Tuesday, September 19, 2023

A Haunting in Venice

A Hamming in Hollywood

Today I watched "A Haunting in Venice" (20th Century Fox, 2023) the latest Kenneth Branagh film based on Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot detective novels, in this case her 1969 novel "A Hallowe'en Party."

Well, I say "it's based," there's just the minor change to the setting, the year, the suspects, the victims, the murderer, the motivation, the entire plot, but there are definite (though quite minor) similarities.

Ironically, this starts out as the best of these abhorrent films starring a man badly masquerading as Hercule Poirot, who as we all know will never be better than David Suchet's portrayal. Sorry, I needed to get that off my chest; better to do it near the beginning. But by changing mostly everything about the movie it seems slightly fresher than the other two. That's a trilogy Ken, you can stop now (please stop now).

What's it about?

We join Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) as he has retired from detective work and has largely shut himself off from public life in the city of Venice, with his bodyguard Vitale Portfoglio (Riccardo Scarmacio) keeping the public at a literal arm's length. Such as it is when one of Poirot's old friends, Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) comes calling and drags our detective to a Halloween party in an old Venetian house that is home to the former opera star Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly). You see, there's to be a séance there with notorious medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) to attempt to communicate with Ms. Drake's daughter Alicia (Rowan Robinson) who had died horrifically a year prior. In attendance are the PTSD suffering Dr. Ferrier (Jamie Dornan) and his bookish son, Leopold (Jude Hill), and the Drakes's housekeeper Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin). After Poirot exposes the fraud of Ms. Reynolds abilities, she seems to have a very real connection to the deceased and names a murderer. Shortly thereafter, guests begin dying mysteriously, and it looks like it might be linked to a ghost story from centuries earlier. Soon after, Poirot begins to hear voices and see spirits… Can the haunting be real?

Wait, this is a book?

So, having read the book that this is (again) "based on," this movie has extraordinarily little in common with it, including the murderer and the motive, making this film a bit of a surprise. In "A Hallowe'en Party" the setting is an English suburb in the swingin' sixties, complete with hippies and rock music, which is jarring when you consider that Poirot is often described as "elderly" in the books that take place in the 1920s and 1930s. Poirot in fact doesn't attend the party in the book (much of the book takes place days after the party in question), the victims are killed for similar reasons but are ultimately different characters, and the murderer from the book is entirely absent from the cast, making it quite the guessing game for fans. What's more, a character that dies in the book (Leopold) makes it through this movie thanks to magical child plot armor (although there is a horrific story of children being murdered which dominates much of this movie). Overall, the film is far spookier than the book that it's "based on."

I lost it when Hercule Poirot said "Zoinks!"

This has two effects, though: The first is that it makes the film far more suspenseful because there are no hippies coming to the rescue (yes, that happens in the book). The second effect is thanks to Kenneth Branagh losing what restraint he has in the first half of the film the second half feels more like an episode of "Scooby Doo," with several hammy reveals and ridiculous set pieces. Hell, there's even a thunderstorm just to make things extra spooky. It feels a bit insulting to me, an Agatha Christie fan, but also tickles the movie fan in me. The interaction between Branagh and Tina Fey keeps the dialogue funny and fresh, as her character is far more involved and cleverer than the dimwit Ms. Oliver from the book. In the end, Branagh's Poirot seems to be a bit less logical and more sentimental than anything that Christie herself ever wrote, but it does humanize him a bit. At least in this film we don't have Hercule Poirot getting in knife fights and other action sequences, which always breaks these films for me.

Check it out, with waivers!

In the end, I feel that it's worth watching. It's far more theatrical than the books, but that's not a bad thing, considering it was made for theatrical audiences. If you can't stand Ken Branagh (and believe me, I sympathize with you if you don't) you're probably going to want to pass, but if you can push past it, you'll find an enjoyable movie that has smart elements beyond its cinematic stupidity.

Don't bring the kids

This film is rated PG-13, and while not especially bloody or sweary, there is some nightmare-inducing content that could be considered too spooky and morbid for children. But I watched "John Carpenter's The Thing" when I was like eight, so what do I know?

Where can you watch it?

"A Haunting in Venice" is currently in theaters as of this writing.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

The Gumball Rally

It hits me like a cannon-- er, a gu-umball! Like a gu-umball!

What's it about?

Tonight's nostalgic pic is "The Gumball Rally" (Warner Bros., 1976). Michael Bannon (Michael Sarrazin) is a successful businessman living in New York.

You can tell by how young and vibrant and smoking he is!

One day during a meeting, he begins looking to his stash of candy gumballs. Suddenly, inspiration strikes, and he calls a rival in California, Steve Smith (AKA "Smitty," played by Tim McIntire) and says one word: "Gumball."
Smitty, the rich rival. That's his entire character.

Suddenly, an eclectic collection of characters across the country get a telegram with a single word: "Gumball."

The chosen drop everything and head to a secret garage in NYC, to prepare for an underground rally race across the USA! But preparing for the racers is Lieutenant Roscoe (Norman Burton), a law man with an axe to grind.
He's the guy in the plaid pants, which are explained in-story!

He prepares to set speed traps and road blocks to catch the scofflaws in the act! Some will breakdown, some will crash, some may get caught, but there can be only one winner of the Gumball Rally!
Will it be the rich, attractive white man, or the rich, less attractive white man?

This requires clarification

You would be forgiven if you thought that I was writing about Hal Needham's "Cannonball Run" movies, but no! What you first need to realize is that the "Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Trophy Dash" was a real illegal cross country race that was started in the 1970s, and that there are several unrelated movies based on that idea. The first was "Cannonball!" starring David Carradine (which I have yet to see), the second was this movie, "The Gumball Rally," but thanks to the star power and humor of the "Cannonball Run" series of films these ones are all but forgotten to time. While this is a comedy at its core, it still manages to be slightly more realistic than any of Hal Needham's movies, but that might be to its detriment.

Not a bad pedigree

This movie was directed and co-written by Charles Bail who was previously known for producing some 70s exploitation films like "Black Samson." While this seems to be his last film, he went on to direct episodes of quite a few classic television shows like "C.Hi.P.s" and "Knight Rider." This was also one of the first screenplays written by Leon Capetanos, who went on to write more than a few beloved Hollywood films (such as "Down and Out in Beverly Hills").

Wait a second... is that...

The cast is a who's who of "before they were famous." You'll see a young Raul Julia (best known as Gomez Addams in the "Addams Family" series of movies),

Sexy, sexy Raul Julia.

a young Gary Busey, who plays a crazy southerner… I suppose that's "acting,"
Yes, this is pre-motorcycle accident Gary Busey.

and… Well, okay, it's not exactly a who's who, I guess, but they actors are competent even if the film itself isn't that memorable.
I could have sworn that this was "Lost" actor Terry O'Quinn, but no, it's actor Stephen Blood. 

Not bad, just "meh."

There are car stunts, and there is at least one explosion, but overall the film is just uneventful. Much of the film is just watching the drivers cross long straight stretches of highway and complaining that its boring.

"Wow. This drive sure is boring." "Yup."

You don't get much backstory on any of the characters, and the only two that really get any development are "Team Mercedes" (the elderly J. Pat O'Malley and Vaughn Taylor), who actually exchange more dialogue between each other than anyone else in the entire film, and they're entirely superfluous to the story.
I'm glad we spent so much time developing their characters. Not really.

Motorcycle rider Lapchick (a play on "Chaplin" as in "Charlie Chaplin" gets NO lines).

A not insignificant part of the film takes place in New York City, and seems to have been filmed on location. The first leg of the race is in NYC… Famously empty and abandoned NYC. "The City That Sleeps in Late" I believe it's referred to.
AKA "The Hollow Apple," on account of how sparsely populated it is.

All right, maybe modern audiences who are used to every idiot with opposable thumbs being able to drive, and the obscene number of cars on the road anymore to the point where it chokes traffic to a crawl at all hours can't relate to the movie's depiction of unacceptable traffic. I spent the last fifteen minutes of the film fuming upon seeing Los Angeles traffic ACTUALLY MOVING DURING DAYLIGHT HOURS and the main characters whine about how it's "too slow."
There's room enough between cars to pull this stunt.

What was the point?

There's also a side story about one of Bannon's mechanics (Lazaro Perez) pining to drive in the rally, so he gets a gig driving a Rolls Royce across the country to deliver to a rich man's second mansion.

"Be sure to keep the miles off of it or the master will have your thumbs broken!" "Wait, what?"

He Shanghai's his girlfriend Angie (Tricia O'Neil) to drive nonstop across America. The two run into an obligatory motorcycle gang (it was the 70s) and get the car caught in a sandstorm which ruins the paint, and that's about it -- the two don't really interact with any of the other characters and aren't part of the race, and this takes up real estate in the movie.
If you took census information from 1970s movies, fully 1/3 of the population was motorcycle gangs.

Just to be clear: We learn nothing about the rivalry between frenemies Bannon and Smitty, arguably the main characters in the film, but we get an entire story arc of his mechanic and girlfriend driving cross-country.

Despite my gripes, it's not unwatchable, and may inspire you to take a road trip. However, it's not nearly as memorable as other films based on the famous race, and there's a reason it's forgotten to time.

Pretty safe for kids

There's next-to-no swearing, no nudity (despite several post-sex scenes with Raul Julia), and the only gun fired in the movie is a water pistol, so while it's rated "PG" I would say that it's a pretty soft "PG," as you'll see more violent cartoons from the 1980s (there is a little tobacco use, though).

Even the film's single explosion is played for laughs.

Where can you watch it?

"The Gumball Rally" is currently available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video, and is available to stream for free on YouTube Premium.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Clive Barker's Nightbreed

The real monsters were the humans we met along the way

What's it about?

Tonight's nostalgic pic is "Nightbreed" also known as "Clive Barker's Nightbreed" (Morgan Creek Entertainment, 1990). Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer) is just your all-Canadian boy, eh? What a giver: He works at a garage in Cowtown welding all day, then comes home to his smoking hot girlfriend Lori Winston (Anne Bobby).

Yah, they knock boots, eh?

But he's been having problems lately, eh? He's been having dreams of strange creatures cavorting in a land called Midian. He's so out of it when he wakes up that even his Timmy Ho's double-double can't make his mood skookum.
Boone's dreams.

His hoser of a psychiatrist, Dr. Phillip Decker (Davide Cronenberg), shows him photos of families that have been killed by an as-of-yet unidentified serial slasher, then accuses Boone of being a strange brew!
So damn creepy.

He gives Boone some pills and implies that they're an antipsychotic, but really they're hallucinogenic. In a stupor, Boone gets hit by a truck and hospitalized, where he meets Narcisse (Hugh Ross), a real strange brew who keeps talking aboot Midan. He tells Boone where Midian is, then cuts part of his face off like a hose-head while Boone pitter-patters. Soon Boone is at the gates of a cemetery called Midian, where he meets its occupants: A diverse collection of monsters who call themselves "The Tribes of the Moon," or "Nightbreed," various species of creatures who have been wiped out by a hateful humanity. They call Boone a keener then pitter-patter chase him out of the gate after biting him.
Man, Mac Tonight really let himself go, eh?

He's confronted by Decker and the police, whereupon Decker sets Boone up to get shot, eh?
Ooh, tough luck, eh?

Thanks to the monster bite the "late" Boone is soon upright and skookum, and joins the other monsters in Midian.
They even have a cute ceremony for him and everything.

Lori, still smitten with Boone, follows the trail that leads to Midian, closely followed by Decker, who alerts the police. The discovery of Midian soon leads to the threat of its destruction. Can Boone save the Nightbreed from the hateful humans and the psychotic Decker? Can he, eh?

Some background

This film was directed by British horror author Clive Barker, and was based on his "novel," "Cabal." I use the word novel in quotes because I have read the book, which is an anthology and the story "Cabal" is more of an extended short story rather than a standalone book. Apparently he decided to make it a movie (that he would direct) right after writing the novel. Clive Barker is notable because he had already written and directed the horror film "Hellraiser" to great commercial success. The studio, Morgan Creek, however, put heavy restrictions on Barker to produce a "rated R" film rather than an unrated movie. This meant that the amount of gore and violence in the film is considerably less than his previous film. As such it didn't get as much commercial success, and only became a cult film after coming to VHS and cable TV.

Full disclosure: I've read both the book and seen the theatrical version of the film before.

The bad

Let's get the bad out of the way first: The story is incredibly simple. From a dialogue and scripting standpoint it's nothing overly spectacular (it is, however, entirely serviceable).

Also, Lori gives out intense "Karen" energy.

The creature designs seem a bit lazy overall, but this is more because of the time restraints put on the design crew and the limited budget.
Most are just body paint and facial prosthetics.

It's not going to dazzle you with amazing effects, but there is some imagination present. There are changes from the book, and the book's description of the monsters is much more creative and exciting than anything you'll see here. The original theatrical version is especially truncated and feels less developed, and it seems that's because a great deal of the incidental character scenes were left on the cutting room floor.

The good

Now for the good. I like this film. It's certainly cheesy, but not insulting. The version I watched tonight is either "The Directors Cut" or "The Cabal Cut," which restores much of the dark humor, and some minor changes which make the story a bit more cohesive. The body-horror creature effects range from bland to pretty good, and despite the limited budget there's quite a lot to see here.

Lori finds a baby shapeshifter. "Can I keep her? Huh?"

There's even a few stop-motion monsters, but only for a few seconds.

The acting is good enough for the type of movie that it is, but the show is really stolen by the film's villains, namely Decker -- the filmmakers seemed to find a way to make director David Cronenberg even more creepy (quite the accomplishment).
The mask is both spooky and as described in the book.

Charles Haid plays police captain and illegal militia leader Captain Eigerman with sadistic aplomb.
He seems less Canadian and more American, if I'm being honest.

Malcolm Smith plays the troubled Reverend Ashberry, who is a sympathetic character until… well, the less said the better. Care was put into the design of the Midian set, and there are some impressive composition shots even if the matte paintings are obvious.

This graveyard comp shot even has a few moving elements.

The set seems really large.

The last third of the film is a giant battle between monsters, militiamen, and berserker hulks where much of the budget is devoted to pyrotechnics, so despite the faults it's still an exciting time.
Huh. The real monsters were the humans.

No, wait... The real monsters were the monsters. Remember kids: It's okay to be sadistic if the other person is mean.

The soundtrack was written by Danny Elfman, fresh on the heels of Tim Burton's "Batman," so it's prime meat for Elfman fans.

Not for kiddies

This is a rated R film, and that's a rather hard R, I'm afraid. Young children shouldn't watch this in any capacity, as there is lots of nudism, gore, and nightmare-inducing body horror.

Ugh. Monster boobies. ...   ...  ...  What was I writing about?

In fact, if you're an adult without a stomach for these things and can't get past it, you should avoid it as well. There is some strong language, but that's far from the most significant aspect of this.

Where can you watch it?

As of this review, various cuts of the film are currently streaming on Amazon Prime, Peacock, Plex, Pluto TV, Shout! Factory TV, The Roku Channel, and Tubi, so if you're curious, you can check it out.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (LXG)

Standing in a circle giving one-liners, THE MOVIE!

What's it about?

Tonight's nostalgic pic is "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" (20th Century Fox, 2003). At the turn of the 20th century, the world is besieged by a rash of crimes and kidnappings that sets nations on the brink of war.

I've read "The Phantom of the Opera." I don't think he's meant to be a "mastermind" sort of villain, but whatever.

In an effort to apprehend the villainous "Phantom," a secret service headed by a man calling himself "M" (Richard Roxburgh) recruits a cadre of adventurers with incredible skills and amazing powers.
What does the "M" stand for? Mycroft Holmes, perhaps...? (SPOILERS: NO)

There's legendary hunter Allan Quartermain (Sean Connery in his final (?) role),
"I don't undershtand this shtory, but I'll do it!"

invisible thief Rodney Skinner (Tony Curran),
The invisible cockney.

the amazing inventor and commander of the "Nautilus" submarine Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah),
"Go ahead: Just one Kwik-E-Mart joke and I will destroy you!"

vampirically-powered scientist Mina Harker (Peta Wilson),
La Femme Suck-ikta.

the mild-mannered Doctor Henry Jekyll and his monstrous alter-ego Edmond Hyde (Jason Flemyng),
"Well Mishter Hyde, we meet again under different Shircumshtances." 

and the indestructible immortal dandy Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend).
"I'm irredeemably unlikable so you'll cheer when I die! Rawr!"

They are joined by young American agent Tom Sawyer (Shane West) in an effort to stop the eruption of a world war!
"Keep it together. You're not just an insert character to serve wounded American pride. You're not!"

Some background

This film is twenty years old now and seems worth talking about. Directed by special effects and makeup designer Stephen Norrington who had previously helmed the popular Marvel vampire movie "Blade" (1998), this is his fourth (and so far last) directed film. I personally watched it at the theater on the day of release, July 11, 2003 in the U.S.A.

The good

I know that you're probably dying for me to get to the juicy stuff, so let's get the "good" out of the way. This movie is based on a comic book series written by legendary writer Alan Moore (of "The Watchmen" and "V for Vendetta" fame) and drawn by artist Kevin O'Neill.

Before Alan Moore began demanding that Hollywood take his name off of everything. This movie is why.

The premise of the comic was original, taking popular literary figures of the 1800s and putting them in a shared universe in the way that DC Comics' "Justice League" and Marvel Comics' "Avengers" works. This approach, with Moore's tight writing and the adult nature of the material makes for a mature work that doesn't lean on complexity so much as the characters themselves. The characters, their interaction, and the way that their relationships evolve drive the comic. You'll notice that I've not mentioned the movie in this section on the "good." There's a reason.

So many ruined and stalled careers...

All right. So many people may know that this was the director's last film and the last "official" acting job of Sir Sean Connery (he did a few voice acting roles, but nothing on this scale after this film). I mean, the director did "Blade," which was a highly competent and popular film. The cast is filled with talented and experienced actors. The marketing push for this film was unrelenting. The effects were top-notch for the time. How could a juggernaut of talent, based on such a great idea, and backed by one of the most legendary movie studios of the time possibly fail to the point of ruining several careers? How?

Well… One only has to watch the film to understand it. It's a hot mess. For starters, most of the mature themes and violence from the comic book are scrubbed out, making this little more than a PG action film. What little "mature" themes remain are handled so immaturely that they seem childish in the mix (Dorian Gray gets stabbed in… his private are, and his only response is "if that had been permanent I'd be very upset," and that is the most adult joke in the script). All backstory is delivered in clunky one-liner laden dialogue scenes between characters standing in a circle measuring their manhoods. Now, there are action scenes, and they are the fun bad early 2000s era CG that you'd expect. A few special effects and practical designs stand out: The "Mr. Hyde" prosthesis looks pretty good (and comic-accurate), the Nautilus being shaped like a sword is an interesting take,

Not at all how it's described in the book, but okay.

and the "auto-mo-bile" is a pretty neat looking car.
It looks cool, but a bit too developed for the time.

The addition of Dorian Gray and Tom Sawyer to the comic's original cast isn't a terrible idea, but their inclusion results in little more than two more characters to STAND IN A CIRCLE while spouting snippy one-liners.
"Gentlemen?" "Extraordinary!"

On that point, hearing characters espousing "gentlemen" and "extraordinary" over and over again while they're STANDING AROUND IN A CIRCLE isn't clever, it's just irritating after the third time it happens, in the first half-hour.

"Gentlemen!" "Extraordinary!" "League!" "What do you mean, 'league?'" "Are... are we not doing that?"

The script (adapted by James Dale Robinson and endlessly altered by studio interference) absolutely kills this movie. Imagine a Joss Whedon movie where instead of humorous quips it's just unrelenting "I'm cooler than you" one-upmanship. You might not be able to articulate why it's bad while you're watching it, but your brain knows. Your brain knows. Some characters had to be changed for rights issues (switching out H.G. Wells's villainous invisible man, Hawley Griffin, for the slightly less villainous made-for-the-movie Rodney Skinner), which sort of lessens the impact, although I will admit giving Mina Harker vampire powers could have been a welcome change from the comic… Although her lines are so incredibly awful as she's STANDING IN A CIRCLE TRADING ONE-LINERS WITH EVERYONE ELSE that it hardly matters.

Also, there's this scene, immediately rendering the one meaningful death in the film meaningless.

Not safe for young children, not mature enough for anyone else

The film is rated PG-13. Language-wise, there isn't any swearing or strong language outside of annoyingly immature innuendo. Most of the on-screen deaths are bloodless, even when the people in question are being shot, sliced up by swords, or having their throats ripped out by vampires (there's a little blood, sure, but not what you'd expect from a horror film).

The single bloodiest scene in the film.

The most disturbing image is when the invisible man is burned by a flamethrower and looks like his semi-visible skin is charred and melted, but don't worry kids -- he's okay at the end with no visible blemishes or even bandages for some reason. Dorian Gray's death is a bit unsettling, but only because it looks so fake from the computer graphics.

Where can you watch it (and why would you want to)?

As of this review, this film is available for streaming for free on Tubi, or for rent/purchase on Amazon Prime video. I watched my DVD version. Is it worth watching? Well… I'd say check it out at least once. The (underused) cast is serviceable, the action parts are worth seeing for how bad they are, and the script is noteworthy for how to not write a script. At the very least, it's the last time you'll see Sean Connery in a live-action film.