Friday 31 May 2013

Near Dark (1987)

Near Dark is a revisionist vampire movie from director Kathryn Bigelow, who also co-wrote the script with Eric Red, that didn't really do as well as it should have upon its initial release for one main reason*. The Lost Boys. I have made peace with the fact that I love both movies, but back in 1987 it was The Lost Boys that had the mass appeal, that quickly wormed its way into the popular culture of that generation (thanks to the hot stars and the cracking soundtrack) and that ruled the box office roost. Thankfully, Near Dark never disappeared, thanks to a small, loyal fanbase that would continue to recommend the film to those who had missed it while being dazzled by Keifer Sutherland and Jason Patric.

A small, loyal fanbase, however, can only do so much for any movie. What ends up gaining a film a cult following is usually one thing, it's really quite a good film. Okay, there are also terrible films that gain cult followings so there are two things. The film has to either be really good or really bad. Near Dark is really good. REALLY good.

It starts off with a young man named Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) picking up a lovely young woman named Mae (Jenny Wright). Enjoying the company as he drives Mae home, Caleb then tries his luck for a kiss. He stops and won't go any further. Mae ends up biting Caleb, and then things get strange and dangerous as Caleb gets pulled into Mae's "family", a group of vampires who initially consider just killing Caleb but then decide to give him a chance. IF he makes his first kill within the allotted time limit then he will join them. If not, he'll be killed. Confused, ill, repulsed and worried, Caleb just wants to get home.

With an absolutely fantastic cast (many of whom helpfully taken from the cast of Aliens), a nice mix of vampire genre elements with some Western tropes and an aesthetic arguably unmatched by anything else in Kathryn Bigelow's impressive filmography, Near Dark is an easy film to recommend to horror fans after something that reeks of quality. A lush score from Tangerine Dream, and other musical treats such as a cover of "Fever" by The Cramps, as well as a script full of some fine one-liners makes this just as pleasurable for the ears as the eyes. The film takes its time in between the memorable set-pieces and there are one or two ideas that may not sit well with those who like things a bit more traditional, but neither of those things bothered me at all.

Pasdar and Wright are easy to like as the ill-fated lovers. Lance Henriksen and Jenette Goldstein are both at their best in their sorta-parental roles, Jesse and Diamondback, respectively. Bill Paxton puts his shit-eating grin (sorry, I can't think of a more appropriate phrase in this instance) to its best use as the obnoxious and dangerous Severen and young Joshua John Miller proves constantly fascinating as the young boy, Homer, with mood swings varying between a need for childish companionship and a thirst for blood. Tim Thomerson (who will always be Jack Deth to me and so many others) plays the concerned father of Caleb and Troy Evans has a very small role as an undercover policeman.

At the end of the day, this is the most important thing to remember: it's okay for you to own, and love, The Lost Boys. But you should really leave room on a shelf for Near Dark too.


*There WERE other reasons, but the simplistic approach suits my simple mind.


Here are all of the reviews pulled together from my May semi-tribute to the great Ray Harryhausen.

It Came From Beneath The Sea.
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (IMDb review).
20 Million Miles To Earth.
Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers.
The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad.
The 3 Worlds Of Gulliver.
Mysterious Island.
Jason And The Argonauts.
First Men In The Moon.
One Million Years B.C.
The Valley Of Gwangi.
The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad.
Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger.
Clash Of The Titans.

This is not a complete list of Harryhausen works (I am particular annoyed that I didn't have time for The Harryhausen Chronicles, an hour long documentary included on most of the DVD releases of the above films), but it is a good selection of his most famous moments. I hope that one or two people were able to scan through my reviews and, at the very least, be reminded of one favourite moment from their childhood.

Thursday 30 May 2013

Clash Of The Titans (1981)

The final feature film to showcase the stop-motion creations of the great Ray Harryhausen, Clash Of The Titans may not be the very best film that he would be a part of, but there's no denying that it's a fantastic swansong full of magic and wonder.

It turns out that in olden times Zeus (Laurence Olivier), as well as being the big cheese among the gods, was a bit of a horndog. He was a bit of a player. When a woman that he seduced is cast out to sea with her (and his) son, he takes revenge by unleashing the kraken and ensuring that the woman and child wash up safely on another shore. The boy grows up to be Perseus (Harry Hamlin) and he finds himself in the middle of some trouble as some gods - mainly Thetis (Maggie Smith), looking for revenge after Zeus showed no mercy in the punishment of her own son, Calibos (Neil McCarthy) - decide to stir things up a bit for both himself and Zeus. Zeus, seeing the path that Perseus is being led down, at least ensures that his son has a fine shield, a helmet that can make the wearer invisible and a magic sword. Before you can say "clockwork owl" things get out of hand and Perseus ends up having to race against time to find a way to stop the kraken appearing once again, this time to snatch up his love, Andromeda (Judi Bowker).

Directed by Desmond David and written by Beverley Cross, Clash Of The Titans is a spectacular film that might run for almost two hours in length, but packs plenty into every sequence. The fact that there are a number of creations here - Pegasus, Calibos, the kraken, Medusa - that are amongst the best that Harryhausen ever made adds immeasurably to the proceedings.

Harry Hamlin is fine in the role of Perseus, and the supporting cast is full of those already listed plus the likes of Ursula Andress (don't blink or you may miss her fleeting appearance), Pat Roach, the ever-wonderful Burgess Meredith, Sian Phillips and Tim Piggott-Smith, but none of those names are important. Even the mighty Laurence Olivier is forgotten when the action set-pieces take place and our hero looks to be in a tight spot.

The pacing isn't perfect, the script walks a fine line between the intentionally mythical and the unintentionally mirthful, and it suffers in comparison to what else was being done by the start of the 1980s, but it's a fantastic and fitting end to the visual effects career (though not his movie career) of a man who pioneered so many tricks and inspired the imaginations of so many in the film business today.


Wednesday 29 May 2013

The 3 Worlds Of Gulliver (1960)

Based loosely on the classic novel by Jonathan Swift, The 3 Worlds Of Gulliver is a superior fantasy with plenty of comedic moments throughout, both satirical and non-satirical. It benefits from decent special effects, some of which come from the great Ray Harryhausen.

The story begins with a good doctor named Lemuel Gulliver (Kerwin Mathews) considering some time at sea. This would make him a good bit of money, something that keeps causing trouble between himself and his good lady, Elizabeth (June Thorburn). Despite her protests, Lemuel heads off, only to discover that Elizabeth has stowed herself on board. One bit of bad weather lately and our hero finds himself washed up on a strange shore. It is the land of Lilliput, a land full of tiny people. Lemuel eventually manages to calm the inhabitants of the island, but finds himself in the middle of a war between Lilliput and the nearby island of Blefuscu. The cause of the war is so ridiculous that it would seem to be something easily resolved. Sadly, thats not the case. When Lemuel finally gets away from the island he ends up on the island of Brobdingnag and is reunited with Elizabeth. The only problem is that they are now two tiny people in a land of giants. That wouldn't be so bad, if only Lemuel didn't try to educate his hosts and make himself appear to be a very talented witch.

The 3 Worlds Of Gulliver works as well as it does thanks to the script written by Arthur A. Ross and director Jack Sher. It may not cover every part of the original novel, but it takes the essence of the whole thing (and the most well-known aspects) and still packs in plenty of little pointed observations that fans of the source material will enjoy seeing put onscreen. It certainly works more of the source material into the script than the 2010 movie.

Kerwin Mathews is decent and earnest enough as Lemuel Gulliver, though there are also times when he does himself no favours. The character may not go through as many hardships or changes as he does in the novel, but at least viewers get to see that he's not a complete saint. June Thorburn does well enough in her role, despite it not giving her that much to do, and the other main players - Basil Sydney as the Emperor Of Lilliput, Gregoire Aslan and Mary Ellis as the King and Queen of Brobdingnag, Charles Lloyd Pack as Makovan and Sherry Alberoni as Glumdalclitch - do well with parts that allow them to have some fun.

The work of Ray Harryhausen may not be all that prevalent, but the two main sequences that make the most of his involvement are highlights, though the film doesn't really have any low points anyway.

I'd encourage fans of the classic story to check this out. It's a film full of many little pleasures, no pun intended.


Tuesday 28 May 2013

First Men In The Moon (1964)

Based on a story by H. G. Wells (though I'm not sure how faithful it is to the source material), First Men In The Moon is a fantastical sci-fi movie that also proves to be very family-friendly. There are one or two moments of possible tension, but they're easily offset by the character interactions and enjoyably silly plot.

Things begin with some folk landing on the moon, only to find that there have been others there before them. This news is, of course, pretty shocking and people want to know just who was on the moon previously and what happened. They end up meeting Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd), who proceeds to tell them a tale that involves himself, the lovely Kate Callender (Martha Hyer) and an inventor named Joseph Cavor (Lionel Jeffries). It turns out that, many years ago, Cavor created a substance that could be used to coat things and make them defy gravity. He then used the substance to coat a vehicle that he'd created for space travel and the three main characters ended up being the first people to land on the moon. But why didn't they tell anyone about their adventures, and what happened when they were up there?

Jan Read and Nigel Kneale are the people responsible for the script, and those familiar with Kneale's other works will find that this is much more lightweight and fantastical than his more celebrated stuff. It's very childish throughout, in a sweet way, and director Nathan Juran keeps everything simple and entertaining enough (with the first half of the movie being all about the inventor and his attempts to get things just right and the second half showing viewers the wonders to be found on the moon).

The cast all do a good enough job. Jeffries can do the amusing eccentric in his sleep and is, unsurprisingly, the highlight, while Judd steps up to the mark when required and Hyer gets to play a woman with a strong will and a good heart. There are a few other people onscreen, but most of the runtime leaves viewers with these three characters, and they are good company.

It may not be his very best work, but the special effects by Ray Harryhausen are also enjoyable enough, and also childish in a cute way (though that may just be my own mind connecting things to The Clangers). The movie is far from his best showcase, but it's also far from his worst.

You may need to get yourself into the right frame of mind to enjoy First Men In The Moon, but it's worth it for a one-time watch. Just empty your mind, reclaim a sense of innocent wonder and remember what it felt like to be carried away by the sights and adventures passing in front of your eyes.


Monday 27 May 2013

One Million Years B.C. (1966)

Take the eye-popping dinosaurs from Jurassic Park, add the violent apes from 2001: A Space Odyssey, throw in some tribal dancing from Apocalypto, narration from any BBC nature show and then add a pinch of symbolism with water being a portent for imminent danger and what do you get? Certainly not this film, although it does contain some of the aforementioned elements. That doesn't mean it isn't fun though.

This remake (and I haven't seen the original, a movie entitled The Cave Dwellers from 1940, so cannot compare - I didn't even know about it until checking out the details here) tells the tale of two brothers, both cavemen (so they have thick hair and beards, as does almost everyone else in the entire movie), who fight and grunt and generally get on each other's nerves as brothers do. When one meets another tribe he begins to discover new ways to handle situations and perhaps even a better way to deal with his own tribe. And dinosaurs fight each other or pick up some puny humans for dinner while people run around in fur pants or bikinis. That sums up the movie, basically.

There's also a love interest in the form of Raquel Welch, who is indeed beautiful (and absolutely iconic in that, arguably, most famous of movie posters), but I personally prefer the gorgeous Martine Beswick and hope other fans appreciate the charms of that woman. It's just a shame that director Don Chaffey and screenwriter Michael Carreras forgot to make an excuse to include any snoo snoo (Futurama fans should get that reference).

Poor John Richardson and Percy Herbert (who play the brothers, Tumak and Sakana, respectively), they must have known when they signed on for this film that they were going to be forgotten as soon as Welch and Beswick were onscreen.

So, you have a love interest, brotherly rivalry, peer pressure and dinosaurs. Nothing too impressive . . . . . but wait! Fans will be delighted to know that the dinosaur action is mainly provided by stop-motion legend Ray Harryhausen (though some are just provided by some trick photography) and very good they are too. It's not his finest hour but there are certainly enough little scenes in here to please those, like myself, who have always had a great affection for his work. It may be harder to appreciate in this age of such rapid technological advancement but it still retains a certain charm and care that, much of the time, a bunch of pixels can never replicate.

It's a lesser Hammer movie, but certainly not amongst the worst, and many people who grew up with the advertising imagery may well find they have an affection for the movie that has lain dormant until you end up seeing it once more, preferably on a big screen and with an understanding partner who will bravely model some fur garments afterwards.


Sunday 26 May 2013

Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers (1956)

There are many factors that can influence individual movie viewings, and when writing up a review it's important, I feel, to mention these if they've notably contributed to the final rating/view of a movie. I try to mention the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia when applicable. I've mentioned when my own lack of knowledge may be working against me when it comes to certain genres/subgenres/world cinema releases (world cinema releases? I do hate that phrase but have never come up with anything better, sorry). Or, of course, it's worth mentioning if you hate one particular type of movie. A review of Halloween will be very different if the film is watched by someone who doesn't like slasher/horror movies. This is all just leading up to me saying that I fairly enjoyed Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, but I think that has as much to do with me having recently watched Mars Attacks! as it does to do with the final product on display here.

Hugh Marlowe and Joan Taylor star as the couple who may have the key to fending off an attack by aliens when flying saucers starts appearing everywhere and causing lots of destruction. Well, it's mainly Marlowe thinking up the defence/retaliation plan while Taylor is the loving wife bravely sticking by his side. That's really all there is to it.

I don't know, off the top of my head, if anything similar came along before this film so I'm going to take a guess and say that, despite its many flaws and moments of ridiculousness, Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers has remained quite an influential movie. It undoubtedly cast a large shadow over Independence Day, a film made and released four decades later, with the scenes featuring flying saucers hovering over, and ready to attack, some very famous buildings and landmarks.

Director Fred F. Sears keeps things moving briskly enough, and the script by George Worthing Yates and Bernard Gordon (based on a NON-FICTION book by Donald E. Keyhoe) may often be downright silly most of the time, but is also very entertaining.

The acting isn't the best, but I guess Marlowe and Taylor do okay in the lead roles. Donald Curtis and John Zaremba are two main supporting cast members, both do fine with their limited screentime.

The special effects by Ray Harryhausen are fine. Sadly, he doesn't get to create any living, breathing creatures of myth, but the flying saucers are good, old-fashioned flying saucers that work just fine onscreen. The model work helping to realise the big scenes of destruction in the final reel is nice enough, even if it's not on a par with his usual stuff.

Part of me wonders why I enjoyed Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers so much, but another part of me knows that . . . . . . . sometimes that's just the way it goes. I saw all of the failings and mis-steps, I just found myself easily able to overlook them thanks to the sheer fun factor of the whole thing.


Saturday 25 May 2013

20 Million Miles To Earth (1957)

When a spaceship crash-lands off the coast of Sicily, some local men go to investigate and find two survivors. A young boy then finds a container full of some strange substance and sells it to a zoologist (Dr. Leonardo, played by Frank Puglia) living nearby. It turns out that the spaceship was an American spaceship returning from the first manned trip to venus and the substance in the container actually has a creature inside it. A creature that starts off small and cute, in a way, but soon starts to grow and grow and become more and more destructive. It's up to Dr. Leonardo, his daughter (Joan Taylor), Col. Robert Calder (one of the men rescued from the spaceship, played by William Hopper) and other official folk to make sure that the alien creature is unable to endanger the public.

While this is a standard 1950s sci-fi movie in many ways, it's also another riff on King Kong (a huge influence, of course, on Ray Harryhausen thanks to that great work from Willis H. O'Brien). The creature at the centre of events isn't some malicious alien wanting to destroy every human being that it sees. It's a big, confused animal that ends up being badly treated by people around it who, understandable, react with fear and panic.

The script by Robert Creighton Williams and Christopher Knopf is decent enough. It doesn't have to do much beyond hitting the usual beats for this kind of thing, but it's all done well enough and treats the leads better than, for example, It Came From Beneath The Sea. The direction from Nathan Juran is decent enough, keeping things moving along nicely in between moments that constantly build up the threat on the way to a typically grand finale.

Hopper and Taylor spark off each other pretty well. Although one or two moments may be a bit clumsy, they aren't often as wooden or uptight as performances from this era sometimes could be. Puglia does well, and John Zaremba, Thomas Browne Henry and Tito Vuolo all do okay, so there's nothing here to really make viewers cringe.

The work from Harryhausen is as good as ever, the main creature being one that becomes a real danger while also never really feeling like a monster. It's strange and sweet, but also something that could accidentally bring drop a building on your head.

All in all, this is a great little film. It starts with a bang and never really slows down until the end credits roll.


Friday 24 May 2013

Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger (1977)

The last, and the least, of the Sinbad movies to involve the work of Ray Harryhausen, this not only fails to live up to the previous two movies, but also fails to live up to many other Harryhausen movies.

The plot sees Sinbad (played this time by Patrick Wayne) arriving at Charak, intending to ask the prince there (Damien Thomas) for permission to marry his beautiful sister (Farah, played by Jane Seymour). Unfortunately, nobody can  see the prince because of some apparent curse. When a bunch of nasty creatures attack Sinbad and his crew, he fights them off and is directly contacted by Farah. She tells him that she believes the prince to have been cursed by the devious Zenobia (Margaret Whiting) and only a very powerful magic may cure him if it can be found within seven moons. Sinbad and his crew set off in search of the powerful Melanthius (Patrick Troughton, who doesn't really show any magical powers at all) with Farah and the prince, who is stuck in his cursed form, that of a baboon. Of course, Zenobia is in hot pursuit.

There is just something lacking from almost every aspect of this movie. The direction from Sam Wanamaker is pretty flat and lifeless, despite the fantastical premise and the bright colours on display, while the script from Beverley Cross limps from one weak set-piece to the next, giving the distinct impression that all of the better ideas had already been used up in the previous two movies.

If the cast had a bit more gusto then perhaps it would all still have been moderately enjoyable, but Wayne is the worst of the three people to have played Sinbad in these movies and he's surrounded by an unmemorable mix of supporting players. Troughton is fun, I suppose, despite the apparent uselessness of his character, Whiting has fun as a villainess who kept making me think of Yzma from The Emperor's New Groove and Jane Seymour is certainly a lovely princess. Taryn Power and Kurt Christian (who was also in the previous adventure, as a different character) are just quite dull and lifeless, ill-served by the script.

At least fans of Harryhausen can always sit back and enjoy his work though, yes? Well, even that's a mixed bag this time around. The first creatures that attack Sinbad are fantastic, but they are the best thing in the film. The rest of the creatures shown onscreen range from the baboon prince to a troglodyte to an oversized wasp to a big walrus and one or two others. If you prefer to see Sinbad and company fighting against a big walrus when you could revisit the previous movie and watch him engage in a magnificent swordfight against the unforgettable Kali figure then that's your call, but I know what movie I would choose to revisit on a rainy day that sees me stuck indoors.

Sadly, it's just not a good film, though fans of magical fantasies will still find some enjoyment here.


Thursday 23 May 2013

The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad (1973)

A lot of people view this as the best of the three Sinbad movies that showcased more great work from the great Ray Harryhausen, but I disagree. It's very good, it has at least one definite contender for best Harryhausen creation ever (a lively statue of Kali) and it also benefits from the presence of the stunningly gorgeous Caroline Munro, but it just falls flat in between the set-pieces, for me, in a way that the previous film managed to avoid.

Sinbad (this time played by John Phillip Law) in on his ship when he spies a flying beastie that's holding something that looks valuable. So he shoots an arrow at the thing and collects what is dropped, which happens to be a golden tablet. He immediately wears the thing around his neck and then goes to sleep the sound sleep of a man who can shoot small creatures and take their riches. While sleeping, his ship is thrown off course by a storm that I like to think is an externalisation of Sinbad's troubled conscience, but is more likely to have been caused by a bad man named Koura (Tom Baker). Sinbad meets Koura when he ends up in a coastal town. Koura would like the tablet/amulet, Sinbad refuses and Koura has to disappear when the Grand Vizier (Douglas Wilmer) and his men appear. The Grand Vizier relates a legend to Sinbad. The tablet is one of three pieces. The three pieces put together create a map to the Fountain Of Destiny and whoever gets to the fountain and puts the three pieces of the tablet/amulet in there will receive "youth, a shield of darkness, and a crown of untold riches." That's enough to convince Sinbad that he should travel with the Grand Vizier and see if the legend is true. Before heading back to see he adds a lazy young man (Kurt Christian) to his crew, after some persuasion from the lad's father, and a beautiful woman he frees from slavery (Caroline Munro). The journey ahead will not be easy, mainly due to Koura following close behind and doing his damnedest to reclaim the key to great rewards. Unfortunately, each bit of black magic that he performs drains away some more of his life force.

This time around it's Gordon Hessler in the director's chair and Brian Clemens on scripting duties, but Mr. Harryhausen remains the one constant. His contributions here include two of the very best stop motion creatures to come from his imagination, with one being a wooden figurehead brought to life and the other being that aforementioned statue of Kali, with all six arms wielding a sword.

John Phillip Law is okay as Sinbad, but it's always more fun to watch the wonderful Tom Baker in his villainous role or just soak up the beauty of Caroline Munro. Kurt Christian provides the comic relief, Douglas Wilmer and Martin Shaw do their bit, but the more important thing to remember is that there's also a one-eyed centaur, a griffin and a few other magical creatures onscreen to keep things entertaining.

The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad has all of the ingredients to make for a fun adventure - the magic, the exotic, fictional locations, the menagerie of opponents for the hero to overcome, the Caroline Munro - so it's an easy film to recommend to those who enjoy this kind of pure escapist fantasy fun. It just doesn't hit the heights of other Harryhausen films, for me, though I'm almost certain that I'm in the minority with that opinion.


Wednesday 22 May 2013

Poseidon (2006)

A remake of a movie that remains my favourite disaster movie of all time (The Poseidon Adventure), Poseidon would seem to be a movie not really worth bothering about. How could it ever hope to top the fantastic original? Well, let's just cut to the chase here, it doesn't. It does, however, make for a decent bit of entertainment in its own right, thanks to a decent cast and solid direction from Wolfgang Petersen, who is no stranger to drama in submerged vessels (as viewers of the magnificent Das Boot will agree).

This adaptation may take place almost a quarter of a century after the original movie, but there's very little different in the overall premise. That's unsurprising, the main premise is so good that it needs no tinkering. A large and lovely cruise ship, the Poseidon, is hit by a freak wave out in the middle of the ocean and a group of people decide that their best bet for survival is to get to the bottom of the ship, which is now the part of the vessel now lying ABOVE the water. So the folk start to climb up and up on a perilous journey, doing their best to stay ahead of rising water levels, avoid explosions and fires and keep their footing as they move higher.

As you might expect, there are a number of scenes in Poseidon that are all about spectacle. Thankfully, the special effects are so well done that the moments of spectacle are really . . . . . . . . spectacular. Seriously, the visuals are consistently impressive, which is kind of a minimum requirement now for the big-budget disaster movies.

Special effects aren't everything though, as almost everyone would agree. The focus of the movie sways between the destruction of Poseidon and the perilous journey of the characters, which is why it's a good job that the various cast members all do well in their roles.

Kurt Russell and Josh Lucas are the two leaders of the group, men with different styles who have the same inner strength and strong will. Russell's character has added motivation as he also does his best to keep his daughter (Emmy Rossum) and her young fella (Mike Vogel) safe. Jacinda Barrett plays a woman whose main concern is her young son (played by Jimmy Bennett), Mia Maestro plays a stowaway and Richard Dreyfuss is the oldest member of the group. There are also small roles for Freddy Rodriguez and Andre Braugher. Oh, and Kevin Dillon goes over the top as the asshole of the group. I guess I should also warn anyone who dislikes the singing voice of Stacy "Fergie" Ferguson, they will roll their eyes as she entertains the cruise ship passengers during the opening scenes of the movie.

The script by Mark Protosevich (working from the novel by Paul Gallico, with some nods to the 1972 film) is perfectly serviceable. This kind of film has very few surprises, therefore the script isn't exactly full of great twists, turns and character reveals. It sketches out the relationships, it goes for the easy moments of emotional manipulation and it moves the survivors from one problem on to the next. For me, that makes the script just fine for a disaster movie.

Everything - script, cast, special effects - is brought together masterfully by director Petersen, who paces things perfectly and keeps the camera moving around in a way that never lets viewers forget how much worse the whole situation is getting for every minute that the ship is capsized.

I really didn't expect to enjoy Poseidon as much as I did. My love for the original movie is so great, I just didn't expect to see around that mental block. The fact that I ended up thinking about buying this as soon as the end credits started rolling is testament to what a pleasant surprise it was.


Tuesday 21 May 2013

The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad (1958)

From the wonderful opening strains of the bombastic score (by Bernard Herrmann) to the immediate entry into strange adventure to the colour and vibrancy of the whole thing, The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad is a real treat for fans of fantasy films.

It tells the story, of course, of Sinbad (played here by Kerwin Mathews) at a time when he rescues a powerful magician (Torin Thatcher) from a dangerous cyclops. Unfortunately, while being rescued the magician also ends up losing his magic lamp with a genie (Richard Eyer) inside it and so is determined to return to thedangerous island. Sinbad refuses. He is too busy making preparations to marry the beautiful Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant) to embark on such adventures. The magician then secretly casts a spell that turns the princess into a teeny tiny humanoid, thus making him the one person that Sinbad asks for help. There is a cure, but the ingredients won't be easy to get hold of. Can you guess where they have to go?

Directed by Nathan Juran, from a script by Ken Kolb, this is simply great fun from start to finish. My only complaint is that a couple of the creations (mainly the cyclops and the roc) aren't up there with the best that Ray Harryhausen could do. They are decent enough, however, and also joined by a dancing snake woman, a dragon and even another fighting skeleton (a precursor to the bony army that would prove so memorable in Jason & The Argonauts).

The acting is all fine. Mathews is decent, if rather uncharismatic, in the role of Sinbad, Thatcher is wide-eyed and entertaining enough as Sokurah the magician and Grant is lovely as the diminutive princess. Eyer isn't the most grandiose or impressive genie, being just a kid in a shiny turban, but he's not onscreen all that often and doesn't do enough to spoil the whole film, despite trying hard at the very end.

The Sinbad films are great pieces of escapist entertainment, as are most Harryhausen movies, and I recommend both this movie to people and also the boxset linked below as a bargain way to pick up three fun adventures.


Monday 20 May 2013

The Nanny (1965)

The Nanny is a great film, one of the very best to ever come from Hammer Studios, in my opinion. It deserves to be up there with Peeping Tom and The Innocents, it's such a fine psychological horror/drama.

Bette Davis gives the greatest performance of her career without any of the eye-rolling or razor-sharp dialogue that we've become accustomed to (and that is always thoroughly enjoyable) as she plays the titular character, an elderly woman locked in a battle of wills with a small boy named Joey (William Dix). Joey has been away from home for two years, after his younger sister tragically died in the household bathtub, and returns with the same bad attitude he went away with. He blames everything on the nanny and sets out to remove her power at every turn.

What is the reality of the situation? An evil young lad forcing an elderly woman to squirm under his fist or a manipulative old woman doing her best to silence her young charge? The movie is impressively ambiguous for the first hour or so until we get to a finale that manages to shock, disturb and churn a stomach more effectively than many of the most modern releases.

An incredibly brave, complex psychological horror, this movie unsettles in almost every scene, whether it's due to the behaviour of an unruly child or watching a sad mother (played by Wendy Craig) revert to a state more childish than her own son. The supporting cast - including Jill Bennett, James Villiers and Pamela Franklin - are solid but this really boils down to an amazing two-hander between a petulant child and . . . for the love of God . . . BETTE DAVIS! Hard to believe that this movie was released by "the studio that dripped blood" and even harder to believe that many people may be unfamiliar with it.

Director Seth Holt treats the material well, but he's given a flying start by the fantastic script from Jimmy Sangster (adapting the novel by Marryam Modell). What starts off as a look at a stiff, unsympathetic family unit with a brat at its core slowly but surely turns into something mesmerising, tense and also quite sad. See this film as soon as you can, it's an absolute classic.

NB - the ONLY reason I don't give the movie a perfect 10/10 score is because of my gut instinct to Joey's brattish behaviour in the first half of the movie.


Sunday 19 May 2013

Jason And The Argonauts (1963)

Jason And The Argonauts is, to me, the best of the movies featuring the work of Ray Harryhausen. Oh, there are a few other films vying for the top spot, but this one wins, in my opinion. Every creation onscreen here isn't just up to the usual high standard that people came to expect from Harryhausen, each one is a classic involved in a classic sequence.

The story is all about Jason (Todd Armstrong playing the Greek hero) and his crew of good men braving the perils that stand in their way as they sail away on the Argo to seek the legendary Golden Fleece. They are alternately helped and hindered by gods (mainly Zeus, played by Niall MacGinnis, and Hera, played by Honor Blackman) as they face the mighty statue of Talos, some horrible harpies, clashing rocks, unexpected treachery and much more.

Pretty much essential viewing if you're a fan of sword 'n' sorcery movies, Jason And The Argonauts only makes one or two minor mis-steps on its fantastic journey. The fact that the whole thing is a game being played out by the gods is one annoyance (especially when the real reason for the quest is forgotten) and the very final moments of the film prove, perhaps inevitably, anti-climactic after such a memorable sequence involving battling skeletons brought to life from the teeth of the Hydra.

The acting from all concerned is just fine. Todd Armstrong may not be the most memorable leading man, but he puts himself over as a good, kind leader. MacGinnis and Blackman are fun as the two main gods keeping an eye on the quest, Nigel Green is fine as Hercules, despite his limited screentime, Gary Raymond is okay as Acastus (the son of an enemy who has managed to get himself in the crew) and Laurence Naismith gets to play the man who built the Argo. There's also the lovely Nancy Kovack, who arrives just in time to fall for Jason and become involved in the big finale.

Director Don Chaffey does a good job, working from the screenplay by Beverley Cross and Jan Read, and there's very little to fault. The pacing is perfect, the dialogue does what is required, and everything is designed to move the characters from one spectacular set-piece to the next. For me, this remains the pinnacle of Ray Harryhausen's work, despite strong competition from those Sinbad movies, and if you haven't seen it already then I suggest you get to it as soon as possible. It's held up as a classic of the fantasy genre for good reason, because it IS one.


Would I really end with any other screenshot???

Saturday 18 May 2013

It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955)

It Came From Beneath The Sea is one of many creature features from the 1950s that takes a cue from the threat of nuclear power. It features some great, as usual, special effects from Ray Harryhausen, but I rate it below the more enjoyable movies that he would help create in glorious technicolour.

When a submarine gets itself into a bit of trouble underwater, curiosity is aroused once it is eventually freed and some animal tissue is found attached to it. The animal tissue is from something big, very big. Two marine biologists (Lesley Joyce, played by Faith Domergue, and John Carter, played by Donald Curtis) are called in to investigate further. It's not long until they come to the conclusion that they're dealing with a giant octopus, one that has been made bigger and also starved of its usual food supply by some hydrogen bomb testing. As they race to find a way to deal with the creature, helped by Commander Pete Mathews (Kenneth Tobey), they attempt to resolve the whole situation without panicking the general public. The octopus, however, has other ideas. Especially when it gets close enough to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Director Robert Gordon doesn't do too bad a job here, but he's hampered by a stilted script written by George Worthing Yates and Harold Jacob Smith. The actors are also affected by the poor dialogue that they have to deliver. The flirting between Professor Joyce and Commander Mathews is clumsy and hard to believe, while poor Dr. Carter doesn't get to do all that much until the big finale. Oh, he's present in a lot of scenes, but he may as well not be. As for the rest of the cast - such as Ian Keith, Dean Maddox Jr and Chuck Griffiths - they all blend into the background. They play their part in the grand scheme, and deliver the lines that they get to deliver, but there's nobody who stands out. That leaves viewers with three lead characters to root for, two of them stuck with badly written moments of flirtation and one just far too bland to bother about.

The film is lifted by the work of Harryhausen, as most of the films to have his name attached were, and when the giant octopus is onscreen, or partially onscreen, it's an impressive beastie indeed. So impressive that it lifts the entire movie from just below average to just above average.

I don't dislike this movie, but it's one that I won't really revisit while I have other Harryhausen films to choose from. Fans of '50s sci-fi movies will find enough to enjoy here and those making their way through the filmography of Mr. Harryhausen may end up liking it a bit more than I do.


Friday 17 May 2013

Dreamer (2005)

Dreamer is a standard live-action Disney movie that just happens not to actually come from Disney. There isn't one unpredictable moment in it, the music from John Debney keeps reminding viewers that it's all meaningful and life-affirming, and many scenes are shot with an added, warming glow suffusing each frame. Despite these marks against it, I ended up enjoying Dreamer, thanks mainly to a great cast giving decent performances. Sometimes familiarity doesn't breed contempt, sometimes it's just comfortable. Dreamer is just that, a comfort movie. I may not rush to revisit it, but I admit that I enjoyed it while it was on.

Inspired by a true story, Dreamer is all about a horse named Sonador that falls during a big race and sustains what should be a career-ending injury. Horse trainer Ben Crane (Kurt Russell) is angry at the employer (David Morse) who ignored his advice not to race the horse. With his daughter, Cale (Dakota Fanning), by his side, he ends up leaving the stables with the horse, a reduced cash amount for his work and no job. He also has his assistants, Balon (Luis Guzman) and ex-jockey Manolin (Freddy Rodriguez), and a plan to help Sondaor get well enough so that she can at least be used for breeding, even if she will never race again. But Sonador has a strong spirit, as does young Cale, and looks like she may want to race. That will take hard work and money. The hard work isn't a problem, but the money just might not be available.

Written and directed by John Gatins, Dreamer doesn't really have any major flaws apart from the sentimentality and predictability of it all. It's a nice film, probably too nice for many people to be able to stomach.

The big plus point for the film is the cast. Russell puts in another great performance as a decent everyman, Fanning does her usual good work in another film made during the peak of her "wide-eyed years" and the ever-dependable David Morse is as dependable as ever, despite being saddled with (no pun intended) the role of main villain. Guzman and Rodriguez are both a lot of fun, Elizabeth Shue is fine as Ben's wife/Cale's mother and Kris Kristofferson hangs about to be Ben's grumpy father, who may or may not help out and reforge a bond with his son. And then there's Oded Fehr, appearing about 70 minutes into the movie and getting a few minutes of screentime as a character who may as well have been named "plot device #3".

Cynical people should look for hundreds of films that they will prefer to watch before this one, but anyone who can handle the sugar content should find this moderately enjoyable. It's certainly a decent enough family movie so maybe keep it on standby for any time you may have a 7-12 year old in your home.


Thursday 16 May 2013

Mysterious Island (1961)

Another great adventure movie featuring the work of Ray Harryhausen, Mysterious Island is yet another movie that I can't view without a warm cloak of nostalgia draping itself around me. These movies make up the main threads, the strongest ones, that hold together the patchwork of movie memories from my childhood. Even after trying to wipe the rose tinting from my glasses, figuratively speaking, I can't help but still view these as really good films. People may accuse me of being unable to look at the films subjectively nowadays. Or there's a chance that, y'know, maybe many of these films that made use of Harryhausen's creations are just really good films.

Set during the American Civil War, the plot sees some POWs grabbing hostages and escaping from their prison in a hot air balloon. They then find themselves at the mercy of the elements until eventually landing near to the titular island. Working together to survive, the men find themselves in unexpected danger from a giant crab, some huge bees, pirates and more. Thankfully, they also welcome a couple of women into their group after they are washed up on the shore, and they seem to receive a helping hand from someone else who chooses not to show himself.

Based (VERY loosely) on the novel by Jules Verne, Mysterious Island has a decent script from John Prebble, Daniel B. Ullman and Crane Wilbur, and solid direction from Cy Endfield. The cast - Michael Craig, Joan Greenwood, Michael Callan, Gary Merrill, Herbert Lom et al - also do a good job. Whether they're battling that aforementioned giant crab or being terrified by a huge chicken monster beastie (to use the technical term), they react appropriately and somewhat convincingly. They may also, for the most part, be a group of people rather than memorable individuals, but one or two main characters (including, of course, a certain Captain Nemo) just manage to do enough to stand out. Just.

While this is, obviously, a better movie for those wanting to see some more work from Harryhausen, the fact that it has many enjoyable moments without any creatures involved makes it a more wholly satisfying experience than some of his other outings. Lovers of the book may take offence at the numerous changes, but they work well in terms of making the whole tale more exciting and cinematic.

Not one of the absolute classics, but a very, very good film.


Wednesday 15 May 2013

Angel (1984)

A real classic slice of '80s exploitation, Angel is a movie that I had been wanting to see for many years, ever since catching sight of the poster with the tagline: "High school honor student by day, Hollywood hooker by night". Even as a young boy I sensed that this was something sleazy, which made it more appealing to me in my youth. Of course, I grew up and tried to act mature. Thankfully, that didn't last long and my love of horror and exploitation fare eventually put the film back on my radar and, as an adult, I sensed that it was something sleazy. Which made it more appealing to me.

The story is covered by that tagline. Donna Wilkes plays young Molly Stewart, a schoolgirl who spends her evenings making money as a prostitute named Angel. It's a dangerous time to be in that line of work, however, with a crazed killer on the loose. The police are trying to do what they can, especially Lieutenant Andrews (Cliff Gorman), but the girls, and guys, are determined to look out for each other. Molly/Angel is especially reluctant to be watched by anyone in a position of authority, perhaps because of her double life and whatever she has to deal with at home.

Directed by Robert Vincent O'Neill, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Joseph Michael Cala, Angel was popular enough to spawn three sequels (each with a different actress in the main role). It seemed to have something to appeal to everyone, even if that something was an uncomfortable mix of crime, quirkiness, sleaze and more than a dash of Lolita.

Donna Wilkes is fine in the main role. In her mid-twenties at the time, she still looks believably young enough for the character while also being able to handle the more sordid aspects of the material. Cliff Gorman is a decent enough authority figure, Elaine Giftos is very good as a teacher taking extra interest in Molly, and Susan Tyrrell, Dick Shawn, Rory Calhoun, Donna McDaniel and Graem McGavin are all . . . . . . fun as the interesting characters who make up Molly's unconventional family unit. And then there's John Diehl, who puts in a fantastic and creepy performance as the killer, lifting the whole film up a notch when he's onscreen.

This is a very basic review, that's the way I tend to approach films, but there's certainly a lot more to look at in Angel. The 1980s seemed to be, perhaps more than any other decade, a time when it was okay to put minors in some very adult situations. This may have been due to a combination of censorship relaxation and an acceptance of how much faster kids seemed to mature in the modern age or it may have been due to something else entirely. I'm no expert, but I know that films such as this one, My Tutor and Private Lessons, to name the first few that come to mind, all feature a mixture of sex and lead characters who are some years away from being classed as adults.

I've already said more than I intended to about a cross-section of movies I don't know enough about, I just think that in discussing a movie like this one it's important to remind people of the time and the context. Or maybe that's just what I keep telling myself when I catch up with such films three decades after they were initially released.


Tuesday 14 May 2013

Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966)

Don Sharp directs this hugely entertaining movie based on the script by Anthony Hinds that certainly doesn't aim for historical accuracy, but captures the sheer overpowering charisma and presence of a legendary figure from the past.

The main man is played by Christopher Lee, in a performance positively brimming with electric energy, menace and a lust for life and all its earthly pleasures (to be admitted to in confession). Finding himself unpopular after an incident of self-defence gone awry, despite his healing hands, Rasputin moves from his abbey and looses himself on some fine Russians, manipulating and controlling those who can help him manoeuvre into a position of power. A position that could see him ultimately controlling all of mother Russia from behind the scenes.

Anyone wanting the facts about the extraordinary life of Grigori Rasputin should not be using this movie as any kind of primer. This film is not an account of a reality, by any stretch of the imagination, but it captures the essence of an infamous individual. To roughly phrase a popular saying . . . . "between the truth and the legend, print the legend".

The cast are all great, and familiar to many from Hammer movies and elsewhere. This is Lee's show all the way but we also get very good performances from the likes of Barbara Shelley, Suzan Farmer and Richard Pasco, who stands out as the put-upon Dr. Zargo.

The direction may be unspectacular but that's not really a major concern when the look of the finished movie is so pleasing and the focus remains on the towering presence of Lee, whether he's hypnotising unwitting ladies or dancing some magnificent, frenetic, Russian dancing. It's a bravado performance that picks up the entire movie and carries it over the finish line as a winner.


Monday 13 May 2013

The Valley Of Gwangi (1969)

Also known as the one with the cowboys and dinosaurs. The Valley Of Gwangi may not have been the first movie featuring the work of Ray Harryhausen that I ever saw, but it's the one that has stayed at the forefront of my memory over the years. While it's not the best of his works, it captured my imagination and fired up my love for creature features.

The story is all about a travelling wild west show that hopes to revive its fortunes with a new addition, a tiny horse that they will place on a platform atop a normal horse once it has been trained to dance. The tiny horse was acquired, at great risk, from an area known as the Forbidden Valley and a group of gypsies are determined that it be returned there. Everything falls apart one evening when the tiny horse is stolen and taken back to the area of the Forbidden Valley. A chase ensues and, eventually, people end up moving aside some rocks and squeezing their way through a passageway that leads to a prehistoric world. A world that holds a pterodactyl here and an allosaurus there. It's dangerous, but could also prove to be quite profitable.

Mixing the cowboy genre with some prehistoric beasties is something that had been done before (this movie is, apparently, a remake of The Beast Of Hollow Mountain), but I had never seen those two worlds collide until I first saw The Valley Of Gwangi. The film seemed to have everything in place designed to appeal specifically to my interests.

James Franciscus and the beautiful Gila Golan play the leads (with plenty of potential to love or hate one another) and do a good job, while Laurence Naismith is the professor who is able to keep everyone informed on just what dinosaurs appear onscreen, Gustavo Rojo is the bad apple of the bunch and young Curtis Arden has fun as the smart, money-making Lope.

Director Jim O'Connolly does fine with the material - a riff on King Kong, written by William Bast and Julian More - and keeps things moving along nicely in the first half before the action really kicks in during the second half. The stop motion effects from Harryhausen? Well, they're still the wonderful, warm creations that you'd expect from the man, even if they're not among his finest moments.

It's easy to lose this one amongst a pile of better Harryhausen films to choose from, but The Valley Of Gwangi remains a perfect film to stick on during a wet, dreary afternoon.


Sunday 12 May 2013

The Plague Of The Zombies (1966)

Perhaps my very favourite Hammer horror movie (certainly giving The Nanny a good run for its money), this features a crowd of the undead causing problems in a Cornish village. While it's far removed from the type of thing we horror fans have been given by the likes of Romero and Fulci, this still remains a great entry into the zombie movie subgenre and contains at least one quintessential zombie movie moment.

André Morell plays Sir James Forbes, a standard Hammer hero. He's elderly and wise and refined and ends up travelling with his daughter, Sylvia (Diane Clare) to visit his ex-pupil, Dr. Peter Thompson (Brook Williams). The doctor and his wife (Alice, played by the lovely Jacqueline Pearce) have been having a hard time of things lately. They have been living in the small Cornish village for about a year and the doctor has, unfortunately, seen about a dozen deaths in that time. All unexplained and rather mysterious. He would like to perform autopsies to help his investigation but the local squire (played by John Carson) has not allowed him. Meanwhile, there would seem to be far too many spaces in the graveyard that should have bodies inside.

Sharing some cast members, and it's set, with the movie that followed it (The Reptile), it's good to see that, despite the obvious cost-cutting measures brought about by filming two movies with shared resources, there are no corners cut here.

Director John Gilling (working from Peter Bryan's enjoyable script) creates a great atmosphere throughout. Yes, we have the usual fainting female and some overreaction dotted here and there but this movie manages to stay eerie and tense even during it's many daylight scenes (something often quite difficult to achieve in the genre). The acting is all adequate (Morell in particular makes for a good, noble lead, Carson is great and Michael Ripper gets a few decent moments), but what really gives this movie the edge is its portrayal of the zombies themselves and the ritual used to bring them about.

Throw in some amusing cads (aka rich, spoilt gits), a Hammer standard tavern scene and a finale that starts with a poorly executed fight scene but then moves on to some impressive fire damage and you have a film that moves along at a brisk pace while constantly entertaining.


Saturday 11 May 2013

Bad Kids Go To Hell (2012)

While it may not be as loaded with gags and references as Detention, Bad Kids Go To Hell is another bit of fun that plays out very much like a version of The Breakfast Club with some added bloodshed.

Six teenagers are bundled together for detention and have to spend their Saturday in the school library, a library that has an alleged murky history and may even be haunted nowadays. Matt (Cameron Deane Stewart) is the relative newcomer to the school, and he always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time - something that will become more and more apparent as the movie progresses. Tricia (Ali Faulkner) and Craig (Roger Edwards) are two of the more "popular" students, Tarek (Marc Donato) is the son of a rich businessman, Megan (Amanda Alch) is a seemingly nerdy gal with a wild side and Veronica (Augie Duke) is the cool girl who sneers at them all. These teenagers are left to their own devices for most of the day, but it's not long until their numbers start dwindling thanks to some freak accidents. Or perhaps there's a vengeful spirit responsible for everything.

Directed by Matthew Spradlin (who also co-wrote the thing with Barry Wernick), Bad Kids Go To Hell is based on a graphic novel, also written by Spradlin, and aims to do nothing more than provide some teen-friendly fun for ninety minutes. Hardcore horror fans won't want to rush to see it, but it's an enjoyable diversion if you've nothing else lined up for the evening.

The film has some impressively Scooby-Doo-ish (yes, that is a word, honest) ghost moments, some less impressive CGI cockroaches, a pinch of gratuitous nudity and a fun cameo role for Judd Nelson that's about as far away from his memorable turn in The Breakfast Club as possible.

Cameron Deane Stewart is decent in the lead role, Augie Duke is a likeable tough cookie and Amanda Alch may be stuck with the gratuitous nudity during one scene but I'll be damned if that doesn't make her more memorable than the other three main characters played by Faulkner, Edwards and Donato. Not that those three are bad in their roles, they just feel a bit like the same character spread throughout three physical bodies. Jeffrey Schmidt is enjoyable as a teacher who also uses psychiatric evaluations to work through problems with his students, and Ben Browder does fine in his role as Max the janitor.

If you're after scares and/or decent gore then look elsewhere, but if you're after a few thrills in a film with a nice vein of humour then this might prove to be as entertaining for you as it was for me.


Friday 10 May 2013

Ray Harryhausen (1920 - 2013)

I know, I know, I'm late in marking the passing of this great man.

That's because I tend not to do these things. I don't write many notices about those who have shuffled off our mortal coil and I don't ever set out to overemphasise the impact that any individuals had on my life (the last death that made me struggle to voice how influential the person had been was that of James Herbert).

This note isn't a look back at the life of Harryhausen, it's not full of facts and figures that I'd just have to look up online anyway. This is just a brief note to say that over the coming weeks I will, as tribute to the man, be revisiting and reviewing as many of his films as I can get my hands on. I'll be covering the biggies, of course - Clash Of The Titans, Jason & The Argonauts, the Sinbad movies - but I'll also be trying to cover some of his earlier works and also one or two of the movies that fired up my love for film at an early age. Mysterious Island is essential viewing, as is The Valley Of Gwangi. Both of these movies, though perhaps seen as lesser Harryhausen films, will forever hold a place in my heart. I first saw them on British TV on a dull Sunday afternoon and they have always held that association ever since. In fact, I have no doubt that when I watch these movies on any day other than a Sunday I will end up feeling both comforted and confused.

I can't write a full piece about the man who made these monsters. I didn't know him, I've not read up about him, I wasn't even aware of his name when I first encountered his creations. But I can write reviews of those movies that livened up my childhood, especially now that I DO know the name of the man responsible for the harpies, the fighting skeletons, that moving statue of Talos and much, much more.

Feel free to reply with your own thoughts on each movie, of course, and let's spend the remainder of May reclaiming some of our childhood memories.

High School Musical (2006)

As I'm often after ways to give my movie watching a sense of purpose, eagle-eyed blog readers may notice certain patterns. For example, I try to include a Hammer movie every week (until I have made my way through most of the ones available to me). There was the Steven Seagal quest that almost broke me. I keep trying to get back to that 1001 Movies To See Before You Die list. And I am currently wrapping up my cinematic journey alongside the great Mr. Kurt Russell. So I asked some Facebook friends what I should line up next. "Get your wife to pick your viewings," someone piped up. Others agreed that this was a GREAT idea. The one person who didn't really like the idea was, funnily enough, my wife. She just couldn't recall what I had and hadn't seen already and had no inclination to pick twenty films, the number I decided to go with. But I kept on and on at her so I guess this is my fault. Yes, I now have to watch all THREE High School Musical movies, but at least have The Mighty Ducks trilogy to look forward to after those.

The film opens during school holidays. A young man named Troy (Zac Efron) and a young girl named Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) end up on stage together, made to sing thanks to the supportive influence of peer pressure. The two work well together in their duet, they chat afterwards and exchange numbers and then go their separate ways, unlikely to see each other again. When school starts back up, Troy is amazed to see that Gabriella is now enrolled in his high school. This is both good and bad news. He likes Gabriella a lot, but none of his high school friends know about his singing ability. In fact, his basketball team-mates would probably frown upon anything that didn't help him to keep his head in the game. The whole situation could get slightly awkward, even more so when auditions begin for the new high school musical and Troy finds himself tempted to go along. If cast in the musical, Troy and Gabriella risk incurring the wrath of Ryan (Lucas Grabeel) Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale), a brother and sister act who always go all out for these things, as well as upsetting all of their friends and classmates. And Troy's father, the basketball team coach, probably won't look too favourably upon it either.

Viewing High School Musical and then writing up a review for it required me to seriously recalibrate my mindset for a while. It's obvious that this isn't aimed at an adult horror movie fan like myself. It's a Disney movie full of teens with perfect smiles and musical numbers with choreography that mixes skill with some attempts to be cool (such as the basketball number, "Getcha Head In The Game"). Recalibrating my mindset is nothing new. Most of us do it all the time. You go into a horror expecting something different from when you go into a sci-fi comedy, for example. It's just that some recalibration requires more effort. I can never seem to recalibrate enough to make watching recent Katherine Heigl movies any less painful to watch.

The biggest surprise for me while watching High School Musical was that I ended up enjoying it. I'm not going to say that I tried to sing along to one or two of the songs or that I tapped my feet along to the rhythms. But I did. My wife pointed out when I was smiling and tried to mock me until I just shrugged and admitted that I was quite enjoying the movie.

It's sugary sweet in places, it's completely predictable and it's full of people that you'd never want to spend time with in real life, but it all works as it's supposed to. The script by Peter Barsocchini does what is required to move the characters between musical numbers, and the direction by Kenny Ortega keeps the energy levels up throughout. Basically, it's aimed at about 8-12 year olds and it delivers for 8-12 year olds (just a guesstimate, apologies to any 7-year-olds who love the movie).

The cast all do a decent job, despite all looking as if they have been taken directly from some Good Guy assembly line in an alternate universe. Zac Efron is sickeningly talented and when I can see past the mist of jealousy that descends before my eyes I end up really enjoying his work onscreen (having already seen him in 17 Again and Me & Orson Welles). This was the big break for him and Vanessa Hudgens, and both show why they managed to build up such a big fanbase and move on to other work. Ashley Tisdale and Lucas Grabeel have a lot of fun as the privileged Evans siblings, and Corbin Bleu and Monique Coleman are both fine as friends of the two leads. The adults are sidelined, for the most part, but Bart Johnson is okay as coach/Troy's father while Alyson Reed is fairly amusing as the teacher in charge of the music-al.

You will already know if you're unable to stand this movie at all. If you think that you'll hate it then you'll probably hate it. But if you're looking after kids on a rainy afternoon and one of them wants to stick on the DVD . . . . . . . . . . . you could do a lot worse.


Thursday 9 May 2013

Sky High (2005)

I really like Sky High. It's a Disney movie aimed at teens. Part of me suspects that I shouldn't like it as much as I do, but I do. It's fun, it's funny, it has a great cast and it features an eclectic selection of superheroes. What's not to like?

The plot revolves around young Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano). Will is about to start his superhero education at the titular Sky High, but his powers haven't shown themselves yet. That would be bad enough with one superhero for a parent, but Will has two - The Commander (Kurt Russell) and Jetstream (Kelly Preston) AKA Mr. & Mrs. Stronghold. All that pressure doesn't make life any easier for a boy who is expected to do great things. Thankfully, he has some great friends, even if it looks like they may all end up being sidekicks as opposed to actual heroes. The kids may all have different powers and plans to wear some snazzy costumes, but high school is the same mix of cliques, bullies and teenage awkwardness.

Written by Paul Hernandez, Robert Schooley and Mark McCorkle, and directed by Mike Mitchell, Sky High is lively and amusing. Oh, it could certainly be sharper, and there's nothing here too complicated or subtle, but this isn't trying to be The Dark Knight (it was released 3 years beforehand anyway, in the same year as Batman Begins) and that suits me just fine. Not that I dislike The Dark Knight, it's just that not every superhero movie needs to be dark and thought-provoking. Especially superhero movies for the entire family.

The cast is the biggest asset that the movie has, with everyone doing their bit to add to the fun with their performance. Angarano is fine in the main role, Danielle Panabaker is also fine as his close friend who may or may not want something more to develop and Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the cute girl at the high school about to complicate the whole situation. Steven Strait scowls and throws fireballs competently, in a role that feels almost like a warm up for his role in The Covenant, while Nicholas Braun, Kelly Vitz, Dee Jay Daniels, Jake Sandvig, Will Harris, Malika and Khadijah all provide decent support as the ragtag group of students training to be heroes or sidekicks. But it's the adult stars who get a lot of the best moments, in my opinion. Russell and Preston are both very good as the parents who are also superheroes, with the former particularly enjoyable every time that he's onscreen as The Commander. Kevin Heffernan is very enjoyable as Ron Wilson, bus driver, and Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald (two former members of The Kids In The Hall) are both very funny in their respective roles. Bruce Campbell is great as a coach who takes no nonsense, Cloris Leachman pops up for one scene as the school nurse and Lynda Carter has an extended cameo as Principal Powers.

Sky High doesn't pretend to be anything other than it is. It's an enjoyable superhero movie that takes the genre trappings and weaves them through a standard Disney high school movie. When the end result is this much fun, I can't say that I mind. No, I don't mind at all.