Monday, 30 January 2012

Review - Salute of the Jugger (1989 - Dir. David Webb Peoples)

The studio responsible for Salute of the Jugger should be taken to court for seriously misrepresenting the contents of this film. I was expecting salutes. Lots of salutes. Even one iconic shot of Rutger Hauer saluting would have been enough. Not a sniff of it. They may as well have called it Wink of the Jugger for the severe lack of winking content. 

We're in Mad Max 2 territory for this one. Set in a dusty post-apocalyptic world, Sallow (Mr Hauer) is a 'Jugger', a player of a violent futuristic sport that pretty much involves hitting people. Each team includes a variety of roles. There's the 'Quick' who has to get a dog skull and put it on a stick in the opposition's half to win the game. Protecting this lightweight is a fella with a big spiky chain and three players equipped with Gladiators style pugil sticks. If this all sounds slightly familiar it might interest you to know that this is J.K Rowling's favourite film. Possibly.

Sallow is eventually joined by a new 'Quick', Kidda (Joan Chen) who, rather than playing games in shanty towns against Vauxhall Conference opposition, wants to have a shot at playing in the league. Funnily enough, the film ends with them challenging a league team to a game in what is the film's best setting: a grimy underground town containing an arena and a hotel that would have Health and Safety executives sweating. The hammocks are all on the side of a huge wall, only accessed by climbing multiple ladders.

Considering the 18 rating, it's not very violent or bloody, and the ending is a bit of a shame, but it has a suitable atmosphere and you can't help wanting Sallow's team to win. Certainly not one of Rutger Hauer's greatest films, but it's still worth a watch. Also, the title screen is gloriously akin to C64 game box art. Almost worth it for that.

If you like this you could also try:
Mad Max 2, Split Second, Dust Devil, Rollerball, Fortress.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Review - Resident Evil: Degeneration (2008 - Dir. Makoto Kamiya)

Featuring fan favourites Claire Redfield and Leon S. Kennedy from Resident Evil 2, Resident Evil:Degeneration is a fully CG film in the style of Appleseed Ex Machina and Vexille. Although not as good.

The main problem that you notice straight away is that all of the characters were born and raised in the Uncanny Valley. In fact, they'll probably get married, grow old and die there too. The voice acting is fairly poor too, which doesn't help matters. Add into the mix some of the craziest floaty CG hair in certain scenes and we're not off to a good start.

But stick with it. The opening half hour is pretty chock full of action. A plane crashes, zombies attack and zombies get shot in the head. All good stuff. The next half hour gets bogged down in exposition and 'really not that much happens' territory though. It all picks up again for the last thirty minutes with explosions, mutants and slow motion bullets a-plenty. Pretty much a game of three thirds.

Real actors were filmed in a motion capture studio as a basis for the animation. Their facial movements were also recorded when they spoke their lines. The actor that played Leon (Paul Mercier) must have been wearing a plastic Liza Minnelli mask for all the expression his face shows. Not even a flicker of a smile. You can probably tell I'm not that impressed with the technology but the fire effects and explosions are gorgeous. Fire is notoriously hard to do with CG (way easier for pyromaniacs) but they have done a great job here.

If you can suspend your disbelief with the characters' blank stares and put up with a slow middle third then there's a half decent action film to be found. Worth a watch if you can get it cheap and way better than any of the live action Resident Evil films. But then most things are. Even anaesthetic-free DIY tooth extractions.

If you like this you could also try:
Vexille, Appleseed Ex Machina.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Review - Screamers: The Hunting (2009 - Dir. Sheldon Wilson)

In the original Screamers review, I posed the question,'How bad can the sequel be?' The obvious answer is that it could be really, really bad. Luckily, it's not.

I think that there must be a ceiling on how good this could actually be. It's a low-budget sequel to a film about burrowing robotic purveyors of spinny circular saws, with severe death the only thought in their minds. Screamers: The Hunting has just about reached this ceiling.

The plot is very recognisable, even down to the early shots of our heroine Lt. Bronte (Gina Holden) in hypersleep. She's on her way to a planet (Sirius 6-B, from the original film) because of a distress call. She travels with a group of marine types (who look like something out of Gears of War on the DVD cover). Then she finds a small girl called Newt and fights the alien queen in a powerloader. Okay, maybe not the last bit.

To be honest, I didn't expect a lot storywise. But, the screamer killings needed to shine. The practical effects are up to the task. We get heads taken off by flying screamers, heads cleaved in two, heads liquidized by circular saw tongue appendages and arms rammed through bodies (and heads). There's plenty of gore, but it would benefit from some extra shots to build anticipation levels. Many gore scenes happened without me quite being ready for them, so I couldn't appreciate them fully.

The less said about the CGI effects, the better.

Even though the cast are fairly standard issue for this type of film, the one shining light is Lance Henriksen. They must have only been able to get him for a couple of days filming, but he does improve matters greatly. He doesn't really do a lot, but his onscreen presence lifts the whole film.

Altogether then, it's pretty much what you'd expect from a half-decent Screamers sequel. It is blatantly straight to DVD fodder, but still enjoyable for what it is. 

If you like this you could also try:
Screamers, Runaway, Death Machine.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Review - The African Queen (1951 - Dir. John Huston)

The African Queen is very similar to Ice Cold in Alex in that it has a very linear story. Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) and Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) are traveling down a river in Africa, so it would have struggled to be anything but linear. Set at the start of World War I, Rose's missionary brother (little Robert Morley) comes a bit of a cropper at the hands of the Germans at the beginning of the film, so the piano-playing, hymn-singing, high-necked dress wearing Rose is hell-bent on revenge. The plan is to tool up Charlie's boat, The African Queen, with whacking great torpedoes and ram an enemy warship. Kaboom!

Between them and the German's death boat are a variety of river-related problems: rapids, German gun emplacements, leeches and a major lack of gin. This all makes it sound like an action packed rip-roaring adventure. It's not really. It's all quite gentle. There is some mild peril at the end but you are never really worried about the two main characters.

The acting from Bogart and Hepburn is great, as you'd expect, and it would have to be, seeing as though they are carrying the whole film. Bogart plays a rough and ready character who likes a bit of a drink (and does some premium quality hippo impersonations) and Hepburn, a prim and proper lady who discovers she is an adrenaline junkie. They are the quintessential odd couple.

You know that there are going to be some romantic entanglements, but it all seems to happen a tad too fast for my liking. One minute they hate each other and then it's all kisses and cuddles and wriggling about. Possibly not the wriggling. It feels like there should have been more of a transition period in the middle of the film. Maybe he could have given her some Milk Tray, or winked and clicked at her.

Given that, I still enjoyed The African Queen. I've never really been bothered about watching a Humphrey Bogart film (Casablanca never appeals) but I quite liked him and would probably watch another. 


If you like this you could also try:
Ice Cold in Alex, The Philadelphia Story, Apocalypse Now (only joking)

Friday, 6 January 2012

Review - Renaissance (2006 - Dir. Christian Volckman)

About five minutes into this I went back to the main menu, looking for sound options. It felt as though the voices didn't strictly match the animation. No option for another language, just English. Okay then. The next thing I noticed is how bad the voice acting is; it's worse than early 90s computer game cutscene acting. This almost made it unwatchable.

The other thing that almost makes it unwatchable is the style. The filmmakers have to be applauded for trying something different, and at times, the stark black and white animation really works, especially on the intricate architecture. But when the camera is on the characters the harsh white becomes painful to the eyes and worse still the action can be very hard to read. Fine, try something different, but change tack when you can blatantly see that it's really hard work to watch.

You may have noticed that I haven't mentioned the story yet. That's because it's pretty hard to follow. Your mind swings between 'Ooh bright light. Too painful' and 'This acting is laughable'; you don't have a lot of time to actually take in the story. From the little I managed to glean, it's something about a mega-cosmetics type company in 2054 called Avalon (L'oreal in other words). Set in Paris, the main story revolves around Ilona who gets kidnapped and our grizzled cop hero, Karas, sets out to investigate.

There are some great visual ideas: a glass office set in the middle of a bridge, glass multi-levelled pedestrian areas and the blending of two faces through a reflection in a sheet of glass. They like their glass. 

The biggest surprise was getting to the credits: Daniel Craig, Romola Garai (Glorious 39), Ian Holm, the list goes on. I've heard of 'phoning in' performances but these were sent by smoke signal. From a fire made out of smokeless briquettes. That had long since gone out. Shocking stuff. Looking at Wikipedia (so it's obviously true) there is a French cast list. I'm guessing, but I suspect the French language version would have been way better. How hard is it to put the original version on a DVD? Different soundtrack and subtitles, that's it. I'd have typed the subtitles for them if they were that strapped for cash. I feel quite sorry for the filmmakers, to have their efforts severely hampered by the distributor and actors who sound like they couldn't be bothered, Craig being the main offender.

It's still painful on the eye though.

If you liked this you could also try:
Ink, Appleseed: Ex Machina, Vexille.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Review - Julia's Eyes (2010 - Dir. Guillem Morales)

I'm always a little bit suspicious when a film is presented by someone (Guillermo Del Toro in this case) or is advertised as being from the producers of another more famous film (The Orphanage). I automatically think that the film in question isn't good enough to sell itself. In addition to this, the filmmakers are entering that overcrowded horror sub-genre of 'Blind lady being terrorised by a nutter'. Going toe-to-toe with Wait Until Dark is never going to be easy.

Initially, I was proved wrong. There is a fantastic opening to Julia's Eyes with a shock that actually made me jump slightly. The tension/creepy atmosphere continues with Julia (Belén Rueda), a woman suffering from a degenerative condition that will eventually make her blind, being followed by a barely glimpsed, shadowy figure. Admittedly, the scares descend quickly into 'there's someone behind you' territory, but all seems to be going swimmingly.

Then it flatlines. I know that people have to do stupid things in horror films, but Julia is a bit too stupid to believe. Why would anyone, left blind after an eye operation, opt to go back to a creepy house, alone, where all manner of horrible occurrences have been occurring? Julia's Eyes never recovers from this.

One of the main stylistic features turns out to be irrelevant. While Julia's eyes are bandaged, the camera never shows anyone else's face. A good technique for building empathy with Julia and you know that when one of the character's is finally revealed, it will be a big twisty shock. Er... no. The person in question might or might not be a character that we glimpsed (for all of 5 frames) earlier in the film. When the character is finally shown, I couldn't state 100% whether it was the previous character or not. And I'm normally good with faces. The fact that the original character needs a name badge, so that you can recognise him later on, shows that his face is not that memorable.

At another point, you see (?) the world through Julia's eyes. In other words, you see a black screen. I was thinking that this could be a really clever part, where they tell the story for a few minutes entirely with audio. Er... no. Her bandages are off within twenty seconds. Another waste of time.

There are so many ideas that go nowhere. It's all very disappointing. On the plus side, the film looks gorgeous, especially in the initial half hour. Beautiful colours, depth of field and even a bit of foggy mistiness (always a treat). In the latter stages you are too bothered by the plot to even notice the visuals.

To return to the front of the Blu-ray case: "Edge-of-the-seat viewing from start to finish" - Little White Lies. Big Fat Porkers more like. Watch Wait Until Dark instead. It's way better.

If you like this you could also try:
Wait Until Dark, The Devil's Backbone, Tell No One.