Manborg (2011) Review

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From its opening text crawl, which brings us up to speed on the Hell Wars (in which the armies of Earth fell against the Demonic-Nazi-Cyborg armies of Hell), it’s clear that Manborg is going to be utterly batshit insane.

Following his death as a human in the last days of The Hell Wars, our otherwise unnamed hero awakens as a cyborg named Manborg in a future of green-screened backdrops, badly dubbed heroes, and coenobite inspired demons.

Manborg is quickly united with a group of freedom fighters; Martial Arts expert Number One Man, Billy Idol inspired cartoonishly stupid gunslinger Justice, and Justice’s purple-haired warpaint-clad sister Mina, and the movie is in truth theirs as much as it’s his; despite the single-character title, this is an ensemble piece.

The movie looks, and even sounds, like an insane Manga, brought to life through the medium of a 90’s video game; in fact, with its cyborgs, martial arts stereotypes, rubber faced demons, and even stop motion giants, the film looks exactly like it’s set in the Mortal Kombat universe.

Almost every shot is composited; at very least the actors are obviously green-screened onto the backdrop, and in many cases even the backdrop itself comprises multiple components, from miniatures and stop-motion, to digital renders. Although it’s likely this approach was born from budgetary constraints, it’s been utilised brilliantly, and gives the movie a uniquely stylised look.

At just an hour long, I feel that Manborg is the perfect length; the filmmakers made absolutely the right choice; rather than kill time with an half hour of filler just to get up to feature length, they’ve kept every second of screen time frantic; something which helps gloss over what would traditionally be seen as the films many flaws, by never really giving you time to care about them.

It’s not often that a film can set out to be a good bad-movie and succeed; and while Manborg is at times a little too self aware, it’s so much damn fun that it really doesn’t matter; even the film’s ridiculously open ending manages to be amusing rather than frustrating.

Make sure and stick around after the movie for brilliant short-film / fake trailer “Bio-Cop” and an hilarious copyright notice.

My name is Number One Man; the only way we’ll make it out of this alive is if we work together.

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Harold’s Going Stiff (2011) Review

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The DVD packaging promised me a full-on comedy in the style of Shaun of the Dead; a line of marketing that did the movie no favours at all. By sending me in expecting to have my ribs tickled, rather than my heart strings plucked, the distributors ensured that I spent the first half of the movie resenting it for what it is, rather than enjoying it for what it is; a heartwarming tale about the relationship between a sick man, and the nurse who cares for him. This isn’t to say that Harold is without its funny moments – most notably some The Office style awkwardness, slapstick from a group of vigilantes, and absurdities around Harold’s physiotherapy and a possible source of the disease, but they are far from the focus, and the film could honestly stand on its own without them.

The documentary style makes the best of the films low budget, hand-held cameras, and a hurried shoot (9 days, including pick-ups) and makes a nice change from bending those limitations into yet another found footage movie. Sadly there are a few moments which deviate from the realm of what a documentary could cover, and they can challenge the suspension of disbelief for a second.

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That said, the superb cast of unknowns, especially the lead pair of Harold (Stan Rowe) and his nurse Penny (Sarah Spenser) bring enough to the table to make up for the shortcomings. Watching the relationship between Penny and Harold grow from a distrusting old man and a slightly patronising care-worker, into close friends with a real affection for one another is wonderful, and the prospect of Harold’s seemingly inevitable decline is heartbreaking as a result.

I can easily believe that this movie was, originally, simply about a friendship between an elderly arthritis / early stage dementia patients’ friendship with his care-giver, and that the whole “zombie” thing was tacked on later because horror movies are easier for an independent crew to market. In any case, if you go in expecting action, gore, and belly laughs, prepare to be disappointed; but go in expecting a movie about friendship, fear, the loss of self, and the human condition, and you’re in for a low budget gem.

We’ve got a very good lead… It’s a sausage.

Escape From Tomorrow (2013) Review

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On the last day of the White’s family vacation to Disnyworld™, the father of the family, Jim (Roy Abramsohn), finds out that he is losing his job. Electing to keep the news from his family so that they can enjoy their last day at the park, Jim begins to have a series of strange experiences, both real and (presumably) hallucinatory. Along the way we encounter mystery illnesses, an obnoxious tourist, Jim’s obsession with random girls, conspiracies, and the ‘truth’ about Disney™ princesses and Japanese businessmen.

The movie is oddly compelling even in its more mundane moments, and almos Lynchian at its most surreal. While it’s certainly watchable, it’s unfortunate that very few of its plot elements are ever resolved and, despite showing promise to do so, they never come together into a single story.

Escape From Tomorrow really does have the potential to be a great cult-movie, and it’s genuinely frustrating that it falls short of reaching its potential. For casual movie fans, this movie is likely to be perceived as a confusing nonsense but for anyone with an interest in the making of, rather than passive enjoyment of, movies, it’s a whole other story…

The USP here is that the bulk of the movie (save some interiors and oddly stylised bluescreen shots) is filmed on location at Disneyworld™, gurilla style. Without permission from The Mouse, the movie was captured on consumer-grade cameras, in and amongst park-goers.

If I hadn’t seen it myself I would never have believed such polished results were possible under those circumstance. At no point does Escape From Tomorrow look like a found footage movie. Each shot was planned an blocked-out in advance, and captured several times from different angles, just like a conventional movie. The few shots which couldn’t be achieved this way (such as ride sequences) manage to use the difficulties to their advantage, using unconventional angles to produce a clostrophobic and unsettling atmosphere.

With its blatant disregard for privacy laws (the “extras” as members of the public, with no signed releases), bizarre handling of copyright (despite almost every shot containing Disney™  owned imagery, the one and only mention of the company is bleeped out, and on-ride music is changed), and defamation laws (as well as some unsavoury ‘facts’ about Dsiney™ another major company is dragged into the conspiracy late-on in the movie, and painted as unflinchingly evil) many at Cannes (where the film was quite the hit) speculated that it would never, could never, secure a commercial release…. Yet here it is; large as life and available to rent through most major streaming services.

So while it isn’t a terrific film, it is utterly fascinating as a testament to the film-maker’s determination and resourcefulness and determination, and as an impossible artefact in its own right.

Wow… It’s a giant testicle! 

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014) Review

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay brings (or starts to bring; the book has been split into 2 movies) my least favorite of the Hunger Games books to the big screen.

In this, the third book, we leave the games themselves behind, following Katniss’ rescue/kidnapping from the arena at the end of Catching Fire, and are brought into the wider world of Panem, where the seeds of rebellion inadvertently sowed when Katniss defied the capital in the first book/movie are starting to take root.

This is a war film, but one that focuses not only on the ‘exciting’ action of war, but also the more grounded aspects such as planning and, especially, propaganda. Indeed parts of the story are closer to boardroom drama than traditional action movie, and it is to the writers’ and directors’ credit that these potentially disparate scenes tie together cohesively.

Operating from a military installation under the ruins of District 13, the resistance movement needs a figurehead; clearly no-one is better suited to the task than the girl who unwittingly started it all, and so the resistance set to transforming Katniss into The Mockingjay; Panem’s answer to the figure on the “Your Country Needs You” posters.

By now, we’ve come to expect great acting in these movies, but in Mockingjay the cast have kicked it up a notch, with almost everyone bringing their A-Game, only Liam Hemsworth (Gale) suffers by comparison, being merely ‘fine’ in an otherwise truly outstanding cast.

Special mention must go to Elizabeth Banks, whose always amusing portrayal of Effie Trinket could so easily have been a cartoon character in less skilled hands, and to the late Philip Seymour Hoffman who is on fine, brilliantly understated, form reprising his role as former gamesmaker Pultarch Havensbee.

The big acting job here of course, belongs to Jennifer Lawrence; This, perhaps even more so than the previous films, is Katniss’ movie, and we are blessed to have a superb actress giving her all in the role; if this were a more ‘worthy’ film, The Mockingjay’s first big speech (the one following the bombing of a hospital) would have Miss Lawrence clearing space on her mantle for a second Oscar.

But please don’t think my love for this film comes wholly from my love of the cast; everyone else involved does their part to perfection; the movie sounds great, and looks perfect, setting the level between futuristic and bleak perfectly as each scene requires. One particularly good shot is of Katniss stepping on a skull during a visit to her now destroyed home district; for all the death and distraction around her, that one skull really drives home the horror, to character and audience alike.

I mentioned already that the 3rd Hunger Games book is my least favorite of the trilogy; but, so far at least, it is by far the one best suited to the big screen.

It isn’t perfect, of course, few films are, but the minor gripes and inconsistencies are so petty that it would be unfair to bring them up; in a lesser movie they wouldn’t even be noticed. In fact I have only one real complaint, one thing about this movie I can genuinely say I do not like; I have to wait a year for part two!

I miss my wigs.

Crocodile (2000) Review

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8 teenagers take a spring break boat trip, where the local legend of “Flat Dog”, a giant crocodile who supposedly once lived in the areas’ lakes and swamps, may not be as mythical as people assume. Messing with the large eggs the group find, turns out to be a really bad idea…

Tobe Hooper is probably the biggest hit-and-miss directors in horror. For every The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, there’s a The Mangler… For each Lifeforce, there’s a Tool Box Murders waiting around the corner to keep his batting average down.

On the plus side, his inconsistency at least makes sitting down to one of his movies interesting; will he build an oppressive and effective atmosphere, or a cartoonish mess?

Despite looking like the modern movie (you know you’re getting older when a 14 year old movie is “modern”) it is, it’s clear that Crocodile is from an old school horror director. Although it mostly has the feel of a current ‘teens in trouble’ movie, there’s some little spark, some undefinable something, that gives the movie what can best be described as an 80’s undercurrent. And that, in this case, is a good thing.

It’s a low budget, 21st century creature feature, and it bears all the hallmarks of such. The crocodile itself is barely glimpsed for the first half of the movie, and when we do see it, it’s CGIed in long shots with a life sized model snout being used in close-shots, and our group of college students look remarkably like buff 30-somethings, none of whom can particularly act.

It’s clear that (although released direct-to-disc) the movie was filmed with selling to TV in mind… It even has regular fade-outs for commercials.

But, for all the similarities with SyFy/Asylum’s creature features, that certain something-something I can’t quite describe that gives it a more classic feel also makes it stand above its made-for-TV brethren.

It could be that the B-Story, featuring the town sheriff and a local alligator farmer tracking the giant croc, never really feels shoehorned. It could be that the effects are actually alright (not great, but not distractingly awful as is often the case in these things). It’s possible that it’s partly down to the “dog in danger” running joke being nicely underplayed, rather than spelled out. It might even be that, for all the wooden acting, the characters are actually well rounded enough to help you see past the performances. Whatever the cause, the result is that Crocodile is a thoroughly enjoyable Creature feature, in a genuine, non-ironic way.

The movie knows what it is, and is never po-faced; but at the same time it never winks at the camera, or overplays it’s flaws for laughs.

In the end, the underlying eighties-ness boils down to just that; it’s a genuinely fun (but not funny), well made monster movie, and it’s about time we had more of those!

It takes a lot to sever a spine…

247°F (2011) Review

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4 friends, go to stay in a luxury cabin, owned and built by one of their uncles.
Before heading to a nearby festival, they decide to use the cabin’s sauna, but the door jams, and the controls are on the outside. With the uncle out for the night, water running low, and the temperature rising, it’s up to the group to find a way to survive.

Supposedly based on a true story (probably “someone once got locked in a sauna for a while”), 247°F takes its title from the temperature at which flesh literally melts – making the title a possible reference, of sorts, to Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’; story about book burning, named for the temperature at which paper combusts.

What the movie gets right, is having an array of things the group can try. They can access the thermostat, for instance (although not the controls), the heater of course is in the room with them, and so fourth. This is exploited to the fullest by having someone intelligent in the mix – the main guy weighs up the pros and cons of every plan the group can think of.

Where the movie goes wrong, is on the character front. One of the girls we learn nothing about, the other was in a car crash last year, although this serves little purpose, besides making her slightly (and intermittently) claustrophobic. In fact, aside from the aforementioned intelligent group member, the rest are pretty much interchangeable.

Another big mistake, although I can see why the writers fell into the trap, is an attempt at a mislead. It’s so clumsy that I really don’t think blowing it here is a spoiler, but if you’re especially spoiler-phobic, you might want to skip the next paragraph, suffice to say the time spent ham-fistedly trying to fool the audience would have been better spent on character development.

It is implied that the uncle has deliberately locked them in… Not only is this mislead pointless within the story, it’s also utterly unconvincing. Anyone who’s ever seen a movie with a false lead can’t see the constant “look! He’s up to something, but you can’t quite tell what!” cutaways, and not immediately see the attempt at falsely building some intrigue for what it is.

The lighting is excellent, conveying the increasing heat by gradually turning up the warmth in the colours. Unfortunately, towards the end of the movie, one of the group’s attempts to stop the heat results in the lights going out, plunging them into darkness as the temperature reaches its highest. From a visual perspective, this doesn’t work at all, as a dark picture looks cold.

Frankly, the lack of characterisation killed this one for me; in a movie spent mostly in one place, with a small group of people, those people are everything… Here, I just didn’t feel their plight.

An occasion like this calls for mead!

Stuck (2007) Review

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On her way home from a club, care-worker Brandy hits a homeless man who stepped out in front of her car.
Unable to afford a DUI charge, she panics and flees the scene, with the man still stuck in her wind-shield.
After putting the car away in her garage, the man, still in place, wakes up.
In too deep to simply call for help, she is left trying to find a way to deal with the injured man.

Despite being inspired by a horrific true story, Director, Producer and story developer Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) mines this disturbing tale for dark-comedy gold. Indeed up until  the car accident, the movie could just as easily be setting up a rom-com.

We meet Brandy (Mena Suvari – American Beauty), a retirement home carer, as she jumps through hoops for a promotion that doesn’t exist, and down on his luck recently homeless man, Tom (Stephen Rea – The Crying Game) as he battles with the unemployment office’s never ending spiral of bureaucracy. It’s genuinely funny stuff (particularly Toms’ frustrated and fruitless attempts to have a jobs-worth pen pusher acknowledge his existence).

The movie soon takes a spin for the dark, of course, when Brandy hits Tom with her car; but the comedy element doesn’t stop; our first clue that the movie is going to stay funny through the darkness comes when brandy drives past a policeman, who is too busy harassing a bum to acknowledge that said bum is trying to tell him what he just missed.

The balance is good though, with the humour being drawn from the situation, which for all its absurdity is still intense and shocking.

Having lookied into the true story a little, it’s bizarre how closely the first half of the story sticks to the facts; Chante (the real life Brandy) did indeed continue to go to work looking after elderly people while a homeless man bled to death in her garage!

The departure from reality comes when Tom resigns himself to the idea that help isn’t coming and starts trying to escape.

Added to the story for the movie is Brandy’s drug-dealing boyfriend, who gets roped into helping keep the accident (and Tom) quiet.

The title could be interpreted as having a clever duel meaning; obviously Tom is stuck in the windshield, but as the situation worsens, it could be said that Brandy is stuck by the decision she made.

In any case, it’s a thumping good thriller, with excellent make-up effects, and solid acting. Stuck manages to be darkly funny in all the wrong (right?) places, without ever becoming a parody.

Why are you doing this to me?

MoniKa: A Wrong Way To Die (2012) Review

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Aka: A Hole in the Desert, MoniKa

Written and directed by Steven R. Monroe, whom the DVD cover is quick to point out directed the 2010 I Spit on Your Grave remake, and featuring (at least under the title I purchased) cover art strikingly similar to said remake, you could be forgiven for going in expecting I Spit on Your Rip-off. Thankfully this isn’t the case.

Instead, we’re presented with a fascinating premise; Reagan Tyler receives a phone-call from his friend J.J, inviting him to meet at a motel in Las Vegas, where J.J has met a girl, and promises to hook Reagan up with the girls friend, who is staying in the room next to their own.
For lack of anything better to do, Reagan flies to Vegas, only to find J.J and his companion not answering their room door, he does however meet the promised friend, Monika (“with a K”) who turns out to be the woman of his dreams. They go out, have a great time, and spend the night together.

The following morning, Reagan calls on J.J, and is told why he and his lady friend were unavailable the day before. It turns out that yesterday, before Reagan arrived in town, Monika was murdered…

It’s a killer premise, one might argue it would make a great short film in and of itself. Sadly, that’s the first 20 minutes of the movie, thereafter I’m not sure Monroe really knew what to do with his idea.

After establishing that Monika was definitely killed, yet definitely the same woman he had spent the night with, we learn that she had found herself the target of a gang of drug dealers who killed her sister. We also learn that Reagan has been known to have visions and premonitions. Shortly thereafter, Reagan goes off in to the desert where he once again meets Monika.

With no real explanation as to why she’s still around, and no difference between living Monika and Dead Monika (she isn’t a ghost, or a zombie in any appreciable sense) the movie becomes a fairly standard action thriller about a couple at loggerheads with an organised crime syndicate.

It’s not a terrible movie by any means, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Monroe had written a movie about a woman who nearly faked her death, then made the death real to give his film a hook, adding Reagan’s penchant for premonitions and visions as a way to bind these disparate ideas together.

On the subject of the writing, clues to Monroe’s inexperience (this is his first writing credit) are abound; much of the dialogue is far from naturalistic, and exposition is occasionally clunky. Like the movie as a whole it isn’t terrible, just unremarkable.

The cast is variable, with the biggest stand-out (and not in a good way) being the crime boss, whose accent seems to cycle through Cockney, Irish, Redneck, and Burnley (often in the same sentence), and the direction is at times bland, but never distractingly bad.

Worth checking out on TV or if you can pick it up cheap (I found it in a poundshop) if only for its interesting premise, it’s a crying shame that such an interesting idea became such a solidly average movie.

Jesus, will you stop saying you were with her?

The Terror Within (1989) Review

On post apocalyptic earth, supplies are running low for a group of survivors living deep underground in a military research bunker. Trips to the surface are fraught with danger thanks to “Gargoyles” – monstrous humanoid creatures which now roam the earth. When the team rescue the sole survivor of a camp of humans, who have somehow, until recently, survived above ground, they unwittingly let a Gargoyle into their bunker.

Galaxy of Terror is often referred to as Corman’s Alien ripoff, but having watched The Terror Within I’ve come to the conclusion that it wasn’t the only time he turned to Ridley Scott’s classic for inspiration.

Despite its terrestrial (or even subterranean) setting, with its metal corridors, ventilation systems, heavy sliding doors, and banks of computers, the underground bunker is for the most part indistinguishable from a spacecraft. Hell, we even get a dialogue nod to Star Trek, as though to put us in mind of galactic travel. It may be set on earth, and the creatures may be mutants rather than extraterrestrial beings, but to all intents and purposes, this is a space movie.

The wardrobe, industrial jumpsuits with a few badges and insignias, bears more than a passing resemblance to the uniform of the crew of Alien’s Nostromo. Think I’m grasping at straws with the Alien comparisons?

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That right there is a baby creature bursting unexpectedly from someone’s torso!

On the subject of babies, this movie contains no fewer than 2 separate pregnancies, which may or may not be suspect. You’d expect these pregnancies to be the focus of the movie, what with the title and all, yet both are resolved one way or the other within minutes of their discovery, which I can’t help but feel is a bit of a wasted opportunity.

All that said, the creature looks great, the pacing is solid enough, and if anyone can produce a low budget Alien and make it worth watching, it’s Roger Corman and sure enough, despite slightly flat direction from first timer Thierry Notz, The Terror Within remains an enjoyable movie; never going to win oscars, or even a viewers choice award, it’s never the less a fun way to spend an hour and a half.

I’m a doctor not an engineer.

Every October, regular Cinephiliacs contributor Will Tingle tries to review as many movies as he can squeeze in; the last two years he’s managed to do one a day for the whole month (and so far this year he’s 3 for 3). The rest of his October reviews, along with a petty gripe about The Terror Within, can be found here.

12 Angry Men (1997) Review (Remake)

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After a trio of unnecessary sequels, I decided it was time to watch something different… So I’ve opted to review an unnecessary remake.

A court-room drama without the courtroom, 12 Angry Men is the real-time deliberation of an all-male jury charged with deciding the guilt of a young man who faces the death penalty for allegedly murdering his own father. At first ready to simply vote guilty and get the whole thing over with, the jury is hung by one lone dissenter, juror #8, who insists the life which hangs in the balance deserves a proper discussion of the facts of the case. Over the next hour and a half or so, the men are forced to examine not only the case, but their own prejudices.

I was ready to hate this movie. The 1957 movie is without question one of the finest dramas and character pieces, hell one of the finest movies, ever committed to celluloid. It’s as close to perfect as a film can be, and so re-making it (with Tony Danza, no less) seems utterly pointless; at best it can be as good, at worst, it will be yet another awful remake.

In truth, and my inner cinema-snob is in physical pain as I say this, it more-or-less succeeds in being as good as the 1957 version. Worse than that, it isn’t even entirely pointless; the mix of ages amongst the jury is interesting, and a new race element is added which fits perfectly with the story and tone of the piece. It doesn’t make it any better, nor does it detract; it simply adds a different element.

The cast (apart from Danza) consists of Jack Lemmon in the Henry Fonda role as Juror #8, and a cast of established character actors all off the “oh, it’s him, from loads of stuff” type, and all play their parts brilliantly.

If someone has a favorite play, or stage show, they may go and see it again and again, with different casts and the slight differences that a different director may bring. I think that’s the way to look at this remake; as a different production, neither better nor worse than the ’57 classic, itself a remake of a 1954 television play.

Would I recommend it? Well, yes. I still think you should see the Henry Fonda version first if you haven’t already, but if you think it’s a film that’s worth seeing more than once (it is, by the way) maybe take this version out for a spin next time.

Sit down, and don’t open your filthy mouth again.