A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 244 – The Worst Witch (1986)

The Worst Witch (1986) – October 30th, 2010

What a fucking amazing movie this is. Really, it’s a thing of beauty, assuming your standards of beauty are star wipes and Charlotte Rae in a pink wig. I know mine are, so this movie here is a total gem. It’s based off of a series of British children’s books, but I’ve never read them. Oh, I’ve had the opportunity. We’ve got them at work. But having seen this first, I feel like if I read the books something will be ruined somehow. I’m not sure what, since I freely admit that this movie ruins itself every two minutes, but something would get ruined. I’m certain. So I’ve never read the books and I’ve only seen snippets of the older of the two series that have been made. Nope, I’m a purist.

I should admit here that I had seen a good portion of this movie well before I started dating Andy. My parents, in a bizarre attempt to keep my brother and me from watching things they didn’t want us watching on cable (once we got it a million years after everyone else), subscribed to the Disney channel. This is bizarre for two reasons: My parents never really liked Disney, and they never password protected the channel lock on the cable box, so MTV was mine for the viewing. But at some point, somewhere near Halloween I’m sure, this movie was played. And I saw the only two things that mattered to me at the time when deciding if this was worth watching: Tim Curry and Diana Rigg. Who the fuck cares about the rest of this trip through a fever dream? It’s got Tim Curry! And Diana Rigg! Diana Rigg, people. Emma Peel herself, playing a sort of proto-Snape-ette. Given how incredibly awesome she usually is, it’s a little tough to imagine Rigg chewing scenery, but by god, she’s good at it. Tim Curry I expect that from. He revels in it. So yeah. I saw the two of them and somehow they cast a happy wash over what I saw of it.

Of course, I’m pretty sure I missed the musical numbers. Like, all of them. I did not remember them when I saw this later on. And when this sort of thing goes on in a movie, you’d think you’d remember that, right? Or maybe I blocked it out. That’s a possibility too. Anyhow, some years later I happened upon a review of this movie, written by a guy who watched it while very sick and somewhat delirious, and it had me laughing so hard I hurt myself. And I remembered having seen the movie. And so we looked for a copy and we bought it. Probably so I could share the pain with Andy. We do love really bad movies, and well. It’s hard to top this.

To be honest, there’s no way I can review this half as well as the review I linked to. But in the spirit of completeness, here’s a quick summary of the plot and highlights. The story is about poor Mildred Hubble, a student witch at Miss Cackle’s Academy. It was filmed in the UK, but given the wide variety of accents it’s never terribly clear precisely where said academy is. I suspect they get the girls who wash out of Hogwarts. Mildred is clumsy, forgetful, nervous and also she fucks shit up on a regular basis just by being present. Her utter unsuitability for the field of witchcraft is demonstrated by things like her inability to not scream when other girls make faces, her uneven braids, and her tabby cat (which is totally not her fault – the school ran out of black cats on First Year Kitten Day). Miss Hardbroom (yes, really), played by Rigg, totally has it in for her because she sucks and can’t make potions or fly on a broomstick or do much of anything. Miss Cackle, played by the one and only Charlotte Rae, has a soft spot for her, however, and keeps her at the school for kicks.

One of the other students tries to get Mildred in trouble, so we’ve got a minor villain there, but it’s all very weak villainy. A bunch of evil witches headed by Miss Cackle’s evil twin sister (also played by the one and only Charlotte Rae, but in a pink wig and southern accent) are going to try and take over the school, that’s the major villain. They’re pretty weak too, since most of what they do is cavort in the forest and do a musical number. The song is probably the most evil they actually manage to do. Tim Curry shows up for a big Halloween bash but Mildred fucks that up right quick, which ends up leading to her turning the evil witches into snails and saving the day. No, I’m not going to bother explaining how it’s all connected. It’s not like the movie cares.

The whole thing is utterly ridiculous. Putting aside the musical numbers and the “special” effects involved in Tim Curry’s three minutes of shame, there’s also the flying, which is some of the worst blue/green screen work I’ve ever seen. There’s “terror tag” and an egg in a glass of water and a dubbed-over pig and oh god, I almost forgot Miss Cackle’s niece, with her bizarre accent and broom phone. Watching this movie is an utterly unique experience. I cannot put it any other way. It defies words at times and all I can say about it is “Oh my god, this movie!”

October 30, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Worst Witch

October 29, 2010

The Worst Witch

I honestly can’t remember why we bought this movie. I blame the internet. When Amanda was in college she read a hilarious summary of this movie (I believe she will have linked to it in her review.) We had trouble believing that something starring Diana Rigg and Tim Curry could really be as bad as we had heard that it was. Then we tracked it down on video and laughed uproariously. This movie has all the class and great special effects that you would expect from a 1980s made for TV movie.

This is the story of the hapless young Mildred Hubble who is attending a very Hogwartsian boarding school for young witches. She is terrorised by a strict and unforgiving potions master. She has trouble flying her broom. She is the only young witch with a cat that is not all black. In short she is an outcast and an oddball amongst witches.

Ye gods! I cannot express how ludicrous this movie is. It has random musical numbers. It has a ton of very cheap bluescreen work. It has a lengthy and pointless segment where the girls form teams to scare each other by making silly faces. (Not quite as riveting as Quidditch I know.) It has a pink-haired villain who speaks with a ridiculous southern accent in spite of the fact that the character’s sister is clearly Brittish.

I’m fully aware that I am about as far from the target audience for this movie as you can possibly get. It’s intended (I believe) for teenaged girls. I am a middle aged man. So perhaps this would be easier for young girls in the eighties to watch… or perhaps not. I can’t imagine anybody doing anything but staring in slack-jawed disbelief at the lengthy musical number about Halloween sung by Tim Curry as the Grand Wizard.

I will say that it is fabulous casting to have Tim Curry in the movie. There’s a special kind of weirdness to all these girls swooning over his photograph (since the Grand Wizard is apparently the most desirable man in all the witching world. Sort of the Edward Cullen of his day.) And his musical number must be seen to be believed. What I don’t understand, however, is how on earth the film makers got Diana Rigg for the part of Miss Hardbroom. I’m just not used to seeing an accomplished and sell trained actress like her hamming it up to this degree. She plays the part with what I would call a madcap intensity. Particularly noteworthy are her over-the-top exits – her character being the type to always get in the last word.

You know what? I give up. If you want to understand this movie you just have to give in and experience it for yourself. I think THAT must be why we own it. Because we can try all we might to describe it to our friends but the only real way to communicate its particular cheesy charm is to just put it in the DVD player and watch it. At least it has the benefit of being pretty short.

October 30, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz

August 26, 2010

The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz

I bought this movie way back in the days when I was still managing a Suncoast – back before those stores faded from existence. That would be more than five years ago now, and in all that time I haven’t watched this movie. It’s been sitting in our living room, still in its plastic wrap, waiting patiently for us to break it out and give it a view. I kind of had it in my head that this made-for-TV re-telling of the Wizard of Oz was a sort of second-rate rip off, and not a proper Muppet movie at all. Once again I’m glad of our movie-a-day project, because it gave me a chance to find out how wrong this perception was.

The fact of the matter is that this movie is both a very good Muppet movie and a very good adaptation of the original L. Frank Baum book. Or rather it’s an interesting melding of the Muppet universe with the original Wonderful Wizard of Oz story. As a Muppet fan who at one time devoured most of the L. Frank Baum books (back in second grade) I was intrigued and pleased.

Let’s start out with what has been changed. The story has been moved to the present day, and Dorothy works in her aunt Em’s diner. She dreams of being a big star and singer, but her aunt warns her that stardom is not all it’s cracked up to be and wants her to stay home with her and uncle Henry. (This is particularly witty, since Em is payed by Queen Latifah, who should know a little about super-stardom.) Instead of a cute little dog Dorothy has a pet prawn (and any Muppet fan knows where that is headed.) Eventually of course Dorothy is carried away in her double-wide pre-fab trailer park home to the magical land of Oz.

Interestingly there are a lot of bits from the book that are preserved in this adaptation which are not in the more famous nineteen-thirties version. The book has episodes where each character demonstrates that they already possess the characteristic they’re going to the Wizard to ask for, so there’s the Lion crossing a log and defeating some beasts (kind of tiger-men in the book I think.) Then there’s the scarecrow being forced to think of a way to rescue Dorothy and the Lion when they are overcome in the poppy fields. The wicked witch of the west commands the flying monkeys with a magic cap and has an eye that can see all. Everybody in the Emerald City must wear emerald glasses. Much of this is preserved in this re-telling. It’s just Muppefied. (For example the wicked witch’s cap is a magic biker’s hat because the flying monkeys are here a leather wearing biker gang.)

Toto is played by Pepe the Prawn, which is probably the biggest departure in the movie. Pepe, and Bill Baretta who performs him, is the break out star of the next generation of Muppets, so it’s a pleasure to see him. He acts to keep the movie light and current, not letting it ever become bogged down. Kermit plays the Scarecrow, the de-facto leader of Dorothy’s band in spite of his not having any brains. Gonzo is the Tin Thing. And Fozzie is the Cowardly Lion. Fozzie is another of the slight departures from the book – here he is afflicted by stage fright and must overcome his fears to become a great comedian. The creatures he must defeat when they are crossing the log are Statler and Waldorf, who try to heckle the group into falling. Miss Piggy plays all four of the witches, a nifty idea that I feel worked really well.

The performances in general are great. Ashanti, as Dorothy, is less irritating than some human stars in Muppet movies have been (in particular I’m thinking of the interminable human musical number in Muppet Christmas Carol, but that’s another review entirely.) At times she seems a little out of her element, but for the most part she holds her own. I was delighted to see Jeffrey Tambor as the Wizard (because I’m always delighted to see Jeffrey Tambor.) Scooter appeared with his first speaking role since Richard Hunt passed away (I believe) here performed by Rickey Boyd. Kevin Clash (best known as Elmo of course) got to reprise the role of Clifford from Muppets Tonight, which is always fun to see. Most importantly for me I noted in the closing credits that the torch had been passed for all of Frank Oz’s characters. I have suspected since the days of Muppets From Space that somebody new has been performing Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Animal, Sam the Eagle and all, and here I finally see his name. It’s Eric Jacobson, in case you’re curious, and he does an admirable job. And of course there’s Bill Baretta as Pepe and Johnny Fiama. I’m so pleased to see so many new Muppets coming into their own and old characters being passed on to a new generation of Muppeteers.

Oh, this isn’t a great movie. It doesn’t have the heart of The Muppet Movie or the originality of Muppets From Space. It does, however, do a good job at what it sets out to do. It provides a new interpretation of the book for all those who have only ever seen the 1939 musical, and it has a number of fun cameos. It could have been just a cheap made-for-TV attempt to wring cash from a pair of old franchises (the Oz books and the Muppets) but in the end it actually manages to entertain by finding a way to blend these two old franchises into something fresh and new.

August 26, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 160 – Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss

Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss – August 7th, 2010

I feel a little bad reviewing things like this and The Norman Conquests. This movie and those ones are favorites of my family, obtained ages ago by some means that no longer exist, and now difficult or impossible to find. But since my family loves them so, we’ve babied our copies long enough for me to grab them and include them in the project. So I’m sorry. I apologize wholeheartedly that such treasures are so hard to get, and that I am pretty much taunting you by talking about how much I love them.

I am going to guess that most people reading this have seen the classic Christmas movie A Christmas Story. You know, the one with the leg lamp and the the Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle and the pink bunny suit and Scut Farkus? Yeah, you’ve seen that. Everyone’s seen that, or at least heard of it. You can buy those lamps now every Christmas. Well, what isn’t as commonly known is that there are other movies about Ralphie and his family, based on the writings of Jean Shepherd. I’m pretty sure we happened upon this one by accident on PBS, but we were so taken with it, it became an instant classic in my family. Every year it must be watched or the summer isn’t complete. This is the story of Ralphie when he’s fourteen and how he spends his summer. It was made for tv and it stars a young but post-Stand By Me Jerry O’Connell as Ralphie. And I love it dearly.

This is a very episodic movie. While it has an overarching plot and focuses around a specific time period, it moves from vignette to vignette within that plot and time. Ralphie is fourteen here and old enough to get working papers so he can get his first job. That’s vignette number one, but set within the context of said job making it impossible for him to go on the traditional family vacation to the lake. Of course said job is horrible, and intercut with scenes from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. It inspires horrible nightmares and Ralphie hates it passionately. Meanwhile, the family dog goes missing and Ralphie’s mother declares that she’s not going on vacation either unless the dog is found beforehand. The dog’s name, by the way, is Fuzzhead, and the search for the dog involves Ralphie’s mother screeching it over and over. It’s not sophisticated humor, but it never fails to make me laugh my ass off. Dorothy Lyman, who plays the mother, really does a fantastic job. Much as I love the mother in A Christmas Story this version is great too. Her voice is instantly hilarious and recognizable.

I’ve always felt like the first section of the movie, with those two stories, takes a huge amount of time. Not in a bad way, but it feels like a lot happens, so it must take a lot of time. But the movie is only an hour and a half and there’s a whole later section full of little bits too. The family does end up going on vacation to the lake, staying at Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss (where the cabins are named after the Dionne Quintuplets), but you don’t really see the lake. The point is the road trip to it. Along the way there’s a truck full of chickens, a motorized mini windmill, a bee in the car and some cows. But every single encounter is quietly humorous (or screechingly, if Ralphie’s mother gets excited). Everything in the movie is presented in lovingly mocking nostalgia. It’s a tribute to the classic family road trip, complete with the overpacked car full of items you’ll never use, car sickness, roadside attractions, detours to nowhere, car trouble and the inevitable sibling bickering.

The movie as a whole feels a little patchy. It moves from bit to bit not entirely smoothly, but it’s all great fun, so I’ve never so much minded that. There’s an attempt to wrap the two sections of the movie together by showing the family waking up to get on the road to Ollie’s, then backtracking to describe how the vacation almost didn’t happen. It’s a valiant effort, but ends up not really doing a whole lot other than making the movie lap itself. What really does a better job of tying everything together is Jean Shepherd’s narration. If you’ve seen A Christmas Story then you know the sort of feel it has to it. There’s a fondness for the events combined with some self-deprecating humor. The sort of humor that only comes with distance from one’s past actions. It’s told both as a heartfelt story about youthful summer vacations and how they exist as perfect in our memories even if they were anything but, and as a collection of anecdotes. It feels like the sort of thing that happens around the table at holidays in my family. Sure, we were all there that year when we rented the house with the lumpy beds and the roaches and the closet full of Nancy Drew books and the dogs got into the fridge and ate the leftover pizza. But we tell the story anyhow, because we enjoy it, and we enjoy remembering it.

Watching this with my father this evening, on my second to last day of vacation, I am reminded of many summers of my own childhood. I know my parents love this movie because many of the things in it speak to their own childhoods, even if there are a bunch of anachronisms like crock pots and mentions of Mario Andretti. I love it because it’s incredibly funny and because it’s part of my family’s summer tradition, itself a part of stories we tell and references we make (favorites include a great line about a bathmat and the bee in the car dance). Rather fitting, I think, even if it’s ushering out my vacation instead of ushering it in. It’s a nice way to remember that summer’s still got a few weeks left.

August 7, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Ollie Hopnodle’s Haven of Bliss

August 7, 2010

Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss

Amanda and I are spending some time on Cape Cod this weekend, so it’s time for some traditional annual movie viewing. Everybody has, of course, seen A Christmas Story (which TBS shows literally twenty-four hours a day on Christmas) but not everybody has seen this other movie, also written and narrated by Jean Shepherd. As with Christmas Story this is a series of anecdotes about growing up in the fifties, this time centered on summer vacation. The irony is that the vacation spot mentioned in the title of the movie is not actually the location where most of the film takes place. Instead Ollie Hopnoodle’s is a sort of idyllic destination – the goal for which every action in the movie brings the hero’s family a little closer. It’s very much a case of the journey being more of the point of the vacation than the destination.

Just like yesterday’s movie this one is a is a quest story. It’s the story of the same family from Christmas Story (whiny little brother Randy, narrator Ralph and their parents) as they prepare for and make their epic journey to Clear Lake and the little rustic cabins of Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss. Before they can even make the trip however there are adventures to be had: Ralph gets a gruelling job hauling furniture for a beastly boss (played by writer Jean) and the family dog Fuzzhead runs off and has to be found. The family doesn’t even set of on their road-trip until the movie is about half way over.

What makes the movie great is the feel of a homespun narrative. Jean Shepherd’s homespun tales are so easy to relate to, even when the action is set in the fifties. Who hasn’t crammed so much stuff for a short vacation into a car that the vehicle could barely move? Who hasn’t gone on a long car trip with a whiny car-sick little sibling? Who hasn’t wondered about what sort of person actually buys lawn ornaments from roadside vendors? Sure the narration is the ultimate example of telling rather than showing, but that’s sort of the appeal of the movie. It’s like a guided tour of Jean’s childhood.

There are a few quotes from this movie that Amanda and I use on a pretty frequent basis. The delivery that Jerry O’Connel (as Ralph) gives to the line “Boy is it early” when the family is trying to get up to beat the traffic is perfect for just about any early morning endeavor. Ralph’s father at one point claims that he is “just resting my eyes,” which is almost a running gag with Amanda’s entire family. And for some bizarre reason neither Amanda nor I can mention a bathmat without quoting the conversation Ralph’s parents have when they’re packing the car. “Did you remember the bathmat?” “Bathmat? What do we need a bathmat for?” “I don’t know… it might be nice.” Indeed I’d say that my favorite performance in the movie is that of Dorothy Lyman as Ralph’s mother. She over-acts like crazy, but the chipper cheerfulness she displays in the face of every setback and her shrill voice never fail to amuse and charm me.

Amanda and I have watched this movie every summer since we first started dating in 1995 (and I gather that it has been a family tradition for her to watch it almost since the movie first came out in 1988.) As such the whole thing has a feel of warm familiarity to it. Knowing that I was going to be watching it again tonight I started to anticipate favorite bits in the film. The nightmare that Ralph has of the looming refrigerator. The bee in the car. The windmill and the truck full of chickens. Jean’s stories are fun tales of every-child growing up already, but when you’ve seen and heard them every summer for fifteen years or more they almost become a part of your own life. Just as for Ralph summer vacation doesn’t begin until he and his family reach Ollie Hopnoodle our vacation seems incomplete without revisiting this movie.

August 7, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 158 – Spring Break Shark Attack

Spring Break Shark Attack – August 5th, 2010

This movie started out exactly as I expected, with a bunch of busty women getting eaten by a shark. But then it went and started building a plot! And there are real actors in this movie! It’s bizarre. Actors, who’ve been in real movies! Playing real characters with personalities and backstories! It’s inexplicable! And I’m using lots of exclamation marks! But seriously, I was told not to expect much from this movie, so I went into it expecting two things: Women in bikinis and sharks, and the inevitable convergence of the two. I wasn’t expecting even the semblance of a plot.

Okay, so, let’s talk about the plot and characters the movie had the nerve to have. College student Danielle, frustrated by her super overprotective father, sneaks off to join some friends in Florida for spring break. You see, her father won’t even let her live in the dorms at the local college he’s forced her to attend and she’s sick of it. Once she gets down there she meets up with two friends and one friend’s boyfriend and his friend, J.T.. The two guys are uber sleazy and thankfully one of them gets eaten pretty quickly. Meanwhile there are some locals, Mary Jones and her son Shane, who have a struggling charter fishing business, and Joel Gately, a club owner. Oh, and then there’s Danielle’s brother, Charlie, who’s a marine biology student. So the partiers are all partying and the locals are all concerned about an artificial reef that’s been put in and there’s a romantic subplot where Danielle’s got a thing for Shane but one of the sleazy guys wants to nail her. Eventually everything comes to a head with an attempted rape and a whole shitload of sharks. Then Danielle, Shane and Charlie end up out on a boat in the middle of the water, surrounded by the sharks.

The truly bizarre thing is, I think the movie tried in a very clumsy way to draw a parallel between the sleazy guy and the sharks and I think it sort of succeeded. I mean, Danielle’s father flat out calls the sort of guys who go down to spring break sharks. And J.T. has this ominous musical theme that follows him around like the reek of AXE. He’s a wannabe date rapist who cruises his way through the parties in the movie, sniffing for naivete. Meanwhile, the sharks in the water are grabbing girls too drunk to scream for help. Yeah, like I said, clumsy, but I’m pretty damn sure it was intentional. And that’s a hell of a lot more than the title implies you’ll be seeing.

I will give Danielle (and the propmaster) some credit for reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on the beach. Now that’s a spring break plan I can get behind. She and Shane both end up flirting in a bookstore at one point while Danielle hides from the super loud club her friends and J.T. have dragged her to. I am not joking when I say that if I had ever gone to any beach party spring break sort of thing I’d have ended up ensconced in a bookstore, avoiding the sun and the booze. She’s a smart enough girl who’s rebelling a little, but not too much. It’s actually a plot point that she doesn’t drink.

Another thing I’m giving the movie some credit for is that it’s not nearly as over-the-top as I thought it would be. While there are some obligatory shark attack shots and fountains of bloody seawater, the sharks themselves are average size tiger sharks, lured into the area with chum. That’s really somewhat tame. And then they go and solve everything with science! And I’m not talking neon lights and beakers full of food coloring this time. I’m talking about Danielle’s brother’s big experimental electric shark repelling devices. Here I was expecting string bikinis and screaming and while there is a fair amount of that, I also got science and dramatic tension. Weird.

We’d sort of been putting this one off, I think. In part because Sharks in Venice, Megalodon and Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus seemed like such promising vaguely sci-fi flavored cheese, whereas this seemed more pedestrian. Take MTV the whole month of March and toss in sharks, right? And in part because we decided to get it based off a review I found online that totally panned it, saying it was this horrible and unwatchable piece of trash and would make more sense viewed backwards. But I’ve got to say, I actually enjoyed it. I liked Danielle. I liked Shane. I cheered when certain other characters met their grisly ends. Sure, we figured out what was going on with the sharks almost immediately, and it’s not like this is winning any cinematography or screenwriting awards. And maybe I’m biased after our last three movies, but I found this genuinely fun to watch, both for the cheesy shark attack scenes and for the better-than-expected plot, characters and acting. Baffling, but there you have it.

August 5, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Spring Break Shark Attack

August 5, 2010

Spring Break Shark Attack

Of all the shark movies we had lined up for this week this is the one I had the lowest expectations for. I mean, you know where you stand with Sharks in Venice or Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, but you’re not really going to get that kind of cheese with a spring break themed movie. As I put this in I was expecting something exploitatively awful along the lines of Lost Boys: The Tribe – something that substituted mostly naked girls and gore for plot or acting. You can’t imagine how shocked and pleased I am that I was so wrong.

This turns out to be a pretty engaging movie with actual plot and action, romance, suspense, even some legitimate evil bad-guys. Oh, and yeah, there’s a few sharks… but it turns out that maybe the sharks are not the worst creatures on the beach in Florida during spring break.

Danielle is a level headed girl who feels suffocated by her controlling father. When two of her friends call her up and insist that she join them for spring break in Florida she eventually succumbs to their cajoling and runs off to join them rather than going to Colorado to do habitat for humanity like her family thinks she has. In the movie spring break is every bit as exploitative and slimy as I was expecting, but the movie actually has its heart in the right place in this regard.

Spring break is a bigger evil than the sharks. At least that’s the message of the movie. It’s a booze fueled ongoing annoying party. Not at all Danielle’s kind of scene. She’d rather just sit on the beach and read her book. (My wife pointed out that the huge tome she’s reading is actually Harry Potter. We got some laughs out of that.) The beaches are filled with evil predators, most of them on two legs, and the film makers get a lot of mileage out of that concept.

One of Danielle’s friends is on the beach to find her boyfriend, about whom she has heard some unflattering rumors. Turns out the rumors are true and the boyfriend is making a sort of “Girls Gone Wild” videotape with his slimy pal J.T. This slimy bastard sets his sights on the clearly naive Danielle and makes it his goal to seduce her. Luckily there are some good people on the beach as well. There’s Shane, a local townie who’s trying to save up money working for his mother’s boat rental service so he can go to college and study engineering. J.T. takes Danielle to a popular local club, and then Shane meets her at a nearby book store. Which one do you think I rooted for? Then there’s Danielle’s brother Charlie who is doing a dissertation on the dangers of constructing an artificial reef which doesn’t just attract pretty reef fish but also attracts sharks.

The whole rivalry between the slimeball and the nice local boy is actually very well done. The movie even gets a couple strong ad break cliffhangers out of it. Who’d have thunk that a made-for-TV shark attack movie would have characters you actually end up caring about, with some actual real drama?

Oh, I won’t say that the movie is perfect. It’s very clearly a made for TV thing – with the clearly delineated ad breaks and such. It also has rather a lot of handheld camera work – and not just during the scenes at sea. There was one particular scene with Danielle visiting her brother in his college dorm room where the camera was shaking all over the place as they talked – I kept asking myself “why didn’t the crew have any tripods?”

The actual shark attacks are hilarious. The film makers use two basic methods to make something that is both gory and suitable for television broadcast. One is a kind of blood geyser. People get sucked under the water and then explode in a spout of blood and water that launches up from the deep. (It looks as silly as it sounds. Both Amanda and I laughed out loud the first time it happened.) The other method is a wonderful rubber shark head. It looms up from the water nicely, but it is entirely unarticulated, so it can’t actually bite anybody. The result is that anybody who is to be a victim of this particular menace has to pretty much throw themselves into the shark’s mouth.

The last quarter of the movie or so is the titular shark attack, and it’s everything you could hope it would be. It gets kind of over the top, what with people having to hurl themselves into the jaws of the rubber shark. There’s a ton of made-for-TV blood and lots of young people in bathing suits running around and screaming. In a pleasingly cheesy way it delivers on the promise of the title.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that this was absolutely NOT the movie I thought it was going to be. It’s well made, well written and well acted. It has just enough cheese to please the bad movie lover in me, but it is actually not a bad movie at all. Color me shocked.

August 5, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 132 – Riverworld (2010)

Riverworld (2010) – July 10th, 2010

We did not intend to buy this today. We didn’t intend to buy any movies today. But there is was when we went looking for more shelving for our ever-expanding collection. And it’s got Tahmoh Penikett! And Alan Cumming! And most importantly (to me), Peter Wingfield! Now, I’ll apologize in advance, but I’ve got a thing. Peter Wingfield is one of my favorite actors and I might get a little distracted.

But he’s not on screen for a little bit. First we get an entirely different main character than the 2003 version of this story. Tahmoh Penikett is Matt Ellman, a reporter doing a story on some rebels in southeast Asia. He and his girlfriend are caught in an explosion when a suicide bomber blows up the club they were in. That’s a far cry from an astronaut dying in his shuttle. The whole thing with the Riverworld residents and how they’re stored and awakened and all is very different. I still haven’t read the books, so I found this rather interesting. There’s a lot that’s different. Matt’s been singled out from the others, he meets up with people he knows from just before the explosion, the grailstones are really different and Matt can’t get anything from them (what with the aforementioned singling out). There’s still a confrontation over the food, but it’s not remotely the same. And then the most profound difference I’ve noticed at the outset is that there are a bunch of blue-faced folks in robes who’re obviously manipulating things on Riverworld. In the other version these folks only show up at the end. It affects the whole plot.

Sure, there are other changes from what I mentioned. The core characters are different, aside from Matt Ellman. There’s Tomoe Gozen, a female samurai from medieval Japan. There’s Matt’s cameraman, Simon, and Matt’s girlfriend Jessie’s tour group from before the explosion (two of them bite it early on and aren’t seen again but two others stick around – not long enough but I’ll get to them). And there’s Richard Burton, played by Peter Wingfield, as the immediately identified bad guy. He does play a good bad guy. Sure, there are other bad guys. Here we have Pizarro instead of Nero, but Burton’s got one of the blue dudes giving him advice. There’s something deeper going on beyond the obvious leader of the humans. That sort of deeper game wasn’t in the other movie, but I kind of like it. To be honest, I like it both ways.

One thing I don’t like is the constant flashbacks Matt keeps having to his previous life. I get that it’s trying to show backstory for Matt and give him a spine and all, but it feels disruptive to the flow of the story in Riverworld. All the flashbacks are to an event in Chechnya, where he and Simon were shown a secret mass grave and then got caught in an attack. For the purposes of character building? It’s sort of interesting. But it could have been cut entirely and I wouldn’t have missed it because the real story going on is the game the blue dudes are playing with the humans.

One of the things I liked about this movie – and there are several – is that it shows us so much of what’s going on without actually explaining it all. We know that Riverworld is a created place and that there are non-human entities watching everything. We know that there’s a dispute going on between them, with two factions using humans to battle over something. But the specifics take a while to play out. They do a lot of showing and not a lot of telling. Unfortunately, that does have the effect of leaving Matt looking like a bit of a doof much of the time, as he’s questioned by one faction and honestly tells them he really has no idea what’s going on.

But I like that things are deeper. I like that it’s not just tossing historical figures together and making us watch them duke it out without anything else driving it. In this version the riverboat exists already when we meet Sam Clemens, and he’s already determined to find the source of the river. He’s been singled out by the blue dudes too, and so we get a bit of a picture that there’s been a game going on for a long time. Matt might well just be an innocent dupe, used as a pawn because his determination to find Jessie will lead the blue dudes (whom Matt actually refers to as Blue Man Group, so I’m glad he made that joke before I had to) to whatever conclusion they’re looking for. But there’s a richer world here, I think, than in the 2003 version.

Of course, the movie is longer. It was originally a 4 hour miniseries on SyFy (I hate writing it like that – can I rebel and not use that?) and therefore has a very distinct Part One and Part Two. Pizarro is all in the first half, where the second half makes the true stakes clearer. It makes for a bit of a messy plot, if I’m being honest, but I find I don’t mind. Maybe it’s because I got to see a lot of Peter Wingfield as Burton, being devious and smooth and obviously enjoying the heck out of the role. Maybe it’s because I really started enjoying listening to Sam. Maybe it’s because I got into the plot a little more when it started to become cohesive towards the end. Maybe it’s because I truly liked seeing more of the world’s underpinnings, even if some things aren’t explained.

Some examples of things left unexplained: The dirigible. That’s great, that Ludwig Durr managed to build a dirigible and fly it around. But this is sort of like Ator’s hangglider in Cave Dwellers. Where the hell did the materials come from? I could buy the riverboat, but yeah. Not only is there a dirigible, but it has wine glasses and bottles of champagne. That alludes to some much more developed settlements than we’re ever shown. So that’s frustrating. It tosses me out of the movie almost as badly as the flashbacks. Thankfully, there’s plenty to pull me back in.

In addition to the things I mentioned before, there are some good characters in the movie. I love that the female warrior in the movie, Tomoe Gozen, is a real figure from Japanese history. For one, it gives the movie another historical figure, which is part of the whole conceit. Two, it gives us a nice strong female, and we needed one. I really like how diverse the cast is in many ways, with men and women and several races and cultures represented. There’s even a gay couple, whom I mentioned before. And to be honest, they’re what make the ending unsatisfying for me, because they don’t get much closure. All through the movie they keep getting split up. Antonio gets dragged along with the enemy and Hal dies and gets resurrected. It’s a running theme. I’d have liked so see them get some time without death or baddies. Alas.

There’s a lot of twists and backstabbing and trying to decide who’s telling the truth and whose intentions are what underneath. I like that. I’m up for a good twisty plot with grey areas. The problem is that given the nature of the world, it all ends with a new beginning. Stephen King can get away with that (in my opinion, though I know others disagree) but this movie? Not so sure. Again, it seems like someone really desperately wants to make this into a full series, but isn’t quite sure how to draw people into it enough to do that. It’s a pity, because this really was a lot of fun in a lot of ways, but I can understand how people might not have gotten wrapped up in it enough to keep coming back. I would, but that’s me. And I do have a thing for Peter Wingfield.

July 10, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Riverworld (2010)

July 10, 2010

Riverworld (2010)

Tonight we embark on our second Riverworld adaptation. We picked this up on a whim this morning while out shopping and neither of us has seen it before. I’m interested to see a different perspective on the same world.

Right at the start I can see that it’s going to be a very different beast from the first made for TV adaptation. It’s not concerned with being too faithful to the books I guess. Our hero today is Matt, played by Tamoh Penickett from BSG, a war zone television reporter who travels to all kinds of dangerous remote locations to get his news stories. Ironically he dies in a nightclub explosion while proposing to his girlfriend and not while on assignment.

As with Richard Burton in the first Riverworld book (To Your Scattered Bodies Go) and Jeff Hale in the 2003 TV adaptation Matt has a brief glimpse of all the reconstructed bodies of humanity before he finds himself spat out upon the banks of the endless river that is where every human that ever lived is reborn. In this adaptation the people emerge fully clothed in the dress of their time. There are no “grails” but there are bracelets that everybody (except Matt) wears that they can use on the grailstones to get food and such. And furthermore most of the people that Matt died with are also reborn at the same time and in the same place. (A marked departure from the source work, where due to the vast number of people who have lived throughout history the odds of anybody ever meeting someone they knew in their mortal life are exceedingly low.)

Unlike the 2003 adaptation this one does address things like the “suicide express” which allows people to travel Riverworld by killing themselves to be reborn somewhere else. And there is grail slavery, where the supplies taken from the grailstones are taken by those with the greatest fighting force.

I’ve got to stop watching this as an adaptation. It seems that Richard Francis Burton is the bad guy in this film. I find that very disorienting. It hurts my brain to try to see all of these things twisted to fit some new configuration. I need to try and watch this on its own merits. So here are a few fragmented thoughts as I watch the movie:

Sam Clemens is very well written here. Very eloquent and given to the sorts of flowery language you would expect from Mark Twain. Mark Deklin’s performance however is grating to me. He comes across as smug, self righteous and irritating. It’s hard to root for the good guys when their leader and his annoying cackle makes me wince whenever he’s on screen.

Francis Burton, however, is played with his usual flare by Peter Wingfield. Sure he’s not a very nice character, and I don’t exactly root for him, but it’s a delight whenever he’s around. Bad guys are always the more interesting ones, anyhow.

The motivations of some of the characters in this movie make little sense to me. Matt is obsessed with his girlfriend Jessie to whom he proposed right before he died. I suppose I can understand this, her being the love of his life and all, but the movie doesn’t really show us anything of the two of them together before they die. We’re just kind of asked to accept their word for it that there was anything between them at all. The same situation exists for Tomoe – the badass samurai woman who, for no discernible reason attaches herself to Matt’s cause. She barely even gets a single scene with him, but is soon willing to kill herself to find Matt. It’s very strange.

Maybe it’s a result of editing. This movie is, after all, a miniseries compressed into movie form. Maybe there are scenes lost in the shuffle that lend credence to the motivations.

It isn’t until about halfway through the movie that we start to get a feel for the warring factions amongst the watchers of Riverworld and begin to understand what’s supposed to be going on. There’s a group of blue people (led by Alan Cumming) who want to destroy the Riverworld and end the constant rebirth of humanity using Sam’s riverboat and Burton’s general dissatisfaction with life. And there are some other blue people who want to save the world. And somehow Jessie is mixed up in this. At the start of the movie you wonder why Matt of all people would be “chosen” by the watchers, but I begin to suspect it’s because his previous relationship with Jessie makes him a good wedge to use with Burton.

I actually do enjoy this movie. It doesn’t grab me emotionally and it’s fairly linear, but it explores a lot of the issues of Riverworld and does get to the source and have a final confrontation. But much is left unresolved. It doesn’t ever get a chance to explore the true purpose of Riverworld and the notion of “moving on,” and most frustratingly for me a pair of ancillary characters that I quite liked never got the happy ending I was hoping for. As with the 2003 Riverworld adaptation it ends with our heroes again on the great river boat and ready for a sequel. Maybe in seven years somebody will try again.

July 10, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 86 – Riverworld (2003)

Riverworld (2003) – May 25th, 2010

When I got home tonight I said we needed a short movie. We weren’t going to be able to start watching until after 10 and I don’t like the idea of finishing the movie after midnight. Thankfully, we’ve been updating our big-ass spreadsheet of doom with runtimes (thanks to friend JP for the suggestion) and I sorted by that column, came up with a lot of shark movies (we’re saving those for later), a lot of stuff we’ve seen, and this. It’s 90 minutes long. Neither of us have seen it. It was made by the SciFi Channel back before it rebranded itself with something trademarkable.

This is a science fiction movie based on a book by Philip Jose Farmer. Unfortunately, I haven’t read it, so I went into this blind. Andy, on the other hand, has read it and started out by immediately making comments about little changes made. It’s not a terribly big budget film and we can easily play spot-the-ad-break. I noticed a couple of scenes that seemed to have been shot on different stock than the majority of the movie, which was odd and jarring. And it’s got an hour and a half to introduce the world and the concept that drives it while also fitting in an actual plot, because while it was a made-for-tv movie, it’s still a movie, not a series. Maybe they were hoping for more, but it never happened and while there are plenty of books in the same world from Farmer, there’s no way to get to everything in one movie. Which is too bad. Having not read the books, I can see the basic idea here, but I’m sure it’s far more fleshed out with more space. It’s a fascinating concept: That all human beings, when they die, are reborn in adult bodies on a world dominated by a river. That all of humanity washes up on the riverbank in random groupings, left to their own devices to build what societies they want. My internet-trained brain immediately assumes this is all a social experiment.

So we start out with our main character, Jeff Hale, dying as his space shuttle is hit by an asteroid or something. A mysterious cloaked figure wakes him in some sort of giant diatom and gives him some visions. Then he and a bunch of other confused folks wash up on the riverbank and find some handily provided clothing that seems to fit everyone, though the men get a mesh panel on the backs of their shirts while the women get a boob window. Cute. Anyhow, they’re quickly set upon by the Vandals, a nasty army led by a dude named Valdemar. But he’s not long for the movie because we need a villain whose name we’ll recognize, right? Right. A small group of core characters are quickly established. In addition to Hale we get Alice, Lev, Mali, Monat and Gwen. Alice is a young woman from the early 20th century, Lev is a young man who died in Auschwitz, Mali is a Yoruban priestess, Gwen is a little girl who doesn’t talk so who knows what her point is aside to be cute and not have to memorize lines, and Monat is an alien. They get dragged off to Valdemar’s fortress where eventually Nero fights him (yes, Nero, I did say we needed a villain we’d recognize) and kills him while our heroes escape. They meet up with Sam Clemens and his merry band of boat builders who are making a riverboat (duh) and plan to head off downriver. Of course there’s a spy in their midst and of course they need to go back to the fortress and of course Nero fights Hale like, eight billion times in the course of the movie.

It’s not bad, as SciFi Channel movies go (we really should get Mansquito). I’m sure it leaves something to be desired for folks who’ve read the books. I can’t say I didn’t mock it while we watched it. There are cheesy lines and cheap stunts and the aforementioned weird stock change and the ad breaks. Since it was made for television, they scripted the ad breaks in. It’s kind of unsettling. But overall, I enjoyed it, cheese included. While it’s obvious that some romantic intent was meant to happen and four of the main characters are supposed to couple up, it never truly goes anywhere and that’s kind of refreshing. Don’t waste my precious science fiction time trying to build up a romance that would just detract from the plot. There’s set-up for a sequel that won’t happen (not with this cast anyhow, there’s another adaptation, and it’s got Peter Wingfield, Tahmoh Penikett and Alan Cumming, so I’m kind of hoping they did better), but I won’t knock it for that. SciFi has expanded upon things before. I should probably go read the books now. At least before I see the newer version.

May 25, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment