Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Random Who Report: Vengeance on Varos (1985)

DVD cover and Amazon link
The Colin Baker era of DOCTOR WHO is an interesting one, held in relative disgrace by a lot of Who fans. The sixth Doctor’s first season (of only two) was a strangely experimental one, with longer episodes, a darker tone, and a brash and arrogant lead character with the most ridiculous outfit imaginable. Ratings eroded and the show was yanked off the schedule for 18 months, and the next season was a gutted reformatting, signifying that the BBC no longer had any confidence in the institution. I honestly think that this period of WHO gets more flak than it deserves; yes, it was uneven, and took the show from being a popular hit to a cult item, but it was a daring attempt to move the show forward, and it produced a few classics.

Case in point, VENGEANCE ON VAROS. This is probably the best executed of Season 22’s stories, without the awkward structuring that plagued the show’s expansion to 45-minute episodes, but at the same time it demonstrates the stylistic change that had come over the show. It’s a grim, violent, gritty story about a dystopian society where torture and murder are used to distract the public from their crippling poverty, and it’s laced with surrealism and murky morals. It’s also bordering on brilliant, with a magnificently constructed premise that touches on a lot of social issues in a way that, while not subtle, avoids preachiness for the most part. Like much of the season it’s slick and stylish, and it introduces one of the show’s more memorable villains. If only I could figure out what, precisely, the title is referring to.

Varos is a desolate mining world, originally a prison colony. Its chief export is the precious metal Zyton-7, which it sells to an intergalactic mining conglomerate represented by the sluglike Sil (Nabil Shaban). The conglomerate uses its muscle to extort a low price for the metal, keeping the planet poor; the current governor (Martin Jarvis, being fucking awesome) wants the people to hold out for a better deal, but they need food and keep voting him down. Incidentally, whenever the governor loses a vote, he’s subjected to a shower of laser beams, and losing too many or by too much means they’d better sweep him up and find a replacement. To try and keep the public happy, the governor also broadcasts executions and torture sessions from inside the colony’s punishment dome, and there’s no shortage of dissidents. Into this fascist society with a veneer of democracy comes the Doctor and Peri (Nicola Bryant), as the TARDIS needs its Zyton supplies replenished. They happen to arrive just as the rebel Jondar (Jason Connery) is about to be executed, and they try to escape the dome’s many traps and mind games, while the arrival of two offworlders brings tensions between Sil and the governor (and his underling, who is taking payoffs from the mining company) to a point of no return.

A main reason why I love this story is that the society presented is so damn fascinating. Most looks at the story focus on the “video nasties” angle, but that’s just one salacious part of a larger picture; what we have is basically a corporate-run fascist state with the trappings of democracy. The art direction is very reminiscent of 2000 A.D. (the Judge Dredd comics in particular), and despite middling production values the story has a strong atmosphere. A kind of Greek chorus is provided by a middle-aged couple, the miner Arak (Stephen Yardley) and wife Etta (BRAZIL’s Sheila Reid), who watch the Punishment Dome proceedings, vote via television screen, and never leave their little hovel- a decision both economic and evocative.

One of the things that really disarmed viewers during Colin Baker’s first year was how poorly the Doctor and his companion got along. The arguments between him and Peri aren’t as severe as in some other stories, and they don’t spend quite as much time wandering around on their own as they do in other stories (the season’s major problem- writers weren’t really used to the 45-minute format, and never had time to get comfortable with it.) The Doctor’s still a blowhard, but he’s dealing with such baldfaced evil that he doesn’t have to go far to be the hero.

The story has its rough patches, namely loads of clunky expository dialogue from Jondar and his main rebel squeeze Areta (Geraldine Alexander); the good guys can’t help but come off bland in such a fascinatingly dark environment. As the governor, Jarvis fares much better- he’s so dignified and charismatic you almost forget that he’s part of the system. Nicholas Chagrin (best name ever, by the way), also has some great scenes as Quillam, the sadistic head of the Punishment Dome with a fondness for genetic experimentation who gives the proceedings a bit of a David Lynch feel, and Shaban and Forbes Collins are both impressive. I like Colin Baker’s Doctor quite a bit, including his ridiculous outfit, and Nicola Bryant is, well... bouncy, in whatever way you care to interpret that.

Forced to make a snap decision (I’m not getting left with 5 posts a month again), I’m going to give this one a very high grade. It’s the best of C. Baker’s stories, and if you want to see just one of his, this is it. It’s fiercely intelligent, well directed, solidly paced, and though it embodies a lot of the stylistic weirdness and grimness that made season 22 so polarizing, it’s also just plain good sci-fi. This is a classic that stands up with the best of any era.

Written by Philip Martin
Produced by John Nathan-Turner
Directed by Ron Jones

Grade: A

Monday, June 29, 2009

Random Movie Report #67: Monster From A Prehistoric Planet

Link to MONSTER FROM A PREHISTORIC PLANET on DVDWhen I reviewed GAMERA VS. MONSTER X, it was from a double feature DVD, so I’ve decided a week later to take a look at the back-end. MONSTER FROM A PREHISTORIC PLANET, also known as GAPPA, THE TRIPHIBIAN MONSTERS, is the only kaiju film made by Nikkatsu studios, and despite having fallen into obscurity it’s been put out on video and DVD several times now. If you’re wondering how a film can be both obscure and prolific, well, I can imagine that after Nikkatsu fell on hard times in the 70s they sold the rights at bargain basement prices and haven’t bothered to raise them since. It’s become sort of an off-brand monster movie, cheap but lacking the identification of a Godzilla or Gamera, and unfortunately this is an accurate reflection of the contents. MONSTER FROM A PREHISTORIC PLANET is one of the most generic entries ever in a genre that’s already dominated by formula.

The film opens on a scientific expedition traveling the South Seas to find exotic animals for “Playmate Land”, a lush tropical resort built by the manager of Playmate magazine (which I guess is supposed to be Playboy, but with a conspicuous lack of models, clothed or otherwise.) They happen upon a volcanic island beset by frequent tremors, which the unfortunately-made-up natives attribute to something called “Gappa”. The expedition finds a giant egg, out of which hatches a strange bird-like reptile or reptile-like bird. Over the natives’ objections, they take the Gappa creature with them to Japan, theorizing that the prehistoric egg was kept in suspended animation for millions of years and that the little fellow is alone in the world. Needless to say, they’re wrong, and both mama and papa Gappa emerge from the depths in search of their lost offspring, ultimately following its cries to the mainland.

The logical response to such a situation would be to set the creature free as quickly as you possibly can, and run, but naturally this can’t happen right away. The film’s major problem is that it can’t really convey why this can’t happen; usually it’s because the money men are evil selfish bastards, the kind you’d see foreclosing on orphanages in early talkies, but the Playmate manager is just kind of a curmudgeon, and the scientists just sort of overly ambitious, so it’s just the script preventing them from coming to their senses half an hour in. In the meantime, the Gappa parents destroy a whole bunch of stuff in some reasonably impressive destruction scenes, but that’s really all the film has to offer. The story is pretty much a straight line from beginning to end. If you’ve ever seen a giant monster movie, you will know what’s coming. If you haven’t- well, I’d suggest something else to start.

It’s not that this is a bad movie. The monster action is decent, the visuals are colorful, the execution is competent. But it’s too transparently put together from parts of other movies; the giant-monster-going-after-its-child plot is from the British epic GORGO, the jungle adventure stuff is KING KONG by way of Toho’s KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, the idea of two flying monsters as mates is from RODAN, the evil-capitalists stealing from humble native types is from MOTHRA, and so it goes. This is not a genre that requires original thinking, but the way these elements are conflated seems cheap and cynical; Nikkatsu saw the kaiju genre was making money and rushed out something that was just like everything else. It’s the definition of uninspired.

As I said, the actual monster scenes are not bad. The Gappa design is interesting, and the only really inspired part of the production, and the final scenes are almost touching. The miniatures work is decent, but the scenes start to lose interest after a while because, again, they’re just marking time until we get to the climax. On the human level, there’s some attempt at a love triangle that doesn’t quite work because it’s presented in a downright obtuse way, and there’s some business with the publisher being a widower looking after a young daughter, and in a nod to the Gamera movies, there’s one child from the island who understands the Gappas and tries to help get the baby released. Rather unfortunately, the child is in black face, and I was almost going to excuse this as being down to the lack of a diverse casting pool in 1960s Japan until I noticed that he was also wearing bright red lipstick. Yeah. (And don’t worry, there’s also a bit of old-school sexism to go alongside the racism- though it comes from the love subplot that makes no sense, so the effect is diluted.)

Now, if you enjoy watching giant monsters wreck shit up, the film does deliver on this basic element, and isn’t terrible at it. I didn’t really dislike this film, it just got old after a while. It’s a perfectly average entry in the genre by people who apparently thought that would be good enough, but that’s what you tend to find in the discount bin. Now, I will say that I’ve only seen the pan-and-scanned American edit, and maybe the original Japanese version makes more sense or is just better overall, but then again maybe it’s worse. So it events out.

(Also, MONSTER FROM A PREHISTORIC PLANET makes no sense as a title, except AIP distributed a movie called VOYAGE TO THE PREHISTORIC PLANET. GAPPA, THE TRIPHIBIAN MONSTERS makes a little more sense, but I’m not sure “Triphibian” is a word.)

Written by Ryozo Nakanishi and Gan Yamazaki
Directed by Haruyasu Noguchi

Grade: C

Sunday, June 28, 2009

In Theaters: The Hangover

Hangover poster and IMPAwards link
A common law of comedy is that no bachelor party can ever go well. They are always planned as decadent, orgiastic affairs, but the stripper catches a cold, the booze runs out, and any number of things can go wrong with the porn. The actual party in THE HANGOVER may or may not have gone well, depending on the evidence that the memory-robbed main characters are able to piece together as they hunt down the groom. Needless to say, this is not the most original of comedies, but it compensates for that by being funny, by being well-made, and by being a genuinely engaging story. It pays more attention to actual filmmaking than you would expect, and though you may be thinking that the last thing we needed was yet another male-bonding grossout comedy, strong work can keep a genre fresh after a surprisingly long time.

Doug Billings (Justin Bartha) is getting married, and so his friends- Phil (Bradley Cooper), the henpecked Stu (Ed Helms), and the not-all-there future-brother-in-law Alan (Zach Galifianakis)- drag him to Vegas for a night of carousing. The friends wake up the next morning in a deluxe suite, with a tiger in the bathroom, a baby in the closet, no sign of Doug, and no recall of how things got to this point. They’ve also managed to steal a cop car, and Stu- who was going to propose to his girlfriend later- finds that he’s gotten married to an attractive and friendly escort named Jade (Heather Graham). Not to spoil too much, but they’ve somehow also gotten into trouble with local underworld figures, and also Mike Tyson. And the wedding’s tomorrow, so there’s that.

The fact that I even have to worry about spoilers this time is interesting; the plot of this kind of comedy is usually the least important thing, but here we have an actual mystery, complete with red herrings and what in retrospect is an almost logical answer. It’s genuinely fun to watch the story come into focus, and to see apparently random elements start to come together. It’s a very smartly plotted film, and it’s one that has the power to surprise the viewer now and again.

But THE HANGOVER is also, like all movies in the smart-dumb-guy subgenre of comedy, about its characters and their relationships. We basically have three people who would probably not be friends if not for Doug, and under pressure and without him they start to have trouble. Our three main actors are funny on their own, but they establish a really strong rapport that, though it involves insulting each other frequently, manages to go deeper when it needs to. Graham is also nice to see again; she’s not the most versatile actress, but this is a part she makes believable instead of a stereotype. Mike Tyson’s appearance as himself is amusingly low-key, though I’m not entirely clear on the joke with Ken Jeong’s character.

Nothing in Todd Phillips’ filmography makes you think you’re in the hands of a skilled veteran, but in terms of visuals, editing, and pacing, this is actually tighter than quite a few comedies. At times it comes off as a spoof of Vegas-situated thrillers, with people in trunks, cards being counted, etc., and a weird intensity is maintained through much of the proceedings, however stupid they are. I always appreciate it when filmmakers don’t let genre get in the way of good material, and though this film never stops being a comedy, it doesn’t take that as an excuse to be lazy with the visuals or storytelling.

In short, yes, there have been more than a few for-the-guys comedies lately and THE HANGOVER doesn’t reinvent the genre. But it’s pretty smartly put together, and infectiously funny as a result. It’s a film that’s better than it has any right to be, and those are always great to stumble across.

Written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore
Directed by Todd Phillips
Grade: A-

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Random Movie Report #66: Gamera vs. Monster X

DVD cover and Amazon link
The Gamera series gets no respect. Sure, he had a great run on MST3K and there’s the trilogy of films he made in the 90s that got a solid US release and a lot of fan acclaim, but for whatever reason, the super turtle’s original adventures remain the stuff of budget DVDs with mediocre full-screen transfers. But even though Gamera was Godzilla’s cheaper competition, his films relegated to TV in the states, he’s had his moments, and GAMERA VS. MONSTER X (which somehow never made it to the Satellite of Love) is one of them. The sixth film in the series, MONSTER X boasts better than usual production values and some interesting and creative wrinkles in the story. It still has all the goofiness of the Gamera series, but it’s the kind of goofy that can grow on you.

The film is centered around the 1970 World Expo, which actually was held in Osaka, Japan, so it’s a sort of plug (a lot of location work was done at the fairgrounds, but the cropping was so bad for the TV print that you’d never notice.) A possibly British, possibly American professor has uncovered a giant stone statue on a Pacific island that he thinks would make a perfect exhibition piece for the fair, despite the local warnings of curses and demon beasts and so on. Gamera himself tries to stop the statue being moved, but it gets lifted off anyway, which unleashes the strange monster Jiger from beneath the Earth. Gamera’s natural inclination is to pound the crap out of the sluggish quadruped, but Jiger has a number of tricks, from the ability to fire spikes into Gamera’s limbs (preventing him from retracting them and flying away) to actually injecting his foe with something particularly nasty via a tail stinger. This later development forces two children to borrow a miniature submarine and actually travel inside the giant turtle’s body, in what I am absolutely sure was in no way inspired by FANTASTIC VOYAGE.

You can’t accuse this one of being slow paced; the series made a point of having Gamera show up early on to make sure the kids kept paying attention during any plot stuff to follow, and there’s not much of a human story getting in the way of the monster action. There’s some brief conflict between the Hiroshi, the main Japanese kid (Tsutomu Takakuwa) and Williams’ two children Tommy and Susan (Kelly Varis and Katherine Murphy, respectively); Hiroshi’s very much a Gamera fan, but the two Anglo children are present when Gamera attacks the dig, so they briefly dislike him, until Jiger appears and all is forgiven. There’s also the question of a mysterious curse on the statue itself, which seems to sicken the people who handle it, and this is part of the overall mystery of how the ancient people of Mu managed to trap Jiger in the first place.

The monsters dominate, and Jiger is an interesting beast. He’s one of the most successful attempts at a four-legged animal I’ve seen in vintage kaiju eiga- obviously the actor has to bend his legs back, but while other such monsters clearly walk on their knees, the Jiger suit makes it seem like he’s using four feet. Both monster suits seem more detailed than usual, and the miniatures work has also improved from past entries. Granted, it’s still fakey, but it looks quite nice. The interlude inside Gamera’s body is particularly surreal; somehow the interior of his lung has soft cave-like floors and man-size corridors, like that one Zelda level. Jiger has a weird grab bag of powers- he’s got the spikes, the stinger, he shoots out a high frequency death ray, he can propel himself through the water like a motorboat, and he can draw objects to his body using suction. He’s far from the only Japanese monster to have rolled his powers on a random table, and in general the Gamera series seems to have been what started the trend. The action is fast and brutal, with a slight apocalyptic tone owing to Jiger’s seemingly demonic nature.

The film is a little slight to start, and falls prey to many of the familiar clich├ęs of the Gamera series; you have children who can muscle their way into high-level government meetings, you have Gamera being incapacitated not once but twice before the final showdown, and you have the young hero’s passionate insistence that Gamera will save everyone no matter how bad things look. As much as credibility is stretched in some points (and for a giant monster movie that’s saying something), the story has a bizarre logic to it, and there’s more atmosphere than usual, especially in the scenes at Jiger’s island home. There are even a couple of solid intentionally funny bits, mostly involving the parents’ reactions to their kids running off inside Gamera’s guts.

Despite maybe a misstep here and there (there’s some gross documentary footage of larvae being surgically removed from an elephant’s trunk, for which the scientist presenting it even apologizes), GAMERA VS. MONSTER X does merit some distinction as probably the last strong entry in the franchise until 25 years later. Bad times would hit Daiei for a while, but at their peak they managed to produce a fun and almost-lavish monster throw down that’s worth a look for fans. There’s nothing too spectacular, but it does its job well.

Written by Nisan Takahashi
Directed by Noriaki Yuasa
Grade: B

Monday, June 15, 2009

In Theaters: Drag Me To Hell

Drag Me to Hell poster and IMPAwards link
These days it’s considered a bad sign when a horror film is released with a PG-13 rating; the assumption is not that the filmmakers have decided to be classy and restrained, but that they’re saving all the blood and gore for the DVD and gifting theatrical audiences with watered-down teenybopper fare. So it’s nice to see Sam Raimi not only return to the genre that kicked off his career, but do so with a fun shocker like DRAG ME TO HELL, which milks the- heck out of its rating, and is never anything less than over the top and insane. It’s nowhere near the schlocky heights of the Evil Dead films, but it’s an unpretentious and fun picture; audiences may not get that it’s supposed to be more than a little cheesy and silly, but, well, I just told you so it’s not like you have an excuse.

The film revolves around a particularly nasty gypsy curse, in which the victim, in possession of a hexed object, is carried off body and soul to the Underworld by a horrific demon called a lamia, after three days of psychological torture. Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), an aspiring bank loan office, runs afoul of this curse when she denies an extension to an old gypsy woman (Lorna Raver) who makes a bit of a scene begging not to have her house taken away. One switch of a button later, and Christine is being set upon by shadows, visions of demons, flies, and various and sundry scary stuff. She’s doomed unless a local fortune teller (Dileep Rao) and her skeptical fiance (Justin “Giving Mac Users a Bad Image” Long) can help find a way to break the curse before her three days are up.

So, a simple plot, on which is hung a series of scare sequences that frequently switch off between frightening and funny. I don’t think the people in the theater when I saw this movie entirely got this; Universal promoted this as a straight horror film, and for a while it plays like one, but that’s never really been Raimi’s bag. There’s a lot of deliberate exaggeration, both in the shock sequences and in the everyday scenes; I suspect Sam and Ivan Raimi are drawing heavily on EC Comics and its gruesome, heavy-handed, but strangely sardonic morality plays. It’s a style that takes some getting used to, mainly because it hasn’t been dragged out in a while.

The difference between horror and comedy seems to boil down to how much we are driven to identify with the protagonist, and it’s here that the film pulls off an unusual balancing act. Christine is no innocent; she does a bad thing, and later is motivated more by self interest than by repentance. However, her situation is sympathetic, we understand how she came to make her decision, and on top of everything the curse just seems like excessive punishment, especially when we first see it employed on a young boy whose great sin was to snatch a necklace. I’ve seen a couple of complaints about how gypsies are portrayed in this film, and this does seem to paint them as almost, well, dickish, and the sheer awfulness of what’s happening does tend to put us on the main character’s side.

Of course, it helps that the main character is a sweet-looking young woman, and I have to give Lohman a lot of credit; the film puts her through the wringer in an almost Bruce Campbellian fashion, and she comports herself well. That she never fully loses our sympathy even after some ugly behavior gives the picture some genuine suspense. None of the performances are anything less than broad, but of course that’s the point.

Now, I’m not entirely sure about the ending of this picture; on one level, it’s as sensible a direction as any for the story to go, but it’s pretty telegraphed and frankly reminiscent of, well, every other horror movie of the past few years. It’s a trick that was edgy sometime around the late Sixties, but that edge has been dulled and I honestly wonder just how shocking it would really be if horror movies started doing the exact opposite. But again, I can see why they went that way this time around, so it’s not really a flaw.

(Hence ends my entry for the 2009 Vaguest Paragraph competition. I’ve got a good feeling about this year.)

I gave SPIDER-MAN 3 a good grade and remember well that I enjoyed it, though I honestly haven’t seen it since, so honestly I can’t say whether or not this is a return to form for Raimi. But it’s a nice project to see from him, a film that sets its own terms and succeeds on them even if it’s nothing close to what audiences expect. You’ve got about five days before this one disappears from theaters completely, so hop to it.

Written by Sam Raimi and Ivan Raimi
Directed by Sam Raimi

Grade: B+

Sunday, June 07, 2009

In Theaters: Up

UP poster and IMPAwards link
UP is a deceptively simple film, a sweet character-driven story that becomes a wild and unpredictable epic without ever betraying itself. Pixar is basically the one studio left that can turn out original stories every summer and still walk away with lots of money, and what we have here is a true original; a story you’d never expect to get past the drawing board realized with a lot of dedication and commitment, touching on themes of old age, dreams lost and recaptured and realized, and bitter obsessions. Heavy stuff, but also lighter than air.
It’s the story of Carl (voiced by Ed Asner), who grew up wanting to become an adventurer, and met Ellie, who wanted the same. They were married, wanted to have kids but she couldn’t, tried to save up for a trip but never could, and she passed on- a series of events related heartbreakingly simply at the picture’s start. In the present, he’s now an old curmudgeon keeping his old house in order while around him, a major business development is being put up. When it seems as though he’ll finally be forced out, he uses leftover helium balloons from his time working at the zoo to lift his house off its foundations, turning it into an airship destined for the lost plateau of Paradise Falls, his and Ellie’s dream destination. It turns out, though, that a well-meaning junior Wilderness Explorer named Russell (Jordan Nagai) has inadvertently stowed along for the ride, and a bumpy half-landing forces the two to walk across the plateau, towing the house towards the resting place Ellie always envisioned. But they’re not alone- a legendary explorer (Christopher Plummer) is on the hunt for a rare bird, and when Russell meets the creature, his scout training compels him to help out.

I feel like I’m already spoiling too much, because part of the pleasure of the film is in the way the story unfolds. It starts very simply, as the story of one old man’s ambition, and adds the other elements slowly enough to avoid upsetting the balance. The plotting is both elegant and loopy; as goofy as it all is, all the elements fit together very well, and as is the standard at Pixar, plot movements are often indicated by very simple gestures or clear images, with the dialogue doing support work.

The film definitely evokes pulp adventure at times (with the plateau being reminiscent of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s LOST WORLD), but is hard to pin down to any one genre. You’ve got the sadness of Carl’s past, lots of physical comedy, a pack of talking dogs who are no smarter for their verbalization (co-writer-and-director Bob Peterson provides the voice of the lovable Dug as well as the sinister Alpha), and some action and adventure, and you get the feeling that the filmmakers had a distinct vision and weren’t too concerned about shoehorning it into any particular set of conventions.

The characters are what make this work; Carl can be sour and cranky but never truly comes across as just a bitter old man. He has a dream and a sense of adventure, and compassion and imagination, and these are never too deeply buried. Russell is a perfect counterpart, all motion and energy, not stupid but definitely reckless. Dug is, well, a dog, who thinks in dog logic and often thinks he hears a squirrel, and steals attention every time he’s on screen. Muntz, the explorer, is almost admirable, but he’s let a mad dream drag him away. All the character beats are natural and realistic, and as such, no matter how absurd the action gets it makes sense.

This is Pixar’s first film made in 3-D, but again, I was not able to see it in the format intended. I’m told it doesn’t make a huge difference either way, but the visuals are up to the company’s normal standard; perhaps not as elaborate as those in WALL-E, but the character designs are strong and the action is always clear and coherent, which is saying something when you bring in giant zeppelins, packs of talking dogs, and a flying house.

UP continues a tradition of great storytelling, building imaginative hilarity around a sweet, sad core. Its emotional content is simple and honest, and never at the expense of entertainment value. It’s hard to say where this ranks in Disney/Pixar’s charts, because you’ve only got the 90-100% range to work with for these guys, but it’s a picture well worth seeing, and the best of the summer so far.

Story by Bob Peterson, Thomas McCarthy, and Pete Docter
Written and Directed by Bob Peterson and Pete Docter
Grade: A