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Still Baffled After All These Years.
Every now and then for the last couple of decades I have taken the occasional look at a Woody Allen film (with as open a mind as I can muster) in an attempt to work out what it is that people seem to adore about him so much. Having just read an extended magazine interview with the man in which he came over as a genuinely likeable human being I thought I was in a good place to have another go at finding what 'it' is.
Whatever it is I didn't see it here. You would have thought with a title like 'A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy' there would have been some sex or comedy in it. Apart from one throwaway line line delivered near the end of the thing which was genuinely funny - more for the delivery rather than the content - the film didn't raise a smile! And the sex was endless talk about off- screen activity and a couple of 'humorous' on-screen sub Benny Hill fumbles.
I remember hearing an interview with Jack Lemmon, many years ago, in which he said that when Billy Wilder was directing him in a scene in 'Some Like it Hot' Wilder gave him a pair of maracas to hold, and told him to shake them after Tony Curtis said his line and stop before he delivered his own. Lemmon was perplexed. The scene's dialogue was a snappy and rapidfire to and fro interchange. The maraca shaking would slow it down to a crawl. But Wilder was the director and Lemmon did what he was told. When Lemmon saw the film with an audience he understood. Curtis' s line were funny. So were Lemmons'. If Lemmon had come in with his line as soon as his actor's instincts told him to, the audience would not have heard it because they were still laughing at Curtis's previous line. His line would have been lost. Curtis's next line would make no sense... and the scene would have collapsed like a house of cards. Wilder knew where the laughs were and built space into his direction to let the audience enjoy them. Allen doesn't leave any space for the audience. We're not given any space to get the' jokes' (such as they are) because there's always someone talking straight after them. What they are saying is usually inane piffle and by the time you've registered that what they are saying is of little consequence and not a zinging comeback (if was generous I could concede that a lot of the inconsequential dialogue here is Allen's carefully crafted, verbal equivalent of maraca shaking) any humour in the 'joke' that just went past has evaporated.
The less said about Allen's helpless, "oh look at me,I'm so clumsy" shtick the better.
I'll give it a couple of years and have another go and seeing what the Allen cultist adore so much.
Petlya Oriona (1981)
Makes 1970s Italian SF movies look coherant.
This movie is - at least with the English subtitles available to me - an incomprehensible mess. I have watched a LOT of bad SF movies in my time but this really is a clunker.
The plot, such as I could make out concerned a Russian spaceships journey to the heart of a deadly phenomenon, the titular 'Orion's Loop', which is heading for Earth. The crew are supplemented by an equal number of robots which (for brilliant cast/budget reducing and cunning 'plot twist' setting up reasons) have been made identical in every way to them. It is soon revealed, by ethereal aliens, that the dangerous alien phenomenon heading for Earth is actually a benevolent alien phenomenon manufactured by themselves. The aliens used to live in the solar system - but don't any more because their planet ('the tenth planet') got destroyed (for unfathomable reasons) and they now live somewhere else . Seeing Earth in the path of a 'Space Typhoon' carrying a a deadly 'Glass Virus', they send out their sooper dooper radiation belt to save their former neighbours. For some reason these ethereal aliens have managed to kill several spaceships full of people by talking at them too fast before our gallant Russians manage to get them to stop gabbling and explain things in simple sentences.
One of the Russians doesn't trust them and does that, 'going mad, putting the whole mission in jeopardy' thing that worked so well in Ikarie XB1 - and didn't here - before getting a hug from the female robot and just vanishing from the movie because... I dunno... the actor had to go make the tea? Your guess is a good as mine.
From time to time we have some shots of the cast on holiday on the coast. I would guess shot at some local Black Sea resort as this film was made by the Odessa Film studios. What this footage has to do with what is going on in space is not clear.
There's lots of zooming panning and hand held camera in this film. The previous reviewer likens this to avant garde 60's experimental film making. I think he's being very generous. It looked to me like Jess Franco had attempted to shoot Solaris in two days, on the set on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. (Not helped by the fact that our heroic captain does a Mannix over our inept cameraman - his leg appears in the frame at one point - as he lies on his back then films the actor running away on the ceiling.)
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.
Red Rose (2004)
Robbie Burns is Scotland's national poet; he had an extraordinary life and lived in interesting times and there is, somewhere, a good film to be made of his life. Unfortunately this rambling, confused, over-long and badly directed shambles is not it. There are two main faults with this film. The first is the script which is stuffed full of import plot point delivering dialogue served up in full-on "As you very well know..." mode by characters who appear, declaim how important they are to the story, and then disappear again before you've registered their name. It's all over the place, full of secondary plot lines which go nowhere, scenes which do nothing, and dialogue which either assumes a close knowledge of the Burns' life and times, or demonstrates a clear inability by the writer to tell us about those times without delivering classroom lecture notes (when all else fails, a all-knowing Voice Over fills the holes in the narrative). The second major problem is the direction which, once you have swallowed the shallow attempts at supposedly cool and trendy modern ADHD cutting, is rank amateur. Most of the entertainment I got from this film was gained by waiting to see how long into a scene we got before the director crossed the line and pointlessly flip-flopped his characters from one side of the screen to the other and back again. Occasionally he managed to get through a scene without doing this - but only by backing his actors against a wall.
Fighting all this, the actors manfully do their best with variable success. Michael E. Rodgers copes well with some awful lines and Lucy Russell does some Stirling 'cuddling a well-wrapped doll because we can't afford a real baby' acting at one point, but even they couldn't rescue some scenes - particularly the one where she confronts him about his latest infidelity's pregnancy, a scene which sank to sub daytime soap opera levels of badness.
Another very long, totally wasted, 101 minutes that I will never get back.
Incidentally the only other review of this film (since deleted) was written by someone who has only written one review. This is a standard shilling trick used by self-promoting no-hopers. So I would guess that whoever wrote it was, somehow, involved in the making of this film.
Fei yan zou bi (1982)
A female Japanese assassin, reluctantly working for Hong Kong drug smugglers, falls in love with the brother of the woman running the cartel. After the assassin has killed the two informants in police protection that she came to Hong Kong to eliminate, the crime lords who hired her decide she is expendable for some reason and waste vast numbers of loyal incompetent goons trying to kill her. Meanwhile, the police want to arrest her. How and why they decided she is the killer is not made very clear in the UK VHS version I just watched - it was cut by 2m 37s by the BBFC, though I doubt if they would have cut exposition. Though it might explain how the villainess just dies between shots in the final scene while the heroine simultaneously looses an article of clothing.
A lot of the dialogue is delivered. With very. Long Pauses. Between Phrases By. The Voice. Overactors.
Some brief nudity, a nice bit of business with some revolving panels at one point, and the heroine jumps over a speeding car, but nothing much to bother staying awake for. There is one moment which will stay with me though. The moment where a car crashes into a wall at the end of an alley. The wall is, from the moment it appears on screen, obviously made from real bricks but just stacked one on top of another. No cement. It looks terrible. It must have taken hours and hours to pile all those bricks. The resulting stunt crash is totally unspectacular. There is a reason why cars crash into piles of cardboard boxes in American films. They fly all over the place. And fill the screen. Do it for real and it looks like nothing.
Overall. A very cheap looking, very static, sock choppy with some terrible dubbing. Very little Ninjing. Nothing apocalyptic.
Kids Aren't sophisticated.
Tooth (2004) - A tooth fairy, leaves a gazzillion dollars under a little girl's pillow instead of the usual quarter, thus bankrupting Fairytopia and putting Christmas in danger. As a cynical old fart (I'm over 50) I thought it was a real non-starter of a film with a rotten, erratic, nonsensical story line and not enough of anything (humour, adventure, pathos, romance, acting etc.) to make it at all interesting.
My kids, on the other hand, (aged six and eight) laughed like drains all the way through. I guess I wasn't the target audience. I love hearing my kids laugh - even that weird snorting noise that Daughter Number One does from time to time - so I enjoyed it despite myself.
Kids aren't sophisticated. My two weren't sitting there wondering why half the cast had American accents and the other half didn't, or why people were driving on the wrong side of very British roads (we drive on the left-hand side of our roads over here and have different kinds lines painted down the middle of them than they do in America), they were just taking things at face value, cheering the goodies, booing the baddies and enjoying the spectacle of adults making fools of themselves.
Silly fun for kids. I have sat through more expensive, star-studded, films that were a lot worse.
The Film-maker's Conspiracy
There's low budget movie-making, no budget movie-making, there's guerrilla movie-making, and, somewhere even lower than that, 'baboon' film-making*.
And then there's The Alien Conspiracy: Grey Skies.
After a straight to camera prologue setting the 'background' story about some long-waged war between alien species fought out in current day America, there follows a series of shots (to call it a 'montage' would debase the word) of Saturn rockets taking off that looks like it was shot by pointing a camera at a TV screen. After that three, totally unrelated, short movies punctuated by irrelevant literary quotes. All are so shoddily made and badly shot that sometimes the only things visible on screen are the smears on the camera lens.
There are a few minor amusing moments here, but nothing that any hour of amateur improv wouldn't supply and none are worth the pain of watching the rest of the show.
The only thing to be said in favour of this miserable excuse for a movie is that it makes the average Asylum product look like a masterpiece.
Out acted by the sets
Stranded is a not very good attempt at a serious nuts and bolts hard SF story - ie no monsters - in which the first mission to Mars goes horribly wrong. Unable to lift off again, and with limited resources to hand, the crew do the maths and realise only two of them stand a chance of surviving till any possible rescue mission could get to them. This is a standard scenario from a thousand magazine short stories over the years. A scenario pits human vulnerability and ingenuity against the cold impassivity of the laws of physics. I have never come across this story played out so flatly and dully as here.
After the opening sequence, when the ship crashes in a series of tiny scenes and brief single shots interspersed with great slugs of black - a editing technique that was supposed to induce tension and confusion but just made me wonder if my DVD payer was having trouble playing the disc - we are introduced to the members of the crew coming to terms with the reality of their new situation. After a few laughable bad attempts at working out how to survive - the most logical and sensible thing they do is dismantle the acceleration couches and take them outside because they won't need them any more - three of them decide to walk to their deaths (taking as much oxygen as they can with them!?) and leave the doctor and the engineer to wait for rescue.
After an eternity of watching three people walking around in space suits with an orange filter on the camera - on Mars everything is red - the survivors find the remnants of an ancient civilisation, a mysterious ancient oasis of air, water and lichen, "from which we will be able to extract protein". The end.
As stories go it's not the worst I've ever seen; it successfully avoids falling into any number of low budget SF traps and the hardware looks good but, dear god, the script is awful! At no point in this film did any of the characters look or sound like the top-notch technician scientists they were supposed to be. The first people to set foot on Mars? These people would have been the elite, the best and most capable astronauts the world have ever seen. What arrives on screen are barely sketched-in outlines of characters with no depth or consistency. Just to give one example: the doctor is supposed to be a Christian. She tells us that it is against her religion to commit suicide, she insists, against opposition from her fellow crew-members that the dead captain is buried in the "Christian manner" yet, when she gets her way and the poor stiff is dragged outside for the funeral, she doesn't say anything religious at his graveside at all, preferring instead to recite (from memory!) a long extract from Robert Falcon Scott's diary (written shortly before his death during his ill-fated expedition to Antarctica). This clumsily sets up the "'Tis a far far better thing," type noble sacrifice that is to follow but does little to create a believable character.
There are token nods towards making some hard science - during an angry exchange one character suggests they make power by building a windmill, the engineer says the wind is too thin - end of discussion. Where's the detail? I'm not saying they should have stopped the movie and had a lecture about the relative densities of the atmospheres of Earth and Mars but SF movie audiences are well used to sitting through screeds of nonsensical Techno-babble - 'Captain, if we bypass the tachyon emissions through the warp core shielding this may have the effect of reversing the cloaking device's polarity!' - why not have some real science for a change? Bad script. And some really odd direction too.
Better than Aurora: (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0128059) but makes Mission to Mars (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0183523/) look like a towering work of genius.
Azur et Asmar (2006)
It Was Fun
I found the first fifteen minutes or so of this movie painful to watch; flat clunky animation of not much happening set against clumsy 3D backgrounds. I have nothing against slow, thoughtful movies, or less-than-state-of-the-art animation. But this was lacking any kind of spark. There was no life in it. It was like watching someone else wandering around in Second Life doing nothing in particular. The character of the father was particularly awful (the flat, "I am delivering a line" voice-over in the English version didn't help - not that the actor could have really done anything with the lines he was given, they were real: "I am going to advance the plot now!" stuff.) He wasn't even a TWO dimensional character.
However, after this overly long set up, and once the action moves to the unnamed Arabian country, the movie picks up and becomes a lot more interesting, both visually and narratively and by the end, though I was not entirely blown away (the protracted 'dilemma' ending was far too long) I was happily satisfied. But then I'm not really the target audience. So, over to the target audience....
My daughter Holly (aged 7) says: "I thought this film was really good when Azur had two keys and threw them into the two cavern door when they needed it. It was a bit scary when he didn't have the key for the slashing irons but his brother did and he used it. It was fun. The wee girl as the princess was good. It was one of the most enjoyable movies I've ever watched!"
Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1971)
How the Transformation was Done
*** Contains Spoilers! ***
Dr Jekyll, searching for The Elixir of Life (or even An Elixir of Life, I don't suppose he's that fussy really) finds himself transmogrifying into a woman with a penchant for wearing red and slaughtering prostitutes.
Mixing the Jekyll and Hyde story with the Jack the Ripper story makes some kind of sense but adding Burke and Hare into the mix (60 years too late and in the wrong city) seems a bit odd. But then Hammer was never really one for historical accuracy - if you want to get really picky Jekyll's talk of creating a powerful anti-virus is pretty spectacular given that the first virus wasn't identified till 1898 ten years after the Whitechapel Murders (isn't Wikipedia wonderful? Suddenly I'm an expert on the Victorian era).
So, pretty routine late Hammer stuff, all swirling fog and dodgy cockney accents accents. There were some nice moments, the best of which was the first transformation. We've all seen the Jekyll>Hyde transformation before, the actor will clutch his throat as if he has just accidentally swallowed a bucket of phall, stagger under the weight of fifteen pints of Special Brew lager, fall out of shot behind convenient piece of furniture and emerge, after a suitably dramatic pause and a couple of hours spent in Make-up, covered in hair and with a lecherous gleam in the eye.
Here he staggers across the set and slumps into a chair in front of a full length mirror, he lowers his head into his hands (the agony!) and the hand-held camera tilts down on him till his head and shoulders fill the screen, music music music, and the camera tilts up again, Jekll's reflection is hunched over in the mirror, slowly he looks up, (we see what he sees as the camera is now in an over the shoulder shot) he drops his hands from his face and there is the female Hyde staring back at him. Pretty impressive. I had a real 'Wait! How did they do that?' moment. Jekyll, played by Ralph Bates, hadn't been out of shot for the entire transformation and there were no cuts or cross-fades that would have allowed a substitution. Rerunning it a couple of times the trick became so bloody obvious and elegantly simple. Real Jonathan Creek stuff.
In the few moments the mirror was out of shot and we were staring at the back of Jekyll's head and shoulders, the mirror was moved slightly, rotated a few degrees so that, when camera picked it up again, it wasn't showing the reflection of Jekyll sat in the chair as it had been before but the reflection of the actress playing Hyde, sat in an identical chair placed off to the cameraman's left. Clever stuff. So clever I guess this was the basis for the film's 'The sexual transformation of a man into a woman will actually take place before your very eyes!' tagline. I wish the rest of the film had been that inventive.
Sorry, folks, but it's a soporific bore.
Version watched: Gandahar - with English subtitles.
I have a suspicion that most of the people who regard this film with such high esteem first saw it when they were kids and watch it now in a glow of happy nostalgia. Coming to it for the first time as a middle-aged man this film is a clumsily animated, ponderously slow, soporific bore; the much lauded 'truly alien' landscapes and animals are disappointingly dull compared with the lurid and fertile illustrations that filled the pages of the SF magazines I grew up reading in the Sixties and Seventies, and the story is very clichéd and thin. Which is a pity, because I came to Gandahar with fond childhood memories of René Laloux's 1967 film La planète sauvage and was hoping for some real screen magic.
I always try to learn something from every film I watch, this time I think I learnt that maybe sometimes the memory of a film is more vital, interesting and real than the film itself. I very much doubt if this is a new idea but I'm not going to put it to the test. I haven't seen La planète sauvage for many many years and having seen this I doubt if I ever will again, just in case I destroy the fond memories I have of it.
I also learnt that if you read really really fast you can watch subtitled films on fast forward and not miss a sodding thing.
A Plot Hole - Literally
The things that I find irritating on screen, the things I nitpick about and annoy the people who try to watch movies with me are those moment where the writer, director, set-designer, on screen caterer, or whoever, doesn't think it through to the end and, by a single act of omission - or commission - undoes all the other work done by everyone else who has worked on the movie. That moment of "Wait a bloody minute.... What just happened?" that stops the narrative dead in its tracks. (Not that this film's narrative needed a lot of stopping, because anyone who has ever seen it will know that Quintet's narrative drive has pretty well frozen solid before the end of the opening shot.) There are several of those moments in this movie. And you get so long to think about them too. The film is two hours long and the scripted dialogue probably ran to five pages. There's a lot of time to ponder its deficiencies.
The movie is set in a frozen Earth. Another ice age has set in and the whole world is dying. It's cold. Very cold. It's actually very cold on the screen. The movie was shot in Canada in winter and there are icicles and real snow and people's breath misting from their mouths in every scene. Time and again we are reminded how fecking cold it is. People wear big hats and layers and layers of clothes and waddle around like over-dressed Weeble people. Must have been a horrible shoot. My nitpick comes in a sequence when our hero checks into a room of a hotel. Woken up in the middle of the night by voices coming from the room next door, he overhears a conversation of vital importance to the meagre plot through an large grill in the wall dividing the two rooms. I'm not questioning why there is a convenient grill in the wall between the two rooms. What got me annoyed was the fact that the grill had not been blocked up by the long term tenant with the noisy visitor. If you are trying to keep warm the last thing you need is a huge gaping draughty hole in your wall that leads into an unoccupied unheated room. Trust me. I live like this, I watched this film sat on my living-room sofa under a duvet with a hot water bottle. My breath was misting as much as the actors'. If that whacking great hole was in my wall I'd block it up with something. Maybe not the best choice of movie to watch in an unheated room in midwinter but boy did it make me notice the lousy insulation in the film.
Creature of Destruction (1967)
More Larry Buchanan fever dream stuff, this time concerning a stage psychic, his beautiful assistant and a series of motiveless murders committed by a man in a rubber monster suit who, in the end, turns out to be some sort of manifestation of the beautiful assistant's inner bestial nature - I think. Anyway the monster just vanishes when she is shot dead so I guess that is what we are supposed to think. But after 80 minutes contending with dialogue like this it's a bit difficult to think anything:
Capt. Dell: "Lieutenant Blake..."
Lt. Blake: "Yes?"
Capt. Dell: "Lieutenant, I'd like to point something out to you. Now - I saw those bodies and whoever mutilated them has a very special problem."
Lt. Blake: "Yes, I realise that; tell me something new, captain."
Capt. Dell: "I am a psychologist."
Lt. Blake: "Well, as a psychologist what is your opinion of this 'doctor' Basso and his monster theory?"
Lt. Capt. Dell: "That anything is possible? As a scientist I keep an open mind."
Blake: "Yes Captain, anything is possible... "
I've worked out the Larry Buchanan shooting technique. (If I work this up, I could end up with a Dogma 95-like manifesto for crappy movie makers the world over):
* Shoot it once, without sound and loop in the dialogue in the 'studio' afterwards. Shooting without sound is cheap. If the actor fluffs his line - so what? As long as everyone else keeps going, whole scenes can be covered in two or three takes. One wide shot and then a close-up of the more reliable actor in the scene - and "Thank you! on to the next set-up, guys! Come on, let's pick up the pace here - we've only got four days to shoot this turkey!".
* Don't record any Wild Track or Atmos - techy terms for ambient room tone - ie the sound that a room makes when there's nobody making any noise in it. I know that sounds a bit Zen but different kinds of silence are very useful in the editing process. But you don't need it. Not if the whole sound track will be laid down by actors standing around a microphone and library music will be played under every scene. Spot sound effects will be needed from time to time but there's no need to try and match the acoustic of your sound effect to the supposed acoustic of the location. In Creature of Destruction seventeen people applauding on a beach sounds exactly the same as a hundred people applauding in a busy night club.
* Fade out or cross-fade at the end of every scene - with all the money you saved not doing synch sound you've got a few dollars in the budget for opticals. (Always a good general rule of thumb in film editing: Not sure how to get out of a scene? Fade to black.)
* Don't squander a penny more than you have to on hiring anything for longer than you have to - I did spend a chunk of this movie wondering why the lead sometimes wore an Air Force uniform, and sometimes didn't, until I realised he only wore it indoors. By the time they got round to shooting all the outdoor, daytime, stuff it had been sent back to the hire company.
* Another good no-budget trick of the day was to get some poor wannabe pop singer and his band to contribute one of his 'swinging numbers' and fill the screen with gyrating tits and hips for five minutes as middle-aged teenagers Watusi their way to utter obscurity...
Creature of Destruction is available to download free from Archive.org
The Time Machine (2002)
Read the Book.
I first read the book The Time machine when I was about ten or eleven. It has a special place in my heart as one of the first 'grown up' Science Fiction books I ever read. I understand things have to change when novels are adapted. Concepts and ideas that look good on the page don't work on the screen and vice versa. I was resigned to their being being changes made to the original. I didn't mind too much that they had moved the location from London to New York, I didn't mind too much that our hero was given a love interest (who dies early on in the film thus giving him the Hollywood motivation to invent the Time Machine to go back and rescue her). I didn't mind too much that the innocent, aimless, childlike and docile Eloi are here depicted as an aware and innovative bunch of bronzed, muscled, tattooed hunter-gatherers (though the fact that some of them spoke flawless American English after 80,000 years did make me snort peanuts), I don't even mind that the Morlocks suddenly had a complex, hivelike social structure (grafted on from Wells' 'The First Men in the Moon') but what I do mind. What I really do mind is the total Hollywood bullshit ending which has the hero jamming a watch into the rapidly spinning components of his time machine, jumping off, out-running a whole bunch of specially bred killer orcs - sorry, 'Morlocks' - and then being pulled to safety (just in time!) to avoid the unnamed, unexplained, and unexpected deux ex machina temporal explosion, light show, special effects bonanza he just created - which wipes out all signs of badness without touching any of the good guys.
"Dunno how to end the movie, guys! So why don't we just throw a shedload of SFX at the screen and get out while everyone is still going 'Oooooh! shiny!'?" "Sounds good to me, it usually works." The author went on to write 'Star Trek 10' and no-one was surprised.
The Stranger (1973)
Earth's Evil Twin
Stranded in Space (1972) MST3K version - a very not good TV movie pilot, for a never to be made series, in which an astronaut finds himself trapped on Earth's evil twin. Having a planet of identical size and mass orbiting in the same plane as the earth, but on the opposite side of the sun, is a well worn SF chestnut - the idea is over 2,000 years old, having been invented by the Ancient Greeks. In this version the Counter World is run as an Orwellian 'perfect' society. Where, for totally inexplicable reasons, everyone speaks English and drives late model American cars. After escaping from his prisonlike hospital, the disruptive Earthian is chased around Not Southern California by TV and bad movie stalwart Cameron Mitchell who, like his minions, wears double breasted suits and black polo neck jumpers - a stylishly evil combination which I fully intend to adopt if ever I become a totalitarian overlord. Our hero escapes several times before ending up gazing at the alien world's three moons and wondering aloud if he will ever get home - thus setting up one of those Man Alone in a Hostile World Making a new Friend Each Week but Moving on at the End of Every Episode shows so beloved of the industry in the 70s and 80s ('The Fugitive', 'The Incredible Hulk', 'The Littlest Hobo' etc.) The curiously weirdest bit though was the title sequence. Somewhere between 'Stranded in Space' first airing (under the title 'The Stranger') in 1972 and the MST3K version in 1991 it somehow acquired some footage from the 1983 movie 'Prisoners of the Lost Universe'. So in 1991 the opening credits for 'Stranded in Space' run under a few shots of three people falling into a matter transmitter and vanishing. It's a sequence that has nothing to do - even thematically - with anything that is going to follow.
Just to add to the nerdy B movie confusion, one of the actors in this nailed on footage, Kay Lenz, later appeared in a 1994 movie called 'Trapped in Space'. Knowing this fact could never save your life but it might score you very big points and admiring looks from fellow trash movie enthusiasts - if you could ever work out a way of manoeuvring the conversation round to the point where you could casually slip it in without looking like a total idiot...
The Other Glass Teat
At the time this episode was written the author, Harlan Ellison, was also writing a newspaper TV reviews column in the The Los Angeles Free Press under the title 'The Glass Teat'.
Some of the history of the show, and the first draft of the script for this particular episode, are contained in Ellison's book 'The Other Glass Teat' and fascinating reading it is too.
The title, 'The Whimper of Whipped Dogs', was not used on screen and Ellison liked it so much that he used it again in 1974 for a crime short story which won an Edgar. There is no connection - other than the title - between the two stories.
The ISBN for the 1983 Ace edition of 'The Other Glass Teat' is 0441642748