Saturday, April 17, 2021

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)

1930s Germany was a turbulent time, and the filmmakers who weren't willingly or reluctantly being drafted into propaganda were making what basically amounted to warnings. This was the case with noted film auteur Fritz Lang, in his last film before fleeing the country...

In Germany, a series of seemingly unconnected crimes has rocked the state. Unbeknownst to the police, they are all orchestrated by one man-A man thought gone long ago. Inspector Lohmann slowly pieces the case together, but keeps stumbling up against roadblocks. How can a dead man still be at large? And what plans does he have for the world?...

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is the long-belated sequel to Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler, a sprawling 4-and-a-half hour crime epic. That film introduced Norbert Jacques' character to the silver screen and immortalised him, but his entire character hadn't quite yet been crystallised. The Mabuse of that film was most certainly more nihilistic than others of the era, with no motive beyond doing crimes for the sake of it. But while The Gambler has a very stylish and at times surreal flair, the plot is a fairly straightforward crime story. Whether you like this is up to the viewer. For me it's personally just a bit too much this instead of that, but it's still a monumentous film.

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse really amps up the twisted philosophy the Doctor possesses, and adds an ambiguous supernatural aspect to the series that it has never been wholly without ever since. The movie has an unsettling aura to it that make it go beyond the realms of ordinary crime, and into borderline horror territory. Unlike the pulp fun of Fu Manchu or Diabolik, Dr. Mabuse is certainly a horror villain, and one of the scariest.

My only real problem with Testament comes in the form of its runtime. This really didn't need to be 2 hours long. Many scenes either aren't necessary, or could've had a minute or two trimmed without sacrificing anything. Where things got most frustrating for me was how the big climax and shootout in the film happens when there's 40 minutes to go! There's nothing more annoying that reaching what feels like it should be the finale, only to see there's still a full album's worth of runtime left.

The characters here are strong and well developed. Inspector Lohmann is a loud fellow who won't be seen without his cigar, but is clearly dedicated and passionate (take for example when he doesn't complain once about missing the opera, despite so looking forward to finally getting time of work). He interacts well with the various different characters here. From his anger at disgraced officer Hofmeister to paternal worry once the man's mind snaps, to his flippant and amused attitude towards the unhinged Dr. Baum's ramblings, he's very expressive.

The other main character is Tom Kent, an ex-con fallen back into bad ways, and trying to balance this life with his affections for kind local girl Lili. She is a bit drippy in the romantic scene when Tom reveals the truth, but is otherwise a very good character, and shows great bravery and determination, not to mention loyalty.

Despite dominating the picture, Mabuse actually has very little screentime. Maybe only 5 minutes, tops, and all he's doing is silently scribbling, staring intently, or delivering a creepy monologue (in perhaps the film's best scene). On one hand it's a testament (*sigh*) to the power of the film that a character who appears so little, and casually dies partway through, still holds so much sway on events. On the other hand, it's a bummer that a movie about Dr. Mabuse barely has Dr. Mabuse in it! Imagine going into the cinema after an 11 year wait between movies, and the main character's not even in it!

The real main villain's identity is sort-of kept a mystery, but barely, and I feel no worry in discussing it here. Asylum head Dr. Baum is an effective enough antagonist, and it's interesting seeing his psychology. Is he just a criminal Mabuse fanboy? Is he actually deluded into believing he is the new Mabuse? Or is he actually possessed? Either way he's bad news.

The acting here is great. Returning from the previous entry, Rudolf Klein-Rogge is instantly iconic in the title role. I'm not sure if he's wasted or not. He's a presence in the entire first hour (not counting the ghostly sequences), but doesn't get that much to do. All of his scenes are great, including that famous stare, but I kinda wish we'd gotten a little more of him. Otto Wernicke once again plays the role of Inspector Lohmann, after first playing him in Lang's M. He's garrulous and loud, but charismatic too. Some of the acting can get a bit over the top in places, especially in moments of high emotion, but nothing bad, certainly.

The direction in Testament is by far its highest quality! Lang shows his strengths perfectly, with many shots constructed extremely well down to the smallest degree. He also successfully imbues a tone of expressionism, making this more than just a simple crime film, but also without forgetting its roots as one. Though the sped up running in a couple of instances is weird, albeit thankfully fleeting.

The only time I feel the direction gets a bit carried away is in the chemical fire at the end. This is supposed to be the big catastrophe that heroes have to prevent, and they do succeed before the intended effects happen, but it's like Lang had already spent the money on a barrage of explosions and toppling miniatures, and didn't wanna waste them, regardless of how little sense it ultimately makes.

Testament is simultaneously a very loud yet remarkably quiet movie. Noise plays a big role  And there's one transition form the ominous ticking of a clock to another scene that is breathtaking in its simplicity! Where the silence comes into play is in the music. There isn't any! There may have been a couple of tracks here and there, but none that I could remember. For me as a viewer, the whole movie feels quiet, almost eerily so...And sometimes boringly so if I'm speaking frankly. If a movie is gonna forego a score, the least it could do is not be 2 damn hours long!

Whether seen as an artifact of its time, or a movie divorced of all outside context, The Testament of Doctor Mabuse stands tall as a classic of cinema. It has inspired an incalculable number of directors, films, and artists throughout the years, as well as spawning further sequels down the track. It's a must watch for anyone interested in world cinema, and in crime or horror. There are none that compare to Mabuse...

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Aladdin (1986)

Al Haddin is a teen boy living in sunny Miami, living out a pretty disappointing life, until one day he comes across a magical lamp. Inside is a stoic friendly genie, who = to grant all of Al's wishes, from giving him a fancy new car, to helping his beleaguered mother. As they have fun and get to know each-other, = become aware of a ruthless protection racket, and =...

Aladdin is your typical story of a modern day kid finding a genie in a magic lamp-A tried and true formula. What's special about this 1986 entry, you ask? Well it stars none other than Italian = Bud Spencer!

This is a highly enjoyable movie! A brisk watch, it does all the expected tropes and traditions for a genie movie, like the kid using his newfound power to make him strong against his bullies, become a top sportsman, [win the heart of his next door neighbour], etc, all with a fresh enthusiasm. There's always something going on, and the story is just [serious] enough without ever going to far either way, like becoming too serious/taking itself too seriously or becoming a farce.

The action in the movie is fairly low, but there is enough, especially considering this isn't an action film first and foremost. 

The only section of the movie I found a bit weird was the whole kidnap plot. It felt like it'd be a pretty major plotline in any other movie, but here it's almost an afterthought. It comes out of nowhere, and disappears just as quickly. It's fun, and manages to handle the subject matter in a goofy and inoffensive way, but it is a bit =. This is only a minor point though, and hardly a major complaint.

The characters are all likeable. Al is a good lead, just your typical kid. The genie is the perfect mix of = but friendly, never coming across as bored or distant.

Something I found interesting about his character was that he doesn't actually seem constrained by  wishes, but instead does it by choice.    This is evident in the climax, where Al [rashly] wishes for the enemy choppers to crash, and the Genie's just like "Are you sure?", giving Al enough time to backtrack and ask for a less dangerous wish.

The villains aren't the biggest of threats, but are fun to watch. The gangster is your typical =, while the corrupt mayor proves himself to be a would-be dictator, if only he'd get the powers of a genie to back him up.

The ending is satisfying in just about every way, and is a happy conclusion. Although I can't help but wonder why =  since they could just wish away the bad guys into having amnesia or something.

And in a sincere way too. It doesn't feel hollow or overblown.

The music in Aladdin is a fun 80s   It has a nightclub feel to it, if that makes any sense. It's all very glitzy and enjoyable. It really reminded me of the music in the Shantae the Genie adventure games, which makes me wonder if the creative team behind that series were fans of this. If so, then I can't help but be proud his fun little Italian flick has such a legacy.

The effects here are pretty good. The rear projection during the floating car and magic carpet scenes is a little noticeable, but not in a really cheap or obvious way, and they are effective scenes.

Onto the acting. Bud Spencer is a charming  lead. I was disappointed at first that he quickly traded in the cool Arabian outfit for a regular suit, but man if he doesn't rock that suit superbly! His trademark squint is as amusing as ever (especially when he somehow winks in one scene), and surprisingly he dubs himself this time round! Usually he was dubbed by others, but in occasional projects he did it himself, and he does well! His voice really suits him.

Everyone else do fine jobs too, from = as Al, = and = as his mother and grandfather, and Diamy Spencer as his love interest. I really like how Bud's movies were often family productions. Rather than feel like nepotism as it usually can, it feels sincere here, and she does a good job. I think she's doing her own voice here, as she enunciates some words interestingly. If it is her, I admire her for doing such a stellar accent!

Overall, Aladdin is a great little picture, and a perfect Bud Spencer solo vehicle. I highly recommend it, and it's a great watch for a rainy day...

Young Einstein (1988)

Get out the old tucker bag, mates, 'cause we're diving down under, for 1988's Young Einstein! We Australians are often seen by the Yanks as bizarre and unknowable beings, and this leads them to frequently take the piss, such as is the case with today's movie. The Americans love to make fun of us for having such a goofy and ridiculous performer as shock-haired redhead Yahoo Serious, and yet they gave the world Carrot Top. I rest my case!

Albert Einstein is an innocent young man living on his parents' apple farm in Tasmania. In an effort to further his studies and find out how to make bubbles for beer, he travels to Melbourne, where he meets the lovely Marie Curie, makes a nemesis, saves numerous kittens, and invents a little thing called rock-and-roll along the way...

Young Einstein is a great time to be had! A perfect example of Aussie cinema's quirkiness, it's an almost surreal film with its heightened sense of reality and intentionally off-the-wall history. These elements come together fantastically, and give off a unique vibe. After all, who doesn't wanna see Albert Einstein as an Aussie redhead creating rock-and-roll!

The story moves along at a quick pace, and never feels bored. There's always something barmy going on, and the film entertains all the way to the end, throughout numerous great setpieces.

The cast here work great. The hero is an endearing fella. I really like how everyone rallies around Albert. Even the horny prostitutes who want his [dick] end up becoming friends who genuinely wanna learn scientific theory. Characters can act harsh, but without ever being mean-spirited (unless they're meant to, of course).

The actors here all do great jobs, nailing the sense of surrealism with over-the-top performances, but also using this sparingly. Just as many play it straight, and this combination works, giving the movie enough life and lunacy, but also not laying it on too thick (like an American trying Vegemite).

Leading man and writer/director Yahoo Serious does a great job. I went into this film fully expecting a grating and obnoxious performance, but he's actually surprisingly normal and down-to-earth. Odile Le Clezio is spunky and cute as young Marie Curie, while John Howard (not that one) is a fun villain, and so young here! The rest of the cast is rounded out by other neat performers, including Aussie singers Ian 'Peewee' Wilson, and Su Cruickshank, who manage to give performances totally different to their ordinary styles.

Young Einstein really shows off its country in a perfect way. The Tassie farm looks spectacular, and the montage when Albert travels through the country is stunning, with desert hikes, ghost tracks, mountain climbing, and more, each showing off different parts of the country's natural vistas, its weather, and its landmarks too. The antique cobblestoned streets of old Australia is cool to see as well, showing lots of character!

The soundtrack is another highlight, with various licensed rock songs, along with some original stuff too. These fit the mood really well, with the best being Aussie classic Great Southern Land during the travel montage.

The movie had a surprisingly complex behind-the-scenes history. Yahoo Serious shot the movie, but was dissatisfied with the finished product, and when he shopped it around to big studios, they funded numerous re-shoots. While I'm curious what the original cut would have been like, it seems like he made the right call, and I'm impressed that everything comes together as well as it does, despite basically making the same movie twice, then stitching the pieces together.

Then there's the movie's cool reception in America, which despite the studio's high hopes for, is a thing anyone could see coming. There is no scientific way a Yank could see this movie and like it. They're just not built for this kind of humour. Also, I know what you Americans did. Any nation that is responsible for Carrot Top has no right to judge us for our own eccentric redhead frazzlebrain.

Overall, Young Einstein has earned its place as a gem in Australian cinema, and I wish we were still getting classics of its like, instead of, well, nothing. While we wait for that day, we can still be certain of having a great backlog to enjoy, with this being among them...

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

District 13 (2004)

Sometimes when you watch a movie, you can be in the wrong mood for it. This usually spoils your enjoyment of the film, and can sometimes leave you with a negative opinion  This happened to me the first time I saw Banlieue 13. I saw it when I was somewhere I didn't want to be, and wasn't having a good time, and then on comes a low-quality shitty dub of some mid-2000s action movie, which I only half watched as I waited for time to pass. Definitely not an ideal set of circumstances. But then something unique happened. The resulting movie ended up being so good that not only did make me pay full attention as it flew by, not only did the shitty American dub nor the poor visual quality not spoil it, but it ultimately improved my mood, and I'd found a new favourite movie!

In the near future, the French government built a wall around the worst ghettos of Paris, creating the lawless mega-slum District 13. Here crime lords operate without opposition, except from Robin Hood figure Leito, a constant thorn in the side of the ruthless Taha. In an effort to flush him out, he kidnaps Leito's sister Lola, and after a tense chase, the hero is captured and imprisoned by the police. A short time later, undercover cop Damien is assigned a special mission-A nuclear bomb being transported through the area was stolen by Taha, and the crime lord unwittingly activated a 24 hour destruct timer. With precious little time, Damien must team up with Leito and save District 13, perhaps even Paris itself...

Banlieue 13 is a 2004 French action film, also known as District B13 (leading me to facetiously call it District District 13). Running at a short 80 minutes, it's a high-octane thrill ride that never lets up.

The highlight is of course the action. Starring and choreographed by David Belle, the founder of Parkour, aka freerunning, the movie is a brilliant showcase of the art. The characters move fluidly and effortlessly, darting across halls like cheetahs, climbing through windows like ferrets, and having what looks like an almost supernatural degree of movement, coupled with how they use the environment to their advantage. The fact that this was all accomplished without the aid of digital effects or wires makes it all the more impressive.

The plot here is simple in the best ways. It's not the deepest of stories, but it says everything it needs to and sets up important enough stakes, without having to become too convoluted. The action is also balanced well, never feeling like an endless string of setpieces, but having moments of downtime. This plus the short length mean we never get exhausted while watching. In fact the film moves by so briskly that it took me like 3 viewings to realise just how astonishingly little screentime Dany Verissimo actually has!

The social commentary here is effective, and it works precisely because the movie focuses on it so little. It doesn't try and write a big preachy sermon with every scene, and instead it just lets the location, characters, and events speak for themselves, with the occasional line to reinforce the overall themes. It's always nice to not have a film's message shoved down your throat, and it makes it so much/all the more stronger.

As for any problems, the movie's basic nature makes it pretty light on these. It's hard to have plot holes for example when your plot is so simple. There is one issue I have though, and many other people too. It's not something I'd go as far to say as being a problem, but just a personal preference, and that's the presence of the time skip partway through. The first twenty minutes is the introduction, first action setpiece, and Leito's sister is captured. Since it takes up so much time, it feels like the flow of the story is broken up a bit too much by pausing for six months   And there is of course Lola's perspective. If the events of this film took place entirely over a few days, she would be fine, but if she was a prisoner of ruthless gangsters for 6 months, that'd be really depressing! And in a way that the film doesn't really acknowledge either, as she's thankfully all smiles by the end.

Characters are an important part of such a breakneck movie, as without an engaging cast, we'd have little reason to care. There's nothing to worry about here, thankfully. Leito is a great lead, instantly likeable and badass. Damien is a noble policeman whose sense of duty can distract him at times. The villains are a colourful and well-developed bunch. And Lola is a well-rounded character, not idle even when taken hostage.

The acting here is all fine. The two leads (David Belle and Cyril Raffaelli are charismatic and agile, and look distinct from each-other. Bibi Naceri is great fun as the weaselly and psychotic villain, while Tony D'Amario also stands out as the hulking henchman K2. Dany Verissimo is a delight as Lola. Sexy and spunky, she's lots of fun, and I wish she could have done more. Ever since I first saw this I've had my eye on her as an actress, always eager to see her in more.

The direction by Pierre Morel is great, with the action scenes shot in dynamic and fast-paced [ways], without ever going too far and becoming a blurry or shaky mess with more edits than punches. The  complements the action perfectly. The soundtrack also aids these moments too, delivering a hip-hop-y ghetto feel that isn't normally my thing, but is very enjoyable here, getting you suitably pumped up.

District 13 is a highlight of the action genre, and one of the few modern day examples I can stomach. It's a modern [classic], and well worth a watch for  ...

The Magic Sword (1962)

American director Bert I. Gordon cornered the market when it came to giant creations, whether man, monster, or animal. This includes such titles as The Amazing Colossal Man, Earth vs. the Spider, Food of the Gods, etc. But he did occasionally branch out onto other projects, including 1962 fantasy effort The Magic Sword...

George is a lovestruck young man, watching the princess Helene from afar, while living with his magical foster mother Sybil. One day he witnesses the princesses' kidnap by the evil sorcerer Lodac, and is determined to go out and rescue her. Sybil is unwilling to endanger her son's life, but George tricks her and takes a few magical items to help him, including six foreign knights of times past. The band face many dangers, but there's no stopping their quest to save Princess Helene...

The Magic Sword is a cheesy but thoroughly enjoyable fantasy picture. It's simple in the best way, and gathers together many quintessential fantasy elements and tropes. We have the young man embarking on a dangerous quest, making allies and enemies along the way as he journeys to save his love from an evil sorcerer. These are are all told in a good way, that feels traditional, and never badly cliched.

Where The Magic Sword does run into problems is in two departments. First is the tone. This is a fairly lighthearted movie for the most part, but some moments get unexpectedly dark, like the fate of the two princesses! I kept expecting them to be saved somehow, or for it to be a misdirect, like they were secretly shrunk, and it only looked like a dragon ate them to scare the main girl. But nope! They're dragon chow.

The other issue is a mix of that, and a bloated cast. There are a lot of characters, so understandably the 6 knights aren't the deepest. But the movie also feels the need to kill one off in just about every scene! Yeah, it frees up the cast, so they have a bit of wiggle room, and the audience gets less confused, but you really have grave doubts about this merry band when they've got such a high mortality rate! I mean, come on, =, these are magical knights, you're supposed to take care of them! Luckily they do all get a happy ending,

Gary Lockwood is a decent enough lead, carrying the brunt of the movie well, while Anne Helm is nice in her relatively short screentime. Basil Rathbone is a great villain. You'd never know he was the heroic Sherlock Holmes as he intones with his evil booming voice. Horror host Vampira (Maila Nurmi) has a memorable though unrecognizable role as the old hag. Estelle Winwood is a delight too as the forgetful and dotty but caring Sybil. Liam Sullivan is suitably shifty as the treacherous Sir Branton. The Bon Tempi twins are a fun addition as the magic Siamese twins. And lastly, the 6 knights all do fine jobs, even if their accents are amusingly spotty.

The effects in a movie like The Magic Sword is an important part, as a fantasy movie that looks cheap or unconvincing can be a death knell. Thankfully this does not disapoint. We've got two-headed twins, ogres, wicked old witches, ghosts, and other varied dangers. As can be expected from a Bert I. Gordon film, there is still a giant monster here, in the form of the dragon that George must face in the final battle. It's a fantastic design, that moves convincingly, and interacts well with the actors and environment.

This is a good looking movie overall. The sets for the medieval castles and hovels all look neat, and the natural scenery is always pleasing to the eye too. There are spookier locations, like a misty swamp. The whole production may not have had the biggest budget, but it uses it well.

Little problems aside, The Magic Sword is a great time! A rousing, slightly dark but family friendly fantasy romp, that's sure to entertain. Perhaps Bert I. Gordon's best film, it makes me wish he'd tackled fantasy more often...

Biggles: Adventures in Time (1986)

British boyhood literature back during the early 20th century really had it made! From characters like Bulldog Drummond to Biggles, there was never a shortage of spiffing military aces fighting for justice and freedom, and against those damn Huns! As for movies though they've been less lucky. Drummond got one of the longer running series's in classic Hollywood, but Biggles has only had the one film to date-1986's Adventures in Time...

Jim Ferguson is a mild-mannered American businessman, whose life turns upside down after a visit from a mysterious stranger. He finds himself transported back in time to World War I, where he helps a downed English pilot named James Bigglesworth. As he's flung back and forth from past to present, much to the growing concern of his friends, Jim realises time isn't quite as linear as he thought, and if he doesn't help Biggles find the Germans' new superweapon now, the outcome of the war could change for the worse...

Biggles: Adventures in Time is a strange movie from the offset, and a potentially frustrating one. It adapts the famous Biggles adventures, but apparently felt the need to spruce it up with time travel, making the whole affair verge on sci-fi, and adds in a bloody American to boot! Sounds infuriating, what? But it's a testament to the care and hard work on display here that the movie is such a success!

Despite its modern touches, these add to the overall story, and never feel out of place. Adventures in Time hearkens back to the age of classical British heroes. Dapper middle-class gentlemen with names like Puffy or Tonky, who'd say things like "Do be so good as to help me out of this plane, old bean". And it does so in a way that feels sincere, rather than taking the piss. It's a genuine spirit that can help elevate something that could otherwise come off as goofy, and turn out well.

The majority of the movie takes place on the Western Front, and it's a great depiction. It shows off the violence and dirtiness of the trenches, without ever being too dark for its intended audience. One could argue that the movie is a little biased in the favour of the British versus the Germans, maybe making the latter out to be worse than they were in this war, but if so it's never too egregious, and it's all in good fun.

There's always plenty of variety in the action. We've got daring nighttime raids, aerial battles, infiltration, and more. There's never a dull moment, and no two action scenes feel the same.

The characters are well written. Jim is a likeable hero, and he's enough of an everyman to be relatable, but shows enough talent in the action that he's not useless. Biggles on the other hand is a stylish and super talented guy, easily the star of his own movie, and he should've been here, since the movie does bear his name after all. But as the movie is, he's not underused or wasted, and he plays a good role.

Jim's girlfriend is an ok presence, and while her mistrust of her partner did bug me, it's a moot point since she's quickly dragged/taken along into the action. I appreciate this a lot. It's what Back to the Future set up, and could have done very well, but chose to bail on at the last possible minute. She has her ditzy moments here and there, but is enough of a help during the action that she never feels superfluous or unwanted.

Peter Cushing's character is suitably mysterious, and plays a good role, never just feeling like an excuse for exposition. His age confused me though! He's supposed to be Biggles' captain back in WWI, which would imply he was probably older, but even if he was a 20 year old captain, he'd still be over 100 by 1986!

Biggles' trio of comrades are good, despite their fairly limited screentime, and are all visually distinct from the other. And lastly, the comic relief is funny in some scenes, but comes across as too unlikeable in others, making you wonder why Jim is even friends with the dirtbag.

The film has a good sense of humour, and this is most apparent in the film's ending, which has one of the most hilarious lines I've ever heard at the expense of the Yanks!

The effects in Biggles are neat. There are explosions and gunfire aplenty, but where the film excels is in the weapon testing area, including one suprisingly gory moment for what's basically a family picture!

The score is a mixed bag, and likely to be a point of contention for some. As for how it sounds overall, it's great. There's a kickass main theme, which is 80s-tastic in the best way, and there are many more enjoyable tracks. The problem is just that. They sound like an 80s musician having fun with his synthesiser, in what's supposed to be a WWI set action movie! It is a little distracting to watch Biggles in a dogfight while synthpop plays. Some scenes handle it better, while others sound a bit off, amusingly so. The music that played during the superweapon test scene is really neat though. It has a unique and atmospheric feel to it, than really gels with the ooky almost apocalyptic visuals.

The acting here is all good. Neil Dickson does a perfect job as the title character, getting across everything you need to know about him in seconds. Alex Hyde-White does well as the main lead, and while he's not as charismatic as some of the other people he's working with, he still makes sure his character isn't forgettable. Fiona Hutchinson does a fine job, especially for her first film performance, while American expat William Hootkins could either be funny or annoying, depending on your opinion. The film contains a stable of reliable British character actors (Michael Siberry, James Saxon, and Daniel Flynn) as Biggles' comrades. Marcus Gilbert is a fine villain, and so convincingly German that I actually thought he was Wolf Kahler the whole time I watched this.

Of special note is Peter Cushing, appearing for his final film role. And what a final one it is! It's a good performance, and it's not a walk-on role either. He gets plenty to do, is always visually distinctive, and there are some spooky nods to his horror film past. Between these touches, to the classical source material, this feels like a fitting role to end his career on.

Biggles: Adventures in Time may seem like an odd adaption of the old stories, and goodness knows the world deserved more Biggles movies than just this one single film, but it's an enjoyable time to be had, and does justice to the old pilot...