Sunday, September 26, 2021

Sabirni Centar-The Meeting Point (1989)

Professor Miša is an elderly archaeologist examining some ancient ruins, when a hidden chamber is uncovered. He immediately realises the site's importance, but the strain of the whole endeavour leads to his sudden death. As his callous family moves on, arranging a funeral to coincide with a garrulous wedding, and tearing at each-other for their inheritance, Miša awakes in an ethereal location-The meeting place of the dead. Here are the spirits of all those he knew in life, and he learns about the deeds of the living that have prevented them from moving on to the afterlife...

Sabirni Centar (The Meeting Point) is a fascinating Serbian film. It's a mix of genres, from fantasy, to drama, and comedy. These all mix seamlessly, with the tone never feeling awkward. We can go from goofy in one scene, to solemn in the next,   Some have described it as a Magical Realism film, and while I'm not sure I agree (only because that's a very fiddly term), I can definitely see elements of that sub-genre at play here.

The film presents an effective commentary on human culture, shining a light on the pettiness, greed, and other 'deadly sins' that communities can commit, whether intentionally or not, and the impact they can have. Here the dead cannot find peace due to the actions of the living.

The film does a good job showing   but it's also good at making them fun to watch. If they were genuinely nasty to the core, the film could be a slog, but they're just the right kind of bad that you can have a good chuckle at.  Another thing Sabirni Centar does is show off the Serbian people's partying side/spirit. Where else can you fire a gun up in the air and go "Musica!"?

There's a strong cast of characters here. At first there are a lot of people to remember, and who is who left me scratching my head at times, but you quickly get the hang of everyone and who's related to what. You have sympathetic heroes, craven relations and townsfolk (none of whom are presented as 1-dimensionally evil), and restless but wise spirits.

The plot is a well-paced one, with some twists and turns, a few surprises, and some great concepts. I did expect Miša to do a bit more when he returned to life though. I was expecting there to be a grand adventure to be had, maybe uncovering the secret to the mysterious portal, or keeping it out of the hands of diabolical villains, but it's more low-key than that, with Miša simply returning to give his family and 'friends' a chewing out for their selfish and greedy behaviour, before abruptly dropping dead. I'm generally happy with this direction the plot goes, but I guess I just wish the old guy got the chance to do a bit more.

I also found the spirits' journey to Earth to be a little disappointing. It's great stuff, but feels almost like an afterthought. A very elaborate afterthought, mind you. While Miša just walks through a dark passage and we cut to him back in the land of the living, the others go through a variety of crazy scenes along the way. These include a great mythological gag, which spoke of the intelligent humour on display here. There are also many other historical moments. My only problem is that this section does go on a bit long, and by the time the spirits reach the world of the living, there's only 15 minutes left. They do enough when they get there, and there are some funny and quirky moments, but I did wish there could've been more, and perhaps a little sooner.

While some of what came before may have been a little hurried, the ending itself is fantastic. The loose ends are wrapped up, and everyone gets together back in the meeting place for a calm but grand final scene.

The film's comedy comes from a few places. There are some comic relief characters, like the three clumsy gravediggers(/robbers), but many other characters elicit laughs too, and the curious spirits returning to the land of the living have a lot of amusing moments too. There's slapstick here, wordplay, and more.

The cast do neat jobs, with various different kinds of performances. Rade Marković is a good lead, and while he may look like a frazzled Albert Einstein here, he gets across the drama of the story well, while also having his share of amusing moments. Anica Dobra is beautiful as Miša's deceased wife. Longtime Yugoslav actor Danilo 'Bata' Stojković has a funny role as the leech-enthused town doctor, Taško Načić is reliably quirky as the [town mayor], and Goran Daničić is good as a [gung-ho] soldier ghost. There are many more, and no bad performances as far as I could see.

The direction by Goran Marković is superb! Sabirni Centar always looks good. I liked a lot of little touches, like how it used empty spaces, filling them up as the camera pans around. The film also does a subtle but cool effect when a lot of the spirits move. Instead of walking, they glide. It's not a big effect, which makes it very nice to see. And lastly, I thought the colour of the many black funeral suits contrasts very well with the pale yellow of the meeting place.

The locations are just as gorgeous. The majority of the film is shot in Yugoslavia, with the earthly ruins being filmed in Gamzigrad while the scenes at the meeting place were filmed all the way in Tunisia. It's not just the locations that amaze too, but the vistas, namely one at the end, which captures the twilight clouds in such a stunning way.

The score in Sabirni Centar is great. We've got spooky and ominous tracks, comedic ones that really fit the mood, as well as solemn and beautiful pieces, namely the song at the end that plays the movie out. This is really something special, and composer Zoran Simjanović should be proud.

Sabirni Centar is one of the best Serbian movies I've seen, and well worth checking out. It's hard to find with English subtitles, but the resourceful will be rewarded, I'm sure. It might make you think, and even if it doesn't, it'll make you laugh anyway...

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Dr. Jekyll and His Women (1981)

Esteemed young Doctor Henry Jekyll has invited some guests over for his engagement party. He entertains friends and family with his fiancee Fanny, until the party is spoiled by news of a nearby murder. The tension immediately grows as the household itself is invaded by a psychotic and lustful intruder. As the men of the house gather weapons to defend themselves, Fanny sneaks off to follow her fiance, witnessing Henry make a horrifying transformation...

French based Pole Walerian Borowczyc specialised in sexually and religiously transgressive films, often exposing what he saw as the hypocrisy among the elite, and in society as a whole. Some of his moves garnered considerable controversy on their release, such as the period piece The Beast. 1981's Dr. Jekyll and His Women is perhaps his darkest films, and certainly one of the more adult and eyebrow raising adaptions Robert Louis Stevenson's classic chiller ever got! Where else could you see Mr. Hyde with a hilariously fake 9 foot long penis?

*Or 'The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne' as its creator originally intended. Bit of a wordy title, and not as grabby as the ultimate name, but respect to Arrow Films for restoring it for the spiffy DVD-Blu-ray release.

For the first third, Dr. Jekyll and His Women is quite boring, consisting almost entirely of extremely dry conversations. There is enough time where a boring movie can redeem itself before that point of no return. Thankfully this does just that, and the remainder of the film is more entertaining. The pace is still languid and the events minimal, but they are presented and spread out well, and the fact that things are actually happening now make it automatically more enthralling than a bunch of stuffed-shirts gabbing on/blethering on. It's not perfect by any means, and there are still a few moments where my attention dipped, but it was alright at least.

There's a disappointing climax, that makes little sense. It is an impactful final scene, but it requires every character involved to be an idiot. If Jekyll doesn't have any more antidote, why did he draw another formula bath to begin with? There's also a montage that crams in as much 'shocking' material as it can within 5 minutes. Where was all of this during the first 85 minutes?

In theory this is a good representation of the source material. It's not a literal adaption, but more of a spiritual one, and you can tell that Walerian does understand the story's ideas, in a way that some people haven't. But do I think he did it well overall? Not so much. The way the story is told felt a bit slipshod, taking forever to do some things, and omitting many key moments from the book.

Dr. Jekyll and His Woman has clear moral themes to show, and my problem with them is that ultimately it's all a bit simple. The theme really just amounts to "Society toffs can be real perverts behind closed doors, right? Right?". Yes, they can, we know. Do you have anything else of substance to tell us? A movie doesn't necessarily need the most complicated of themes to be successful, but when the whole point is built around something that can take 5 seconds to explain, and you get the picture only 10 minutes in, you have a problem.

The film also highlights the sexual repression of the era, where well-behaved innocent Victorian ladies secretly harbour kinky fantasies. I am sure most ladies of the era were indeed innocent and pureminded, but these are the same women who made The Sheikh popular, and regularly had rape fantasies about Arab sheiks kidnapping them, so Walerian clearly understands his time period well.

This is very much a character driven story, and in some ways they are decently written, but boring in others. The titular lead sadly feels like a background character in his own movie. Mr. Hyde is even less of a character for the most part, being so animalistic you can't imagine how he'd even hold a normal conversation. I would've been interested to see him at the reading of any will!

The film is nearly over before we get any insight to why Jekyll is doing any of this. And he's so brazen! How does he think he'll get away with all this, when he's not even trying to hide it. The process of transforming into Hyde isn't an easy one either, nor does it happen automatically. Jekyll has got to run a bath of water, make a formula, drink some, then fill the water with spooky bath salts until it looks like red pond slime, then bathes chaotically. In the climax when he begs his mate Lanyon for help to get him back to normal, you lose sympathy for the guy when you see just how many steps he deliberately took to do this.

The most notable guest is the general, who's a boisterous and authorative fellow, immediately taking charge when the house is locked down. There's a hilarious moment when he recklessly guns down the family coachmen, then has to sheepishly admit responsibility to the lady of the house. He then proceeds to try and justify it by saying this is like war. Tell that to the coachman's wife, dumbass!

His daughter is a naughty girl who must really have it in for her dad. She shows herself to be loyal to the home invader, though we never see her corrupted by Hyde. She's just suddenly infatuated enough with him to torment her father, then help stick him with arrows. And the girl ends up shocked that Hyde wants to kill her too. Awww, really? I am aghast, dear lady. Her death scene is incredibly weak. Hyde just fires some arrows offscreen, and we hear her going "Ah. Ah."

Dr. Jekyll's friend Dr. Lanyon isn't the most memorable of characters, but he is one of the only ones left by the climax. He has a terminal case of stupidity when he has Hyde at gunpoint, but allows himself to be dissuaded. This allows for a dramatic transformation, after which he suddenly drops dead in surprise. I was fully expecting Hyde to kill him, but nope. It feels like the character just magically dies because the script had no further need of him.

And lastly, there's Fanny, Jekyll's beleaguered fiancee. She's a fairly innocent girl, but makes an abrupt turn near the end. After a whole movie of getting the crap beaten out of her, shot by arrows, and threatened with murder, she then decides that being evil is awesome, and she wants in on it. It's a fairly predictable turn, and though I was looking forward to seeing how it'd play out, it's not as fleshed-out as it could've been.

The acting here is ok. Udo Kier is decent, but it's a bit of a thankless role really. Despite being the lead, he's barely onscreen, and he doesn't get to take part in the wild shenanigans of Jekyll's other half, absent altogether from the ending. Doubling as Hyde is Gerard Zalcberg. I was gonna say, the make-up job they did to Udo Kier made him look like another actor! That's because it is. Although they did still do something to the guy's face to make him look as uncanny as he does. Marina Pierro is decent in her role, and gets to cut loose in the last few minutes. Patrick Magee is funny as the general, while euro-horror regular Howard Vernon is a welcome presence.

As for what language to watch this in, I'd recommend the first half hour in English, and the rest in French. It's worth seeing Patrick Magee's performance in his original language, with all his amusing bluster, but otherwise the original French track is superior, if for no other reason than Udo Kier gets to use his real voice.

Walerian does a great job with the direction, shooting his actors and locations competently and with style. I really dug the running theme of mirrors and doubles. Although he overdoes the motif after a while, and I began thinking it'd make for a fun drinking game. Take a shot each time a character looks longingly or enigmatically in a mirror.

The score to Dr. Jekyll and His Women is really special. It's a unique and experimental collection of tracks, that really build up an offputting atmosphere. They feel right out of something like Shadow Man (N64)  My only qualm would be that it sounds a little modern, clashing with the antique time period. I kept wondering if I was watching an updated version with new soundtrack. Small quibble though. Bernard Parmegiani really did a stellar job here.

Overall, Dr. Jekyll and His Women has its good sides for sure. It's interesting in some ways, and as a horror film it does its job reasonably well, even if it is aimed specifically at the arty crowd, rather than the casual moviegoers who are content with simple hack and slash fare (not meant as an insult, I adore such films!). It has its flaws too, and all in all it's a real mixed bag...

Monday, September 20, 2021

About Time (2013)

I'm a bit of a Richard Curtis fan. I adore Love Actually, Vicar of Dibley is an all-too-short laugh riot (only 20 episodes over damn near 20 years??), and his lesser seen TV movie Bernard and the Genie is an unsung classic. His latest film (of only 5 so far that he's actually directed) is 2013's About Time, which I wouldn't say I avoided, but I just never went out of my way to see. I didn't realise it was by him, and I just assumed, based on zero information, that it was like any other generic rom-com of the modern era. Well I'm happy to say now that I've seen the movie, and

Tim is a young man worried about doing things right and meeting the perfect girl as he gets older. But on his 21st birthday his father tells him a secret. The men in his family all have the ability to travel backwards in time, to relive their past experiences. Tim is immediately skeptical, until he tries it out and realises the gift he has. It comes in handy ion numerous occasions, but he also discovers he has to be careful with it, lest anything important be changed.

About Time is a lovely romantic comedy. Sweet, innocent, with a real human touch. It's been described by its creators as an anti time travel movie, and this is correct, as the reveal that its hero can time travel is delivered quite casually, only 5 minutes in.The plot is enjoyable, and never feels as long as its 2 hour runtime. It runs the gamut of emotions, and the events are always amusing to watch

Something I admire about About Time is its cosy and casual tone. The movie has its fair share of drama, but it comes in the form of personal dramas, rather than outward conflict, and this means the film is always a very breezy watch. No third act break-ups, no loud arguments or forced contrivances to cause trouble. The only thing that comes close is when  Charlotte comes back, but true to its nature, the film deals with that storyline in exactly the way you'd hope.

There are many good or great scenes throughout, from funny, to romantic, or both. There's also a good amount of dramatic moments, all of which feel earned. Never too maudlin or caccharine, and getting just the right reaction from the viewer.

The movie toes a fine line between good awkward, and cringey awkward. It's never so cringey that you want to self-combust, and the worst offender of this is really just the one scene. The rest are funny, such as  girlfriend confusion. The only scene that left me confused is Tim accidentally erasing him and Mary's first meeting. It's so he can go fix the play, but I saw no reason why he couldn't do both. And preserving that probably would have been for the best, since it would ensure it was still Mary who started things. But still, no big deal, as their second first meeting is nice too.

The characters are a fine bunch. Richard Curtis once again brings his famous touch of authenticity (which often comes in the form of 4-letter curses), and three's never a dull moment with these guys.

Tim is your typical awkward British lead, filling an archetype that can sometimes put people off, but I found  to be good. He's believable, and charming when he manages to get talking. Mary meanwhile is likeably and charming herself, as well as proactive in their relationship.

The only thing I didn't like about their romance is that she never knows Tim's secret. This makes her a bit of a stranger to some of the film's events. But on that same token, I never felt this was a major problem. Nothing ever happens that   =, aside from the temporary baby switcheroo, but that's a shitty situation for both parties, and there's no sense bothering her with temporary memories that don't exist anymore.

Tim's sister Kitkat is decent, though he describes her as the most fun and interesting person he konws, but we never relaly see that. It's not that she doesn't fit the bill per se, just that we never see much of this in action. She doesn't appear as much as I'd have hoped.

I liked all the supporting players. Tim's best friend Jay is a clumsy doofus, as is his coworker Rory, and both are nice. The curmudgeonly playwright Harry meanwhile is amusing. Tim's first 'love' Charlotte plays her part well. She's a bit of a bitch, but neither does the movie go really overboard with this. My only issue with a lot of these characters, and indeed the film overall, is that I wish some of them had appeared more, mainly Kitkat and Tim's friends.

The actors all do great jobs. Domhnall Gleeson is a perfect lead, embodying everything cute and awkward about romantic but shy British guys. Rachel McAdams is adorable and swet, an all round joy to watch. Bill Nighy is very much the heart of the movie, and while there is an annoyingly long gap between appearances for a while, he does great. Tom Hollander is funny, and fairly over the top. Lydia Wilson is good, as is Margot Robbie in her supporting role. Will Merrick and Joshua McGuire are practically interchangeable, but fine nonetheless. Lindsay Duncan also does very well in the time she has. And lastly, we have a great pair of cameos from Richard Griffiths and Richard E. Grant

The locations here are great! Cornwall is typically beautiful, whether the sun decides to shine or not. I'm seriously envious of the family house too. London is a little less great, but it's otherwise a cool city, and is presented in a nice way. Lots of glittery lights and snazzy nooks and crannies.

Now let's come to the effects, or lack thereof. The movie never uses any flashy effects for the time travel, which works well. It happens in a convincing enough way, low-key and effective, and this avoids looking goofy. If he disappeared in a flash of light or puff of smoke every single time  I have a feeling the movie would spawn particularly deadly drinking games.

Overall, About Time is a very nice watch. It's the kind of positive story I wish we'd see more often nowadays. If you have a girlfriend, don't be afraid if she selects this to watch, and if you're eager to show to your boyfriend, go right ahead! You can rarely go wrong with Richard Curtis...

40:10, 43:17, 46,

Příchozí z Temnot-Arrival from the Darkness (1921)

Well-to-do landowner Bohdan Dražický is living with his beautiful wife Dagmar at his ancestral castle, when one day they receive a call from Richard Bor, a 'friend' and former occupant of the castle. He offers a gift of an old book on the occult, and secrets of the family estate, interesting Bohdan greatly. Bor has his own motives, and manipulates Bohdan into venturing through a secret passageway in the Black Tower, then locking him in, leaving Dagmar all alone.

Inside his ancestral tower, Bohdan is resigned to his almost certain death, until he makes an unearthly discovery. Seated in a laboratory is the suspended body of a man from hundreds of years ago. Forced to resurrect him to find a way out, things go well at first, and Bohdan's ancestor is friendly. But soon he too sets eyes on Dagmar, the spitting image of his own lost wife...

The Arrival from the Darkness is a real unsung gem of silent horror history. Coming from the expressionistic era that gave us classics such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, this feels like a kindred spirit to those films, while at the same time doing its own thing. The story is like a dark fairy tale, with many familiar trappings. Old castles, grand bearded sorcerers, unrequited love from dastardly villains, fair maidens, the lot.

The film has a very strong first act. It introduces the three central characters and their personalities very well. Events are quickly set into motion, and we are suitably on edge. Bohdan finding the mysterious body and the attached note is an ominous moment, and my first impression was he was resurrecting a vampire, which wouldn't end well.

Here's where it makes its first major misstep though. How, you ask? Well, this resurrected corpse turns out to be a completely agreeable fellow, with no evil inclinations whatsoever! A pleasant surprise, and no doubt better than what the protagonist was expecting, but it does take the wind out of the film's sails. You know what really deflates it stone dead though? This guy's bloody flashback! It lasts for damn near 30 minutes, and turns the film from an ominous horror into a period drama with a dash of romance!

I suppose the mixing of genres isn't so much the problem here, as it is the sheer amount of time this takes up (an entire third of the hour long running time). At the very least one can't fault it for not fleshing out its antagonist. Although it might actually go too far, stripping away any mystique. That's up for debate though, and I didn't mind.

Thankfully the film does eventually shift back into horror for its last act, though it doesn't amount to much. The film had a bit of an unsatisfying climax. My main issue was that I honest to God couldn't tell who was who! All these Czech guys look the same! Same height, same clothes, same hairstyles and colours. Couldn't at least one of the bastards have been blonde?!
The ending itself almost felt like a cop-out, but I ultimately liked it. There was still an air of mystery, and the film ends on a positive note.

Bohdan is a decent main character. He's a bit too bookish for his own good at times, but he always does the right thing. For example, when Bor distracts him with the book and tries putting the moves on his wife, Bohdan is quick to throw the tome down and eject the lecherous asshole from the property. Afterwards he continues to be a good hero, and when the chips are down and he thinks his ancestor has gone too far, he's the first to rally against him.

The victim of the piece is Dagmar. She's just going about her day to day life, when not only is her asshole neighbour openly lusting after her, but so is the undead guy her husband found! It's a wonder she doesn't flee to Aruba or Dominica. Luckily she makes it through all these nuisances just fine.

The man from the past (Ješek Dražický, which you can be certain I didn't type myself) is a pretty good bloke at first, with a sympathetic backstory. The climax is spurred on by him seeing his dead wife in the identical Dagmar. [This is where I have another issue.] I feel the movie doesn't do a good enough job making him out as a bad guy. Yeah he wants to steal away Dagmar, which causes conflict, but I feel like there should've been a little more oomph, like maybe the resurrection potion makes him want to eat virgins or something. As it stands, it feels like nothing a bit of psychiatry won't fix.

Bor is an ok antagonist, though a bit ineffectual after the first act, and never really amounts to much when there's an undead sorcerer on the loose, with the exact same motivation, no less.

The actors all do good jobs here. Czech starlet Anny Ondra is effective and pretty, while Theodor Pištěk does well as the hero. Famous Czech actor and director Karel Lamač is good in his role, getting to be romantic and mildly villainous, while Vladimír Majeras is suitably shifty. A lot of the actors pull double duty too in the flashbacks, with the most impressive being Majeras, if it's true he also plays the ancient alchemist Balthazar del Borro.

The direction in Arrival is great. There are many well staged moments, and gogeously framed shots, all working perfectly in conjunction with the spectacular antique setting. The film was shot partly on location, and partly in sets, and you wouldn't know the difference. The way the film looks has some stylish flourishes. Not only do we get the shimmering lens circle, but also a firm triangle, which I haven't seen before this. It adds a very unique visual touch!

Arrival from the Darkness is a real neat discovery, and what better treat could it receive for its 100th birthday than more discussion and more fans. The film is available free to watch, remastered, and with subs, on the Czech Classic Film archive's official youtube channel, who are bloody tops! Hundreds of films to enjoy, all for free. I only wish more companies cared about their archives like this...

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Aunty Donna's Big Ol' House of Fun (2020-)

Australia has a long history of fantastic comedy no-one outside our borders have ever heard of. Some people like to act like it's our fault for being isolated, but really it's their fault for being lazy. If we get all of your crap, why can't you lazy Americans watch ours? You don't even need subtitles for us! Anyway, now that the internet has revolutionised media, comedians/entertainers no longer need worry themselves about borders ever again, as a single video can travel around the world as fast as light.

Mark, Broden, and Zack are three Aussie housemates who get up to all kinds of mischief. Whether they're trying to have a nice night in, organising for a date, training for the 'Lympics, or expecting the Queen of England over for dinner,

Aunty Donna's Big Ol' House of Fun is the latest work to come from Aussie comedy trio Aunty Donna. For years they've been working hard on their Youtube channel, and doing live shows. Their content ranges from sketches, to songs, and abstract theatre, all with a very surreal and often dark tone. Big Ol' House of Fun represents a graduation to a TV format, after the boys were picked up Netflix.  Thankfully the show keeps to its roots, and still has a delightfully anarchic atmosphere, while still making the most of its new trappings.

Right out of the bat, this show makes itself quite clear. Its comedy style is definitely niche, and some might be put off by the more gross, nonsensical, or random elements. Even I wasn't entirely sold on it at first, but it quickly grew on me, and those sketches that I wasn't so sure about ended up being some of my favourites. It's an often hilarious series, and all too brief at just 6 episodes. I did respect its brevity though, with some episodes being as short as 17 minutes!

There's a nice mix of standalone sketches and recurring gags. There are also many familiar Aunty Donna touches, like the sometimes loopy editing, filming, continuity, and all those other little things. What I feel the show really nails is scene progression. We move from one sketch to another so fluidly, which is really saying something considering how suddenly they can end, or how many of them take place just in the trio's house.

If I were to describe what this show is like, to give you an idea of what to expect, or what inspired it, think something along the lines of Spike Milligan's Q, Monty Python, and of course The Aunty Jack Show! I've no doubt that these boys have seen that Aussie classic.

Another thing I really liked is the show's overall tone. The characters can act mean, angry, or violent, but there's a good balance, and the show never feels mean-spirited. There are enough moments of positive moments of goofing around to make it a pleasant watch.

A big change is the move to America, but thankfully this doesn't negatively affect the show. It highlights the best of both worlds. It takes advantage of all that America has to offer, but also never forgets its roots. Aside from the three leads being proud Aussies, and speaking lots of local words or slang, many of the supporting actors are Aussie too. It makes one feel proud!

The three leads, Broden Kelly, Mark Bonanno, and Zachary Ruane, are a hilarious bunch. Throughout their various characters, they share great chemistry, and manage to pull of manic moments, rubber-faced insanity, as well as amusing deadpan or straight-faced moments. What I especially enjoyed was how quickly they can shift from goofy to serious. One moment they're all smiles, then suddenly "Broden, what the fuck?!" like a pin dropping.

The show is full of small appearances and cameos by various people, including American actors and comedians, to performers as high profile as Weird Al Yankovic! These are often funny, and never feel obnoxious or really in-your-face. It also never feels like the Donna boys have sold out just because they now have a celebrity in their show. Far from it, I gained a new respect for Ed Helms for his involvement in this (not only does he act, but executive produces too!).   It was also a delight seeing classic Aunty Donna collaborators like Michelle Brasier and Ben Russell!

The music in House of Fun is a highlight. There's a great variety, with musical numbers aplenty, short and long. Everything's a Drum is an arresting way of grabbing the audience's attention, and showing that these boys aren't afraid of a good tune. Some can come completely out of nowhere, so you never know when to expect the characters to suddenly burst into song. The ending theme is fun too. Sung by what I presume is a female electronic voice, it's tailored to match each individual episode, and is fun to hear each time, made all the better by the familiar Aunty Donna refrain.

Aunty Donna's Big Ol' House of Fun won't appeal to everyone, nor is it meant to. What's important is that it appeals to its longstanding fans, and has entertained many new viewers. I'm looking forward to a next season, and whatever else the Aunty Donna troupe brings to us. All in all, I'd say I'm fairly chuffed by this show...

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

The Deadly Mantis (1957)

After a volcanic eruption, a prehistoric mantis of unfathomable size is thawed out, and begins wreaking havoc as it migrates south to a warmer climate. As effortlessly as it can demolish human settlements, it can evade the military and its attempts to destroy the beast. Can it be stopped before it reaches a major city?...

Science really is typical. You set off a nuke in the Atlantic ocean, and a giant praying mantis attacks Antarctica. What's to be done?

The Deadly Mantis doesn't exactly get off to the most exciting of beginnings. Starting off with an abundance of stock footage, and bland voice-over telling us about government function, it wears on one's patience. I was thinking 'Bloody hell, cut out the damn telephone guide and begin the movie already!'. Eventually things do get rolling, as it's all fairly passable, especially in the climax, where things get more exciting.

If The Deadly Mantis has one big issue, is that it's hard to buy. We're supposed to just accept that a 50 foot tall praying mantis is hard to find. Call me crazy, but I think it's the kind of thing people tend to notice. You don't really see many of them about, after all.

Another problem is that it's a bit dull and listless for the first leg. To compare this with Beginning of the End, that film spent its first act gradually building up the threat, and neither the title nor the events suggests an obvious culprit. But when you put on a movie called The Deadly Mantis, it does feel a little frustrating to see the characters waddling about for 30 minutes wondering what could be going on. We know what's going on!

The film's location is a neat one. Of all the places to feature a giant mantis, the Arctic is fairly unique. And while its constant disappearances are still a surprise, at least an inhospitable wilderness is an easier spot for it to hide in. Which is why it's a shame the action moves south to Washington, where it's comparatively boring (except for the landmark action, of course). I think if the movie had've stuck with the Arctic, it could've made for a more claustrophobic setting, especially if the heroes only have limited resources.

It's a bit hard to get attached to the characters here, because it takes so long before we're introduced to the heroes. Before then we get a few people who could be the leads, who are then unceremoniously eaten. When they finally show up, they're a bit milquetoast. I was surprised who the plucky female sidekick ended up with though. I just assumed she'd shack up with the hunky scientist, but nope. Lastly, the ice station personnel are amusingly sex-starved-"He's with a woman! A female woman!".

The actors all do well with the material they're given. Nothing super impressive, but nothing bad either.

The effects in The Deadly Mantis are a high point. Many b-movies fail to live up to their titles, but this does. There's never a moment where the mantis is unconvincing. It meshes very well with its surroundings, and is suitably menacing.

Overall, if you're a fan of b-movies like I am, you're honour-bound to check The Deadly Mantis out! There are certainly ones bad enough to avoid outright, even if you are devoted to the genre, but this is hardly that bad. But if you're just a casual moviegoer, there are better ones to watch...

Beginning of the End (1957)

Overnight, the entire town of Ludlow is annihilated by an unknown force, with no traces left of the population. Photojournalist Audrey Aimes investigates en route to another story, and after getting co-operation from the military, she begins her own search, soon finding a local scientist with strange experiments. Dr. Ed Wainwright  has been using radiation to grow giant food in an effort to cure world hunger, but without his knowing, a swarm of locusts has broken in and eaten some produce, resulting in them growing to giant proportions. The insects begin attacking as they move closer to the city, and it seems like nothing can stop them...

B-movie veteran Bert I. Gordon often created giant monsters for the silver screen, from the Amazing Colossal Man, to spiders, cyclops, and alien dinosaurs (or indeed, lizards with bits of plastic stuck on their heads). With 1957's Beginning of the End however, he attempted something a little more ambitious...So ambitious in fact that out of all of his movies, this is among the cheapest as a result.

This is a by-the-numbers giant creature feature, with little to make it stand out in that regard, but where it succeeds is in its tone and presentation. Sure, it's basically a knock-off of Them, but it does enough of its own thing to feel fairly unique. The ominous tone during the beginning is well handled, and the film does have balls.

The last act has an atmospheric feel to it, even if it is a further knock-off of Them. The emptied cityscape looks great, and always convincing.

Onto some negatives, Beginning of the End has a few huge gaps in logic. Firstly, it's been two months since these locusts grew giant, and yet they've been unnoticed this whole time, even when eating an entire town.

Then there's their strength. They may be giant, but they are only insects! It's hard to believe that guns, rockets, fire, and pesticides do absolutely nothing! Where things totally fall apart is in the last act, when the military need to capture one of the locusts alive, and they do this quite successfully by use of a gas bomb. Sooo...why didn't they use them to begin with? Then later on, Ed is able to use his skill of being the hero to shoot a locust dead, despite them being immune to bullets.

And lastly there are a couple of amusingly goofy moments, like the voyeur grasshopper (he's been watching too much King Kong!), the polygraph scene (I'm not convinced the writer knew what it even is), or when the heroes throw their gas bombs, then immediately remove their gas masks.

The characters are mixed. Audrey is a great lead, carrying the film's first act very well. She's your typical plucky journalist, but she has some depth to her, courtesy of her past job during the wars.

Ed on the other hand is a dickhead! His radioactive fruit is what made the locusts grow to such deadly size, and yet he suffers from no guilty conscience at all. The most he says is "I feel I may be partially to blame for this". You're COMPLETELY to blame. Even your assistant got eaten! More than that, he uses his former army position to speak with an air of authority around other soldiers, apparently forgetting he was only a radio operator. As far as protagonists go, he's alright, but it is hard to overlook how much of this is his fault.

The military are likeable and well portrayed here. They're not just stereotypically bullheaded or nasty, which was a relief to see for a change.

The effects in Beginning of the End are admirable, if not entirely effective. The production was so cheap and quick that costumes or props was not an option, certainly not for dozens. So Gordon, heading the effects himself, bought a bunch of real grasshoppers and superimposed them onto all the action. This looks better in some scenes, and quite fake in others. Overall it works as well as it could have. Though some of the more laughable moments are when they climb buildings, and we can tell they're smooth postcards.

Reliable star and B-movie stalwart Peter Graves delivers a fine performance, while Peggie Castle does a surprisingly good job as the love interest/defacto protagonist, and Morris Ankrum is good as the stern but levelheaded general. No complaints here. Kind of a shame there aren't any cheesier moments of overacting!

Beginning of the End is a surprisingly good time! It hardly reinvents the wheel, and covers all the same territory you'd expect, but it does it in such a good way that it's hard to dislike. And the effects are good for a laugh too. All in all this is a success for Bert I. Gordon...