Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Cabin Crew

Cabin Fever: Horror film of the Sam Raimi school, i.e., "put a bunch of really unlikeable people in a cabin in the woods and pick them off gleefully one by one". In this case, a bunch of nasty university students on spring break are besieged by a flesh-eating virus, seemingly crazed rednecks, and an even more crazed Alsatian. Has a really quite charming twist at the end.

Movie count for 2014: 19

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

In the Days Before Television

Rocket Ship XM: Oddly-paced B-movie about a mission to the moon which goes wrong and hits Mars instead. Suffers from a distinct lack of both characterisation and tension; even when the crew are being chased by Martian mutants or trying to make it back to Earth on too little fuel, it's hard to care. It also can't seem to make up its mind if it's a B-picture or not; it has cliched characterisation, space adventure and Martian mutants, but it also has no antagonists (bar the abovementioned mutants), and a rather surprising ending, giving the whole thing the feel of one of the nerdier episodes of The Outer Limits. The sets are pretty nice, though.

The Star Packer: Unfortunately-named early John Wayne film, with no incidental music and minimal editing. Features Wayne as a sheriff out to save a girl from evil outlaws with the aid of his ethnic stereotype of an Indian sidekick. There's a couple of nice stunts during the climactic wagon-chase and shootout, but one can't help but suspect that it's where the budget went. It can be entertaining to think of a better film for the name (a Brando-esque drama about an excellent factory worker, pitted against a corrupt union? A sports picture about the meteoric rise and fall of Green Bay's best quarterback?) but it's still not worth it.

Movie count for 2013: 18 (SF London Film Festival coming up in a couple of weeks, hooray!)

Sunday, April 06, 2014

What's Wrong With "The Musketeers" (BBC1 Version)

1. The characterisation. Seriously, one of the reasons The Three Musketeers has been so frequently adapted is because of the simple, easy-to-understand characterisation of the main characters: there's the Romantic One, the Angry One, and the One of Prodigious Appetites, plus the Naive and Innocent One. The fact that the series itself regularly became confused over which one was Romantic, Be-Appetited or Angry, with all three Musketeers being all three at all times, is a real problem.

2. Race. I was really happy when I saw that Porthos was played by a black actor-- it's a nice nod to the fact that Alexandre Dumas was himself black, as well as acknowledging that not everyone in pre-industrial Europe was white. However, because the series was filmed in Croatia, all of the extras were white-- and so was 99% of the guest cast, meaning that for 9 out of 10 episodes, Porthos appears to be the only black person in France, and no one appears to notice. And the 10th? That's the horribly patronising one about the slave trade. Which brings me on to...

3) Historical accuracy (lack of). Yes, I know it's a drama, and that dramas take liberties with historical facts. But this one's connection to history is so tenuous it might as well be set in Ruritania as in France. The abovementioned slave-trade episode is particularly egregious (17th-century France has no major colonies? That's news to any Canadian raised on stories of the coureurs de bois and the Jesuit missions), but it's far from the only offender.

4) Familiarity. 17th-century France is a pretty strange place by modern standards, a society with very different ideas about legitimate governance, the value of life, the place of religion, marital fidelity, and science. This is a popular drama so I'm not expecting Hawksmoor, but it can't be impossible to nonetheless give an idea of the foreignness of the past-- hell, even the likes of Poldark managed it better. Just to give an example: at one point a character exclaims, "I'm a citizen of France! I have rights!" to which someone ought to have responded "No, on both counts, for at least another 150 years."

5) Repetition. Someone is accused of a crime they didn't commit. But it's actually all a ruse to entrap someone else. Lather, rinse, repeat. The series is only 10 episodes long, for heaven's sake!

Good points: Peter Capaldi, of course; the characterisation of Louis XIII was a lot subtler than I was expecting, and yes, they did find some pretty palaces to film in (even if those shots of the painted ceilings did get old rather fast). For the first few episodes it was fun to do a counterfactual reading of the series in which the Cardinal is actually the hero and the Musketeers the villains, though that did get boring eventually.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

What's Been On My Skybox Lately

Robocop 3: You know the series has completely hit bottom when a character calls Lewis a "dumb broad", and then it takes a pickaxe and continues digging. Torchwood-like resistance, annoying child hacker, xenophobia, sexism, this film has it all. The Japanese robot is sort of cool, though.

The Invention of Lying: Satire about a world in which no one can lie, except Ricky Gervais. Starts to get really good around about the point where it flat out says religion is a lie, but then realises where it's going and cranks the plot around to turn it into a fairly conventional romcom (complete with the usual annoying woman-as-prize trope)

American Werewolf in London: Groundbreaking, and uncompromising, horror-comedy, and quite probably the only film about Americans in the UK which manages to patronise neither Americans nor Brits. Watch for an uncredited appearance by Rik Mayall.

Little Voice: A story about how sometimes it takes a world-shattering tragedy to break free of your constraints and start really living your life.

From Here to Eternity: Drama about an infantry base in Hawaii on the eve of WWII; brilliantly characterised, even if I did wind up hating one of the nominal protagonists (he was well-drawn and believable, but a completely selfish jerk). It only has one real problem, namely, that it's implied that once the incompetent chief officer is removed from the base, it will stop being a hotbed of bullying and corruption and instead run smoothly; other military dramas have taken that ball and run with it down a rather more pessimistic direction.

Movie Count for 2014: 16

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Oscar Night Roundup

Behind the Candelabra: Liberace biopic, about his relationship with his much-younger lover Scott Thorson. If it took place now, it would just be a simple story of celebrity marriage and divorce, but the homophobic backdrop of the 1970s adds drama. Plus you can play Spot Scott Bacula with the supporting cast.

Gravity: Technically impressive adventure story about an astronaut isolated in space after a Russian missile hits an obsolete satellite and sends debris rocketing through orbit; verges on the cliched in places (woman emotionally destroyed by the loss of a child finds The Strength To Carry On, sigh), but it really is genuinely tense and by turns claustrophobic and agoraphobic.

Nebraska: Dementia-suffering pensioner becomes convinced he's won a million dollars, and insists on taking a road trip to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect, visiting his old hometown on the way. A brilliantly credible performance from Bruce Dern, and scarily accurate portrayals of the sort of micropolitics that emerge in small communities.

American Hustle: Clever heist drama, working as both an homage to the mafia/crime films of the 1970s and as an intelligent, complicated story in its own right. A good film to play Spot the Boardwalk Empire Alumnus, and/or Spot Anthony Zerbe, plus Robert de Niro's only good role this decade.

Movie count for 2014: 11

Robocopped

Robocop: Biting, classic satire on privatisation and corporate control, which seriously didn't need a remake, as it's pretty much all still true today. Although it's not often mentioned in reviews of this film, I'd like to flag up Lewis as another of those believably-strong heroines of 1980s fantastic film, and praise it for showing a man and woman having a professional relationship characterised by mutual respect, without degenerating into cliched romance or annoying patronisation.

Robocop 2: Starts promisingly, with the police out on strike and Roboscab, being corporate property, nonetheless carrying on with the crime-fighting. However, the film rapidly forgets about this and degenerates into a bit of a mess; it's not without good ideas and entertaining satire (particularly when it's revealed that the evil corporation is deliberately running the city of Detroit into the ground to buy it out and operate it privately), but the villains are annoyingly cartoony, and there's a bit of a naive-libertarian plotline going (Robocop is given a bunch of ludicrous politically-correct directives which slow him down, but which he remedies by erasing all directives from his databank, but nonetheless carries on doing the right thing because, as we all know, rules and laws just get in the way of The Good Guys). At least Lewis is still in it.

Movie count for 2014: 7

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Lovebirds

Bill and Coo: Utterly bizarre; a small-town drama performed entirely by trained birds, and the result is sort of like Tales of the Riverbank crossed with Jour de Fete. Some strange period details as well, such as the "townsfolk" all crowding into a birdie air-raid shelter to escape the baddie, and some predictably godawful puns (a theatrical revue featuring "chorus gulls" is one of the least groanworthy examples). Apparently it won an Oscar, probably in the category of "we have no idea why, but this thing deserves some sort of award". Available in full on Youtube:




Movie count for 2014: 5

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Rain and Snow

Elysium: Allegorical tale set in a future where The 99% live in slums on Earth, and The 1% in a sort of astral gated community on a space station overhead. The whole thing is nicely realised, but some of the performances are surprisingly bad (Jodie Foster plays the film's I-can't-believe-she's-not-Servalan character as if she's reading form an autocue), and likewise some of the characterisation (e.g. the badass South African mercenary who carries on fighting on behalf of Elysium even after they've screwed him over and he really should, if consistently characterised, go over to the rebels' side; the main reason he doesn't seems only to be to provide the film with a dramatic climax). Not bad, but I'd expected more from the writer/producer of District 9.

The Abominable Snowman: Beautifully crisp and austere 1950s horror, which rings a nice twist on the well-worn idea that the Yeti are some kind of evolutionary blind alley, while condemning romanticised attitudes to Tibet and unscrupulous exploitation of science. Script by Nigel Kneale, and I want a pair of those cool dieselpunk snow goggles that Peter Cushing wears.

The Masque of the Red Death: Roger Corman is the sort of guy who can produce Sharktopus one minute and something this beautiful the next. A lovely, postmodern and pop-art take on Gothic horror, with a theological debate woven into the subtext; it loses a couple of Cool Points for some Coarse Swordfighting, but gains them for having Nic Roeg as a cinematographer.

Animal Farm: CIA-funded (no, really) 1950s take on the Orwell novel. Mostly a pretty good rendition with an appropriately Soviet animation style, and the fact that it cut out some of the novel's subplots wasn't a problem, as it made the film more streamlined. However, the ending is where it really goes into Cold War propaganda overdrive; where Orwell ended on the downbeat note of having the animals looking from the pigs to the humans, and not being able to tell which was which, the film has the animals, led by Benjamin the donkey, staging a second revolution and driving out the pigs. OK, but what then? A donkey-led dictatorship? A nominal animal democracy under the secret control of the human farmers? Answers, please, CIA.

Movie count for 2014: 4