Review Roundup - Cherry Bomb

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)

It's easy to become cynical when things constantly promise to be a good time. After all, the hype machine is always a hollow money grabber in some way or another. For all the easy targets to be hit in the name of popcorn adventure stories, too often there's a John Carter, a Green Lantern or a Star Trek Into Darkness. Tedium and horrible writing take the place of real fun. The pieces that make up simple entertainment are apparently too easy to fumble. Luckily the brass at Marvel Studios more often than not have their heads screwed on, so far. With The Winter Soldier nailing the slick action vibe earlier in the year, James Gunn's oddball space fantasy gets the lighter and more colourful angles covered. Yeah... the Slither guy, who knew? There are a lot of weak notes here including a one dimensional villain with vague motivations, and a pre-packaged plot device in the guise of yet another coveted object promising to grant it's wielder ultimate power. But it's nice to be suprised once in a while.


Most of the time a story like this would consist of a string of convoluted plot points, too much silly exposition and a collection of stock characters that have no personality beyond the expected clichés. But by flipping this over and using those tropes differently, things seem to have worked out nicely. The gang's all here, it shouldn't work. Complete with a dumb brute, a misunderstood badass and a jerk waiting to grow into a hero, this should be serious eye rolling material. Instead they sprinkle in a few little touches that allow these characters to feel a bit more fleshed out without getting too heavy handed - the writing is often profane but feels natural instead of vulgar and gives everyone some breathing room. Creations that are entirely done in post production have chemistry, and even casting a sports personality fits here. It's true that the big bad is one note and blowing up the universe again is a horrible element in any story, but with everyone else carrying the picture those tired space opera ideas are forgivable. I like that the supporting cast is so weird (oh it's Michael Rooker and Peter Serafinowicz too) so it's a fun experience without even getting to the eye candy action spectacle scenes. It's a bit oldschool '60s Star Trek and bit '80s sci-fi, and who doesn't like that?

The film works best when things are being planned, and subsequently falling to pieces. These characters all get to do their stuff, each showing off a variety of skills and flaws. For your money there's a prison break, a few good chases, plenty of fighting and an standard finale with an assault on the evil doers capital ship. But these are broken up by little moments that carry it through. When the heart of the story includes a talking plant I guess it's hard not to throw that good stuff in here and there. Bipedal trees haven't provided this much movie magic since The Two Towers. The enemy mooks may be faceless (literally) cannon fodder but it doesn't ever get too ridiculous or grim, and the pauses in the action allow in some nice emotion which is welcome. And yes, the original soundtrack is complimented by David Bowie and The Runaways. By flipping the bird on screen to its antagonists and off screen to dumb slow-motion hero walk sequences and notions of cheap romance, this is a satisfying journey into new and strange possibilities. Let's hope things don't become messy with the inevitable cross over movies.

4/5

Review Roundup - Continue? Yes/No

EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014) 

In a return to science fiction, Tom Cruise stars in this adaptation of Japanese novella All You Need is Kill, keeping it's story of an alien invasion in which soldiers become trapped in a time loop. While that title and the cast has unfortunately been Westernised (Edge of Tomorrow is very Star Trek) this is at least an improvement on his previous vehicle Oblivion. Taking cues from the likes of Groundhog Day and more recently Source Code, this is never as good as either of those films but at least offers an action filled adventure that manages to maintain a sense of humour and has a well paced story. While it has a lot of fun and some fine spectacle, several aspects lead to it being essentially flimsy and it lacks the depth that could have been afforded by having such a brain wracking central concept. It also doesn't help that some elements lead to clichés and strange plot holes that could have been avoided considering the amount of rewrites the script went through. Still, while it's never excellent it mostly works.


Officer Cage (Cruise, originally written as Keiji) a PR man thrown onto the front line for attempted blackmail, finds himself reliving the military's last ditch attack after being killed in the assault. He has no experience of warfare, he's just a talker. By teaming up with Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt, keeping the original name) a veteran who has been through this but lost that power, they plan a way to win what is at first a futile battle by learning more and more, one day at a time. With death required to send him back in time, the makers seem to understand there is comedy to be mined instead of just having an all out dark and gritty look at the futility of war. This brings a problem to the table however, in that darker ideas and character development are left aside in place of popcorn entertainment. Which isn't a negative thing entirely, but they could have expanded on certain elements while keeping a fun balance. A single scene shows the toll this is taking; having tried endlessly to get through the lines with Vrataski, Cage starts to think this will never work out - at least for the both of them. He's seen the way it all plays out so many times that it drains any motivation. But it's brief and later gives in to unnecessary saccharine with a predictable ending. Despite the deliberate use of European beaches to convey a sense of seriousness this is at the core just a throwaway action film. Real characterisation is never reached even if the cast is likeable throughout.

The real issues arise from any closer examination of the story as it unfolds. Cage is shown as a TV personality selling the war effort, but nobody he meets knows him or believes his story about being forced into the battle; instead they are all told he's a deserter and never question this. Maybe troops in Britain don't get the US news? They go further later on by taping his mouth shut when he tells them about the future; it's played for laughs but seems a little strange when he knows such fine details. Rita is being shown to the public as a hero but she still has to go in with the other grunts, and they never explore this propaganda angle or offer any satire. The enemy is named as "the Mimics" but they never mimic anything except a mass of writhing tentacles. By the time the finale comes along this silliness starts to pile up, but this kind of shallow writing is just weak rather than something which derails the whole story. The military use of powered armour (the kind they had to cut from Starship Troopers) offers some fun visuals, even if like the aliens they are not particularly well designed. They should have looked to the original illustrations for sleeker costumes. But overall this is still a good time, and for once in this genre the pace and fun factor keep things moving along to avoid it becoming a complete shambles.

3/5

BONUS REVIEW
UNDER THE SKIN (2013)



Scarlett Johansson drives a van around Scotland to lure men into an alien soup. Yep, that's it. As a premise this allows for a number of weird and sinister moments - as well as some neat visuals - but the film has a number of other elements fighting for attention and doesn't ever consolidate them into a fully formed narrative. The horror aspect is the strongest and offers some very creepy material, but the use of hidden camera footage comes across as jarring when it's clear that the non actors have been asked to take part in the other parts of the film. By suggesting this early on it's a distraction to have time to think who is real and who is acting. A third act in which our nameless woman starts to do more than hunt for human prey is a nice turn of events, and there are various scenes that suggest her view of our society as she she explores it - but this is never fleshed out. They do manage to convey a sense of character from someone that has little dialogue but like everything it could have gone a little further to give it all more weight. Still if you're looking for a slow, atmospheric and unsettling piece of sci-fi come drama it might be worth a look.

3/5

Review Roundup - Monster Miss

GODZILLA (2014)

After the fun but immensely shallow Pacific Rim, and having seen Gareth Edwards previous film Monsters the stage was set; he could build a perfect bridge between the two. His first feature's strength was it's subtle use of giant creatures as a back drop for some good human drama. While it was nothing mind blowing there was a lot of potential to be seen in the world building, the clever use of low cost effects and the misdirection of the title. The problem is that while it's true that these elements are present in his move into big budget film making, there are a number of other problems that overshadow this. In what should have been an absolute victory for the Big G having last been wasted by Hollywood in the 1990s, things don't work out. Instead of balancing the two elements, neither the spectacle or the drama is handled in a way that works.


Straight off the bat the parts done really well stand out. Brian Cranston dealing with a nuclear accident in the opening scene sets the scene for the major strengths - engaging characters with motivations that work, and tension building through growing disaster events. It would be easy to plan out a story that brings his emotionally wrecked engineer into a collision with Ken Watanabe's biologist as both are invested from differing viewpoints. But the focus shifts early on to bring a lot of one dimensional military characters instead, for reasons that are unclear. Rather than delivering on what could be dramatic scenes between these two, Cranston's son played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson comes in after the plot moves forward in time several years. His family melodrama has no weight, the character has zero personality, and to makes things worse the way the monster parts of the story unfold are written in for complete convenience from his job as a bomb disposal expert to the path of destruction managing to arrive just where he is at the time. This weakness could have been saved by pure monster power but the problems don't end here.

Introducing the idea that these are ancient animals reliving their old life cycles is a great idea, and the way things play out to reflect current world concerns in a great use of the themes from the original 1954 movie. But not once but twice, the big battle scenes are cut short. Instead of a first and second act finale to hit those beats and keep things going, cameras cut away awkwardly to show other events instead. It's cringeworthy when they decide to end a sequence early and show it on someones TV in the background of another scene, or literally close the door on an attack when survivors get into a shelter. Maybe they had financial problems? This might have been acceptable if the sequences at the very end where amazing but the problems persist and they have way too many obscured shots from the perspective of ground troops or moments shown in dark and dusty nighttime environments. The great designs are shown off several times but don't get utilised nearly enough. All the excitement is sucked out, and it's very confusing to see the build ups done right and the outcome then totally fumbled. It's hard to say what went wrong when they clearly have the tone down and know how to build up tension in several great scenes. They even manage to give the creatures some humanity in what are the best moments, playing against expectations. But it's a big shame that these are fleeting.

2/5

BONUS REVIEW
X-MEN DAYS OF FUTURE PAST


X-Men as a screen franchise has had a troubled history, so while this latest entry is thankfully a great time I am always amazed it came back from the depths of a wasted Last Stand and the shambolic Origins: Wolverine. Hitting a number of the same notes as First Class, this remains a light but fun story using the younger cast members and real world history and a stepping off point for some absurd but entertaining set pieces. In what could happily be a final note for the series, a Terminator style future filled with death and grey wastelands collides with a colourful alternate 1970s where scary robots are created by evil mustache wearing scientists. As a result there are far too many mutants, many being on screen only to display their own visually impressive powers. At this point it's clear which ones are being introduced for special effects scenes rather than characterisation. But it balances the bleak and the fun pretty well in the end, despite a lack of real focus - while First Class worked best when it was trying to be a Magneto film this could have done better being more about Mystique or Professor X. Still, it's great to hear the X2 theme again and their is a lot to like even if at times it feels episodic.

3/5

Review Roundup - Hammer Time

THE RAID 2 (2014)

In an effort to follow up both the original film and use an earlier script that was previously considered too expensive, The Raid 2 (sometimes subtitled with it's original name Berandal or "Thug") is a strange thing to see come together. In what was originally the story of a prisoner befriending a crime boss's son and joining a mob war, this is now an undercover cop film - the nameless thug being replaced with the hero Rama from the first outing. If this all sounds a bit unwieldy, it's because it is. But whether this all collapses under it's own weight or if they manage to throw in enough eye watering set pieces and imaginative moments for it to work is something for consideration. The result is both an improvement and a step down from it's predecessor.


The lean approach on the first movie was a big part of what made it work, and here the film makers have bigger ambitions. The main problem is that by combing two ideas of an original story and a sequel which was never planned, the running time is incredibly long. They could afford to lose 30 or maybe 40 minutes here and still have a pretty spectacular film. There large number of characters to introduce; the protagonist, the crime boss, his son, and their rivals on both a Japanese and Indonesian organizations amongst others. A lot of time is given to the central dynamic in which the hot headed son wants to gain more power, something he considers his father is holding back from him. It's a fair story line for this kind of genre, but adding to this the plot strands about undercover work, corrupt cops and the other gangsters - things become a bit strained over nearly two and a half hours.

But I sound overly critical here and it isn't as bad as it could have been. This is a martial arts film after all, and the action is what makes it work. The art direction may be nice to look at during these more talkative scenes, but people are here to see the spectacle of real stunt work. Thankfully the bulk of the story is book ended by imaginative and often incredible fight sequences that are both lengthy and impressive. Not content with just the hand to hand fighting, director Gareth Evans throws in a car chase and a fight, simultaneously. The comic book elements were restricted to an absurdly awful tower block in the first film, but again things go further this time around with homeless hit men, Yakuza bosses and a prison so bad that ten or twenty man brawls can take place. Characters credited only as "Hammer Girl" and "Baseball Bat Man" are introduced in the third act (no points for guessing what they get up to) and things are ramped up to excessively violent levels as the mob conflict comes to a head. The original drab grey setting has been thrown out in favour of bright colours and visually intricate city scenes that use both incredible camera work and talented performers. The characters are as clichéd as you'd expect but it works. During the mid section it feels like it might come apart at the seams, but by gathering steam at the right time every comes together for a satisfying KO.

4/5

Scorecard

OCTOBER
  • The Terminator ☆☆☆☆☆
  • The Raid 2 ☆☆☆☆
  • Encounters of the Spooky Kind ☆☆☆☆
  • Jackie Brown ☆☆☆☆
  • Let The Right One In ☆☆☆☆
  • Nosferatu: The Vampyre ☆☆☆☆
  • Rasputin The Mad Monk ☆☆☆☆
  • Seven ☆☆☆☆
  • The 7 Golden Vampires ☆☆☆
  • The Abominable Snowman ☆☆☆ 
  • Captain Kronos ☆☆☆
  • Dracula (1958) ☆☆☆
  •  Fright Night ☆☆☆
  • Scars of Dracula ☆☆☆
  • Nosferatu ☆☆☆
  • Only Lovers Left Alive ☆☆☆
  • The Host (Goemul) ☆☆☆
  • The Thing From Another World ☆☆☆
  • The Vampire Lovers ☆☆
  • Straight on Till Morning ☆☆
  • Tales from the Crypt ☆☆
  • Dracula ☆☆
  • Salem's Lot ☆☆

Review Roundup - HALLOWEEN 2014

BLOODSUCKER FEST - 1st-31st October

PART THREE: LEFTOVERS


Time to go even further forward in time. Fright Night is a nice return to the '80s after a few older school viewings. Despite some weird vampire seduction moments (how old are these school kids?) and a story about creepy neighbours that has been done many times already, it's about as entertaining as you can expect from the era of suburban teen horror.

There's nothing exceptional here but I like the period over acting, especially from Roddy McDowell (most films from Planet of the Apes). You get a few splatter moments and some fun practical effects for your money, including wolf transformations and dissolving vampires. A standard but decent electronic score from Brad Fiedel (The Terminator) helps.


This third and final segment will be a bit of everything, so I have to add Salem's Lot. Like the evil clown film 'It' this is a two part TV movie based on the works Stephen King. Unfortunately this isn't really as good as a whole. There are some good elements here; but while the vampires are pretty damn creepy the whole thing is a bloated mess with too many plot holes, or what I have to assume are unexplained book elements.

The vampire genre always has a lot of rules to explain, and when they choose some but don't keep to them it makes things hard to follow. It's also a problem that it's full of rambling Stephen King tangents that don't serve enough of a purpose. I'd like to see this re-edited but even then there's too much material that doesn't work. Does it really need a lengthy section about a guy catching his unfaithful wife if neither of them is a main character? While James Mason adds a touch of class and the main vampire is great, most of it is just a head scratcher.


Keeping with the theme of mixing things up, I have to add a foreign language release, and one that is by far the most successful entry to this viewing session; Let The Right One In. It's deeply unnerving but also deeply character driven. The story is dark and weird but has a strong bond of friendship at the centre... even if it's one that will being ruining the lives of every day people - an idea which it doesn't shy away from exploring. The vampire is more than just a monster and its victims are more than just faceless goons to increase the body count.

It asks questions about the nature of innocence as troubled boy Oskar meets the vampire Eli - he may have a sadistic streak waiting to surface and Eli may have a lost childhood under the cold immortal exterior. Looking at the amount of bloodsuckers on this list the kind of depth here is nearly unheard of. Even if some of the even darker elements of the original story are glossed over, this is an adaptation that really works.


The same can't quite be said for Interview With The Vampire. I get the feeling a whole lot of this has been either chopped down or removed to fit the running time, or at least it's told in a way that gives it that vibe. While what's left is interesting enough, Brad Pitt feels miscast in a role that isn't energetic enough for him. Antonio Banderas arrives later but it doesn't help as he spouts a bunch of pseudo philosophy just leads nowhere.

Lestat (Tom Cruise) is total unlikeable but at least he's got a personality you can hate, and I thought he could have been given more to do here. It's bloody when required with few great Stan Winston effects, and it really picks up when scenes of action and revenge come into play. But as a horror story it lacks any real chills. It has a lot of period drama style I guess, so if intricate costumes and sets are your thing it won't disappoint. In the end that issue on the story feeling cut short means that it lacks depth and closure, which is problem when a whole life story is being told.


I'll bring this all to a close this with a newer entry in the genre, Only Lovers Left Alive. It does what the title suggests at least, but whether the melancholy romance elements and that sombre idea of living forever works against more quirky elements is questionable. I really like Tilda Swinton's performance as a wise and immortal figure but I didn't think it worked so well with other parts like John Hurt has a vampiric Christopher Marlowe or some of the more out-there concepts like human blood being toxic because of 21st century living.

It works a lot better when these characters are simply drawn as artists, writers or musicians. Adam (the suicidal rock guitarist) and Eve (the considerate naturalist) make a good pair but others like her sister Eva (the immature monster) seem a bit too much when most of the story is more thoughtful and low key. But it's all nicely filmed and has enough thought provoking stuff along the way, so it's a good note to go out on.

(Part one) (Part two)

Review Roundup - HALLOWEEN 2014

BLOODSUCKER FEST 1st-31st October

PART TWO: SHLOCK-TOBER


While the first segment of this little marathon focuses just a few of the incarnations of Dracula that have come about over the years, sequels and spin offs were always slightly different in tone. Which may be putting it lightly when it comes to Hammer releases in their later years. To be brutally honest, most of their sequels to their first attempt with Christopher Lee... are varying degrees of bad. Scars of Dracula is the only one I can enjoy for what it is. Considering all the direct follow ups in terms of story, it's strange that this one appears to be a stand-alone effort (even if they start it with yet another absurd resurrection scene). Where do they keep finding Dracula's ashes if they blew away in wind in 1958?

Lee actually gets some dialogue this time, even if it's just in a few early scenes which is good to see. It's been reported that many of the films have no speaking part for D though whether it's because he refused to read them or if they didn't write anything in the first place has been disputed. The fake bats are still really awful and there are some comedy moments which are out of place, but it's still entertaining for the most part in a silly kind of way. Their attempts at adding more violence and sex this time are still really tame which is kind of endearing, and I guess adds to the fun.


On the subject of adult content though, I found that The Vampire Lovers is case of reputation over content. Hammer's take on the Carmilla story is oddly uneventful, it's cult status and the advertising material for it are pretty misleading seeing it for what it is - a product of it's time from a mainstream studio. A few decapitations are all this does in the way of real horror and most of the vampire moments are done in vague dream scenes which lack any kind of atmosphere.

All the supposed erotic content is very low key unless the idea of a few shots of naked skin are to be considered adult content. How racy! As for the story itself, Ingrid Pitt is fine but the character isn't developed and whether miss Carnstein is evil or just lonely isn't explored in any depth. Some weird plot threads are left hanging (she has a few helpers early on who are not explained) which doesn't help. Worst of the General played by Peter Cushing is barely in it. What a crime.


Luckily he appears as Van Helsing in one of the strangest entries here, Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. The good doctor is in China... for some reason. Something about discovering if local folk tales are true, unfortunately the local academics will have nothing to do with it. Also in town is Dracula (Not Christopher Lee) for reasons even more vague. He's set up shop disguised as a priest while a group of golden masked vampires terrorise the locals for him, or so it appears.

The thing is they actually were doing this before he showed up, so their arrangement is less than crystal clear. In fact he's totally superfluous, appearing in the opening and then being dispatched in mere seconds right at the very end. I guess at this stage Van Helsing is just a pro. But story isn't the focus here - it's all about the undead action. This is a collaboration with the Shaw Brothers, and the team up brings plenty of fight scenes to the film. It's all complete nonsense but this strange set of circumstances could only ever result in a strange movie.


The nonsense continues with Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter. A British military captain who uses a Japanese sword and has a rather German accent (yeah I have no idea) travels the land, often taking off his shirt and occasionally fighting evil. It's kind of a kitchen sink approach, as you can see with his sidekick - both a professor and hunchback. After a while it's easier not to question this kind of thing.

They throw in some unique (perhaps fabricated) vampire lore, including a life draining kind rather than the usual ones that drink blood, and there's an idea about using dead frogs to discover if someone is the undead. I guess you'd have to call this an adventure story rather than any kind of horror, but it kind of works. Where else are you going to get a finale where the hero smiths a sword and duels with the vampire?

(Part one) (Part three)

Review Roundup - HALLOWEEN 2014

BLOODSUCKER FEST 1st-31st October

PART ONE- DRAC ON DRAC ACTION


Well to get this all off to a start to an appropriate start, I had to take things back to the first, and most illegal adaptation of Bram Stokers novel, Nosferatu. I quite like the name, along with the name they gave the Count in this. Both were chosen to (unsuccessfully) avoid a lawsuit at the time. Though A Symphony of Horror is a bit of an odd subtitle for a silent film surely? The film is of course iconic and the moments with Count 'Orlok' are impressively creepy considering its age, particularly the scenes on the boat and where he first attacks Jonathan 'Hutter'.

These are totally standout moments, but I also really like what few special effects they created. They're just simple animated techniques showing the supernatural powers of a vampire but they retain a lot of charm. My issue is that when he's not on screen the rest of the film is a bit lacking, particularly the part where Renfield (or whatever he isn't called in this version) escapes, as well as some of the usual period over acting. Still, it's good to revisit your roots.


Now there are other versions of the story but first I have to mention the direct remake of this one, Nosferatu: The Vampyre. Like The Fly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Thing, it's another example of 70s and 80s remakes actually using their imagination to bring something new to the table. Kinski's version of Dracula is a melancholy and sympathetic take on the mythos. He comes across as lonely, but he is also explicitly a bringer of disease and the scenes with rats are greatly expanded.

The stark horror moments from the black and white original are lost here, but instead there's an uneasy atmosphere to the whole thing and the last chapter throws in a lot of new material including some unsettling scenes of the aftermath of a plague. It also looks impressive since most of the film is shot on location with some great European scenery in both rural and city scenes. Towards the end things really divert from the original plot, and they throw in a few odd moments of dark comedy along the way. It's subtle, and overall it's an improvement for it me despite it lacking those original iconic moments.


Now going back the the 1930s, the first sound version of the story is another pop culture icon. After all, so many versions of the character sound like they are emulating this one when speaking. I found that I was kind of disappointed though after finally getting around to seeing it. After a great introductory build up with Lugosi who is definitely the star here with the film descends into wooden romance and stage drama. While Renfield is also a highlight - his raving 'rats, rats!' speech is great - the story has too many holes by the end. The 3 vampire women from the novel are here, but after changing the coffins containing Dracula's home soil into specifically being 3 boxes, they never show up again. Why not leave them in the castle or keep the invasion plot?

Lucy still becomes a vampire but after being reported in the newspaper as attacking children she vanishes from the plot - no staking here. It's been censored and you have to see the Spanish version (filmed on the same sets at the time) to see even a hint of it. Also Renfield is seen creeping towards a maid as if he will now hurt something bigger than an insect, but nothing is shown - does he do anything? This might have been forgivable if the ending wasn't also so neutered but the weird anti climax is just limp and toothless. It makes it look like the Count just illogically went to sleep knowing Van Helsing was right outside when he thought his helper had betrayed him in the last scene.


But moving on it's time for a burst of 1950s technicolour. In an apparent effort to do one over on Universal's first release, Hammer's version of Dracula (or Horror of Dracula) throws out the slow build ups in favour of pure speed - it's faster, gorier and sexier. Check out how quickly they get in Dracula's first lines in place of the slow intentional dialogue of Bela Lugosi. The way he bursts onto the scene when his female companion tries to seduce Jonathan Harker is great, he's all red eyed and hissing.

The cobwebs are totally blown away; even the opening has blood being splattered onto the screen when the coffin is revealed. Even the showdown is all running and jumping - it's weird to see this much action with Peter Cushing. The film itself isn't perfect by any means and they still never get into the meat of the original story, but it's entertaining and brightly coloured. Ultimately it's just fun to see how this has evolved over time through each iteration. Dracula will rise once again in this run down, but stay tuned as next up there will be a little more ... variety.

(Part two) (Part three)