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Martian Land (2015)
It's not great, in fact it's a pretty naff piece of junk but by the Asylums's standards it's a masterpiece.
The plot is unfocused and all over the place and doesn't make much sense from one minute to the next. Most of the acting is one note (but then so are the characters so it's hardly ALL the actors fault - some of the dialogue is execrable) and some of the acting is okay. (The stand out was Arianna Afsar who did a pretty good job with a minimum of material.) The SFX are not terrible. All in all, the usual. Ho Hum.
But there is one aspect to the film which was refreshing. The two young women trapped at the start of the film and who have to make their way through the course of the film from point A to Point B to do something important - are a couple. They're a lesbian couple. And nothing much is made of it. It's not played up for titillation. It's not polemical. That they are gay is not a problem for the characters, or anyone they encounter. It just is. They're gay - so what? Background stuff - and they both survive to end of the film!
Martian Land not going to win any GLAAD awards but Yaaaaay! it's a step!
Anti Matter (2016)
A film with smarts
I like low budget films in which I do not know any of the cast. I like science fiction that's not just some other genre dressed up in science fiction's clothing. I like my SF to have some science at the core of it.
Anti Matter delivers both.
I'm sure any 1st year physics student could tell you in seconds why the science in this film would never work but that's where the 'fiction' part of 'Science Fiction' comes in; take a not too incredible 'what if' and play with it.
If you want a pretty smart bit of sf that doesn't degenerate into the usual deux ex machina, polarity-inverting, SFX driven, gun battle, light show explosionfest at the end, this is well worth a look.
Robot World (2015)
SERIOUS SPOILER ALERT!
A well-meaning but VERY slow paced piece of SF which falls to bits about the half way mark by not playing fair: Half way through the movie the downed astronaut discovers a container "covered in alien writing" - it's a Jack Daniels bottle! DAH DAH DAH!!!!! The alien planet was Earth all along! (as if we hadn't seen that coming). The old 'it was earth all along' gag not in itself a show-stopper, a lot of films, books, comics have used that trick over the years and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. What makes it not work here and makes the watcher (well me at least) give up on the movie is the fact that in the opening sequence of the film the astronaut is surrounded by screens full of warnings and alerts - all in English. Come on! And it's not as if the film makers gave us a lot to distract us from joining those two dots either so it really sticks out.
Having said that I did watch it to the end. Some of the SFX were pretty good for the budget but there just wasn't enough material here for a feature. Even a (very long) 67 minute one. This was a 20 minute short stretched way beyond any credible limit.
Swallows and Amazons (2016)
Swallows and Amazons - I must admit that I went to see this with a certain amount of dread. I have loved the books since I read them as a child some 40+ years ago and they have been shared with Daughter Number Two at bedtimes over the past few years.
My fears were justified.
I KNOW you can't just take a book and film it. I KNOW that what works well on the page doesn't necessarily work well on the screen. But what I don't understand is why someone would take a great book that has worked its spell on generations, take the very thing that make it special and successful (the world of childhood imagination, free from the constraints of adult supervision), dump it, and graft on a whole new layer of story ideas about spies and secret documents that, quite frankly, looks like it was lifted straight out of an Enid Blyton Famous Five book.
I can also understand that characters have to be altered for the screen: the name 'Titty' would raise unwanted snigger and was understandably changed to 'Tatty', Mrs Walker was played by a Scottish actress and so was sensibly changed from having an Australian childhood to one in the Highlands, but what is less understandable is the changing of Susan's character from a sensible, organised 'ship's mate' into a bumbling, whining klutz who can't fry a fish... I'm baffled. (If this was some attempt to avoid 'sexism' it failed miserably as all the other female characters in the film were shown being thoroughly domestic) It just robbed Susan of any strength of character at all. She just becomes a blonde piece of the scenery who doesn't really do anything except feed John the odd line.
One of the things that make the book special - especially for landlubbers like myself - is the way that the technicalities of sailing are bought so vividly to life. Reefing, jibbing, coming about, raising the keel, raising the sail, stepping the mast... all that technical stuff that the children in the books understand, and are so proficient at, is reduced here to a few lines like "Go faster, John!", "We're losing them!" - usually delivered off-camera or in long shot as the crew of the Swallow just sit there in the boat like cargo. For all the shots of boats in the water there's very little sailing going on in this film. And sailing is at the heart of the books. The night sailing up the lake to seize the Amazon is the whole heart of the book. In the film the night sail up the lake is disposed of in a few quick shots - in daylight.
I was incredibly disappointed and Number Two Daughter (aged 13) was too. She thought someone who hadn't read the book might like it as a film in its own right but as an adaptation of Swallows and Amazons? Sorry. No.
Freedom! (in Italian!)
Stultifyingly long 2 hour epic abut the formation of the Lombard League stuffed full of fascist symbolism and Rutger Hauer. Actually it was really stuffed full of horses.
The script was a real clunker full of people telling each other historically important things the audience need to know but which they would have been fully aware - "Yes, these new taxes that the newly installed Pope Bendict the whateverth are really hurting the people..." Blah blah blah. Real local radio advertising dialogue. "Yes, June with the Lombardy League you get not one but two chances of fighting for...." Blah blah blah.
Mixed in with this guff there was a subplot about a woman who had visions, was due to be burned as a witch - but wasn't by order of the Empress (who burned someone else instead) and ended up, for some totally unexplained reason, in armour on the battlefield (though whose side she was on is anyone's guess).
The only thing that kept me watching, apart from the insane hotness of the witchy woman (Kasia Smutniak), was giggling with glee at every new interior. For some reason (maybe he had shares in a candle company) every interior was full of candles. Inside a peasant's hut late at night as the occupants try to go to sleep there were at least a dozen candles alight in the room. A dungeon cell had another dozen, and when the hero and heroine fall into bed at last, in a ramshackle hut - in daylight! - with sunlight streaming in through every crack and crevice - candles.
It rained on the funeral too. But only only round the grave itself. The people standing in the back were in brilliant sunshine and dry as bones. Between the candle scenes we had the horse scenes. Horses filled up a lot of screen time in this movie. Sometimes they went this way, sometimes they went that way, sometimes they were in slow motion. I would guess a quarter of this film's running time was spent on shots of people riding across the screen. Gallumph gallumph gallumph. People appeared and disappeared from the narrative - and then reappeared when you'd forgotten who they were. (not that you could tell because everyone wore generic medieval brown and had generic medieval dirty hair and beards).
The whole thing looks like it was shot as a miniseries and they cut it down to a movie. Only they cut out the wrong bits.
Another quid wasted in Poundland and another one off my 'Watch Rutger Hauer's Entire Career' list.
Meet Joe Black (1998)
Over-sentimental tedious cods-wallop
Death takes a holiday and spends some time with a media mogul before he takes him away. Death falls in love with the mogul's daughter. And decides to take her too. Then doesn't. That's the entire plot. It takes takes three bum-numbing hours to tell. A stultifyingly dull, three hours which culminates in the most leadenly-paced Hollywood Bullshit ending imaginable.
Death here is played as a wide-eyed innocent abroad by Brad Pitt who manfully layers on autistic ticks and mannerisms over a wildly variable script. His character is unable (at selective 'comic' moments) to understand common idioms while, at other times, is capable of layering on the profundity and metaphor with a trowel. At one point - after being told that another character was talking through his hat says "No, he's talking through his lips!" Ho ho ho.
Claire Forlani plays the woman with whom he falls in love, and plays her with a subdued gaucheness so that in every scene she spends so much time twitching her lips (in a manner henceforth known as 'Zellwegering') and looking out of the corners of her eyes, that she looks like she's about to have a fit. The innumerable 'almost' love scenes between her and the Death character are an agony: endless alternating over-the-shoulder close ups of her twitching her eyes at everything but him, and him Aspergering his gaze at everything else in the room but her. Whole hours of this stuff go by without them looking at each other once - and then they have sex which is more of the same with fewer clothes and less dialogue.
In the end (the interminable endless end) the media mogul happily walks off with Death, after everyone has wrung every phony ounce of syrupy sentiment out of every single frame. (I nearly went into a sugar coma when Daddy and daughter had a final dance with to that saccharine hymn to trash sentimentality "What a Wonderful World") And then! (Incoming bullshit overload!) Death isn't Death anymore! He's the guy the daughter fell in love with in the first act brought back from some ill-defined afterlife by a stroke of the writer's pen. The daughter says, "I wish you could have known my dad," and off they walk to the accompaniment of glorious fireworks. All a bit sudden (well it would be if it wasn't all done so ponderously slowly) considering she hasn't even seen that her dad is dead, or, if she just somehow 'knew' it, she bothered to grieve even for a second. The poor bugger isn't even cold yet! and she doesn't shed a tear. But never mind, the movie needs a final sugar lump to end with so she's forgotten him for the vague promise of another go in the sack with Brad Pitt!
And I don't think I want to know what Spike Lee made of the only more-than-two-line part doled out to a black actor, a real 'Magic N****r' if ever there was one. Only she, a dying old lady "from de Carribiyan" (thus even more "primitive" than her New York urbanised daughter) can see Death for who he is, "Obeah mon. I gonna die," she says when he sees him for the first time. "No obeah, sister." replies Pitt doing an Ali G. "No duppy, no jumbie. Evera ting gon' be irey."
No it isn't. I got type two diabetes from watching this film.
Watching Soapdish for the first time tonight I had an ever increasing sense of deja vu. I had seen this before - yet I knew I hadn't. It was all weirdly, strangely familiar but all new too. About half way through the film it clicked. I realised I was watching a Pedro Almodóvar film - made by Americans.
It's all there: the frantic over the top relentless pace, the rapid line delivery, the over-the-top emotion and outrageous plot twists played out with the subtlety of a daytime soap. Even the Almodóvar visual trademark of having a strong red element in frame wherever possible is on show.
I like Almodóvar's films. I didn't particularly like Soapdish. It lacked the edge that Almodóvar's films have, an edge that skirts, and often tips over into, downright vulgarity. His films are blatantly Soap Operatic but they are played straight. His films have contained all sorts of disturbing characters and situations: heroin-using nuns, people making (quite funny) jokes in the middle of a rape scene, carers having sex with their coma patients... the list goes on. Quite often in his films you find yourself laughing at things, or condoning things, which you KNOW you should find repellent but somehow... there you are... laughing.
It's what makes him such a great film maker.
At no point was anything even vaguely threatening or vulgar going to happen in Soapdish. It played safe. And strictly for laughs. Then, just to make sure, just in case the audience didn't get it, placed the grotesque soap operatics of the story into the setting of the studios of a daytime soap. Signalled to the audience as loudly as it could that this was not to be taken seriously and the style was deliberate. Corporate film making. They took the veneer of Almadovar's style - even the opening credits are familiar - and applied it wholesale to an acceptable fast-paced Hollywood farce.
The real thing is much better.
Better Than Some
This is not the greatest SF film of all time but for a near-zero budget it doesn't do that badly.
It has plot holes - why, for instance right at the end of the film, would our hero lead the predators away from his friends in an act of noble self-sacrifice when all they had to do was move a few steps nearer the huge light source right in front of them? The predators were scared of the light and were easily kept at bay by the light from a burning branch. Surely the portal with its brazzillion candle power lighting display was a perfectly safe place to be.
The acting is variable but I seen far worse. The guys did a fair job delivering a script that could have done with a good tightening up - there's far too much "What are we going to do now?", "I don't know!", "Have YOU got any ideas?" type dialogue. Someone should have gone through and been ruthless with the script, combined and reduced incidents, and then trimmed it again harder and tighter in the editing.
But I watched the film the end - which is more than I can say for many recent, far bigger-budgeted Hollywood SF films. Not a bad first directorial showing.
The Comic (1985)
A Staggering Work of...
When I first watched The Comic a year ago I dismissed it in my mind as 'a turd'. But I think I may be wrong. The Comic, after having lived in my head for a year, and on another viewing, is, possibly, the greatest undiscovered work of genius film-making produced in Britain since the Sixties - that or a sustained display of amateur ineptitude which, just by being so incredibly crap, manages to completely bypass any form of criticism.
With most bad films you have some idea what the film was trying to do: it's an unfunny comedy, it's a not scary Horror film, it's an unthrilling thriller. With The Comic you don't have a clue. I really haven't got any way to start to work out what the film thought it was other than to liken it to other films which it resembles (slightly - and then almost certainly by accident). Plot-wise I think it's the rags to riches and back again, rise and fall story (think David Essex in That'll be the Day / Stardust) but set in an authoritarian future where jackbooted militia can beat the crap out of people in public for no real reason, then throw them in gaol without trial, and the highest form of culture appears to be the working man's club circuit. It's obviously heavily influenced by David Lynch's unfiltered stream of unconsciousness imagery; uncomfortable, grainy, double-framed shots of nothing much happening are sustained beyond any sensible length. At the end of the film several of these, seemingly totally unrelated shots, are repeated as if they are DEEPLY SIGNIFICANT. There are nightmare/dream sequences with the smoke machines pumping away so much that, at times, it's hard to figure out what is going on on screen.
The cutting jolts all over the place leaving audience confusion in its wake - for most of the film I had very little idea of where any of the 'action' was taking place; apart from a shot of some boats in a harbour and a couple of establishing shots of a big house all the film takes place indoors - even the scenes which are obviously meant to be outside feel like interiors. (Mostly down to the crappy sound work.) The setting is weird too, the street (shot in what appears to be some sort of living museum heritage centre) is knee deep in straw. The rich get about in horse-drawn carriages or vintage auto-mobiles. The protagonist's 'flat' consists of one ground floor room with a door that opens straight onto the street and has shop windows - and some of the worst wrinkled wallpaper-hanging I have seen. A metaphor maybe for all the many layers of meaninglessness on display? A thin covering to be peeled away to reveal even shallower layers of meaningless beneath? And just why does the protagonist's mullet change colour from yellow to orange, then back again, quite so often? What was that grainy, sepia-toned flashback to the granny getting her throat slit by total strangers all about? Who is the whore in the red dress and what has she to do with anything going on in the rest of the film? Why does the hero pay for his daughter to be smuggled out of the country with a small bag of undefined something like a character from a historical movie? and why doesn't the smuggler look to see what's in the bag? - it could be toenail clippings for all he knows! Why is 'the comic' at the centre of the film so incredibly bloody unfunny? the only really funny stand-up delivered joke of the whole film comes from a character we have never met before (and never seen again) suddenly appearing mid-frame to deliver a seriously surreal gag before vanishing from the movie. What. Is. Going. On? This sort of thing keeps me awake at night.
I think producer / writer / director / editor / sounds effects arranger Richard Driscoll was trying to do something very simple - an SF reworking of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment in the northern Working-men's club circuit - but somehow, accidentally, managed to make the most accurate, sustained, parody of every bad, overly-arty first year Film Student movie ever produced.
It's comedy heaven.
Chasing the Deer (1994)
Over-accurate and turgid.
a film with 195 'Associate Producers' (ie investors) listed on the end credits, a terrible script that lurched from one undercooked cliché to another, and some frankly bafflingly amateur looking direction and editing that kept leaping the movie from one scene to another in alarming jumps. Though the production values for such a low budget film were excellent - I don't suppose there was a historical re-enactment society in the north of Britain that didn't end up in this show somewhere, and some of the locations were genuine - there were far far too many characters knocking about. In addition to the thin soap opera element (father and son separated by circumstances end up on opposing sides and die in each other's arms on the battlefield - yes, that hoary old chestnut of a story) there were dozens and dozens of other characters who would arrive on screen, address all those around them by their full rank and title so we knew who they were, before disappearing from the narrative never to be seen again (quite often taking all their friends with them). I guess the writers were aiming for some historical accuracy but time and time again I kept thinking, 'Oh god, not more Lord Whoevers and General Thisandthats. I don't need to meet all these people'. People criticize 'Hollywood' movies for simplifying history, combining characters and trimming events to fit a convenient narrative structure, and watching this film I see why that process takes place. A film is not a history lecture, it doesn't come with footnotes and a reading list. First and foremost a film, even one based on historical events, is an entertainment. It can be polemical, emotive, manipulative and all those other things but unless it has some sort of a narrative that people engage with it's not going to keep its audience. Whatever 'message' (for want of a better word) the film maker wants to convey will be lost. I have no idea what the makers of Running the Deer wanted me to come away with. I didn't care about any of the characters I could identify, and I really had no clearer idea of the events of the 1745 Jacobite Rising than I couldn't have gleaned from any picture-book history of Scotland. The acting was adequate, though less than inspired (but given some of the clunky, very stagy dialogue the actors were asked to deliver I can't blame them for not setting the screen on fire. Most of the cast were unknown to me but Brian Blessed lent his beard to the occasion - and was the nominal 'star' of the show). Most of the time I felt I was watching some historical tableau of Scottish history presented by semi-professional actors. (A job I have done; I know what I'm talking about.) There was however one really nice moment that suddenly set all the rest into context. For a few seconds the film actually looked like a film and not a 'living history' show. Before the final hopeless battle at Culloden there is a slow tracking shot of the ranks of Scottish troops facing the camera, arms at the ready, all speaking fervently in Gaelic. As the camera reaches one of our English speaking protagonists we hear his voice: "I am Alistair Campbell son of... etc.". Cut to Bonny Prince Charlie on his horse. He turns to his aide. "What are they doing?" he asks. The aide replies something along the lines of: 'they are reciting their lineage. It makes them remember who they are and brave in battle'. "Interesting..." says the prince, "Interesting...." Now that was a nice piece of film making. A moment where image, sound editing, and well-delivered dialogue tell us something we don't know, show us something of the character of the men who are about to die, and something of the character of the prince for whom they are about to fight. (He has, after all, been leading them for months and only just noticed they do this before a battle?) Two shots worth saving surrounded by 90 minutes of padding.
I did come away from Chasing The Deer with one thing: I now take great pride in the fact that we in Scotland can make bad films as good as any bad films from the rest of the world.