Saturday, June 30, 2018

June Quick Picks and Pans

Highway 61 (1991) Director/co-writer Bruce McDonald’s bizarre odyssey (his style could be described as David Lynch by way of Jim Jarmusch) is a road trip like no other. Pokey Jones (Don McKellar) is a socially inept barber living in a small town in Ontario, Canada. His humdrum life takes an interesting turn when he discovers a dead heavy metal musician in his backyard, and meets up with Jackie (Valerie Buhagiar), a roadie for the band. They head south to New Orleans, with coffin in tow, while pursued by a mysterious man who might be the devil (Earl Pastk). Like any good road trip, it’s full of weird surprises along the way, accompanied by an eclectic soundtrack. It also features a host of cool cameos, including Peter Breck and punk icon Jello Biafra. To describe the myriad twists and turns would spoil most of the fun. Highway 61 is best experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible. Note: Big thanks to Michael Denney (follow him on Twitter at @MichaelWDenney) for recommending this weird, wonderful little film.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell (1978) This 1978 made-for-TV movies starts with a goofy premise, but has the conviction to follow through. The cast plays it straight throughout, without resorting to camp, which works to the movie’s advantage. Richard Crenna and Yvette Mimieux star as Mike and Betty Barry, an ordinary couple in an ordinary suburban family. After the family dog meets an untimely end, their grief-stricken kids adopt “Lucky,” a cute German shepherd puppy with an evil streak. Not long after Lucky enters their household, odd things begin to happen, with tragedy befalling anyone who gets in his way. Sure, it’s silly, but I dug it. Maybe you will too. Hammer enthusiasts take note: Martine Beswick appears in the prologue as the leader of a satanic cult.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

The Angry Red Planet (1959) A rocket from an ill-fated Mars mission returns to Earth with half of the crew missing. The other half isn’t doing so well, either, with Dr. Iris Ryan (Nora Hayden) clinging to her sanity, and Col. Thomas O'Bannion (Gerald Mohr) teetering near death. You might think it was a progressive touch on the part of the filmmakers to include a female astronaut among the crew, but she’s mainly there to scream and endure sexist remarks from her fellow space travelers. Most of the story is told in flashback, as the intrepid explorers encounter hostile flora and fauna on the red planet. In an interesting touch, the scenes that take place outside the ship on the Martian landscape are tinted red (pro tip, taken from personal experience: don’t watch this when you have a headache), but the real highlight is a rat-bat-spider thing that terrorizes the crew. The basic concept (i.e., astronauts run into malevolent alien forces) has been recycled numerous times, sometimes to better effect, but it’s interesting to see one of the earlier examples. 

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime

Blood Freak (1972) A drug-addled drifter (Steve Hawkes) eats some experimental poultry and transforms into a bloodthirsty turkey man (only his head changes). He goes on a rampage, abducting young women and draining their blood. The best part of the movie is host Brad F. Grinter (who also directed and co-wrote the film), who pops in like a low-rent Rod Serling, to comment on what we’re seeing. Was it all a hallucination? Did anyone really die? Who knows. Blood Freak has some dubious entertainment value; just don’t expect body horror along the lines of Cronenberg. I’m not sure if this was meant to be taken seriously or it was intended as a joke (Attack of the Killer Tomatoes), but if you sit through the whole thing, the joke’s probably on you.

Rating: 2 stars. Available on DVD

Monday, June 25, 2018


(1983) Directed by Peter Yates; Written by: Stanford Sherman; Starring: Ken Marshall, Lysette Anthony, Freddie Jones, Francesca Annis, David Battley, Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane; Available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Rating: ***

“What we were doing was portraying a fantasy story with realities of its own. This is no period, no country. It’s completely a fantasy about what could happen.” – Peter Yates (from “Cast and Crew” DVD commentary)

Thanks to Becky from Film Music Central for hosting the 3rd Annual James Horner Blogathon, profiling the career of this talented and prolific film composer on the third anniversary of his untimely death. Horner created some of my favorite film scores from the ‘80s and ‘90s, including Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), and The Rocketeer (1991). Today, I’m taking a look at Krull, featuring another fine score.

Director Peter Yates stated he wanted to distance his movie from the sword and sorcery films of the era, but other than a few odd sci-fi flourishes, it doesn’t quite diverge from the conventions of the genre. Krull* could best be described as sword and sorcery meets Star Wars, combining swashbuckling derring-do with alien invaders. It’s notorious for being an expensive flop, with budget estimates ranging from $40 to $50 million, and a paltry $16.5 million box-office take. There are plenty of possible reasons why Krull never won over audiences back in the day, but perhaps Columbia Pictures’ biggest mistake was releasing it two months after Return of the Jedi, into a summer crowded with sequels.* Moviegoers might have suffered from fantasy fatigue by this point, and were probably looking for the safe harbor of established properties, rather than new adventures. Despite the diminutive box office receipts, Krull gained a small but ardent fan base over the years, due in no small part to the starfish-shaped weapon, the Glaive (more on this later).

On the eve of two kingdoms uniting, a dark force arrives from the stars in a massive fortress. The horrible Beast, and his army of Slayers (who resemble a cross between a storm trooper and a crustacean), lay siege to the castle where Prince Colwyn (Ken Marshall) and his betrothed, Princess Lyssa (Lysette Anthony) are about to be wed. The Slayers handily defeat the combined armies, and capture the princess. Thus, begins the hero’s epic quest to defeat the Beast, rescue the princess, and restore peace to his shattered kingdom. But first, he must assemble a bunch of misfits and endure many trials and travails, as he learns what it means to be a king. None of this sounds very original, of course, and I would be misrepresenting the film if I said it was. What Krull lacks in surprises, however, it makes up with a desire to entertain.

Fun Fact #1: As a means of cashing in on the early ‘80s sword and sorcery craze, the original title was The Dragons of Krull – even though there were no dragons featured in the script.

The good: For starters, the practical effects are quite fun, particularly the stop motion spider by Steven Archer. It’s suitably creepy, and its lifelike movements are worthy of Ray Harryhausen.* I always thought the cyclops Rell** (played by 6’ 7” Bernard Bresslaw) was pretty neat. In his tragic backstory, he explains how his ancient race made a deal with the Beast, trading one of their eyes for the ability to see into the future. Alas, the only future they could see was the time of their own death. Krell also boasts some fine performances, including veteran actor Freddie Jones as Prince Colwyn’s sage mentor Ynyr. Jones lends his role the necessary gravitas and bearing, as is if he were acting in a Shakespearean play. In a similar vein, Francesca Annis is great as the doleful Widow of the Web. David Battley (who played Charlie’s teacher in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) is the shape-shifter Ergo. He’s mostly played for comic relief, but Battley gives his selfish character heart, and more than proves his mettle before the movie is over. A discussion of the good elements in Krull wouldn’t be complete without mentioning James Horner’s lush score, courtesy of the London Symphony Orchestra. According to Yates, Horner’s “…music contributed enormously to the film,” and imbued the characters with a sense of “size and majesty.” There’s something about a great score, which can elevate a movie, even if it doesn’t quite measure up to the level suggested by the music.  

* Fun Fact #2: If the animation style looks like familiar, there’s a good reason. Archer apprenticed with Harryhausen on Clash of the Titans, and was recommended by the effects master himself for the job.

** Fun Fact #3: According to makeup designer Nick Maley, “It was important that the shapes we model into his face had a gentleness, a pleasantness, without going overboard. He’s a nice, gentle character, but has a melancholy quality about him.” (from “Behind the Scenes” DVD commentary, from November 1982 Cinefantastique magazine article).

The not-so-good: Calling this film derivative is a gross understatement. You only need to watch The Seven Samurai, its American remake The Magnificent Seven, Star Wars, or even its quickie Corman-produced knockoff, Battle Beyond the Stars to see where this movie is going. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A young, eager (albeit green) protagonist, under the tutelage of a wise old man, bands together with a rough but like-minded bunch of freedom fighters to fight a common oppressive foe. The leads are attractive, but unimpressive. Marshall has an amiable presence as Colwyn, but he comes across as a low-rent Errol Flynn. As Lyssa, Anthony is pretty to look at, but she’s given nothing to do, except act the damsel in distress while she’s waiting to be rescued from the clutches of the foul Beast. Speaking of the bad guys, a worthy adversary is required for any good hero story. Unfortunately, the Beast doesn’t quite measure up (pun intended). We never get a good idea of scale – is he human-sized, 10 feet tall, or the proportions of King Kong? Also, what does he have to offer Lyssa, outside of a lifetime of imprisonment? Was he keeping track of her before he arrived on her home world? Everything about him is vague and indistinct, from his motivations to his physical appearance (the Beast and his lair is shot in soft focus). The Beast and his army have mastered interstellar space, conquering one planet after another, yet they still ride on horseback. It doesn’t appear to be a choice made out of necessity, so is it a traditional thing?

While some effects are quite good, others are less than awe inspiring. When the warriors fly through the air astride their Fire Mares, it resembles a scene from E.T. – The Extraterrestrial (think kids on bikes). The biggest letdown, however, is reserved for Krull’s raison d'être, the cool-looking but unwieldly Glaive. In the end it’s only a MacGuffin. We’re led to believe it’s an ancient, all-powerful weapon powered by mystical energy, which Ynyr cautions not to use until the right time. When Colwyn finally does, at the film’s climax, it’s little more than an over-glorified can opener. (Spoiler Alert) In a moment of hastily constructed mythos, we learn the weapon’s power is nothing more than an extension of the power he wields inside (The Force, anyone?).

* Fun Fact #4: The Glaive’s original design looked more sword-like, as a cross-shaped weapon, before it evolved into a five-pronged throwing star.

Krull was an expensive failure at the box office, but as I’ve indicated many times before, poor performance and/or initial critical reception doesn’t necessarily correlate with a movie’s true worth. It’s difficult to dispute that Krull had several strikes against it, as a victim of bad timing and not enough distinguishing features, but that shouldn’t dissuade you from giving it a look. There’s a liberal dose of mindless fantasy mayhem, a few notable performances, and it’s fun to see Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane before they were famous. Krull isn’t easy to defend, but it’s hard to hate. While it might fall short in certain respects, it’s worthy Saturday morning matinee material.

Monday, June 18, 2018

A Rant About Ratings

I hate rating movies. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a necessary evil, I suppose. It’s what you’re supposed to do when you review films, right? It’s a thumbnail sketch of my opinion, in easy-to-digest, minimal thought-inducing form. It’s all you’d ever need to know. You don’t even need to read my review, right? But hold your horses pardner; star ratings don’t tell the whole story.

Several months ago (I’m not great with time, so this could have been more than a year ago), I held a Twitter vote to gauge opinion about doing away with starred ratings altogether. Much to my chagrin, but not necessarily surprise, voting was skewed heavily in favor of keeping the dreaded system. I get it. I’m guilty of the same damn thing. It’s a busy world with things to do, people to see and amusing pet videos to ooh and aah at. It’s a whole lot easier to take something at a glance before we move on to the next thing. In this society of diminished attention spans and multiple distractions vying for our collective attentions, we want to cut to the chase. Growing up in my family of origin, I was constantly subjected to a skewed interpretation of movie reviews, as if “It was rated a three” told me anything useful. A three? By whom? A great hand descended from the heavens and dubbed the film a “three”? Nope, there was no divine intervention, just good old fallible humans and a severely flawed rating system from a local TV reviewer, newspaper, etc… But that one rating became my family’s indisputable authority on whether something was worth watching. The progression of this single-rating authority has been rating aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and IMDB. They do the thinking for us, despite the fact not all reviewers are alike, nor does each critic necessarily evaluate movies with the same criteria. As a result, there’s not much reliability or validity to these scores.

Not all ratings, including my own, are created equal. I chose the boring but venerable 5-star rating system, but whether you use numbers, stars, skulls, cute little aliens, or whatever, it all amounts to the same. You’re quantifying a subjective thing. What you see from me is a composite. The ratings I slap on my reviews are a compromise between quality and watch-ability, all smooshed into one neat little package. The ratings don’t mean much in terms of favorites, or a desire to re-watch the movie multiple times. While Downfall might get a high rating from me, one viewing is enough to last a lifetime, whereas Island of Lost Souls merits repeat viewings.

And another thing. I’ll be the first to admit my ratings are not infallible, and occasionally inconsistent. Maybe I was having a bad day, and the movie didn’t click with me at that moment, or maybe I was sleepy, and couldn’t concentrate. In the latter case, it wasn’t really boredom but fatigue that dictated a less than glowing review. At their best (I’m using the word “best” loosely), however, my reviews are like a mini courtroom in which I present the prosecution and the defense, exploring the good and not-so-good aspects of the movie. I’m also judge and jury, but so are you. Based on the testimony, perhaps you’ll arrive at a different verdict. The star rating alone won’t lead you to any further exploration

With that in mind, let’s revisit my admittedly flawed ratings system:

***** = It’s a masterpiece, right? But what’s a masterpiece, anyway? It’s all relative, although I suppose the best answer is that these are movies that are perfect to me. I wouldn’t want to change a thing with Alien, The Thing, Metropolis, Spirited Away, or Five Easy Pieces.

**** = Many of my favorites reside here. Why four stars and not five? I’m a sucker for imperfection. These titles might not be “perfect,” but that’s why they work so well for me. Labyrinth, Phantasm, Eyes Without a Face, Gremlins, and many, many others fall into this category.

*** = These movies have some wonderful and not-so-wonderful moments. Some had the potential for greatness, while others had no such lofty pretensions, and are as good as it gets. They teeter on the boundary between trash and treasure. Brain Damage, Ice Cream Man, Demons and Logan’s Run are some notable examples.

** = It’s a mess, beyond repair. Something might have saved it, but I’m not sure what that would be. I’m looking at you, Terror Train and Young Einstein.

* = As an optimist in pessimist’s clothing, I want to believe the best intentions in a movie. Hating a movie isn’t inherently in me, which is why this might be the rarest rating of all. This rating is reserved for titles with no redeeming qualities, which offended me on a cellular level. Mac and Me has earned its rightful place here.

You won’t find many one or five-star reviews, because most movies don’t fall in this range. Contrary to many Netflix or Amazon user reviews (no offense intended to those who evaluate movies on Netflix or Amazon, you’re all fine people), most movies aren’t worthy of the loftiest praise or eternal damnation. That’s why you’ll find the vast majority of my reviews fall within the two- to four-star range. You’ll find three-and-a-half-star ratings most frequently on my blog. It’s a sweet spot for me. In many instances the film’s reach might have exceeded its grasp, but I was glad to go along for the ride. Taste the Blood of Dracula, The Blob, and Executive Koala are just a few examples. By far, my most misunderstood rating is two and a half stars. These movies showed a lot of potential, and I might even enjoy them in parts, but they have too many strikes against them. Dune, Demon Seed, and Hardware are ones that I’m perennially on the fence about. Some titles might merit re-evaluation from time to time. My opinion has remained relatively consistent over the years, so it’s relatively rare when I reverse my opinion, but hey, it happens.

So, there you have it. The star ratings aren’t going away for now, but I don’t like ‘em, and don’t be too surprised if I eschew ratings altogether in a future incarnation of this blog. My star ratings are not the final word on the subject. If you enjoyed the movie more than I did, great. If you didn’t like it as much as I did, or even hated it, that’s fine too. I’m pleased by those who have chosen to visit and re-visit my blog for reviews, so I feel I’m doing something right. But even I’m not delusional enough to believe that everyone agrees with my opinions all the time. Oh, and please read my reviews in their entirety, because starred ratings suck.