter ego after being exposed to atomic radiation--but also as the director. Indeed, the entire cast is quite proficient, and everyone acquits themselves honorably in their respective roles, particularly the gorgeous Nan Peterson who plays an especially curvaceous barroom singer that catches the troubled protagonist's eye. The film is quite well-paced with a good mix of action and drama, and the characters are all realistically developed as believable individuals. The special effects are handled nicely, and the scenes of monster mayhem are surprisingly brutal and pack quite a nasty punch. The ultimate climax is perhaps inevitable, but nonetheless exciting and expertly staged. Often neglected in conversations of 50s genre classics, The Hideous Sun Demon is a fine example of monster movie excellence.
The Outlaw (1943)
The Outlaw's only saving grace is the great Jane Russell
The Outlaw is remembered today primarily for being the film debut of the great Jane Russell, and while there are times badly-reviewed films are simply underrated, this is not one of those occasions. Direction is unremarkable, pacing is slow and tepid, and the script never settles on a genre. Is The Outlaw a romance, a comedy, or an adventure film? The screenplay jumps from one to the other, without ever establishing a personality or a consistent tone. The dialog is particularly bad, and even a better cast probably couldn't have done much with the ridiculous things the script requires the performers to say. Miss Russell is literally the film's only bright spot, and while it goes without saying that she brings a lot of beauty and natural sex appeal to the movie, she is also by far the film's most talented actor. Ironically, despite the fact the film is in large measure a vehicle for Miss Russell, she doesn't feature as prominently as she should in the plot, and often disappears for interminable stretches in which nothing much of interest otherwise happens. The Outlaw is simply a failure on almost every level, and even Jane Russell's unique screen presence isn't nearly enough to save it.
Ironclad: Battle for Blood (2014)
The original Ironclad is one of the most underrated movies of 2011, and arguably one of the more unappreciated action films of all time. The sequel--Ironclad 2: Battle for Blood--tries to replicate the formula of its predecessor but fails in almost every regard. The plot still centers around an English castle under siege, but this time the attackers are a raiding party of Scottish rebels. Desperate to hold on to his ancestral home, the lord of the manor sends his young son out to find his cousin, Guy, an accomplished but disillusioned warrior who has forsaken the ideals of his youth and turned mercenary. Guy, along with a few other malcontents apparently chosen at random--including an obnoxious executioner and the female serial killer he was about to behead--follow the nobleman's son back to the castle, and the fighting begins in earnest.
It's a shame the final product isn't a better film, because there's nothing wrong with the basic plot (not much is more fun than a medieval siege!) and the cast is actually pretty impressive. Tom Austen is well cast as Guy, and plays the part with the requisite intensity, and fans of Game of Thrones will appreciate a solid (if limited) performance from Michelle Fairley as the lady of the castle. Roxanne McKee is excruciatingly beautiful as Guy's romantic interest, Blanche, and though her sheer attractiveness guarantees an elemental level of sympathy from us male viewers, her character doesn't really have any other admirable qualities. And that gets to one of the film's major flaws: almost none of the protagonists are the least bit sympathetic, as the best of them are extremely self-centered and the worst actually psychopathic. The only truly sympathetic characters are the nobleman's son and his youngest sister, but they are really only supporting characters. There appears to be a change of heart on the part of one of the main players near the end of the film, but the narrated epilogue which wraps up the picture seems to undercut this so that any imagined character growth is apparently short-lived. Moreover, too many illogical things happen for which there is no reasonable explanation. Characters make decisions for which there is no plausible motivation whatsoever, and the plot develops rather haphazardly from beginning to end. The film is extremely violent, and the many action scenes are the movie's saving grace, and the film is never boring, but even in terms of action the film sometimes disappoints. Many of the action scenes are badly directed, and their potential impact diluted by the infamous "shaky cam" technique. Finally, the film's low budget is a real problem. The original Ironclad only had a modest budget, but the sequel must have had a fraction of that. The opposing forces are absurdly motley, and the attacking Scots never seem like a credible threat to take the castle. There are some good atmospheric shots of wild, beautiful mountain tops and dark forests, but the director never manages to make the battle scenes come alive against this backdrop.
Overall, this simply isn't a worthy follow-up to the original Ironclad. There are a few good performances and the battle scenes keep the plot moving and intermittently entertaining, but ultimately the film is undone by a low budget, an implausible script, and weak characterization. You could do worse if you are in the mood for a little medieval action, but you could do a lot better, too...particularly by merely watching the first Ironclad again.