Monday 28 December 2015

Monday Night Roundup #9

December ended up being quieter than I'd hoped at Apocalypse Later, but I did post a new review there over the last week, for Moonrunners, shot in 1973, released in 1975 and the direct precursor to the TV show The Dukes of Hazzard, which didn't appear until 1979. The connections are fascinating.

Here are brief reviews of some other features I watched this last week that won't end up reviewed on that site any time soon:

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)

Director: W D Richter
Stars: Peter Weller, John Lithgow and Ellen Barkin
For some reason, this wildly titled picture escaped me back in the eighties when I’d probably have loved it most and then remained unseen for years even after I picked it up on DVD. Why, I have no idea, but I am happy that I finally caught up with it. However, now that I’ve finally seen it, I only know that I’ll need to watch it again to figure out a lot of what isn’t clear from a first viewing.

You might assume that I’m talking about the plot, which has been described as tortuously complex even by some of the actors playing parts in it, but I didn’t have much of a problem there, at least by the halfway mark when a variety of disparate elements started to tie together and make some sort of sense. I’m thinking more about why debuting director W D Richter felt drawn to make this film because it’s so ruthlessly uncommercial that it almost guaranteed that he wouldn’t get to make another one. He did, with Late for Dinner, seven years later, but he’s much better known today as a writer, with credits as diverse as Slither, Brubaker and Big Trouble in Little China to his name.

Buckaroo Banzai feels like an adaptation of Doc Savage for the new wave era of the eighties when style was supposed to trump substance, re-written as a science fiction comic book and then adapted back to the screen by people doing too many drugs. If that sounds like your cup of tea, you’ll discover that this works as a cult film far more than its many mainstream genre competitors for screen space in 1984; it went up against Ghostbusters, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, all of which seem utterly conventional in comparison.

Put simply, a pair of scientists back in the thirties, Drs Hikita and Lizardo, test a gadget called an oscillation overthruster, which temporarily shoves the latter into the eighth dimension, where his body is taken over by an alien nutjob called Lord John Whorfin. He brings his alien buddies, the Red Lectroids, to Earth after losing a battle with the much more sane Black Lectroids. His arrival was reported by Orson Welles in his famous broadcast of The War of the Worlds but was forced to retract it as fiction. Decades later, the polymath, Buckaroo Banzai, working with Hikita, tests a jet powered car with a new oscillation overthruster and comes to the attention of the Black Lectroids, orbiting our planet, who gift him with the power to see through the camouflage of the Red Lectroids, who have been building a spacecraft that will take them home to take over. Hearing of Banzai’s success, Whorfin escapes from the Trenton Home for the Criminally Insane to steal from him the one piece of machinery they still need, a working oscillation overthruster, and the fight is on.

Did that sound simple? Well, there are other things going on too, but it’s hard to tell during the picture which of them are actually important and which are merely distractions for the sake of coolness. Is it important, for instance, that Banzai has just discovered the long lost twin sister of his late wife? Should we even bother trying to answer that question while we figure out what else is going on? Perhaps only the Shadow knows.

Having recently watched Doc Savage: Man of Bronze in both its original version and a de-camped edit, the influence of Savage is obvious from moment one. He was a multi-talented precursor to superheroes, having been trained from birth to excel in everything; best known as a surgeon, he’s also a chemist, a composer, an inventor, you name it and he can do it better than anyone else. By comparison, Buckaroo Banzai is, well, pretty much the same; he’s a neurosurgeon, martial arts expert, particle physicist and rock star, just to name a few. He begins the film operating on a man’s brain, then switches to his jet car so he can break the sound barrier on land.

It doesn’t remotely look like Bloodhound SSC, which actually aims to do the first half of that for real, as that’s 42 feet long, weighs 14 tons and is powered not only by a jet engine but also a rocket. Banzai’s converted Ford F-350 pickup truck really doesn’t cut the mustard but we’re asked to swallow a lot here, far beyond his driving through a mountain and bringing back a creature from the 8th dimension.

For a start, we’re asked to swallow John Lithgow’s performance as Dr Emilio Lizardo, as possessed by the evil Red Lectroid leader, Lord John Whorfin. He’s utterly wild in this film, somewhat like a cross between Dr Emmett Brown from Back to the Future and Bobcat Goldthwait. He’s the maddest of mad scientists with awful teeth and he gradually gains Adolf Hitler vibes until we can’t ignore the similarities. It’s a performance that simply has to be seen to be believed.

We’re also asked to swallow the fact that Buckaroo Banzai stops his band, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, mid-song because he can hear a young lady crying at a table at the back of the audience. That’s Penny Priddy, his late wife’s twin, hence why he keeps calling her Peggy. Here’s also where his most famous line comes in. ‘No matter where you go,’ he points out, ‘there you are.’ What Penny really has to do with anything, I’m never quite sure, but she’s played by a young Ellen Barkin, so I don’t care too much. She’s the best sort of eye candy.

There’s eye candy everywhere here and ear candy too. This feels like a nerd’s dream, because nothing is what we expect it to be and everything is cool in ways that it rarely gets to be. Today, with Comicons on every street corner, it’s pretty clear that the nerds took over the planet but that wasn’t the case back in 1984. Back then, nerds were more like Eddie Deezen characters, apparently there only to get picked on for their social ineptitude. Films like WarGames pointed towards the future, but Buckaroo Banzai pointed instead towards the future of nerd fandom.

The cast is a dream and they’re mostly pre-fame. There’s Peter Weller before RoboCop, Ellen Barkin before The Big Easy, Christopher Lloyd before Back to the Future and Clancy Brown before Highlander. There’s Jeff Goldblum before Into the Night, The Fly and Earth Girls are Easy. Only John Lithgow was really already established, because this came afer Twilight Zone: The Movie. Yet none of them are put to the usual sort of use, this being an anomaly in all their careers, however many sci-fi pictures they may have made since.

Why? Because Richter and his writer, Earl Mac Rauch, made a whole slew of decisions that went utterly against the commercial norms of the time. The US President spends the entire film in hospital, encased within some sort of huge medical device. The good aliens aren’t just Black Metroids, they’re very black, like Caribbean rastafarian black, while the bad aliens are all Caucasians played by recognisable names like Lithgow, Lloyd and Vincent Schiavelli. While the Hong Kong Cavaliers, not merely Banzai’s band but also his multi-talented assistants in the tradition of Doc Savage’s Fabulous Five, are all white men, many other characters who fight for good are not: such as the white woman who’s the only sane voice in the White House, the Chinese scientist who sparks the plot and the black kid who supports Banzai through the Blue Blaze Irregulars, surely a take on the Baker Street Irregulars of Sherlock Holmes. All the aliens are called John, even presumably female ones played by actors like Rosalind Cash, but often have wildly odd surnames like John Small Berries and John Bigbooté. Presumably this was a mix of Ford Prefect from The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with the Bruces from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

These decisions would seem like good ones today because they’d set up all sorts of opportunities for merchandising and diversity appeal, but in 1984 they seem completely insane. What else seems insane is the way the film is cut, which is highly cryptic. A coherent editing job would have made the plot much more understandable, though the test version screened ahead of general release was much longer and may have made more sense. Jamie Lee Curtis’s role as Banzai’s mother was cut entirely, for instance. Perhaps what feels strangest is that, for all the wild and weird action, this is still a slow movie that contains a lot of emptiness, not least in the underplayed delivery of most of the dialogue that doesn’t come from John Lithgow. Weller especially mumbles his way through the entire film, as if Banzai is simply too busy to enunciate.

I have to say that I was befuddled by the wild approach taken by Richter. I enjoyed the film’s riotous nature, more Marx Brothers than Mel Brooks, and I enjoyed the way that it’s as much a comedy, a ripping yarn and a romance as it is a sci-fi movie. I feel like I should like it but was too rooked between the eyes to really figure out why. However, I’ll certainly return to it again, because it feels like a real cult gem, a journey as much as a destination and something that would grow with multiple viewings.

Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971)

Director: Mel Stuart
Stars: Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson and Peter Ostrum
Like pretty much anyone growing up in England when I did, I read a lot of Roald Dahl and, of course, that included Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, published in 1964. It became a feature film in 1971, which I didn’t catch until later because I was too busy being born. I don’t remember being that impressed when I did see it, but I don’t remember why. Maybe it’s because it’s a musical. I’ve never been a fan of musicals in general, because I tend to see the songs as annoying interruptions.

Watching afresh for the first time in over three decades, that’s certainly part of it. The opening musical number is a great example of how the internal consistency of stories tends to get horribly mangled in a musical because it’s trumped by the requirements of choreography. It doesn’t help that this particular one just plays wrong to today’s sensibilities; Aubrey Woods does a good job as the Candy Man, but this scene feels like he’s a paedophile drug dealer pushing sugar to kids. The second song makes no sense and the third is one of those annoying interruptions. Even when the song is a whole bundle of fun, like the Oompa Loompa song, it’s a distraction, especially when the picture is crushed into a quarter of the screen to make room for the animated lyrics. Mostly, it’s the one song here that actually accompanies the story, thus it’s the one that I’m all for. Mostly.

Fortunately, I liked most of the rest. The story is much closer to Dahl’s original than Tim Burton’s recent reimagining. I’d expect most of us have experienced the story in some form by now, but it has to do with Willy Wonka, a famed chocolatier whose factory has been closed for years but which will open again for the lucky recipients of the five golden tickets which he has secreted inside five Wonka bars. Four of the five end up with obnoxious kids and the fifth with Charlie Bucket, a poor but humble soul who puts others before himself. Oh yes, this is a morality play, if a notably twisted one.

I liked the general approach, much more down to earth and much less stylised than Burton’s version. Clearly the budget is much lower, but for the first half of the picture, before the gates of Willy Wonka’s factory open, that actually works to the film’s advantage. Everything feels real instead of plastic.

The best moments, though, are ones that I’d completely forgotten. An uncredited Tim Brooke-Taylor is a computer operator trying to persuade a Siemens System 4004 into revealing the location of the tickets, though it doesn’t want to play ball. Even better is the kidnapping. A woman’s husband is whisked away and the ransom is their case of Wonka bars. ‘How long will they give me to think it over?’ she asks. The teacher at Charlie’s school who does chemistry experiments with ‘horrible dangerous stuff’ is great fun too. There’s even a cool scary moment with a tinker outside the Wonka factory gates, spouting poetry from behind his cart of knives.

Another plus is the casting of the five kids with the five golden tickets, because all of them are spot on. Julie Dawn Cole gets the most opportunity as Veruca Salt, the spoiled daughter of a despotic northern English factory owner, played by the fabulous Roy Kinnear. Both are obnoxious in exactly the right ways. Peter Ostrum is Charlie, the star of the book but relegated here to supporting Wonka. He does a pretty good job at being good even in trying circumstances, but he’s more whiny than Freddie Highmore was in Burton’s film. Chubby Augustus Gloop from Düsselheim is actually played by a German, Michael Bollner, though his introduction is photobombed by a TV reporter who appears to be wearing antlers because of where he’s standing. Denise Nickerson is the gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde, daughter of a Montana used car salesman. Finally, Paris Themmen is Mike Teavee, a well named Arizona television addict.

Dahl created all of them to teach lessons to obnoxious children, so they’re deliberately one trick ponies, but I’m remembering that they had more substance in the book than they did in either film. Really, it’s only Charlie and Veruca who get much opportunity to do anything in this one.

And, of course, there’s Gene Wilder, who dominates the picture even though he doesn’t even show up until almost the halfway mark, 44 minutes in, when he limps his way quietly out of the Wonka factory towards the waiting masses, only to fall over into a neat forward roll. Starting out by pretending to be a cripple is hardly politically correct, but he only gets worse in that vein, turning nothing lines into magic, especially when resignedly warning his guests not to do whatever it is that they’re about to do, knowing full well that they’ll do it and the results will be horrible. He’s delightfully dark, even though he doesn’t remotely resemble the androgynous Willy Wonka that Johnny Depp conjured up for Tim Burton.

What else happens halfway through is that we journey into Wonka’s factory, where the lack of budget shows itself to be a real problem. The Chocolate Room is the first moment where I really wished for the set decorators of Burton’s film and the budget to pay for their creations. It’s a small, cheap and notably underwhelming set, but Gene Wilder enhances it by his presence, making a production out of simplistic acts like walking down a staircase. If only the sets were up to his standard, but they’re obvious ones like we might have expected to see on a seventies variety show rather than a riot of imagination.

So I liked a lot here but I was underwhelmed by the end result. If Burton’s film suffered from being too rehearsed and clinical, this suffered from being too loose and too bareboned. The story is timeless and Gene Wilder provided an iconic performance that joins it, but much of the rest suffers from the lack of budget to push it beyond some very basic limitations. It’s hard to buy into Wonka’s magical chocolate factory when it’s a bunch of cheap sets dressed up for a children’s party. It deserved better.

This was film #82 in my runthrough of the 100 Greatest Cult Films. You can find the full list here.

6 Ways to Sundown (2015)

Director: Nadeem Soumah
Stars: Vinnie Jones, Vivica A Fox, Dominique Swain, Bai Ling, Tom Sizemore and Michael Walton
I have no clue why Tom Sizemore’s opening monologue is edited the way it is, annoyingly chopped up into slices for no apparent reason, but he’s as magnetic as ever when our attention is on him. He’s Mike Jones, he’s getting drunk and he’s about to get assassinated by a contract killer, Frank Casper.

He dies before the opening credits, so apparently we’re here to watch Frank not Mike. Frank is a mild mannered and well spoken man played by Chris Jai Alex and, after the credits, we follow him into Vinnie Jones’s car where he’s hired to assassinate Sonny ‘Sundown’ Garcia, the biggest cocaine dealer in the United States. After the sequence in which that happens, the first of the six segments into which this picture is broken down, he’s gone too.

Jones is one of the two men who continue throughout the movie. He’s not named until late on and even then it’s just as the suitably anonymous John Doe. He’s the driving force behind this story, but he does it at a distance, through other people. His time and finances appear to be unlimited and he’s serious about how the work needs to be done. What he wants is to exercise his revenge on Garcia, the other key focus of the picture, by taking him down piece by piece: his freedom, his money, his reputation, his loyalty, his love and, eventually, his life. We watch all this happen in reverse order because, of course, there’s a twist to explain why we’re working through such an apparently simple story with such apparent complexity.

I learned a number of things during the first quarter of an hour and they were only underlined as things ran on. Quality actors don’t need quality material to do quality work. Vinnie Jones should never read narration. And Nadeem Soumah is a much better cinematographer than he is a writer or director. There are a whole host of visuals here that look absolutely stunning: they’re well composed and well shot. However, they also serve their own purpose rather than that of the story.

Jones is fine when not narrating, though he spends the entire movie sat in a car in a warehouse, so it’s hardly a stretch for him. Each segment of the picture involves him finding someone, testing them and hiring them to be part of his master plan. Some get more to do than others, but they each have a task. What was surprising, given Soumah’s background in cinematography and obvious flair for gimmickry, was that he didn’t handle each segment in a stylistically different way, instead leaving that task to the actors he hired to play characters for Jones to hire.

Chris Jai Alex kicks things off well, playing a neatly calm counter to Sizemore’s brash target. Jose Rosete is even better as Marcus, a petty street thug hired to kidnap Garcia’s wife. It’s always great to catch new work from this Arizona talent whom Hollywood is keeping busy and it’s especially great to see him in a role he can get his teeth into. The last time I saw him was in a tiny role in the Danny Trejo movie, Bullet, which was almost as bad as the last movie in which I saw Dominique Swain, Nazis at the Center of the Earth. She plays Garcia’s wife, Steph, with a suitably foul mouth. Melissa Mars gets perhaps the most to do of the segment leads, as a continental thief; it’s good to see her again after The Cabining. Jeff Galfer has perhaps the least to do as a private investigator who tracks Steph, which gives Bai Ling prominence as the surprisingly underplayed con artist who follows. Finally there’s Vivica A Fox, who plays her corrupt cop with a slow, knowing presence.

To draw us into why this is happening and why we should care, there’s also a flashback sequence that’s carefully broken up into sections as well so as not to reveal too much until the time is right. It aims to explain why John Doe is so keen on destroying the life of Sonny ‘Sundown’ Garcia but, while it does that from a story perspective well enough, it has some other problems that are hard to get past. For a start, while Nicholas Small and Marco Silvestri are capable enough as younger versions of Vinnie Jones, they don’t look anything like him, making us wonder why they were cast or, perhaps more to the point, why Jones was cast as the older version of them, given that his character was apparently born in the US and grew up on the streets of Mexico before spending two decades in jail. Why precisely none of the many supposedly bright people he hires question his iconic English accent, given this related back story, is surely a major plothole.

I have to admire Nadeem Soumah’s ambition here. His concept is good, though it’s an overly complex one that relies on us being manipulated throughout. His cast are very good, though nobody really gets much opportunity to shine because they’re each only in the film for a short time; the only exception being Michael Walton, who appears throughout as Garcia and does well with a role that clearly doesn’t flow. Visually, Soumah is clearly capable, though I’d question his decision-making ability as a director because, on the basis of this film, he would probably be better served by filling only one of those two roles at a time. I get the feeling that he’d have done a more consistent job shooting the picture if he wasn’t also directing it and vice versa.

In the end, I’d call this an interesting experiment that has a few successes but more failures. The odd ending elevates it a little but also highlights how much that was needed.

Tuesday 22 December 2015

December Reviews at the Nameless Zine

I write book reviews for The Nameless Zine, an online zine run by the Western Science Fiction Association (WesternSFA), a non-profit fandom group based here in Arizona.

As the Nameless Zine follows a graphical indexing system, I also maintain my own text index of what I've written at my own website. You can find it here at the Reviews at the Nameless Zine page.

Reviews at the Nameless Zine post monthly on the 15th of each month and December's batch are now online. I reviewed five books this month:

The Devious Dr Jekyll

I adored The Diabolical Miss Hyde, which is surely my favourite novel of the year. This first sequel isn't quite up to the same standards but that's mostly because it's a sequel. It's still a glorious romp through an alternate Victorian London in the wild company of Dr Eliza Jekyll and her wicked half, Miss Lizzie Hyde.

Dr Jekyll's new case is a series of grisly murders committed by the Pentacle Killer, which trawls in some more gothic Victorian literature into its scope. However, there's so much more going on than just a mystery that it's often not the key focus. Viola Carr created a monster with this series and it really wants to run loose. Not every character gets the time they want to play and some of their stories will have to wait until book three.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine, which I'm happy to say is the featured review for December. I also reviewed the first book at the Nameless Zine: The Diabolical Miss Hyde.

The Machine Awakes

In the future, mankind expands across the galaxy until it meets the Spiders, a race of AI driven world-devastating machines. The ensuing war isn't the focus of this novel but is the background to it. During the war, mankind is led by the Fleet, in turn led by the Fleet Admiral. Our story ties to the assassination of not one but two Fleet Admirals in as many days.

I'm not quite sure what The Machine Awakes wants to be. It's a decent futuristic mystery, in which an agent called Von Kodiak investigates these murders. However it gradually shifts away to become a technological thriller focused on the Fleet psi-Marine who sits at its centre. Eventually it decides that it wants to be a space opera instead and that's the weakest angle because it's better at being small than being big.

Adam Christopher did draw me into this novel and I want to read each of the stories he tried to write. I just want to read them in separate volumes rather than just this one.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine.


I devoured the 315 page Mystic in under four hours because it's as easy a read as I've found in years. This is mostly for two reasons. One is that it's a rather conventional fantasy novel that doesn't ever try to do anything particularly original. The other is that, even given that flaw, author Jason Denzel really makes us care about his leading lady and the world which she inhabits.

It's a relatively simple novel of magic. Pomella AnDone is a commoner who gets caught up in a grand adventure, being selected to compete for the role of Mystic, one who uses the Myst, or the magic in this world. She's the underdog because no commoner has ever been selected for such competition and that pisses a lot of people off. Cue heroes and villains and all the rest.

I don't believe this is YA fiction, but I'd highly recommend it to young readers who haven't explored fantasy yet. The more you know about the genre, the less memorable this will become.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine.

Deadlands: Ghostwalkers

The first of three novels revolving around the Deadlands RPG, this is a thoroughly enjoyable weird west tale that sets a high standard for Jeff Mariotte and Seanan McGuire to live up to in the remaining two.

It's a simple story in an imaginative framework. Grey Torrance, a soldier literally running from the ghosts of his past, finds himself in what's left of California after the Great Quake of 1868, teaming with an Oglala Sioux called Looks Away to fight a land baron, Aleksander Deray, and the dark forces he commands, to save the people of a town called Paradise Falls.

It's an old school pulp romp that betrays its influences on its sleeve, but has an ungodly amount of fun with them. It's weird and it's western and it's well worth your time.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine.

The Land of Terror

The adventures of Doc Savage were originally published monthly in the Doc Savage pulp magazine and I'm reviewing them in order, one per month. This is the second, after The Man of Bronze, and it's not remotely up to the standards it set.

On the positive side, there's a rollicking adventure set in a wild variety of locations, like a pirate ship turned museum, a submarine and a former volcano full of prehistoric creatures. There's also a bunch of cool tech, like the Smoke of Eternity, an acid which melts everything, including human bodies.

On the negative side, Doc is outrageously talented here, more like Superman, whom he heavily influenced, than a pulp action hero. He's supposed to be the best of us, but here he's beyond that. He's also dark here, much darker than I remember him, as he kills a bunch of people in his quest for justice. That's too dark for this sort of inspiring hero.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine. I also reviewed the first book at the Nameless Zine: The Man of Bronze.

Monday 21 December 2015

Monday Night Roundup #8

I posted another Weird Wednesday review to Apocalypse Later over the last week. Given that the world and its dog went to see the new Star Wars movie this week, I took on the arduous task of reviewing The Star Wars Holiday Special.

Here's a brief review of some other features I watched this last week that won't end up reviewed on that site any time soon:

Terminator Genisys (2015)

Director: Alan Taylor
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney and Byung-hun Lee
I’ve been a Terminator fan since the first one, but the franchise ran on too long. I haven’t even got round to watching Terminator Salvation yet, but I was highly interested in this one, because it isn’t just another Terminator movie. I’ve been told that it’s an amalgam of The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day with a few twists, but I don’t know because I haven’t seen it. It’s about time, no pun intended, to take a look myself.

It certainly begins very much as I know from those original films, strangely even down to the end of the world being 1997, though we see a little more of it than we might expect. Skynet comes alive, launches missiles worldwide and wipes out three billion people. Survivors call it Judgement Day. Our narrator, who was born after that point, in a world already ruled by the machines, is clearly Kyle Reese. In 2029, before John Connor destroys Skynet and wins the war, the machines send a terminator back to 1984, tasked to kill John’s mother Sarah and so erase him from existence. Reese volunteers to go after it and save her.

We all know this story, right? Well, not quite, because things change pretty quickly.

When the terminator, in the form of Arnold Schwarzenegger (though really a body double by the name of Brett Azar), famously asks for clothes, he finds himself fighting another terminator who’s really played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is wildly new. What else is new is that when Reese arrives in 1984 and gets arrested, it’s Sarah Connor who shows up and shouts, ‘Come with me if you want to live.’

Everything has changed. Everything is new, however familiar it seems. The scenes that follow are mirrors of scenes from the first and second movies, but they’re in a different context and are sometimes merged together. Now we’re in a world where the Arnie terminator which protected John Connor in T2 grew up protecting Sarah Connor from the age of nine. She calls him Pops and he’s still around, doing his job. Her entire story has been replaced (‘I don’t need saving,’ she says), so Reese’s entire mission has changed. A new liquid metal T-1000 is hot on their trail, but the real story kicks in after they destroy it.

Just before Reese travelled back in time, he sees a terminator who shouldn’t exist attacking John Connor. At that moment, he begins to remember a different life, one in which he grew up with a family in a world without terminators, at least until something called Genisys became Skynet and sparked Judgement Day in 2017. So, now when Sarah Connor wants to travel forward in time to 1997 to destroy Skynet, he talks her into going forward to 2017 instead to destroy Genisys, which turns out to be a completely integrated system designed by Cyberdyne Systems. It’s sort of like the internet of things, making this reboot of an old franchise neatly ahead of its time again.

This is an interesting new setup and it feels good. It gives Schwarzenegger an interesting opportunity in a role that really hadn’t given him many opportunities in three previous movies. The terminator he plays here appears at three completely different times looking three different ages because, thanks to a neat suggestion by James Cameron, the skin that he wears is human and ages just like we do. After taking the long way round to 2017 he looks just like Arnie today, because that’s cheaper than CGI. It’s good to see an old terminator. A recurrent theme here is that he’s ‘old not obsolete’.

I can’t go any further into the story because that would venture into serious spoilers and there are more than just a few twists here. I’m sure that there are a whole bunch of sites out there that break down the entire thing into its constituent parts; I don’t need to be another one.

What I can say is that the actors are surprisingly good in iconic roles that aren’t easily filled. Of course, Arnie is Arnie, so he can clearly play a terminator in his sleep. In the first picture, his iconic stature was partly due to his lack of depth as an actor. He’s come a long way since then and films like Maggie have shown that he’s gained some surprising props on that front and he gets to use a little of that newfound skill here. Perhaps because her role in the various stories is so fundamental, Sarah Connor has become as iconic a character to we viewers as the terminator himself. Linda Hamilton isn’t easy to replace, but in an oddly synchronistic casting choice, given that her Game of Thrones co-star, Lena Headey, played the role in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles on television, Emilia Clarke stamps her own authority onto it here, however small she is (and she looks smaller next to Schwarzenegger than she does next to a trio of dragons).

I’m less sold on Jai Courtney as Kyle Reese and Jason Clarke as John Connor, though both are surprisingly good and both eventually engage me enough to put my investment in their characters from earlier films aside. Courtney felt wrong for a while because he’s so abrasive, but that’s actually pretty appropriate for a boy who grew up a soldier in a world run by machines. Clarke somehow didn’t fit my idea of what John Connor should look like, but surely that’s just a personal thing. I can’t complain about what he does.

What I can complain about is the unresolved web of time travel paradoxes. While many critics lambasted the complex reworking of the time travel aspects of the first two movies into one new one, I found that I had no problems with that. I liked the additional complexity, especially as it heightened the plot twists. However, once it’s done, there are unresolved questions for which I was waiting for answers that never came and that was an annoying way to leave the movie. For instance, someone sends Arnie’s old T-800 back in time from somewhere to protect the nine year old Sarah Connor, but even he doesn’t know who because the files were erased. That prompts who, when and how, among other questions.

If there are answers, they aren’t in this movie. Perhaps we’ll find out in the projected television series and/or the further two feature films in a new projected trilogy, but Hollywood accounting sees a $440m gross on a $155m budget as not breaking even, so they’re all on hold for the moment. If they don’t end up being made, I hope that the storylines are released to provide closure. I want to see what happens in the Sarah Connor/Kyle Reese relationship now that we’re outside the original timeline. I want more Det O’Brien, who is a fascinating character in a unique position in the story. ‘Goddamn time travelling robots covering up their goddamn tracks,’ he says at one point, which is easily my favourite line of the movie. Surely we would expect to see more of Matt Smith, notching up another major sci-fi franchise after his run as the Doctor.

Critics seem to have given more negative reviews to Terminator Genisys than positive ones and I don’t see why. There are certainly flaws here and it’s not the classic that the first two movies were. However, it’s a much more thoughtful but still action-packed ride than Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which opposes this in theory. If this is the story that happens after the bad guys win in the first two films, it’s also the story that happens when the third one is ignored entirely. I can buy into that. Now I guess that the fourth film, itself the first in a projected trilogy that never was, ought to move up my queue. Maybe that’s also better than the critics suggested.

Police Academy (1984)

Director: Hugh Wilson
Stars: Steve Guttenberg, Kim Cattrall, G W Bailey, Bubba Smith, Donovan Scott and George Gaynes
In 1984 when Police Academy was released, or more accurately, in 1985 or so when it made it to English television, I thought this was hilarious. OK, I was thirteen or fourteen at the time, but still. Of course, the sequels got progressively worse and worse, but I never got through all of them and the last one to date, Police Academy: Mission to Moscow, features both Christopher Lee and Ron Perlman in supporting roles. Clearly I have to make it through the first six to get to that one. No, 2010’s Police Academy Gangbang isn’t part of the series but it may be better than the last one that was and I’m not into gay porn.

Talking of porn, I certainly didn’t know who Georgina Spelvin was back then. She’s the hooker who gives Commandant Lassard a memorably good time from inside a podium while he’s giving a presentation. It’s fair to say that I first encounted all these actors here, even more famous mainstream ones like Steve Guttenberg and Kim Cattrall. Of course, I only know some of them from Police Academy movies; it wasn’t the launchpad for everyone’s career that it was for some.

The story is pretty simple, but effective. The mayor controversially removes all restrictions to joining the police force, including height, weight and aptitude. Naturally, a whole slew of inappropriate candidates immediately apply to the Police Academy and hilarious chaos ensues as Lt Harris, an odd sort of villain given that he really cares about the police force and does what he does here in its best interest, tries to weed out the undesirables so that, while anyone can start at Police Academy, not everyone can finish.

Steve Guttenberg is a surprisingly weak lead, given that he became the biggest star of all of these for a while. He’s Carey Mahoney, a smartass parking lot attendant who gets fired at the beginning of the film and promptly sent to the Police Academy by the local police chief who’s fed up of his shenanigans. The deal he’s given to stay out of jail is 14 weeks of training without being able to quit. Naturally, he plans to get kicked out but, to spice it up before he does, he insists on taking the human sound effects machine he just met with him. That’s Larvell Jones, in the talented form of Michael Winslow, and he gets some of the best scenes of the movie.

Many of the rest immediately became regulars in the series which churned out a picture every year until movie number six. Eugene Tackleberry is a trigger happy security guard played by David Graf. Donovan Scott is the girly sounding Leslie Barbara, a nervous nelly working a photo booth who still gets bullied at age whatever. Doug Fackler, in the form of Bruce Mahler, is accident prone, leading to slapstick humour whenever he’s on screen. Moses Hightower, memorably played by the late Bubba Smith, is the massive 6’ 7” gentle giant. Marion Ramsey, wearing a fat suit, is Laverne Hooks, the weak voiced little lady who eventually finds her voice at just the right moment.

I remembered all of them, but I’d forgotten the fake Latin lover, George Martin, surprisingly as Andrew Rubin is particularly good in this film. I’d also forgotten Kim Cattrall as Karen Thompson, but probably because she didn’t really have a gimmick of her own. She merely wants to meet normal people outside the high powered circles her rich family walks in and is both nice and gorgeous enough to immediately become the love interest for Mahoney. Both Cattrall and Thompson deserved better.

What surprised me most is just how young everyone looks, except for George Gaynes, who looks exactly as I remember him as Commandant Lassard. Even G W Bailey seemed young as Lt Harris, who, from the perspective of thirty years of hindsight, steals this movie. Sure, he tasks the two bullies to weed out the ‘scumbuckets’ as his squad leaders, but he’s the only real character with depth and Bailey is hilarious in a whole slew of scenes, interacting with everyone else as they find humour in their one or two.

The film as a whole feels more relaxed than I remember but, of course, we’re still watching these actors establishing their routines. They’d hone them in this movie, repeat them in the next and keep on going until people stopped showing up to see yet another instance. Each movie in the series made less money than the previous one, mostly because the jokes were the same ones every time out. Mostly.

If Lt Harris is by far the strongest character to a fresh viewing, Mahoney is the weakest. He is given more to do than the rest of the regulars, but Guttenberg sleepwalks through the film apparently believing that a cheeky grin is all that’s needed to collect his salary. I remembered him as the everyman, the grounded character to whom we could all relate amongst the comic relief, but today he annoyed me nearly as much as he did the people he was actually trying to annoy. Nowadays I’m Harris’s on side, at least in this movie. Maybe I grew up.

Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment (1985)

Director: Hugh Wilson
Stars: Steve Guttenberg, Bubba Smith, David Graf, Michael Winslow, Bruce Mahler, Marion Ramsey, Colleen Camp, Art Metrano, Howard Hesseman and George Gaynes
I saw the first four or five Police Academy movies back in the eighties. They became something of an annual tradition, because the first half dozen were released one per year and generally made it to TV around the same time. I’m vaguely remembering the Christmas season, which suggests that, given that the first movie was released in 1984, my first exposure to this franchise was roughly thirty years ago. Holy crap, I’m getting old.

I remembered generally that the first movie was better than its sequels, but I was surprised to find from a double bill of the first two that it wasn’t even close. The first one was a fun, enjoyable, decent romp, even if it was fundamentally limited by what it was. The second one didn’t mark the beginning of a downward slope; it had already slid halfway down.

With the cadets graduating from the Police Academy in the first film, clearly they couldn’t just re-run the same plot again. They tried, but shifted the action to the 16th precinct, which is conveniently run by Pete Lassard, baby brother to Commandant Lassard of the Police Academy. Pete is Howard Hesseman, a good actor who is clearly embarrassed to find himself in this picture and thus fails to distinguish himself at all. He was asked back for sequels but he refused, claiming that he regretted doing this one. Given his lack of leadership, it’s believable when the police chief gets egged on the way into his precinct building, budget cuts or not. The only thing Captain Pete manages to do is to weedle a bunch of new recruits out of the chief to take on Zed, an odd gang leader played by Bob Goldthwait.

Yes, that abbreviated credit hides Bobcat Goldthwait, wild and crazy comedian who basically extrapolates his act into his character. Fans will see him as the best thing in the movie, while those who don’t like him won’t be converted. I’m somewhere between those sides as I found him annoyingly awful for most of the film but surprisingly funny towards the end, mostly because of some magical dialogue that I could easily believe he improvised.

You won’t be surprised to discover who those new recruits are going to be: Tackleberry, who’s working at a school; Maloney, who’s patrolling the beach; Hightower, Hooks, Fackler, Jones... everyone we expect. There’s no Kim Cattrall, but her character, Karen Thompson, wasn’t given a gimmick in the first movie so we don’t really miss her. There’s no Andrew Rubin either, which means that Tackleberry gets thrown the romance angle for the second film and it constitutes one of its weakest parts. Otherwise, they all do what they did in the first picture over again.

The oddest decision the filmmakers took was to ditch Lt Harris, who was clearly the best thing about the first film, and replace him with Art Metrano as Lt Mauser, Pete Lassard’s butt kissing Watch Commander. G W Bailey actually wanted to return to reprise his role as Harris, but he was left out, perhaps because time has shown that he was really the good guy in the first film and the producers wanted the equivalent role in the second to be a bad guy. While Harris did what he did for the sake of the police force, Mauser just wants the precinct for his own and thus doesn’t get any sympathy from us, even when the pranks against him get rather outrageous; they go too far to remain as funny as they’re supposed to be. In my opinion, Harris was the glue in the first film and, as decent as Metrano is, he’s not up to Bailey’s level and the picture suffers from his absence.

While the 16th precinct’s new recruits are familiar to us, they’re paired up with established officers who are new faces and none of them are really any good. Mahoney partners with a complete slob, Vinnie Schtulman; while he clearly has fans online, I’m far from one of them. Tackleberry is paired with a lady motorcycle cop called Kirkland, yet another police role for Colleen Camp; she’s only there as a prop for him. Hightower is given foot patrol and Hooks is stuck on the desk. None of this is inspired.

Beyond their standard routines, they don’t begin well. Mahoney sees an armed robbery in process at a store and the rest respond to the call. Between them, they completely destroy the place and tackle the owner to boot. 1,200 rounds of ammunition causes $76,813 of damage. The only good thing about this scene is that the merchant is Sweetchuck, who initially only had one scene but the director bulked it up when he saw how well it was going. While Mauser deserved abuse, he’s given too much so it isn’t funny; on the other hand, Sweetchuck doesn’t deserve any abuse but what he gets is funny, because he’s so gloriously up tight about it. He’ll return later in the series as a cadet.

Unfortunately he’s by far the best thing about the first half of the film and he’s just a bit part. Everything new is weak, from Zed’s fun but utterly pointless unhinged gang leader through Hesseman’s weak try at a police captain to Tackleberry’s distracting romance with Kirkland. They do get one great scene, as they undress and disarm, ably highlighting how much of an arsenal they carry between them, but that’s it.

Fortunately the gimmicks haven’t quite got old yet and, frankly, Michael Winslow’s Bruce Lee routine is priceless. It could have been shot better, but I loved it anyway. It’s by far the best scene in the movie; in fact it’s one of the best scenes of the series. If only it had shown up in a better picture, but this one alternates between weak and hopeless, eventually just fizzling out into nothing as if the story was never a priority. It’s just an excuse to run through a few established routines again and half heartedly throw a few new ones into the mix without any real effort. There is talent here, but mostly it’s wasted.

One Hour Photo (2002)

Director: Mark Romanek
Star: Robin Williams
Given that my better half has been on a Robin Williams kick with the grandkids, it seemed like a good time to get round to One Hour Photo. I often use Williams as a counter to Tom Hanks, two comedians who made me laugh for years but then got serious. I still have problems not laughing when I see Hanks, even if he plays someone dying of AIDS, but I never had that problem with Williams. I wonder if it’s because, as we know all too well today, he had a sadness in him that carries through into many of his serious roles.

Here he’s Seymour Parish, who works in the photo shop at a Savmart. He takes it seriously; to him it’s an art not merely a job. He seems lonely and sad, as friendly as he is to his customers, but we know that there’s more to him than that because the opening scene has him in custody, looking a lot more scary than sad. What did William Yorkin do to provoke him, asks the cop, who wants to understand what he did and why. What that was, we don’t know yet, but surely we’re about to find out.

We start when Nina Yorkin, William’s wife, brings in some films to develop of their son Jake’s birthday party. Initially, Seymour, or Sy the Photo Guy as they’ve come to know him, seems friendly and helpful, prioritising Nina’s photos because she’s a regular customer, upgrading her to larger prints at no extra cost and even giving Jake a free disposable camera. However, we then see that he developed an extra set for himself and he even passes the Yorkins off as his own family to his waitress that night at a diner. When he gets home, are those photos of the Yorkins on the counter rather than his own family? Oh yes. And there are more than a few plastered across the wall of his front room, taking it over one snapshot at a time. He’s clearly been obsessing for a very long while.

And so we proceed. We listen to him narrate the details of his job, calmly and politely. He only gets upset at the AGFA maintenance guy who doesn’t take the quality of his work quite as seriously as he does. And, in and amongst this, we watch his obsession progress. He loses himself completely in his copies of the Yorkins’ photos, imagining himself into them and the scenes they portray. He sits outside their house in his car, imagining himself inside. And he reaches out for deeper connections, watching Jake practice football at school and sitting near Nina in the food court and setting up conversations by reading the same books he sees her buy.

Creepy, huh? Well, you might imagine this as a standard psychological thriller, in which some deluded maniac gets just a little too crazy about his obsession and bad things happen. In a way that’s true, but assuming this is like your standard movie would be a mistake.

The primary reason this works is the nuanced performance of Robin Williams. In other hands, Seymour Parish could have been a routine psychopath from moment one, but Williams makes him very human indeed. Put simply, we care about him, even as we watch the things he should never have been doing and hope he finds a way to stop doing them.

We watch him struggle with his emotions, attempting to maintain a calm exterior as he churns away inside. We wonder about how he got this way, about how alone any one man can be, about how nobody saw into his mind and did something about it. We think about all the mass shooters out there nowadays and draw the obvious comparisons. If someone as nice as Sy the Photo Guy can be this out there, then what about our nice co-workers?

And, of course, we worry about what he’s going to do, what got him into the police station for that first scene, especially given two particular escalation points that I won’t spoil but which come right on top of each other and shake up both his real life and his fantasy one with the Yorkins. It’s no surprise that he’ll do something about it, but what?
From a cast perspective, Williams dominates this film utterly. The supporting players were appropriately cast and they do everything they need to do but, from their first moments on screen, they’re really just props for Williams to work from. He’s the only character with sufficient screen time and character depth to draw us into his story and Williams nails him absolutely.

His real support is from the crew rather than the cast. The score is slow and brooding electronica, which works well with the slow and brooding pace of the film. To accompany the focus on photos, a majority of the film is shot straight on like a still photograph. The camera does move but, when it does, it’s usually clinical and one directional to mimic Parrish’s tunnel vision and attention to detail. Only when it gets tense does it go subtly handheld. Even the colours are varied, with some scenes white and clinical, others saturated and emotional. There’s also a well edited dream sequence with solid effects.

And, of course, there’s a strong and unusual script, courtesy of the film’s director, Mark Romanek, which refuses to go where most psychological thrillers tend to go. We’re conditioned to expect certain sorts of progression in these films but this refuses to play ball. It’s not a police procedural, the cops only showing up towards the end and, even then, they just do their job like professionals, never getting cinematic on anyone’s ass. Nobody’s ever interested in body count. There’s almost no running around screaming in fear on anyone’s part, responses to revelations appropriately handled by adult human beings. The goals and results are not remotely what we’re used to.

And, above all, the role of victim isn’t clearly defined, because every one of the key players is a victim, including Seymour Parish. While he’s clearly the villain of the piece, in his own mind, he’s the hero too and that’s a wonderful and traumatic thing to realise. Bravo!

Monday 14 December 2015

Monday Night Roundup #7

I haven't posted anything to Apocalypse Later this last week, though I'm about to get busy catching up with submissions and projects.

Here's a brief review of some other features I watched this last week that won't end up reviewed on that site any time soon:

Crimson Peak (2015)

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam and Jim Beaver
‘Ghosts are real,’ says Edith Cushing, ten years before her mother’s ghost visits her at home, and off we go into one of the least well marketed movies of recent years.

A number of friends went to see this as soon as it came out, for one reason or another. All of them found themselves surprised to be watching a gothic and some of them left rather confused because they didn’t know what a gothic even was. To be fair, it’s hardly a vibrant modern genre and the last gothic most of us saw was Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, which was neither a good representation nor a good memory for anyone who saw it. Suffice it to say, this underwhelmed as the horror film people expected and worked only for those who knew what it actually was.

As a Guillermo del Toro fan of long standing, I was surprised to be underwhelmed too, just not quite so much as most viewers.

For a start, it’s utterly gorgeous, with imposing architecture, glorious costumes and organic camera movements. I was greatly impressed by the lighting, which feels like it comes entirely from the gas or electric light fittings we see rather than from anything outside of our vision. It only gets better as we shift over the pond, as the family mansion of Sir Thomas Sharpe is absolutely stunning, even if it has a huge hole in the roof that lets in the snow. Allerdale Hall is a magical location for the second half of the film and the set decoration is wonderful.

The acting is strong too, with Mia Wasikowska put to much better use in the lead than she was in Alice in Wonderland. It occurs to me here that I also used to be a Tim Burton fan of long standing, I’ve talked down two of his recent movies in this review thus far and I really hope del Toro isn’t going to use his career as a template. Tim Hiddleston is a revelation here, deeper and more complex after a single scene than he managed during the entirety of Thor, which was even worse than a modern Tim Burton movie, and soon deeper than he’s managed across the entire Avengers franchise. Jim Beaver is almost unrecognisable to those who know him from Supernatural but he gives Hiddleston a run for his money.

What weakens this heady Victorian mix is the script, which is promising for a while but soon reveals itself to be a predictable mass of archetypes, aided and abetted chiefly by Jessica Chastain, who plays an important character, Lucille Sharpe, continually like her reveal rather than her deception.

Wasikowska is Edith, an aspiring author and daughter of Carter Cushing, whom Sir Thomas visits in Buffalo, New York, to seek funding for an invention that he’s designed. His family estate sits upon vast deposits of magnificent red clay and he merely needs the means to extract it commercially. Edith and Sir Thomas are immediately attracted to each other and her father isn’t having any of it. When he sends the baronet on his way with a cheque to guarantee the two will never meet again, he’s promptly murdered and the couple married. Off we shift to Cumberland to discover if what we’ve already guessed is the case really is.

The writers, Matthew Robbins and del Toro himself, do a good job of setting us up, prompting us to ask questions and examine relationships. In Buffalo, there are many character dynamics of note: Edith and her father; Edith and her admirer, Dr Alan McMichael, who indulges a hobby of photographing ghosts; Edith and Sir Thomas, who is notably forward; Sir Thomas, with his dark sunglasses, and his sister, Lucille, even darker in style; and Sir Thomas and Carter, whose money kicks the story into motion.

Given that the cast decreases to merely three actors when we hop the pond, you might expect those dynamics to disappear, but they’re merely replaced. Now we’re watching Sir Thomas and his new wife, Edith, a fish out of water in these new surroundings of northern England; Sir Thomas and his notably jealous sister, Lucille; Lucille and Edith, who are like chalk and cheese; Edith and the mysterious figure who wanders around Allerdale Hall with some sort of purpose; each character and the dog which appears out of nowhere and attaches itself to Edith; and Edith and the house itself, a decaying and often oppressive structure which talks, bleeds and conceals many secrets.

I took a lot more notes about that second set of character dynamics but I can’t pose any of the questions which I wrote down because every possibility I raised turns out to become the case and each would thus constitute a spoiler. Now, I am familiar with the gothic amalgam of romance and horror, so I always knew roughly what to expect, but I’ve been surprised before and was sad to find that wasn’t here at any point.

If Robbins and del Toro aimed simply to put a gothic in front of unfamiliar contemporary eyes, then they succeeded admirably and only the marketing threw them off. If, however, they wanted to create a gothic that would stand the test of time, almost a requirement in this timeless genre, they failed because they couldn’t bring anything new to the table except production values and that’s just not enough.

The Great Texas Dynamite Chase (1976)

Director: Michael Pressman
Stars: Claudia Jennings, Jocelyn Jones and Johnny Crawford
I popped this film on because my wife wanted to see some action and it was one of the twenty films left for me to rate in the 100 Greatest Cult Films list. I hadn’t seen it and if there’s a title that promises action, it’s surely this one, but it turned out to fit its alternate title of Dynamite Women much better. I enjoyed it, as an unashamed B movie that does what it does with gusto, not to mention does it fifteen full years before Thelma & Louise copied a great deal of its formula, but it’s not particularly good and, looking back, I’m surprised that the folk picked it.

They did so because of the lead actress, Claudia Jennings, and the double act she runs in this film with Jocelyn Jones. Jennings did four Playboy spreads, she almost replaced Kate Jackson in Charlie’s Angels and she was a drive-in superstar during the seventies in films like ’Gator Bait, Sisters of Death and Deathsport. She died young, just short of her thirtieth birthday, but not for the usual reasons. While her life did spiral into the stereotypical morass of drink and drugs, following a break-up, apparently she got clean again, dying instead in a head-on collision with a van after falling asleep at the wheel. From certain angles here she’s as beautiful as those credits might suggest. From others, she’s almost skin and bones, perhaps at this point because of her cocaine use. Jones had a much shorter career, only appearing in five features over fifteen years (of which I’ve now seen four). Nowadays she runs an acting studio.

The two of them do three things throughout the movie: they rob banks, they show off their breasts and they look happy while doing almost all of it. Those are good qualifications for this sort of movie and I’m not complaining one bit.
Jennings is Candy Morgan, who busted out of prison before the film starts so she can rob the Alpine Bank and save the family farm. Daddy didn’t want her to break the law but, in a way, he’s proud; she delivers the cash and hits the road. Jones is Ellie-Jo Turner, a teller at that bank, who was fired just before Candy shows up and happily collects the money for her. She hits the road too, as she has no ties in town and thinks the robbery was the most exciting thing she’d ever seen in her life. When a driver leaves her at the side of the road because she won’t put out, synchronicity has Morgan the next vehicle along to pick her up and spark a new double act.

While that first job was all Morgan, who walks in with a lit stick of dynamite, she sees her criminal career as over until Ellie-Jo convinces her otherwise. Unfortunately their first job together fizzles with the sticks of dynamite they attempt to use to blow up the vault and the chase is on, with them in a stolen Mustang and the cops hot on their tails. Off they go to luck their way through bank robbery after bank robbery, building a name for themselves as the Dynamite Women and somehow staying just ahead of the local constabulary even though they have very little idea of what they’re doing.

There’s a lot of ineptitude here. These girls aren’t professionals. They’re just keeping going until their luck runs out, which we expect it eventually will. The cops are just as inept, in the way we know from Smokey and the Bandit and every hicksploitation movie out there; these just read Beaver magazine on the job. Minor characters are inept too, if often well meaning, such as the bellboy at the hotel they check into for a brief bathtub diversion. Even extras are inept, probably highlighting how few takes were taken.

Like most B movies, this was shot in California, even if it’s supposed to be Texas from the title and the dialogue, but the confederate flag on the Alpine Bank wall, the southern gentleman bow ties everyone wears and the cops’ behaviour suggest that we’re further east, maybe where those Duke boys live. This really is Thelma & Louise in Hazzard County, fifteen years before the former and three before the latter.

I loved the first chase because it felt real. It didn’t feel quite as scary as the lunatic antics people got up to in Polk County Pot Plane, but it did feel like there weren’t any stuntmen (or women) doing their jobs. It felt like the actors were really doing the work and they were going just as fast as they seemed to be. It felt neatly dangerous and that added an edge to the film that helps it wonderfully.

That’s needed, because the budget clearly isn’t large, the acting isn’t great and the dialogue is cheesy. However, to distract from that we have twin female leads with long seventies hair, short shorts and no bras under their flimsy shirts. Frankly, this paragraph is the one that you should really read to see if you want to seek out the movie or not. It highlights the biggest reasons why you might want to watch.

The biggest problems with the film all tie to the feeling that the filmmakers didn’t know what they’re doing. The pace is wildly inconsistent; each time we get busy with bank robberies and chases, we slow down for pointless nothing scenes. The tone is off too, as scenes shift from tense action to odd comedy, clever ingenuity to stunning ineptitude, well written drama to overdone slapstick. We even shift at one point from The Dukes of Hazzard action where nobody ever gets hurt to a bloody shootout. For all the nudity, which is mostly the leading ladies showing their boobs and butts but does include a few little slips, both male and female, it’s surprisingly tame, the one swearword that shows up a glaring anomaly.

There are huge gaps in the story too, as if a four hour script was chopped brutally into ninety minutes. We watch the Dynamite Women rob banks but we rarely see them do anything with the money. The odd meal and hotel stay won’t make a dent in those stacks of cash, but perhaps the white Rolls Royce that just shows up at one point would. It’s the most ridiculous getaway car imaginable. At least the third main character gets both an entrance and an exit. That’s Johnny Crawford, the kid from The Rifleman, as a petty thief they acquire at a grocery and promptly hijack into a life of crime, which is perfectly fine by him.

So The Great Texas Dynamite Chase isn’t great, isn’t in Texas and could do with more chases, but otherwise it’s dynamite! It’s a good fun B movie that’s easy to like, especially as there are no moral overtones to distract from the entertainment. This isn’t even Big Bad Mama, let alone Bonnie and Clyde! These girls have empty lives so, after finding a little bit of excitement, head on out and do bad things while looking good. That’s as deep as it gets, folks. It’s drive-in B movie fun and that’s all it pretends to be.

This was film #81 in my runthrough of the 100 Greatest Cult Films. You can find the full list here.

Cutthroat Island (1995)

Director: Renny Harlin
Stars: Geena Davis, Matthew Modine and Frank Langella
Somehow I’d never managed to get round to Cutthroat Island, a legendary flop that killed off Carolco Pictures by earning a mere $10m at the box office to offset its troubled $98m budget. When my better half and son discovered that, we promptly made it tonight’s movie and discussed Geena Davis’s best roles. As much as they both liked Cutthroat Island, neither of them ranked it at the top of her work. An action heroine she clearly isn’t.

We’re in Jamaica in 1668 to watch outrageously overdone scene after outrageously overdone scene, perhaps to counter the fact that Davis really isn’t Douglas Fairbanks Jr, let alone Sr, pet monkey or no. She’s not embarrassing as a swashbuckler, but she does give the impression that she’s just holding on for dear life throughout rather than breezing effortlessly through cliffhanger after cliffhanger.

She’s a pirate, Morgan Adams, and the first scene establishes her credentials by suggestively outwitting her undercover lawman bedpartner for the night before leaving in slow motion. It certainly doesn’t help that he’s highly reminiscent of Weird Al Yankovic rather than the Latin lover he’s going for. She leaves for the ship of Dawg Brown, so she can rescue her chained uncle, Black Harry, from its very deck right before his execution. He is shot in the escape, though, so at his request, before he dies, she shaves him bald and takes his scalp.

On that scrap of flesh is a third of a treasure map to the legendary Cutthroat Island and Black Harry tells her that her uncle Mordechai has the second. Unfortunately, Dawg Brown has the third, being another of her uncles, but that just sets up the action. We’re privy to some of that quickly enough after Morgan is recognised while buying a slave who speaks Latin and the ensuing chase through the harbour district of Port Royal ends up with a good portion of it destroyed by gunfire and a full broadside from a ship. It’s fun, however outrageous, convenient and flamboyantly clichéd as it gets.

What follows is more of the same, the film not skimping on swashbuckling action, explosions or a stirring score to accompany them. Everything feels off though: the choreography, the editing, the stuntwork, the snappy dialogue, the timing, the hilariously bad accents, the works. It’s almost a parody of a pirate flick that decided that it never wanted to be funny to begin with. But on goes Morgan Adams, new captain of the Morning Star, to find all three pieces of the map and then her way to the treasure that they identify.

On the plus side, there’s an obvious budget, director Renny Harlin throwing a lot of that money onto the screen where we can see it in ships, costumes and explosions. There’s little CGI here: these are all real ships, big explosions and real stunts, so it looks good whenever we don’t notice how those stunts were obviously done. There’s also Frank Langella, who nails his role as Dawg Brown in precisely the same way that nobody else even comes close to doing. In fact, it’s all the better because I bought into his vicious nature even with it written so one dimensionally and in an unintended comedy to boot. The only humour that I believe is actually deliberate, until the final scene, was when Morgan belts someone with an electric eel in a tavern fight. That was hilarious.

On the negative side, there’s pretty much everything else. Matthew Modine plays William Shaw, conman, love interest and all round bounder like he’s auditioning for The Princess Bride almost a decade too late. Maury Chaykin isn’t bad as John Reed, chronicler of pirates the world over, but his role is wasted, just as most roles in this film are wasted. Characters like Blair and Glasspoole are set up with great potential but nothing’s ever done with them, while the ones who do get to do something get almost no set up at all. There’s no chemistry anywhere to be found, unless it’s between Morgan Adams and her pet monkey and that doesn’t bear thinking about.

I’m torn as to whether the worst aspect is the script or the direction. The script is awful because it’s half routine pirate clichés that we’ve seen a hundred times before and half a complex series of betrayals that we really don’t care about in the slightest. The bad dialogue makes it worse, though in better hands that could have been salvaged somewhat. Yet Harlin’s direction is surely responsible for the off kilter feel, the unintended comedy and all the goddamn slow motion shots. There are points where he does seem to get it, the stunts work and we get caught up for a few minutes in the action as we were always supposed to do, but then it all falls apart again. Usually these good bits arrive when Dawg is thoughtful and Morgan is quiet, but those moments aren’t frequent enough to save much of anything. It’s worth mentioning that when budget overruns prompted Carolco to run out of money, Harlin spent a million bucks of his own to rewrite the script again. Does that highlight better his inability as a director or a writer?

Cutthroat Island is one of those legendary flops that have become known for being truly awful, but I’ve often found that they’re not as bad as they’re made out, from Daredevil to Ballistic: Ecks vs Sever. Like them, this is far from a good picture but I’ve seen a heck of a lot worse. There are people who make this sort of film without the budget to make it look good, without a name like Frank Langella to lend some credence to proceedings and without the balls to take care of action physically in the grand era of CGI.

Of course, there are other pirate films that manage to swash buckles, make us laugh and generate real physical stuntwork. I’d heartily suggest Jackie Chan’s Project A, which clearly inspired one of the more unbelievable stunts in this film. I go back to that again and again. I doubt I’ll ever come back to this one, even with its kickass female lead.

Monday 7 December 2015

Monday Night Roundup #6

It's been a quiet week because of events and film challenge judging, but I did get one review posted to Apocalypse Later this week, Antfarm Dickhole (2011), a highly appropriate choice for my Weird Wednesday series.

Here's a brief review of the one other feature I watched this last week that won't end up reviewed on that site any time soon:

The Brood (1979)

Director: David Cronenberg
Stars: Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar and Art Hindle
1979 is my gap year in early David Cronenberg. I’ve seen his earlier features, Shivers and Rabid, and I’ve seen his later ones, from Scanners through to Crash. The only ones I’m missing before the turn of the millennium are 1999’s eXistenZ, to which I really ought to get round, and the two he made in 1979, Fast Company and The Brood. I’m watching now because the latter is in’s list of the 100 Greatest Cult Movies, ranking above Cronenberg’s other entry, Videodrome.

Fast Company is the odd man out in that list, but The Brood fits very much into the body horror themes that Cronenberg was developing throughout his twentieth century features. Here, as with most of those early films, it revolves around fear of biological change, pairing the internal (mental torment) with the external (physical transformation), along with more conventional horrors such as child abuse, rejection and grief fuelled by loss. Another contemporary horror obvious here is the custody battle for a child, a horror Cronenberg was going through in real life at the time, fighting for custody of his daughter.

What leaps out quickly though is how 1979 was a different era. The first scene has Oliver Reed verbally abusing a man by casting aspersions on his masculinity. He’s doing this in front of an audience because he’s a psychiatrist, Dr Hal Raglan, demonstrating his mastery of the field of psychoplasmics. He pushes his patients to channel their inner rage outwards to manifest physically on their bodies as blisters and welts, hardly a politically correct approach but apparently a successful one. The second has a five year old girl taking a bath, a jarring sight today because she’s topless. Again, there is reason for this, to allow her father, Frank, to see the wounds on her back and assume that her mother, Nola, is abusing her, not an unfair assumption given that she’s a patient of Raglan’s.

The girl is Candice Carveth and she looks eerily like Heather O’Rourke from Poltergeist, which unnerves us from the outset. We’re privy to scenes that Frank isn’t, so we know that there’s something else going on, something that initially revolves around her rather than her mother. For instance, we might assume that someone breaks into her grandmother’s house and bludgeons the old lady to death in the kitchen while she’s babysitting Candy, but once we see the child’s reaction we know that it’s not quite that simple. During the second murder, we even see the killer and, while that answers some of our questions, it also prompts more. This is a David Cronenberg film, after all.

The story builds, of course, the therapy sessions between Raglan and Nola shifting subtly into creepier and creepier territory, especially after the scene when a medical examiner provides his insight into the bizarre body of the dead killer. While it could be argued that this is an imaginative precursor to the soon to be popular but notably unimaginative slasher genre, it’s a quintessentially Cronenberg picture, fitting far better within his own filmography’s progression than in any other trend apparent at the time. Going back to his films of the era highlights just how unique and out there he was.

There are a variety of freaky scenes on offer, but they’re freaky as much for their staging as for what they are. It isn’t just what we see, such as the murder of Candy’s teacher or the wild ‘childbirth’ scene, but for where and when we see it and for what else is in the scene. There are also some great reveals, both visual and in dialogue, to keep the story moving forward. The weakest link to me was the string-centric score by Howard Shore, who became Cronenberg’s regular composer at this point, which is perfectly fine but owes far too much to Bernard Herrmann to really fit in an original picture like this.

The cast is quintessentially seventies. Raglan is played by Oliver Reed, towards the end of a magnificent decade that took him from The Devils through The Three Musketeers to Tommy, Burnt Offerings and this. That’s on top of the the roles that he turned down, like the ones that Robert Shaw took in Jaws and The Sting because Reed didn’t want to relocate to Hollywood. He’s a remarkably stable psychiatrist, who has achieved much but apparently let himself become drawn far too deeply into his achievements to be able to do anything about them when they get seriously out of hand. His objectivity is completely shot, which could have been handled a little better at the end, when it all comes down. He’s as good as he ever was when he was sober, but this isn’t the great performance that he’s capable of giving.

Nola is Samantha Eggar, who gets rather less screen time than I’d have expected, given that she’s the key to the film and she’s second billed after Reed before the title credit. She hit the seventies running, after some great work in the sixties, and continued through The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, The Uncanny and this to get to The Exterminator, from which I know her best. To be honest, I may remember her best for this, from now on, because the scene in which she improvises spectacularly is not one to be unseen. As the story became clear and we waited for the denouement, I wondered if the film would have been enhanced or lessened by more Nola and, while I’d enjoyed seeing Eggar get her teeth into more of the stagy dialogue scenes, I decided that the film as a whole was better for keeping them sparse.

Relegated to a ‘starring’ credit after the title screen is the actor with the most screen time, Art Hindle as Frank, looking oddly like a full sized Peter Dinklage with a hint of Canadian Hugh Grant. He was mostly known for TV movies at this point in time, because Porky’s was still a couple of years in the future, but Black Christmas and the remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers surely helped land him this job. He’s a decent lead and he does what he’s asked to do well enough, but he’s almost inconsequential in this story. He’s merely our avatar as Candy and those around her traverse through nightmare. Raglan is the cause, Nola the conduit and Candy the distraction, while Frank is just the face of the reality being affected.

I had a blast with this. The production feels seventies through and through, from the acting to the pace, the editing to the texture. However it looks forward as Cronenberg’s films so often did, so that it doesn’t seem dated today, even without the gore and shock moments that we might be conditioned to expect, except for the jarring moments I mentioned earlier. Now I want to revisit all the early Cronenberg’s that I haven’t seen in far too long.

This was film #80 in my runthrough of the 100 Greatest Cult Films. You can find the full list here.