Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Flesh Feast (1970)

Veronica Lake was a famous Hollywood actress in the early 20th Century, in the golden age of cinema, but by the late 40's, her career had started to dwindle. In her twilight years, after publishing her autobiography, she decided to use the profits to make a sleazy drive-in horror flick! A noble pursuit we can all aspire to!...

Dr. Elaine Fredricks is a though-to-be-mad scientist who was recently discharged from an asylum, and has been hired by a wanted fugitive, leading a paper to try to uncover what's going on with her studies, with the help of an undercover 'operative' working as the Doctor's assistant. She's developed a highly advanced rejuvenation process using flesh eating maggots, but for what purpose? Who are the strange people coming to her house, and why are they armed? And who is their mysterious 'leader'?...

Ok, right off the bat, Flesh Feast is terrible, BUT, I still really like that Lake wanted to make it, and respect her for it, even if her choices of talent, or lack thereof, weren't exactly the best. Well, unless she wanted to make a terrible 70's sleaze-fest. I'm really curious why she wanted to make it. A shame then that she did so AFTER writing her autobiography.

This isn't quite boring, but it's not exactly the quickest of movies, which is odd considering that it's only 72 minutes long. On the other end of the spectrum, some scenes are rushed WAY too quickly, including the final action scene, as well as two other characters, who die super quickly, and from what seem like minor bumps.

The dialogue in this movie is really 'special'! It includes such gems as "This is part of the first part of the process" (That's technically grammatically correct, I suppose), "I can't get Ted out of my mind, I can't believe what happened, I just can't get him out of my mind!", and "I don't understand...why you got mixed up in all these things*"-"It's all part of a big revolution in South America. It's very big.", among others.

*Bizarre pause from the bad actress included.

The direction, from Brad F. Grinter, is ok. Nothing special, and kinda bad at some points. On that note, you may recognize that name. That's because he's the man responsible for Blood Freak, wherein a blood-drinking drug addicted turkey-man finds God/religion. No, I'm not making that up...

Now, time to discuss the more interesting aspect to the movie. Those aforementioned rejuvenation-maggots? The doctor's ultimate goal is to use them to bring Hitler back from the dead*, just to kill him again, to get revenge for her parents' deaths. That sounds amazing! Unfortunately the movie doesn't really live up to that lunacy.

*I suppose you're wondering who in their right mind would resurrect Hitler just to kill him again, rather than leaving well enough alone  As it turns out, that description, which is often used by those on the internet (including friggin' Wikipedia!) when describing the movie, is apocryphal, and in the world of Flesh Feast, he never died, and is instead an elderly man wanting rejuvenation. Still, though, it's more fun saying the former!

I have to wonder if the nazi stuff was even originally part of the plot. On one hand, there's the stuff with South America, as well as the German named characters, and I've no idea where the character of Dr. Fredricks would've gone without that plot element, but it could've easily been worked around. Perhaps she's just going to resurrect a random South American revolutionary leader. Or maybe in an earlier script, Fredricks actually was a villain, rather than a wronged person out for revenge. The nazi stuff only comes into play in the final 6 minutes of the film, without so much as a mention beforehand. Maybe they just wanted to save the reveal of the whacked-out twist to the last minute, but the movie's not good enough for that to work. It's generally not a good sign when you're unsure if a twist revelation is an eleventh-hour rewrite! By the way, I don't feel bad about spoiling any of this, as you're probably not gonna have any interest in this movie without me telling you of its sheer craziness, and those final moments are the only time during the movie when I was truly having fun.

The acting in Flesh Feast is pretty terrible all-round. Some performances are better than others, but not by much, and emotions are hilariously terrible, and reactions are facepalmingly poor and/or late. Veronica Lake is the best, but she's not exactly a standout here. She *almost* pulls of a maniacal laugh, which goes from being fantastic, to bad, sadly.

The film's effects are actually quite decent. The awful print quality doesn't do them any favours though. The maggots are the best, as they're actually real, and most of the movie works within its means, meaning there aren't that many terrible effects because there aren't that many scenes that'd need them. There are some bad ones though, such as the terrible old-age make-up for the actor playing Hitler and how there's zero effort to show that he's been consumed by flesh-eating maggots at the end in the slightest!

I don't really recommend Flesh Feast unless you really have a thing for awful drive-in schlock of the era, and/or are a fan of Veronica Lake, and relish the thought of seeing her play a mad scientist...

The Naked Witch (1964)

It's easy enough to see every inch of someone nude in crystal clarity nowadays, thanks to the internet, but back in the 60's, if you wanted to see a naked woman, you'd either have to get married, or watch a low-quality super softcore skin flick in a seedy theatre filled with Travis Bickle types, and religious fundamentalist nutjobs who decree what you're watching as sinful, yet are, without fail, always in these theatres watching these movies. Enter Larry Buchanan's The Naked Witch, bearer of a much more enticing title than it in any way deserves...

A college student is working on as essay about customs and superstitions in the German settlement of Luckenback, Texas, and comes across the story of a witch. He finds he grave, and disturbs it, bringing the vengeful witch back to life, and on a bloodthirsty rampage...

The Naked Witch starts off with almost 10 minutes of what's pretty much a history lecture, albeit extremely inaccurate, told over Heironymous Bosch paintings that he apparently misinterprets, too.

Once that narration ends, another begins, and the remaining 50 minutes (yes, really) are from the point-of-view of a college student, who's got to be one of the worst protagonists in an horror movie ever! To start with, his priorities are just messed up, like when he gets the book on the Luckenbach Witch from the likable innkeeper's daughter Kirska, who's in a black nightie and clearly coming onto him. Dude, an extremely horny hot chick wants to bang you-Forget about researching witches! Also, what kind of psycho digs up graves in the plight of college research? Jesus! Your midterm paper is not that important. Getting into the big stuff, he's a massive dick! He starts off pretty unlikeable already, clearly going to break the confidence of those who help him but then he goes ahead and digs up the grave of someone, and tampers with their corpse! This of course resurrects the witch, and she goes on a killing spree against the Schoennig family, killing them all besides Kirska. All through this, the lead's narrating about how he wanted to tell the townspeople of his involvement in this horror, but 'just couldn't'  Eventually he goes to hunt down the witch, but upon finding her, he elects to watch her skinny dip, then they have sex. She proceeds to hunt down her last remaining victim, and three minutes before the end of the movie, the dude's still snoozing after banging the witch he was meant to kill! Only in the last few seconds does he save Kirska...Save her from the problem that he caused! The reason why her entire family is now dead. I bet she immediately buried him alive with a few water moccasins following the events of the film! To finish, I also kept yelling "Stop referring to women as creatures!" at the screen. Overall, this guy is so dreadful that it's actually quite amusing viewing him as an unreliable narrator, who's meant to be awful, and laughed/booed. That's of course not the case, and it's just bad writing to blame, but it does make the story more fun if you view it that way!

The Naked Witch is extremely guilty of breaking the 'Show, don't tell' rule. The majority of dialogue is narration, and it's really only when Kirska is talking that we get any proper conversations. It's clear the filmmakers were able to have dialogue and sound, yet they chose to do what Doris Wishman did with A Night to Dismember, even though that movie had a very good reason for it's constant narration and lack of much dialogue (that being soundtrack vandalism and destruction). The most egregious moment is when a character calls out "Kirska", then the lead's narration immediately says "Her name was Kirska". WE KNOW! What acting we do hear doesn't exactly impress either.

Now, this movie may be bad, but what about the good stuff, you ask? The nudity!...Sadly disappointing. When we first see the titular witch running around nude, she's strategically hidden by various objects, or camera shadows. Later on, in a skinny dipping scene, we see some boobs from afar, then a few closer shots, but that's it. And the quality's so low and lighting so poor that the actress might as well be wearing clothing for all we can tell.

The title is also a lie in more ways than one! The movie may open with a lecture on witches, but then the movie goes ahead and ignores all of that, instead making the so-called witch an innocent women who was persecuted and murdered by an evil cockhead. I suppose she must've become a witch in the interim of her death and resurrection? Assuming she even is a witch at all, but there's nothing to suggest that besides the title. Whatever the case, she certainly has every right to be pissed off at the town! And she's certainly more likable than the useless lead, that's for sure.

It's this aspect to The Naked Witch where it actually threatens to be interesting! Despite being a horror movie about a witch, the flashback plainly shows a corrupt magistrate accusing an innocent woman of being a witch simply because the truth is inconvenient for him. Man, most horror B-pictures just go the easy route of 'They were witches the whole time!', not often admitting to the fact that they were innocent victims of a corrupt, borderline fascist government. A somewhat interesting line is when the lead talks to Kirska about his thesis, all about how old fashioned and deadly/paranoid fears of things like witchcraft have been replaced with ideas such as nationalism and racism. A shame the movie isn't good enough to support this, but hey, it tries!

The effects are mostly lousy and unconvincing. The old corpse of the witch looks fake, like it's just a rubber mask placed in the dirt, but kinda neat. The effect when the student removes the stake from its body though, not so much. I've always found the folklore that say a vampire/witch/etc. can be brought back to life by removing the stake from its heart to be stupid-How the heck do you literally unkill something? It's DEAD. Finito! It's like resurrecting someone you shot by removing the bullet from their head! I could accept it for this movie though...What I can't accept is when the body's so rotted away, there's nothing the stake is even in anymore! The lead just picks the darn thing up! The staking at the end is pretty bad too, though the shot of the witch with the implement poking out of her is better handled.

Other little oddities about the movie are the set that's the same in an 1860's flashback as it is in the modern day, or how the townspeople are conspicuously absent throughout the film. The witch isn't even doing that great a job of hiding herself, what with skinny dipping, and running around the town in broad daylight, yet no-one notices her! And finally, the witch has a little motto when killing her victims, saying 'one by water' and 'one by fire' respectively, but she stabs both of them! And in the case of the latter, that's all she does! "One by fire!", she says as she stabs the guy with a stake, and leaves him to die where he sits, rather noticeably not alight.

The direction in The Naked Witch is bad! Full of simple, yet crippling mistakes, like holding on the silent person's face too long in a conversation before cutting back to the one speaking, for example. Asides from stuff like that, it's barely serviceable.

The score isn't terrible, but not exactly thrilling either. It's completely unremarkable.

The Naked Witch is not a good movie by any means, not even as a skin flick! It's so not worth watching, despite it's short 59 minute runtime!...

Cabin in the Sky (1943)

Ooh, a movie from the 1940's with an all-black cast? And they're all actually black actors? Yes! I have the pleasure of reviewing the 1943 stage play adaptation Cabin in the Sky...

Little Joe Jackson is a decent guy, but has troubles with gambling, despite the efforts of his loving wife Petunia to keep him on the straight and narrow. One day, after ducking out of church to play at a gambling house, in the hopes of paying back some outstanding debts, he's shot, and on the moment of his death, Little Joe is visited by a nasty crew of demons led by Lucifer Jr, after his soul, as well as a troupe of angels, who review his case thanks to the power of Petunia's prayers to keep Joe alright. They decide to give him a six-month reprieve on life, and after erasing his memory of his brief encounter with the afterlife, both parties watch from the sidelines, each trying to unconsciously coach Little Joe into salvation, and temptation, respectively...

Cabin in the Sky was a movie I was a little worried going into to start with, given the time it was made. I was paranoid there'd be repeated use of the N word, offensive caricatures, or maybe blackface! Luckily there was none of that on display here, and instead this was a very entertaining time!

The music is great, and the pacing is fine. There's a decent amount of songs, they're evenly spaced throughout, and are a ball to listen to!

The acting is good all-round. Ethel Waters does most of the singing, which might be why she's given top-billing. She definitely deserves it! As for Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson, he's very good too, though some might find his gravelly voice grating. He's certainly got pipes though! I enjoyed his singing in the titular song, and in the Consequences number. That latter one is maybe not as good, with his voice breaking a bit at times, and some may find him shrill, but there's absolutely passion in the performance, which sells it for me. Lena Horne is entertaining as the 'devilish' temptress Georgia Brown, but doesn't appear anywhere near as much as the other leads. Kenneth Spencer and Rex Ingram do fine jobs as the heads of their supernatural groups, and finally, Louis Armstrong appears for a few minutes!...And doesn't get any kind of musical number. He did, but it was deleted from the finished product, along with another song where Lena Horne sang nude in a bathtub. Now THAT I would've liked to see! Dammit, 1940's censors!

Before I get to the story, a couple things to address about the writing first. A lot of the film's characters talk in a certain way sometimes, "He ain't never gonna win", "I'm about the miserabelest person what ever died", "We's on the spot", etc, but as far as I thought, it comes across more as vernacular, rather than lack of intelligence, or anything like that. Your mileage may vary though. It's not heavily overused, but it does get a little tiring after a while.

Now to discuss how some people find Cabin in the Sky to be racist. I'm not super knowledgeable on 'negro' stereotypes of the time, so maybe I just didn't pick up on some things that smarter people might, but to me the characters didn't seem stereotypical at all. Take for example Little Joe, who has a gambling problem. I'm not sure if that'd count as a stereotype here, because it's a trait isolated to this one character, and far from all sharing that same character flaw, almost every other character in the movie is trying to get him to beat his addiction and be on the straight and narrow. Overall, I find that Cabin in the Sky has dignified portrayals of strong, well-rounded characters. I've no idea why people would decry the film as being offensive.

Seeing as how I'm not black, and there'd be a chance I might not know what the heckballs I'm talking about, I figured I'd better listen to the commentary track before I put 'pen to paper'. It's presented by  scholar Todd Boyd, who I assumed would know a thing or two hundred about the subject. However, I switched it off after only a few minutes, because I found him to be incredibly annoying. He starts by harshly criticizing the movie's supposed 'problematic' stereotypes, and I found myself strongly disagreeing with him. Then he goes on a weird tangent, criticizing the character of Petunia for being 'cantankerous and argumentative' (BULLSHIT!), as well as 'asexual', which were apparently stereotypes for black female characters back in the day? To which I thought "Dude, how the hell do you know she's asexual or not?" Just because we don't see a character's sex life onscreen, doesn't mean they're asexual, it's just that it's not important to the story! Also, at no point is she argumentative or grumpy! And then he just gets plain confusing, like when he says that the movie showing African-Americans having strong religious beliefs is problematic, because racists strongly believe black people are inferior...Huh? Yeah, I wasn't quite sure what he was on about, but it really does sound like he was saying 'Because racism exists, it's racist to show African-Americans being religious'. You can see why I immediately turned the commentary off!

In closing, I don't find the movie racist at all (like, say, an annoying pre-menu text-intro on the DVD seems to). Just the opposite, it pissed off racists back in the day like crazy! Some states banned it outright, offended by its showing of 'social equality and racial mixture'. The poster, though? Oh yeah, that's totally cringeworthy...

Onto actual problems I have with Cabin in the Sky, and this is a doozy! I hate awkward misunderstandings in stories at the best of times, but that trope's used here to extremely frustrating measure.   It's when Little Joe is visited by Georgia Brown, who tries seducing him, and it almost works, but then Joe stands strong, belting out a defiant musical number. It's a great triumphant moment for the character, and feels like a turning point in the story...Then Georgia tells him about the discarded sweepstakes ticket he won, but surprisingly, that doesn't turn out bad for Joe either. Far from it, he interprets this plan by Lucifer Jr. and his devilish cronies as a reward by God for his renewed good behaviour, much to the shock of the demons. Joe thanks Georgia for telling him about it, and says he'll buy her some gifts as thanks, but Petunia overhears just enough to lead to her assuming Little Joe is cheating on her, and the following several minutes are incredibly hard to watch. *sigh*

Following that, I of course didn't like where the plot was going, because it was all coming off of that irritating development, but it was ok. The climax feels a bit...forced, though? I dunno, it seems to escalate a little too quickly, and doesn't feel as well-rounded as it could've been. As for the ending, it's a cop-out, but I don't mind. It's nice regardless.

Another problem I have with Cabin in the Sky is its treatment of the character of Georgia Brown. The movie constantly makes her out to be a tremendous sinner, and 'one of the Devil's greatest children', but what little we see of her (she doesn't show up until well over halfway though), she doesn't seem all that bad! Sure, not the best person, what with her willing to seduce a guy she knows is married, but we never see her doing anything evil, and she shows genuine concern for Little Joe.

The direction in this movie is very good! It's fine most of the time, but there are a few scenes that are great, especially at the climax, which looks very impressive for a film from the 1940's! Moving right on from there to the effects, which are mainly on display in the finale, what with the rest of the movie being more character-based. They're really good, and lend much to the grand conclusion. The costuming for the angels and devils looks neat too!

Cabin in the Sky is an enjoyable musical for sure, most of the time, and despite some issues I had with it, it's still very much worth a watch!...

Friday, August 12, 2016

Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir

A recent show to come onto the airwaves, and one that's gained quite the following, Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir is a French/South Korean superhero show, also with elements of Magical Girl anime, i.e. Sailor Moon. Let's take a look and see if it's worth the fuss...

*Also known simply as Miraculous Ladybug (what I always call it), and if you're anything like me, you'll look at its full title and want to strip away that colon in the way of this being a show about miraculous tales, rather than the words being separated!

In the city of Paris, the villainous Hawk Moth is sending out his evil Akumas to infect the despondent, furious, and wronged, turning them into powerful supervillains. As they try and wreak havoc, only the brave teenage heroes Ladybug and Cat Noir can stop them, and foil Hawk Moth's dastardly plans of stealing their powers and taking over the world. Meanwhile, in their civilian identities, Marinette Dupain-Cheng and Adrian Agreste go through life at high school with all the usual trimmings. The clumsy and forgetful Marinette has a seemingly unrequited crush on Adrian, while he has feelings for Ladybug (the two not knowing each-others true identities). They hang out with their friends, participate in projects, and try to avoid the wrath of the snobby mayor's daughter Chloe. When danger calls though, they'll be there to fight it off and save the day...

Miraculous Ladybug is an incredibly fun superhero series! The writing is formulaic as hell, partly to the show's success, but more to its detriment (more on that later). The characters and situations will probably be pretty familiar to those who've watched lots of this genre, or just high school TV in general, but due to the good writing, this doesn't come across as a bad thing.

It's very creative, with unique and distinctive villains each episode, often with very interesting powers, such as one that controls Wi-Fi, using cell phone functions as weapons in the real world (like using 'Pause' to freeze people in their tracks, and 'Lock' to trap people), another that mimes objects into existence, making them now corporeal, but invisible, and one that makes people vanish after taking their pictures, resulting in a wall covered in picture frames with all those imprisoned,  among many other neat baddies.

And finally, the puns! Oh God, the puns! They're groanworthy as they are hilarious, and are of course intentionally both.

As fun as this series is though, it's by no means perfect. Let's get into the more negative aspect to the show, and boy is it a big one!...

Most Magical Girl shows start with a monster-of-the-week phase, but gradually move out of it once the cast and world are set up. Unfortunately, Miraculous Ladybug never moves out of that phase. Each episode is a self-contained villain-of-the-week story, rather than developing the main story arc, and furthering the characters. Instead, everything always seems to be at square 1, and follow the exact same story structure (and I do mean exact) for 23 episodes! I say 23, because the last three actually try other stuff, sort-of. First up is Volpina, the true season finale, which seems to be actually moving the main arc along, possibly (but is still mostly adhering to the regular episode formula). Following that is the two-part season finale, Origins...Yes, you read that right. Basically, the first two episodes of this show are aired last, for no discernible reason! The showrunners just decided to throw you in at complete random, and only bother giving the first adventure of these characters at the end! Or in the middle if you live in Australia. The airing schedule for episodes is all over the place depending on the country, which despite causing a couple of teeny continuity hiccups, is mostly fine, given how isolated and samey each one is. Plus, it gave the show the much needed shot-in-the-arm of actually showing a somewhat different story template earlier on, as eps 12 and 13, rather than 25 and 26. Anyway, the repetition in Miraculous Ladybug is a big problem, and it'd better be improved come next season, because it's frustrating never seeing the series go anywhere. Whether or not this will start grating on you can vary. I enjoyed each episode just fine, albeit wishing the show would hurry the fluff up, but others might only be able to take a few episodes before they tap out, due to its repetitive nature, which is understandable.

At the very least, I'm glad that one aspect stopped getting overdone-Having Marinette's schoolmates be influenced by Akumas. That seems to happen just a liiittle too much, and there was even a whole block of episodes one after the other that centred on just that, and was the show's repetition at its most annoying. Other things the series does from time to time to shake up the proceedings are having Marinette de-powered for most of an episode, have Cat Noir possessed in another by the villain, etc. Just little touches, but they help add a bit of variety when they come.

Onto the characters. Marinette is a fun lead, full of life, and as adorable and absent-minded as she is ass-kicking, and acrobatic, making for a great lead. Though it can get a bit annoying that she's forever unable to talk with Adrian for the most part. It's not like he's just some random guy in school she has a crush on-Adrien is an actual friend of hers, and hangs out with Marinette and co. frequently.

Adrien is great too. I'm glad the show never tries making him either a 'bad boy' anti-hero who's 'too serious' for fun, or an arrogant snob. Despite his upbringing in a super rich household, he's a likeable, down-to-earth character, who always has time for his friends, and willing at a moment's notice to fight the forces of evil and save others. He's a witty and charming rogue when he's Cat Noir, and has great rapport with Ladybug.

The rest of the cast are all really good. Marinette's best friend Alya is a neat supporting character, while Chloe makes for an amusing stuck-up snob and bully to basically everyone around her, her 'sidekick' Sabrina included. Granted, it can be annoying how unredeemingly nasty she is, never once showing any development. She's also ADORABLE in the Antibug episode! Those of you who've seen that know what I'm talking about! The remaining supporting characters range from cute to interesting, though completely underdeveloped until their respective Akuma episodes.

Miraculous Ladybug is quite diverse in its cast. Adrien is white, but Marinette is of mixed descent, partly Chinese. There's also Alya, who I actually couldn't tell the ethnicity of, and I wasn't sure if she was black, Middle Eastern, or what until I read on Wikipedia that the character is from Martinique, in the Caribbean. Between those characters, and others, the show has a nice balance of diversity.
The voice acting is all good to great, with the English performers really embodying the characters. While a bit wonky to get used to at first, what with their mouths moving in French, I quickly got used to them.

One interesting little aside. The character of Hawk Moth is named The Butterfly (Le Papillon) in the original French, but renamed for the English release. Perhaps the distributors didn't have high hopes for the intimidation factor of a villain going around proclaiming "Fear me, for I am The Butterfly!". I don't mind the change much, though I was weirded out at first why he was named after two animals, unlike Ladybug and Cat Noir, but then I realized that a Hawk Moth is an actual species, and not just the villain trying to sound cool.

The 3D animation is gorgeous, and the action scenes are a joy to watch, with impressive choreography, and neat visuals. The show was originally in the form of an anime in its promotional video, and (as well as a potential future webseries), before the creators/studio settled on the 3D CGI style, for a few reasons. The animators apparently had difficulty with strobing effects with Ladybug's costume, and there was just a general preference over the 3D art style overall. I like the look of the anime incarnation, but prefer how it is now. One last thing to note is the recycled animation! As far as I can remember, it's just the one part, when Ladybug 'de-evilises' the episode's Akuma. I'm not sure if the constant re-use of that animation is lazy, or amusing.

The main theme is fun to hear, and the rest of the scoring is fine too, always bright,and never overused.

Originally, Miraculous Ladybug was going to be a more serious and mature series, focusing on more political and social themes, but no studio would pick that up, so it was retooled to the more harmless and 'safe' show it is now. Part of me is curious what the show would've been like had it been darker and more adult, but my head is also filled with mental images of concepts such as 'Marinette pregnancy scare', 'attempted rape', 'Chloe starting a hostile racist group in school', and other such dark and depressing storylines featuring these presently happy, cute characters! Tackling serious topics would still have been commendable though, depending on how they handled it, and I'm sure it could've been great, so it's a bit of a shame that the series was 'dumbed down' in a way, even if I still really dig what we got.

Overall, Miraculous Ladybug is a very good, albeit flawed series. If you can handle simple villain-of-the-week storytelling and nothing much beyond that, I highly recommend it. It's still a creative and fun show, well worth a watch!...