Ladyhawke (1985)

 

Ladyhawke (1985)

Ladyhawke (1985)

IMDB
Available on DVD and Blu-ray via Amazon

Upon first viewing, I didn’t particularly like Ladyhawke. It had fans among my circle of friends however and so I saw it on more than one occasion when I was younger.

Lately, the pull of nostalgia sparked by reading Earnest Cline’s Ready Player One made me want to revisit this classic from the 1980’s and I was delighted to find it was currently streaming on HBO GO.

Within seconds of starting this up, I was immediately confronted with one of the more challenging aspects of this film, the anachronistic soundtrack composed by Alan Parsons. There are no words for how much I hate this score, it manages to somehow take every dramatic cue in this movie and turn it in to some epic cheese fest with it’s soft-rock, pop synthesizer nonsense. I would love to see this film re-released with a more traditional score that actually complimented the film instead of pulling you out of the moment every time those keyboards flare to life.

The other strike against it in my book was always the costumes and props. They aren’t just bad, they are perhaps some of the worst ever seen in a fantasy film. How this happened in the wake of such wonderful work in Conan and Excalibur is inexcusable. Not that fantasy has to be grim, take Willow or Labyrinth which followed for instance. It’s perhaps a blessing that those films didn’t follow Ladyhawke’s example and instead opted for the more realistic, actually used, look for the armor, weapons and clothing. Surprising how this continues to be an issue even today with some films despite it being fairly obvious that this can make or break a fantasy film.

Trying to push those biases aside this viewing, I opted to focus on the cast, the direction and the story this film had to tell.

Essentially a fairy tale romance, Ladyhawke‘s main story line does have a strong appeal and I can see why that would inspire fan loyalty. I’m certainly willing to be carried away on that kind of adventure if the film can sell me on it. To their credit, the film’s cast does a pretty remarkable job of remaining earnest despite a script that doesn’t give them much to work with. Matthew Broderick gives a fun performance as Mouse, a thief and in over his head sidekick, and shows the seeds of what will become his trademark snark in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It’s probably Leo McKern that gives the best work though. His portrayal of the disgraced priest, Imperius, is the only one to have any real weight behind it as the two main stars, Hauer and Pfeiffer, are left with speeches about undying love and hokey transition scenes.

There’s a tone problem with this film too, everything comes off as simply too easy. For us to accept the burden of the cursed lovers and share in their heartbreak, it would have been nice to have been put through a little more than the simple contrived inconveniences our devoted ones must face. We only know of their angst because they describe it to us. Without any real danger and little or no emotion, it all comes off as just very insincere.

Having said all of that, I guess I can still see what my friends enjoyed about this all those years ago. Ladyhawke is a light fantasy romance with a beautifully conceived back story and if you simply focus on those aspects, it can be a fun two hours.

If that’s good enough for you, then by all means seek this one out. However, if you’re like me and wish there was a little more substance to the story or need to make an emotional connection to the characters in order to be carried away, you might want to give this one a pass until you’ve seen a few of the other 1980’s classics.

 

 

Sorcerer (1977)

 

Sorcerer (1977)

Sorcerer (1977)

IMDB
Available on Blu-ray via Amazon

I have something of a cinematic fetish for films with a Tangerine Dream Soundtrack. That’s how I initially learned of Sorcerer, it was the first film that they scored. I managed to acquire a copy of the soundtrack and had listened to it a few times before I really started to investigate the film.

Once I finally started my research, the movie wasn’t at all what I was expecting. For a 1970’s film with the title Sorcerer, I was half expecting a sub-par Dragonslayer or Excalibur, not an existential drama centered around the desperation of evil men.

As I dug deeper, I learned of the film’s legendary history. A troubled production, multiple casting changes and director meltdown gave this an almost Apocalypse Now kind of vibe and I knew I definitely had to track this one down. That quest became something of an exercise in frustration though. With it’s poor showing at the box office and critical drubbing, the film seemed to have all but disappeared for years. I couldn’t locate a copy for a reasonable price or in high enough quality to make it worth my effort, so I finally just added that to the “someday” list and wrote it off.

In the Fall of 2013, word finally started to hit the internet that a lot of the rights issues had been cleared up and that the director, William Friedkin, had begun working on a restoration that we would see get a blu-ray release in the Spring of 2014. I kept an early eye out for the pre-order and when the day arrived I immediately added it to my shopping cart.

I finally got my hands on a copy this week and it was well worth the wait.

If you’ve followed the links to IMDB or Wikipedia, you’ve got the general sense of what this film is about, but truly that’s only scratching the surface and Sorcerer is a film that really needs to be seen to get a full appreciation for how brilliant it is.

As is the case with a lot of 1970’s cinema, the film starts with a kind of slow burn and I think a modern audience may feel a little impatient as we glimpse the opening vignettes which introduce us to our cast of despicable men. It’s all very Quentin Tarantino-like, especially the last tale where we get introduced to Roy Scheider’s character, Jackie Scanlon, and I was not at all surprised to discover he was a fan of the film.

Once the film transitions to the jungles of South America and the plot begins to unfold, the film picks up and the tension starts to mount. Friedkin is no stranger to creating exciting suspense and dramatic tension having directed both The French Connection and The Exorcist, and he definitely works his magic here.

What follows is a harrowing journey through the jungles as our cast fights nature and their own inner nature in a desperate battle to escape the circumstances of their past.

There are at least three edge of your seat set pieces as the trucks make their way, each a unique master class in the art of building tension.

The final act kind of veers a little toward the experimental with some interesting camera effects used to emphasize the desperate state of mind of Scanlon as he finds himself so close to his goal and yet ever so short. Even the haunting location chosen for the backdrop to this scene is a wonder to behold and it’s hard to believe this place really exists.

There is something of a controversial epilogue to the film as well, which you will either love or hate. Personally, I thought it was a great way to put an emphasis on the story, but for those who would prefer a less dour tale of redemption, you may feel cheated.

If you have the opportunity and enjoy films that are not by the numbers fluff, give Sorcerer a try, it’s one of the great overlooked films of the 1970’s.

 

 

Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973)

IMDB
Available on Netflix Streaming, as of 10/17/2012
On DVD via Amazon

Invasion of the Bee Girls is pretty much the perfect “B” movie.

It’s full of bad acting, ridiculous plot points, terrible dialog and poor special effects, and yet, that perfect recipe for disaster makes for a highly watchable film.

Part of what really sells Invasion is it’s earnest approach to the material. It’s pretty high camp from the beginning, but you never once feel the film is trying to put one over on you. Recent films often try and sell you a predetermined cult film status with (not so) sly audience acknowledgements. Bee girls forgoes those winks at the camera though and It’s all the better for it.

All of the expected components of a grindhouse feature are present, and for fans of weird/mad science, the Queen Bee transformation sequence is not to be missed.

If you enjoy the occasional midnight movie, you’ll find this one to be the bees knees.

2013 in Film

Of all the films released in 2013, I saw 28.

My top five* were probably: (In order of release)

Oblivion
Man of Steel
Pacific Rim
Gravity
Homefront
* and Jurrasic Park 3D, which technically was 2013 but really 1993, and still the best overall thing I saw in a theater this year even though I hate 3D

Films I’ll most certainly watch multiple times:

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Man of Steel
Thor: The Dark World
Pacific Rim

Most disappointing:

The Great Gatsby
Oz the Great and Powerful
World War Z

The complete list:

Breaking the Girls
The Wolf of Wall Street
American Hustle
The World’s End
47 Ronin
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Homefront
Catching Fire
Man of Steel
Thor: The Dark World
Ender’s Game
Pacific Rim
Gravity
Rush
Elysium
The Wolverine
The Lone Ranger
Upstream Color
World War Z
The Fast and the Furious 6
Star Trek: Into Darkness
The Great Gatsby
Iron Man 3
Oblivion
Jurassic Park 3D
Oz the Great and Powerful
Bullet to the Head
The Last Stand

The Student Nurses (1970)

The Student Nurses (1970)

The Student Nurses (1970)

IMDB
Available on Netflix Streaming, as of 1/15/2014

Want to know what was on the minds of teenagers and twenty-somethings at the end of the 1960’s? The Student Nurses is the film for you.

Admittedly, I watched this film without doing any research and was quite surprised to find that it wasn’t the T&A lowbrow comedy I was expecting.

Cinema took a dark turn toward the end of the 60’s and into the 70’s, no doubt a result of turbulent times rife with political and social unrest, and The Student Nurses rides that wave.

The film features four leads each with their own story arc, and each a vehicle for a hot button topic of the day. In all honesty, this checklist of social ills kind of does a disservice to the film, though that might be more a result of watching with the knowledge gained from a future perspective. It may have played better if you were “in the moment” and the issues closer to your heart and mind.

What today’s audiences can take away from this film however, is a unique sense of time and place. This is something I’ve noted before when referencing films of the past, (The Van) and The Student Nurses does a great job of featuring the world as it was in the last days of the hippie counter-culture movement.

There’s a stark unwashed quality to the film, which heightens the realism and while none of the actors are going to win you over with their performance, the women come across as genuine and earnest in their portrayals. The men, not so much.

One of the highlights for me was the scene in the grocery store, I really love seeing these on location shots of real businesses, it’s such a different world than we live in today, and yet at the same time so familiar.

It’s not a film for everyone, but it works as a curiosity and a time capsule.

Holiday films, traditions and memories

Films have been a part of my holiday traditions as long as I can remember. There are always the new Christmas time big releases, the need to escape the family commitments for a few hours of quiet time, and the general need for mood altering entertainment to help you properly get into the spirit of the season.

Santa_and_the_Three_Bears_FilmPosterOne of my earliest holiday theater experiences was seeing Santa and the Three Bears (1970). Now I’m sure I didn’t see this in 1970, because I wouldn’t have been old enough, but when I was pretty young, the local theaters would often have special Saturday matinees for children including holiday films or films that originally aired on television. I can recall seeing this film along with several others that day, but this is the only one I can definitely recall being shown.

There’s a pretty interesting history to this film if you bother to look it up. There’s a substantial bit of live action that was later removed to trim it down to just a 45 minute animated special.

I can recall the live action scenes from memory, though they are a little hazy. You can find most of this one online for free, but a full uncut version with the live action sequences doesn’t seem to be available. (watch on youtube)

Another holiday theater experience which probably deserves a little mention is Santa Claus the Movie (1985) and really this is mostly because of the hoopla surrounding the film more than anything else. As it turns out, the local candy company in my home town, Boyer, somehow secured the candy rights to this film, and because of that, there was a special premier at one of our theaters. While I certainly wasn’t invited to the theater that night, it was covered in all the local press and probably did more to sell tickets in our town than anything else.

Moving out of the theater and distant movie memories into the realm of personal holiday traditions, there are a few films which I watch every year. Of course there’s the old standbys, A Christmas Story (1983) and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) which I see whether I want to or not, but there’s also a couple of films which I actively make a priority.

The Lemon Drop Kid (1951) is a film I first saw on television about ten years ago, and have made a part of my holiday viewing ever since. Based on a Damon Runyon short story, the film features Bob Hope as down on his luck con man in trouble with a local gangster. The wise-cracking comedian is in top form here as he engineers a scheme to use the holiday spirit of others to help him pay off his debts.

Filled with a cast of colorful Runyon characters, the film zooms along and provides a lot of laughs while ending on the kind of uplifting holiday beat you would expect from the post-war era.

A interesting side note, the perennial Christmas classic “Silver Bells” actually debuted, and was written for this film. Hope and Marilyn Maxwell deliver the ultimate version in a nice segment toward the end of the film.

My other holiday classic, really isn’t a holiday film, but it’s perfect family fare for snowy evening gatherings. Disney’s Snowball Express (1972) is a film I loved as a kid and love even more as an adult.

Dean Jones is a mid level office worker who gets fed up with his job and decides to move his family to the middle of nowhere when he inherits a rundown lodge in Colorado. What follows is a series of light hearted and wacky hijinks that were common to this era of Disney film making.

It’s full of action and a great cast of side characters make this film a delight for all ages, as long as you check your modern cynicisms at the door.

-CI

Favorite Films of 2012

I tend to focus on older films with this blog, but that doesn’t mean I’m not in the theater most weekends.

With all the media surrounding the film industry these days, it’s easy to find opinions on recent releases, so I don’t often comment on current films apart from a tweet here or there, but I thought it might be fun to provide a wrap up of what I enjoyed from the previous year.

Of all the 2012 films I saw, these are the ones I enjoyed the most.

(listed in roughly chronological order by release date)

The Grey
IMDB
Blu-ray or DVD via Amazon

Chronicle
IMDB
Blu-ray or DVD via Amazon

John Carter
IMDB
Blu-ray or DVD via Amazon

The Avengers
IMDB
Blu-ray or DVD via Amazon

Expendables 2
IMDB
Blu-ray or DVD via Amazon

ParaNorman
IMDB
Blu-ray or DVD via Amazon

Dredd
IMDB
Blu-ray or DVD via Amazon

Looper
IMDB
Blu-ray or DVD via Amazon

Cloud Atlas
IMDB

Life of Pi
IMDB

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
IMDB

Django Unchained
IMDB

 -CI

 

HFR3D, an unexpected framerate

While we are used to discussing the pros and cons of a film’s content, direction or acting, the technology of film hasn’t changed much in the last decade. Sure, we have been subjected to 3D, and the many problems that has brought with it, but ultimately given that many people now opt to view films in 2D when given the option, we may be seeing the end of that trend.

When Peter Jackson announced his intention to release The Hobbit in 48 fps, it started a wave of excitement, anxiety and speculation the likes of which the film industry hasn’t seen since Cameron initially decided on 3D for Avatar.

With early reports crying everything from “revolutionary” to “the end of cinema as we know it,” I knew I was just going to have to see this new technology for myself.

This turned out to be a little more difficult than expected as the list of theaters showing the film in HFR3D is pretty limited outside of major metropolitan areas.

Undeterred however, I made the 90 minute drive to the closest theater in an effort to see what all the fuss was about.

Not wanting my first viewing of The Hobbit to be affected by this new technology, I did see the film opening weekend in 2D. With my perception and enjoyment of the film already locked in, I was able to concentrate more on the technology with this second viewing.

I feel this turned out to be a very wise decision.

Before I get into that though I want to address some of the wilder comments I’ve been hearing, namely, the complaints of headaches or motion sickness. I’m going to have to declare that as being largely unfounded. Sure, it’s a different experience, but we’re talking the difference in standard TV to HDTV, which while a huge difference in the picture quality on most TV sets, it doesn’t make television a health hazard.

I suspect that anyone experiencing these issues, likely had the same reaction to Cloverfield, or the sweeping, tracking shots in the original Lord of the Rings trilogy and this is not a new phenomenon brought about by the increased frame rate.

That being said, what the 48 fps does bring to the table is a much higher clarity of image. This is both a blessing and a curse, and in the case of The Hobbit, unfortunately tends to fall mainly in the negative.

The real problem with The Hobbit in HFR3D, is that the film relies so heavily on effects work and the increased clarity only serves to show the current limitations of the technology.

While I think the current state of cgi and special effects in general have never been better, those effects are largely created to meet the level of picture quality in the 24 fps standard. In that this level of image quality masks flaws to a certain degree, effects houses have only needed to push a level of realism equal to the detail level of the image.

When you boost the image quality to a much higher level, the effects work needs to be equally boosted to maintain that same level of seamless integration.

Sadly, the effects work in The Hobbit falls short of this level of image quality, which makes the practical effects seem like stage props at times and the cgi like video game cut scenes.

This detracts heavily from a film which relies so much on the believability of the world of Middle Earth. Each instance of cgi becomes distracting and takes you out of the moment, and even small things which should typically go unnoticed suddenly break the illusion.

A good example of this occurs in the film when Bilbo is racing to catch up with the party of adventurers. Bilbo, running through the Shire, passes a farmer who has a very large pumpkin in a wheelbarrow. In the normal picture quality, you probably think nothing more than, “that’s a large pumpkin,” if you give it any thought at all. In the high frame rate however, suddenly that pumpkin is a bit too plastic looking, a bit too orange to be real, and it just looks like a cheap plastic prop.

The other thing you notice is that lighting really plays a much more important role. Of course, that’s kind of an absurd statement, because lighting of a scene is always important, but in the case of 48 fps, it’s doubly so. When the lighting is more tightly controlled, such as in the night scenes, where illumination is provided by fire, or other light sources, the image really takes on a level of quality that is amazing. Scenes with natural lighting, mostly outdoor in daylight, look as real as an image captured on high definition video and thus shatter much of the illusion, again by revealing how fake everything is.

Since so much of what makes a film like this work is being able to be carried away by the illusion, the constant reminders of how fake everything is, just completely pull you out of the story.

For that reason, I highly recommend that you see The Hobbit, in the standard 24 fps. I’d also say that the 3D is kind of unnecessary, but that’s a different argument.

As for the future of 48 fps, I absolutely think there is a place for this. I’d love to see a film that doesn’t rely on so much effects work in this level of detail. Some of those crazy car chases from the 70’s where they relied on stunt drivers and no cgi would just literally blow the doors off our expectations in this format.

A fully animated Pixar movie in 48 fps would also be amazing. Without the distraction of the real vs. cgi, a complete cgi environment in that high level of detail would be a pretty exciting prospect.

In conclusion, I am really glad we have people like Peter Jackson who will continue to push the envelope in the pursuit of improving our cinema experience. Even though I feel as though this shot may have missed the mark, I look forward to seeing where this technology can go given future development.

-CI

Outland (1981)

IMDB
On DVD and Blu-ray via Amazon

The tag line for Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn (1983) was “It’s high noon at the end of the universe,” but that tag line should have belonged to Outland.

More of a western than a sci-fi, space epic,  director Peter Hyams serves up a classic western style showdown, only instead of being set in the Arizona desert, this gunfight is going down on a mining colony on one of the moons of Jupiter.

While at first that might seem like an unusual mashing of styles, it works brilliantly in this film. By sticking to a relatively low tech level, the environs presented seem wholly plausible and on target with what we know and can accept as within the realm of possibility, even given the thirty years worth of scientific advancement since this film’s release.

This keeping things simple approach allows for the characters to do all of the work, and that’s where Outland really shines.

Sean Connery is a force as the Marshall hell bent on cleaning up this town. He is a man on a mission and not even his own family is going to stand in the way of his duty. There’s an undercurrent of regret in his performance though that really sells you on the character. What could be seen as a fairly unlikable protagonist benefits from Connery’s performance and when all is revealed, he becomes a hero with whom you can easily sympathise.

Likewise, Frances Sternhagen really stands out and, at times, steals the show. As the colony’s chief medical doctor, she at first finds herself at odds with the marshal. Not intimidated by his “I am the law” attitude, the Doc gives as good as she gets making the scenes between the two great fun to watch.

Of course, no good western ends without a shootout, and the whole thing leads to a High Noon style confrontation complete with a bunch of hired guns arriving by train, or shuttle craft rather as dictates the setting.

While the plot may be familiar to film fans and anyone versed in westerns, the setting and performances make Outland a whole lot fun, and definitely one to add to your watch list.

The Big Doll House (1971)

IMDB
Available on Netflix Streaming, as of 9/7/2012
On DVD via Amazon

Featured prominently in Machete Maidens Unleashed! The Big Doll House is one of the infamous Roger Corman classics produced in the Philippines.

Featuring a cast of beautiful women, the film is a bizarre mix of exploitation, humor and surprisingly strong female empowerment.

In stark contrast to the gender sterotypes you would expect in a film like this, the women in The Big Doll House are not just victims, but also villains and action oriented anti-heroes. There’s a distinct counter-culture vibe to the goings on which feels a little out of place among the gratuitous scenes of female nudity, and just when you think you have things all figured out, along come the men to act as comic relief. It’s almost as though three different films were mixed together in the editing room.

The result of this mashing of stylistic tones somehow works however and the film carries your interest from scene to scene.

Overall, there is an underlying sense of parody about the whole thing, as if the audience is not supposed to take any of this seriously. It’s a tack that really works in the film’s favor though. While it would be easy to take things too far, push the edge just for the sake of shock value, the film never really goes off the rails in any unexpected way. The exploitation elements, the violence, even the humor come across as playful more than anything else.

All of this serves to make The Big Doll House a quirky good time.