DVD review entries

July 21, 2005

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 1 (15)

Title:
Rating:
5 out of 5 stars

It seems to have become derigeur to bash Buffy lately. Its not high art, its not akin to great literature, and it lacks dramatic clout. Well, that's what they tell ME anyway. It is also apparently typical American TV. Except that the thing Buffy has that most American TV doesn't, is mythos. There are few worlds as compellingly watchable as that which Buffy inhabits – its sunny california, yes. Except they're on the mouth of hell. Its probably the only time watching American TV you're not jealous of the inhabitants of the town in question, which is Sunnydale.

For those who don't know, the series takes up where the entertaining, if lacking, film finished. Buffy Summers has been kicked out of her LA High School for burning down the school gym, and takes this unfortunate stigma with her to Sunnydale, where the only ones who befriend her are the sweet but nerdy Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) and the well-meaning Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon), who also has a king-size crush on Buffy. The actors could NOT have been better chosen. The group dynamic is so effortless and full of chemistry that you couldn't envision any other TV actor playing the roles. Sarah Michelle Gellar is just great; yes, she's attractive, but just putting a blond bimbo in the role of Buffy wouldn't work. Gellar invests Buffy with both sparky teenage verve and also a world weary knowledge of her responsibilities as a vampire slayer, which makes her both an effective and effortlessly watchable lead with her quirky and very funny counterparts.

Other support comes in the form of the effortlessly dry librarian/Watcher of Buffy, Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) and also Angel, the dark and smouldering vampire-with-a-soul that Buffy inevitably falls for. It is the best kind of support.

No series like this is complete without a decent bad guy, and Buffy delivers on every level. The Master, a very old vampire whose season-spread intention is to open the Hellmouth and thus end the world as we know it, is the wonderful nemesis. He is self effacing and extremely witty, as well as being funny. Yet despite his humorous side, he is also extremely cruel and highly vicious – good combined characteristics that pretty much make him brilliant.

Its difficult to cover an entire series, but I've picked out my favourite episodes. The compulsory viewing of 'Welcome to the Hellmouth' and 'The Harvest' exposes us for the first time to Joss Whedon's simply delicious writing ("There's no cause for alarm…well, actually there is cause for alarm. It just won't do you any good"). 'Teacher's Pet' is a true delight (not that 'Witch' isn't, but that isn't the point) in which young Xander Harris falls in love with the new teacher who happens to be a preying mantis in disguise. 'The Pack' is another beauty, again Xander oriented, except this time he and a few others have been possessed by the spirits of primal hyenas ("It's devastating. He's turned into a sixteen-year-old boy. Of course, you'll have to kill him"). The episodes hereonin are just great, but the episode 'Nightmares' in which everyone's nightmares come true veers successfully from the hilarious to the downright horrifying, and constitutes one of the best Buffy episodes ever. We also see some impressive work in 'Out of Mind, Out of Sight' where a girl becomes so used to being ignored, she becomes invisible. And quite mad. The bitchy popular girl, Cordelia Chase, becomes the target of her vindication – and the fact we start caring about the target despite what she's done again shows how good Buffy's writing can be.

It all explodes out in the open with 'Prophecy Girl', where Buffy learns a rather disturbing prophecy about her fate and runs from her responsibility. Since there is more than one season of Buffy, I don't think I'm giving much away by saying all ends well.

What a series. The fact it only got better says one hell of a lot about this stunning cult series.


December 14, 2004

Evil Dead 3: Army of Darkness (1993)

Title:
Rating:
3 out of 5 stars

The difficult third act rule of film is not commonly broken, although recently the trend has been bucked with Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King and perhaps Star Wars Episode III (well, you never know). It is unfortunate that it does often apply, and the third Evil Dead film is no exception. The radical change of genre hasn’t got much to do with it oddly enough, although it does inspire the odd gripe or two. Before I get on with why this film is good rather than great, enjoyable rather than an experience and somewhat less classic than its illustrious predecessors, I will outline it for you. Ash (Bruce Campbell) is stuck in the past as a result of his accidental journey through time, although as opposed to the end of Evil Dead 2 where he was declared hero, Ash starts this film off in chains. Eventually, after a less than successful execution, Ash takes on the role of hero – he gets to go home if he retrieves the book of the dead. Along the way, Ash bumps into several miniature clones of himself, an evil version of himself and several other horrors that, after a misunderstanding involving the book of the dead (isn’t it always?) Ash and his allies find themselves fighting for their very lives against – the ‘Army of Darkness’ of the title.

This may sound different from the others, and it is. It’s an action adventure, not a horror, and its played out satisfactorily on its budget. The budget is a blessing and a curse; it allows for more spectacular, far more fun special effects than before but by the same token the film occasionally feels like a very low-budget fantasy epic. I wasn’t expecting Lord of the Rings crowd scenes here, but I’m not understating when I say that Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) has larger crowd scenes than Army of Darkness does. Which is a shame. There is also a feeling of a lack of cohesion; it feels all rather cobbled together out of different and very amusing pastiches. Bruce Campbell is great as ever, and he veritably chews on the monumentally funny dialogue he’s given. The scripting is good but rather dependant on one-liners that it seems Sam Raimi couldn’t get enough of in Evil Dead 2 so he just stuffed all of them in Number three. Yet the film works, and it sends off Ash in fitting style; he’s alive alright but hardly in a particularly good position chronologically (let’s just say he fails to listen to instructions – AGAIN). It’s a kooky, daft film with some great effects (for the time of course) that give the film a stylish edge that it would otherwise have lacked – it’s silly and it’s fun. What else do you want? It could have been far better but it could have been much, much worse.


Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987)

Title:
Rating:
5 out of 5 stars

It is often forgotten that the full name of this film is ‘Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn’ so I have established that point here. Well, there we go. Film quips have never been finer and Bruce Campbell has never been more fun than in the sequel to one of the most infamous horror movies of all time. The odd thing about Evil Dead 2 is that it is essentially a remake of the original but with a higher budget and far fewer cabin inhabitants, which works in its favour since Bruce Campbell as Ash, the hero, is more entertaining without any vanilla actors to assist (does anybody remember the original film for its acting beyond Bruce Campbell? No, didn’t think so). Thus the sequel is a more condensed and as a result more intense experience than its predecessor. Oh yeah, the lowdown.

The story is, as has been vaguely established, essentially the same as the first: Ash takes his girlfriend to a cabin in the middle of the woods so that they can have some ‘special’ time together. However, they soon find two odd things; a book bound in human flesh (probably made out of those who don’t graduate) and a tape recorder that has recorded passages from the book of the dead on it. Like the unsuspecting mooch he is, Ash decides to play the passages. With some superb camerawork, or the ‘camera on motorbike effect’ carried on from Evil Dead we see the roaring evil in the woods awaken and snatch Ash’s girlfriend, Linda, from his hands. After this, it’s a non-stop thrill ride as Ash fights a number of things; his zombified girlfriend, his occasional zombie-dom, redneck visitors with the brains of small dead rodents, the evil spirits in the cabin, the zombie bitch in the basement and even his own hand. Ably assisted by the daughter of the guy who owns the cabin and her assistant, who rapidly becomes zombie fodder, Ash fights his war against the undead who just won’t let him be. Evil Dead 2 lurches beautifully from horror, to madness, to slapstick and all of these elements put together in this incredibly tight ninety-minute feature. Bruce Campbell draws it all together with a hilarious performance that he is yet to top, although his performance in Evil Dead 3 probably comes very close.

Sam Raimi is clearly in his element, enjoying every cent of the higher budget his film was given and as a result it is a gruesome and funny labour of love that rarely seems to stretch any of its ideas. The film ends (come on, it’s hardly much of a twist) with Ash arriving with a jolt in the depths of the past with his car, chainsaw and some baying knights who hail him the chosen one. They may as well have pasted ‘To be continued’ here, because it was clearly meant as a stop over to Army of Darkness (1993) even if there is some distance between the time of the making of either. It’s not really easy to say much more about Evil Dead 2 without repeating myself to oblivion; funny, gruesome, fast…it’s a roaring horror-comedy with some genuinely unforgettable moments. Top marks for Ash and his ‘groovy’ chainsaw.


November 23, 2004

BAD TASTE (18) – 1987

Title:
Rating:
4 out of 5 stars

BAD TASTE

Or ‘where did it all go right’. A film that legendarily took Peter Jackson four years to film, with stop-start funding and some amateur colleagues whose knowledge of film was limited to some super-8 shorts PJ used to shoot with them in his garden at home. The film is actually based on a short film idea he had called ‘Sunday Roast’, which then extended into Bad Taste. In this very strange film, an alien force has taken over a small town with the intention of turning the human race into the next fast food sensation. The ‘boys’, a group of enthusiastic but woefully incompetent commandos arrive to inspect the place; Barry, Ozzy, Frank and of course Derek (played by Peter Jackson himself, one of the reasons the film is so entertaining) find themselves up against this lunatic band of aliens. It’s one of those films where the crew was so small that each cast member appears at least three times in the credits as both an actor, editor and caterer or something.

Predictably, the age does show. The special effects are pretty awful compared to the kinds of gore effects Peter Jackson used in his later effort Braindead (1991), but that doesn’t mean they’re without merit. In fact, some of the most memorable scenes centre around these bizarre special effects; a good example is the ‘eating brains with a spoon’ scene which is actually performed by ol’ PJ himself in one of his other roles as an Alien. The movie has a unique sense of humour; essentially a really quite gross one. If seeing a guy imbibing alien vomit and then finding he actually likes it or a nutbar whose brains keep falling out thanks to a wound sustained from a fall from the top of a cliff doesn’t make you laugh, then move along because there really is nothing to see here. If however you find it rather amusing, then you’ll love this film. It is also surprisingly funny on the one-liners front. To hear Derek say in that squeaky voice of his ‘Suck on my spinning steel shithead!’ is something that will stay with you, especially once you witness what he does with the aforementioned ‘spinning steel’ to the ‘shithead’. Sometimes there are visual gags so cruel it might have you calling up the RSPCA (a sheep gets hit by a bazooka round – no, I’m not kidding) but overall the film is just a splattery merry-go-round of fun. I recommend this to people with a mad sense of humour. If you’re also curious to see what Peter Jackson did before given a budget and a bunch of hobbit feet, it’s also worth seeing. If you have a weak stomach, a love of sheep, a straightforward sense of humour or all of these items, then you won’t enjoy it.

For the rest of us, we get to witness Derek in action with a chainsaw. Great.


BATTLE ROYALE II (18)

Title:
Rating:
3 out of 5 stars

BATTLE ROYALE II: REQUIEM

The original Battle Royale was one of the most intense, meaningful and horrifying films ever created. How can I say this, but its sequel…it isn’t as good as its predecessor. No way near as good. Whereas the first was an effective and bitter meditation on the nature of creating monsters through violence, the second clumsily tries to equate the events of the first film with terrorism post-9/11. As a result the film’s ideologies get extremely confused.

The story goes that some years after the original, the survivors vowed vengeance on the government and created a terrorist group called the Wild Seven to fight the good fight against ‘grown-ups’. The odd thing being that they’re all eighteen, but hey that doesn’t matter; this film has something to say. At least it thinks it does. The new Battle Royale concept is ‘phase two’ – this time it sends its reluctant class to invade the island by beach where they know the terrorists to be. This is one of the best parts of the film; nasty, vicious and horrible in its cold execution.

The film opens with a near identical scene to BR1. The class is rounded up and shoved into a room where the new teacher, who went to the school for overacting Japanese actors, starts off by listing the countries America has bombed over the years. He then completely changes the subject by talking about something else. Why exactly did the filmmakers feel it necessary to do that? It’s blatantly unnecessary. It is the kind of heavy-handed signpost that appears for nearly all of the rest of the film; it is never clear what the film is telling us. That terrorists are good, misunderstood people with completely justified tactics? Ho-hum. It is often said the best anti-war statements are made in films where they barely mention war; here they don’t stop banging on about it. Its characterization has become absurd too; the adult characters have become cartoon characters, particularly the prime minister of Japan who is presented as an ineffectual USA butt kisser. At which point the teacher launches into a tirade about how much he hates ‘that country’ (guess who he’s referring to?). The film then lapses into a series of endless philosophical conversations about terrorism, bombing and ‘that country’. It all feels slightly numb and vaguely pointless. The film has some excellent scenes that make up about half its running length; it is bookended by some superb scenes and some scenes that actually drive the point of the original home better than it does its own. Such a shame the other half consists of little else worth mentioning. It is actually well directed with some scenes of shocking violence, but the film is hampered by sluggish campfire chats regarding the morality of war and a script that is desperate to hammer home a point. It is a decent enough film, but let down by a ridiculous amount of political statement that manages to slow the film down and make it feel very heavy handed indeed.


BATTLE ROYALE (18)

Title:
Rating:
5 out of 5 stars

BATTLE ROYALE

The principle simple. The concept horrible. The results shocking. Battle Royale, a program whereby schoolchildren are forced to kill each other in order to survive, where the fittest will be allowed to leave the warzone. A government terror of violence in the playground has forced them to engage classes in this appalling ultimatum of a solution. It is brilliant from the moment it starts; a girl is set upon by the media for surviving the previous game, who we see covered in blood and holding a doll of all things. The film is full of scenes like this. The class that Nanahara, the hero of the film, belongs to as well as Noriko, essentially the heroine, has been chosen for the Battle Royale program. The scene in which their teacher Kitano (played by legendary Japanese actor ‘Beat’ Takeshi) explains the rules of the game and points out what will happen to them if they don’t comply or obey the rules is probably one of the most chilling in all cinema history. Two fatalities are all that we need to see for us to be horrified beyond all belief. Then the game actually starts. The film never pulls any punches; we see teenage frustration at being the loner manifest in insane acts of violence, suicide in despair of being in the game at all, bullies become sadistic killers and people with old schoolyard scores to settle brutally attacking their classmates. Friends turn on friends, survivors throw themselves off of lighthouses. It never lets up for one second, and the shocking level of violence from such young people leaves a sour taste of disgust at what human nature is capable of, even so young. It is a modern day Lord of the Flies, and while inevitably our heroes survive this harrowing experience, there is no doubt the experience leaves them scarred.

A word of warning, Battle Royale IS as violent as people say it is. It is not for the weak hearted. It isn’t even available in the USA because of its content, which is faintly ironic in that when violence is actually treated seriously and with a level of disgust, it becomes too much for America to stomach. Most Americans I know have seen it and love it. Why the censors are terrified that a film which depicts the nightmare possibilities of teenagers being given weapons and infinite opportunities I do not know – the government there could certainly learn from it. It is kept moving along at a relentless pace, the direction is seamless and the film rests in just the right places for us to reflect on what it is we’ve just seen. A problem that dogged its rather ineffectual sequel. It is without a doubt one of the most brilliant films ever made, and simply without match.


November 22, 2004

VERSUS

Title:
Rating:
2 out of 5 stars

VERSUS (18)

A surprisingly recent film (2000) this film is a Japanese export that is basically a one-hundred minute showcase for men in leather having interesting fights with pistols. The plot is…lightweight. A man having escaped with a friend from prison suddenly has an attack of morality when he sees the bad guys about to kill a girl for no readily apparent reason. At this point, everybody starts getting a 'bad feeling' about the woods they happen to be in. It seems that this is the 444th out of 666 gates to hell, and everybody and everything that dies in this forest will come back to life (what were the chances of that, eh?). One of the members of the gang suddenly remembers a legend about stuff coming back to life and then reveals that gang have buried all their enemies in that particular forest. You might have guessed things don’t look promising. As a result the film then kicks into high gear with a maniacal amount of zombie kicking. Our hero acquires a leather coat, leather boots, trousers and shades which turns him into the guy who didn’t quite make the cast of The Matrix. He loses the shades quickly, perhaps an amusing aside to the concept of wearing shades while fighting. The plot quickly vanishes in a puff of gunsmoke, as zombies are torn apart, blown up, decapitated, ass-whupped and generally blasted in a variety of insane and silly ways. Its rather difficult to ascertain much regarding plot due to the fact the film starts not caring about the plot the moment the fighting starts. The arch-nemesis of our hero (who has a beard, natch) then appears, and kills everybody he comes across with frightening ease. Apparently the forest needs the blood of a particular girl, who’d be the heroine would you believe it, so that he can end the world. While I fail to understand the logic of anybody who wants to end the world or merge it with hell on the basis of the point that they would also die if they did so and thus shooting their own foot, its becomes clear this doesn’t matter. Every now and then we cut back to the times past when our hero in his ‘samurai’ days hundreds of years ago fought the bad guys alongside the girl. This therefore implies he is reborn every couple of generations to fight the evil as it occurs, and this is manifest when the hero dies and is resurrected by the girls blood, which becomes a bit of a sticking point since he has had one of his eyes blown out and can’t see jack.

They fight, and hero of course wins. The whole film is essentially ruined by the ridiculous ending, which is set ‘two hundred years from now’ but actually looks like the model of the city that Jim Cameron didn’t use for The Terminator twenty years ago. The hero is suddenly now the bad guy, and the bad guy the hero. They fight, and that’s the end. Great huh?

I am reserving the ‘most absurd subplot’ to Versus for its ‘two policemen’ subplot. The two cops from whom our hero escaped are a little pissed. One of them had his hand cut off by him to escape from handcuffs, but instead of looking like he’s in any kind of pain that you’d logically assume he would be, he just smokes and looks pissed. His friend, who would win ‘Best overacted raving loony’ in the supporting actors category, then insists his one handed friend do the driving. As we cut back to them, the two lunatics are arguing a lot – non-injured guy is hitting injured guy for not referring to him with the respect he deserves. They then see a zombie in the road. Now, if you saw a zombie in the road then presumably you’d get a bit scared. However, since our cops here are ‘Lunatic Cops from Hell TM’ they scream in delight and run it down. The best bit is, they then say they didn’t even know it was a zombie. We are therefore confronted by the slightly horrifying concept that Japanese cops will just run down somebody who ‘might’ be an escaped convict at eighty miles per hour. To make matters even more bizarre, the raving loony cop with two hands tells the raving loony cop with one hand that he was trained with the CIA in Langley and that he has five hundred times the reflexes of Mike Tyson. That would make him pretty fast, yes? Except that when it actually comes down to the fight, he removes his jacket and screams exactly what he has told his one-handed loony friend before he is eviscerated in a puff of smoke and shower of gore by the grenade launcher our hero has acquired by this point. I mention this subplot in most detail because it is completely pointless and utterly hilarious.

The fights are extraordinarily well choreographed, which makes sense since the director essentially does little else with the film. A full narrative summary is simply impossible because it is literally a succession of fights with the occasional plot reminder thrown in for good luck. Its hardly a great work. Nonetheless, the film is entertaining and the director is clearly good at what he does. It’s just a pity that the film manages to have virtually zero in the way of charisma that would ordinarily endear it to me.

Splatter Gore: 4/5

Gun fights: 5/5

Story: 2/5

Plotting: 1/5

Acting: 1/5 (Add one if you think the lunatic cops warrant ‘good actor’ status)


MEET THE FEEBLES

Title:
Rating:
4 out of 5 stars

MEET THE FEEBLES

As far as bad taste goes, it doesn’t get much more sick and wrong than Meet the Feebles. It wouldn’t be surprising if you had not heard of this off-the-wall gross out comedy, which has been described often as ‘The Muppets on Acid’. As much as I hate to pander to the opinions of fatuous critics, they happen to be right on this particular count. Sometimes even literally, it’s The Muppets on drugs. It is difficult to believe that the Director of Lord of the Rings actually directed this film or even wrote it, but it is true. A cast including a naïve young hedgehog, a grossly overweight hippopotamus diva, a walrus who spends his time merrily rogering the dancing girls, who happen to be cats, in his office and his Rat assistant who makes fetish porn movies on the side…you still with me here? You might have noticed this film is slightly twisted but trust me that isn’t even skimming the surface. The story, as it is, involves the naïve hedgehog Robert (or Wobert, as he pronounces it) joining the third rate Feebles Chorus under the tutelage of the terminally frustrated Sebastian, who is a gay fox. He joins and is smitten with a poodle called Lucille, who is in the chorus. Thus an…um….’sweet’ relationship is born, if a love affair between a hedgehog and poodle can be described as being anything approaching sweet, although bizarrely the romance does work in an oddly touching way – this does stretch it a bit though. The subplots must have been created when Peter Jackson and his co-writers were on some sort of dope-based product, because amongst them we see the plight of Wynyard, a Vietnam Veteran frog who is addicted to heroin in a big way and the completely non-plot related sexual disease caught by Harry the Rabbit after he has one orgy too many (‘Whoa boy, this is gonna be a gusher!’). The film’s narrative doesn’t really exist as such; it is set immediately prior to the build up of a big show, and basically consists of a series of vignettes designed to make us go ‘oh my god!’ or ‘that is wrong!’ or ‘fucking hell!’. Said vignettes will stay with you. They are some of the most bizarre and perverse scenes in cinema history, including one in which a cat performs fellatio on the head walrus (ugh) another in which a naked hippo replete with humongous breasts tries to seduce the aforementioned walrus (double-ugh) another where a cow performs in an S&M movie with a cockroach who screams ‘Call me sir, slut!’ (triple-ugh) and the big kahuna which is a show-stopping musical number performed by Sebastian about Sodomy, complete with pelvic thrusting (pass out). The madness reaches a climax in a scene that pretty much enters history as the only one where a hippo goes on rampage with an M60 heavy machine gun. Yes, these are spoilers but you honestly have to see the film in order to really understand just how brilliantly disgusting this film is. The film is actually pretty accomplished in a lot of ways. You get some innovative camera-work and some impressive puppets considering the half-a-million New Zealand dollar budget, although you probably aren’t interested in that and just want to know how much grosser MTF gets. To say more would be overdoing it. It is a truly unique b-movie, and a remarkably good one too. Considering what goes on, it’s actually an oddly moral film; bad guys get toasted, good guys end up happy (see the film’s ‘where are they now’ coda). However, to actually read anything into the film would be missing the point – it’s basically a demented comedy that tries to shock you into submission, nothing more and nothing less.

Gore value 3/5

Sick value 5/5

Sex n drugs value 5/5

Show stopper value 5/5

Celebrity Value 1/5


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