Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Hidden (1987)

How can you not love a film with this much mindless violence and a cool alien?

One of my favorite films from the 80's (I've long since lost count of the number of times I've seen it) The Hidden is a science fiction roller-coaster ride starring Kyle MacLachlan and Michael Nouri (and featuring Claudia Christian as a stripper who actually screws someone to death!).

While the original idea of a criminal alien parasite being hunted by another member of it's species dates back at least to Hal Clement's first novel, Needle, The Hidden ramps it up to overdrive. Where Needle largely involves detective work, The Hidden mostly involves crazy car chases, lots of guns, and much in the way of general mayhem.

But it's not just the mayhem which makes this worth watching. Kyle MacLachlan's portrayal of the FBI agent (yes, again!) is particularly entertaining, the dialogue is clever, and, of course, the basic concept is pretty damn cool.

I can't recommend this one enough. While a little dated, it's worth watching for the first 10 minutes alone.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Why So Long?

Well... It's been a LONG time between entries; I've been ridiculously busy for the last year - I started work (at a real job), and it's been keeping me so busy I just haven't found time to watch half as much as I used to, let alone comment on what I have watched. It's time that changed!

So, within a day or two, I'll start posting regularly (at least once a week). I've got a lot of new movies to share - I like to focus on the less well-known, a lot of the time, as these are the ones which most excite me (it's always nice to find a diamond amongst the coal!).

So bear with me, and I'll be back in a couple of days.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Logan's Run (1976)

I remember seeing this one at the movies, back when I was obviously too young to know any better...

One thing I do remember is that you got to see Jenny Agutter's tits, which impressed 13 year old me no end. Of course, for a while there, you got to see them in any movie she was in, which was certainly no hardship! She was, and still is, a very attractive woman, as well as being a more-than-capable actor.

Michael York, who plays Logan, was always one of those actors whose appeal eluded me - He reminds me a lot of Charlton Heston; they seemed to get the lead roles in a lot of the films I ended up watching, but neither of 'em ever bother to act, or if they are, they only know one "character". I find them both irritating to watch, but not irritating enough to spoil a film; in fact, I often find myself laughing at them (in all the wrong spots) more than anything else!

The director, Michael Anderson has some good films in his resumé (he directed The Dam Busters, one of my all time faves). This just isn't one of them.

Faults? Where to start... Let's start with the city. I know we're a little spoilt these days; CGI cityscapes can look amazingly realistic (but they don't always - This is one place where cheap CGI work can really show). The city in Logan's Run never, ever, looks like anything other than what it is; a large model. The most obvious detail is the trees; they are so obviously from a model train supply house. The lack of detail on the buildings also doesn't help with the illusion - Everything looks small; given the low quality of the model-making, you'd think they'd minimise your exposure, but they actually seem to go out of their way to show the outsides of the buildings. Oh well, it was 1976...

The "Carousel" sequence has also aged badly - While there was only one point where I could actually see the wires (there may be more), it was still very obvious that the people were on wires, if only due to the limited range of movement available to them. The force-field effect probably helps to hide the wires, just not well enough. Not as bad as the wires in The Black Hole, though, which is something, at least.

There are several points during their encounter with Box (the robot) where you can see the face within the silver mask, which is less excusable than some of the other technical mistakes; this is the sort of thing which could be easily fixed, even with 1970's SFX technology, if only by reshooting those scenes... And don't even get me started on the terrible super-imposition of the ice-cave collapsing around them. AWFUL!

One thing I noticed, more than anything else, was the pace. It really did feel incredibly slow at many points. What makes this most interesting is in comparison to the original book; William F Nolan's novel is probably the quickest read I've ever found - I can finish it in a couple of hours, easily. The film seemed to take MUCH longer! I can only hope that the upcoming remake sticks a little closer to the book, and doesn't just try to copy the movie version.

The one saving grace of the film (apart from the aforementioned Jenny Agutter's lovely anatomy) is Peter Ustinov, who is pretty much the antithesis of York or Heston; any film he's in, I know I'm at least gonna find him enjoyable. Not enough to save a really bad film, but certainly enough to make it a little bit more tolerable... He gets a strange mixture of really, really good lines, and some truly God-awful ones in this film.

So much for my blast-from-the-past. It's funny how often a film you really enjoyed as a child/teenager turns out to be virtually unwatchable 35 years later... Some of it is the effects, but I often find that a good enough film can transcend this. There are many films from more than 70 years ago that still hold up extremely well, even though there effects are quite laughable - The most important part of ANY film is story. And that's were Logan's Run fails; they took some of the great central ideas from the novel, and ignored what made it good, somehow. I honestly don't know how they managed it. I do know, however, that next time I think of watching it, I'm gonna try to remember to read the book instead. Far more entertaining. And quicker.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Diary of the Dead (2007)

George Romero proves he's still the undisputed master of zombie films...

I've never seen a Romero film I didn't like. The man is brilliant; often hampered by a ridiculously low budget and a cast of complete unknowns (or actual non-actors) actors, his ideas & execution always manage to transcend these limitations. Taking the idea of "found footage", he re-boots his vision of the zombie apocalypse, only this time in the form of a video documentary, filmed by a group of survivors.

Diary of the Dead starts with the filming of a student project, with a particularly amusing reference to the current "fast zombie" trend; this had me cracking up - I had to pause the DVD & replay it, just to hear the rest of the dialogue! The filming is interrupted by the news of strange goings on... And everyone scatters to try to find out what's going on, and to seek safety in familiar environments.

We end up with a sort of "found footage road movie", more than anything else; as the main characters proceed across country to reach a variety of "safe" destinations, they encounter a fair sampling of the kinds of unpleasantness you could expect when law and order break down. These are, of course, extremely well-handled by Romero, and have that feeling of gritty realism that is a hallmark of his films.

One of the most interesting inclusions is the (sparing) use of CGI to add to the usual makeup effects; as noted by Rick Baker when making An American Werewolf in London, you can add makeup to a person, but you can't take stuff away (he had no option but to use a puppet for the final encounter with the decomposing Jack in the theatre scene), and this is where CGI has a distinct advantage. There are several scenes where CGI is used to great effect in this regards; one involves a zombie's head partially dissolving, and the other... Well, let's just say it's quite disturbing, and you really can't miss it! Of course, like all of the best well-executed CGI effects, I may be wrong; maybe it isn't...

Anyway, if you're a Romero fan, or if you like your zombie movies, this is an absolute must-see. I won't say it's better than it's predecessors, but it's certainly on a par. Given that this is his 5th "Living Dead" film, that's saying something.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Outlander (2008)

They spent $50 million on this film, and then, apparently, just hung it out to dry. The distributors certainly didn't seem to do anything much to try and get their money back. With a total, worldwide, gross of just under $7 million, they'd better hope that it sells a lot on DVD/Blu-Ray. Oh, no, hang-on. I've never heard of it. And, neither, apparently, has anyone else...

Why is it that some films, for whatever reason, just disappear into the crowd? I've heard that it costs about as much to distribute and advertise as it does to make a movie; while not strictly true, the real blockbusters certainly have millions spent on their advertising budget. Long before Avatar came out, there wasn't a single person in the western world who didn't know it was coming. So, if you have confidence in your product (or, maybe, if you just think you can bluff your way to at least some initial returns on your investment), you have to spend some money and effort getting it into the public consciousness. If you have no confidence, you can always let it sit on a shelf for a year or two while you try to work out what to do. What you shouldn't do, however, is just release it to a couple of theatres, and then forget all about it.

The most surprising thing, when confronted with a film that you've never even heard of, is when it turns out to be, not just good, but bloody great fun. We're not talking Gone With The Wind, here people; it'll never make anyone's top 10 list. But it sure as hell at least deserved a chance to make its money back. When Amazon suggested I buy Outlander, I figured "Well, the DVD's got a spaceship on the cover - I might just check it out and see if it's any good".

The basic plot is pretty simple - An "alien" (played by James Caviezel, from the excellent remake of The Prisoner) crashes into a lake in Norway, around about 700 AD, and ends up being taken prisoner by some of the locals. When it turns out that one of his enemies stowed away on his spaceship, and is now killing the locals, they all join together to fight back.

I use the term alien loosely, as humans are, supposedly, descended from an earlier, abandoned, alien colony. Seems improbable, but, what the hell, it's as good an excuse as any for allowing the main character to be both a technologically advanced alien and a human at the same time. In reality, this is probably the only completely implausible element in the story, harkening back to an earlier age of science fiction, when we had less of an understanding of evolution and genetics.

At any rate, the cast is good (including John Hurt and Ron Perlman), the script is reasonable, and the action sequences are well put together. The effects are above average, and the depiction of the Norse way of life had the feeling of authenticity to it. All-in-all, I just can't understand why the studio didn't realise that they had a winner on their hands. People that stupid deserve to lose money!

Still, the other people involved don't, so, do them a favour and, if you like a bit of science fiction with your viking action, at least rent the film. Personally, I'm going to take Amazon's advice and buy it. I liked it that much. In fact, I'd have to say that it's the best viking science fiction film I've ever seen, and their should be more of 'em (more than one, at least!).

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Descent, Part 2 (2009)

Aah, sequels... They're mostly shit, but, every now and again, you come across a really good one, as good as, or (extremely rarely), even better than the original film. Unfortunately, The Descent, Part 2 definitely falls into the first category.

I really enjoyed The Descent. Like all of Neil Marshall's films, it is excessively gory, ultra-violent, and action-packed. Also, like his other films, its execution creates an atmosphere where it is incredibly easy to suspend disbelief. It tells the story of a group of female thrill-seekers who decide to go pot-holing in the Appalachians, only to discover a group of inbred, carnivorous mutant cave-people sharing the cave with them. For anyone who hasn't seen the first film, you should probably stop reading now!

One of the better aspects of the first film is its depiction of tough, self-reliant women. They are well-prepared (although not well enough - It's hard to prepare for inbred mutant cannibals when noone told you to expect them), and more than capable of taking on any ordinary challenge. Anyway, by the end of The Descent, there is one survivor from the group, who manages to find a way out of the caves.

We join her at the beginning of Part 2 in hospital, where the police would like very much to know what happened to all her companions. They then drag her back down (ignoring her warnings, which are not helped by her partial amnesia) into the caves to help them locate the rest of her friends.

The majority of the film is quite well done; it has action, gore, and tension, and is really well constructed. Where it completely falls apart is at the end. Another major spoiler warning here, as I'm just about to do an "end of film" spoiler; the worst kind of spoiler there is.

Okay, still here? Good... Now, I'm a big fan of films where everybody dies. When I look at my DVD rack, pretty much every second film falls into this category. However, all of them have one thing in common - It is completely logical, and not unexpected, that everyone will die. They quite obviously had no chance, and this was obvious from fairly early on, either because we know more than they do about what they're facing, or, sometimes, because the odds they face are simply overwhelming. Nevertheless, we enjoy the film, and root for the heroes, even on second viewings, and even when we don't believe that they have a snowflake's chance in hell of getting out of the mess they've found themselves in.

Other films, however, are set up differently. Many, many films require the hero (and maybe some others) to survive in order to preserve the narrative and satisfy the audience. We root for them, they pull through against ridiculous odds, and we cheer at the end when they stand up, often drenched in blood, and roar their challenge at fate and the Gods. The Descent gave us this satisfaction, as did Halloween, Die Hard, and many others.

The Descent, Part 2 has a great climactic scene, where the survivor of the first film sacrifices herself so that the hero of the second film can escape from the caves. It is unfortunate that, as the hero is running through the trees to her freedom, she is inexplicably hit in the head with a shovel by this guy we met at the beginning of the film, and dragged back to the cave mouth to be eaten. There is no explanation for this. It just happens out of the blue, and for no apparent reason. The guy seemed genuinely scared at the beginning of the film, before they went down, and had no apparent motive, nor any obvious connection to the subterranean mutants.

And that feeling you get, when the hero has survived against incredible odds? After another character has heroically sacrificed themselves so that the hero can live? Dashed. Destroyed. Irrevocably wiped. Defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.

Completely unsatisfying, and a total let-down after such good story-telling up until that point.

The Awakening (1980)

I noticed The Awakening in the TV guide a couple of weeks ago, in the middle of the night, on one of the new digital channels (in Australia), and thought it sounded interesting. Charlton Heston, Susannah York, and based on a Bram Stoker novel. What could possibly go wrong?

As it turns out, just about everything. This has to be one of the least scary "horror" movies ever. I don't know whose fault it was; Mike Newell certainly went on to better things (he's still making movies, and big-budget ones at that), and at least half the leads had names and reputations that (you'd think) they'd want to protect.

Heston is one of my least favourite actors; he was hammy, thought he was wonderful, and had no sense of humour. It's unfortunate that he was cast in so many of the best films of their time (Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, The Omega Man, come immediately to mind, each of which is amongst my favourites). While he detracts from good films, if The Awakening is any indication, he is quite capable of completely destroying an already bad film. He was practically the Nicolas Cage of his time; seemingly cast in every second film made, and always to the detriment of the production.

Of course, while Cage is the acting equivalent of Uwe Boll (i.e. an absolute guarantee that I'm gonna hate the movie), Heston was at least capable enough that you can look past his faults and appreciate the rest of the film. If there's anything to appreciate, of course...

The basic plot is simple enough; obsessed archeologist discovers the lost tomb of some un-named Egyptian princess, ignores all the dire warnings of what will occur if he enters the tomb, and dooms his unborn baby to becoming the vessel for the long-dead princesses return to earth. Nothing we haven't seen before, of course, only not as well done.

Anyway, the first 30 minutes or so are set 18 years in the past - And, in case you forget, or were late getting to your seat in the cinema, they'll remind you fairly early on when we get back to the "present". Heston's long-suffering, pregnant, wife (Jill Townsend in pretty much her last role), gives birth just as he's violating the tomb, but we know, of course, that, even though the baby is born dead, she'll be fine in a minute or two, just as soon as Heston releases the evil princesses spirit. Which, of course, he does. The baby starts crying, and he finally takes the time to go see his wife in the hospital. Too little, too late, so she leaves him, and takes little Maggie with her.

Heston isn't overly bothered, though - he goes onto an illustrious career as a university professor and marries his smart, practical, and attractive assistant, Susannah York. Oh, and anyone trying to interfere with his plans for the princess' mummy is conveniently killed in an "accident". These accidents, which occur off and on throughout the film, make it clear that this was a deliberate Omen rip-off. Only, as silly as The Omen was, it was at least fun and well-made.

Anyway, the rest of the plot will be obvious to anyone watching the film, and proceeds in a pedestrian manner to the Omen-like ending, so I won't talk any more about it. It's all been done before, only better.

What stood out, more than anything else, was the lack of build-up in the script. As an example, Susannah York goes from being supportive, sensible, practical, and scientific, to superstitious, fearful, and stupid instantly. No gradual realisation of the horror to come, just a light-switch change in personality. And the same goes for every other "scare" in the film - There is no gradual increase in tension at any point. Either you already know exactly what's going to happen next, because it's inevitable, or you are suddenly confronted with a complete change in a character.

The only shining light in the entire mess was Stephanie Zimbalist's performance as the doomed daughter of Townsend and Heston. She even won an obscure award for "Best Supporting Actress" for the role, and she really does the best she can with such appalling material.

At any rate, it does serve as a nice counterpoint to The Omen, if nothing else. While both films have very similar plots, the execution of each couldn't be more different. I'd recommend The Awakening to anyone who wants to watch how not to make a film. Garbage! I want my two hours back, please.