Blood Lake: Attack of the Killer Lampreys (2014)

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I would love to know the story behind this film. Animal Planet are best known for their mostly factual series about animals – from great beasts to household pets (“Cats 101” and “Dogs 101” are excellent, and “Too Cute” is like a 30 minute packet of bliss). For reasons unknown, perhaps related to their 100% non-factual shows about Bigfoot (IT DOESN’T EXIST, YOU DUMDUMS), they decided they wanted to branch out into animal-themed movies. The natural partners in this low-budget world are The Asylum, and then The Asylum called James Cullen Bressack.

Bressack is a fast rising star in the horror world. Despite me really not liking his early film “Hate Crime”, he’s been a very busy fella,  and it looks like he’s a hit away from ascending to the level where people other than us film nerds will know his name. I’m not sure this film will be it, but it definitely adds another string to his bow.

After a nice quick start, we’re right into a lakefront community being hassled by killer lampreys. These bad boys are bigger, meaner and kill-humans-er than your average lamprey, but for a really long time in this movie no-one believes that they’re capable of anything. The Federal environmental people, and the few locals we see, are a who’s-who of “That Guy” actors, from Shannon Doherty and Christopher Lloyd at the top end of the pack, to the bad guy from “A Christmas Story” and one of the witches from “The Craft” at the other. Rachel True, the aforementioned witch, is 47 years old and could easily pass for 30. Well done, her genetics!

I wonder if there was a contract clause about Bressack having to put some educational stuff about lampreys in this film to fulfil Animal Planet’s remit, because I actually feel like I know more about lampreys now than I did before I saw it. I also know that small-town Mayors will never, ever, err on the side of caution, because Mayor Christopher Lloyd, despite the enormous odds stacked against burying his head in the sand with people starting to die, insists so strongly on everything being fine that he gets a federal employee fired. It’s such a tired old trope of cinema (especially low-budget monster movie cinema) that I wish they’d figure out something new to do with it.

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While Lloyd is waiting around for his inevitable poetic justice, the lampreys get bolder and bolder – the worry being that if they make it to the nearest Great Lake, they’ll completely destroy the ecosystem, causing incalculable damage. They start climbing over dams by suckering themselves up the sides, and it’s at this point that I have to let reality wander in. Picture it – you’re a wildlife guy, and there’s a potential catastrophe on the horizon. Do you just run around town trying to figure out how to stop it, or do you call in the National Guard, tons of backup, etc? It seems like killer lampreys about to wipe out all the river-life throughout America would be worth a big response. But as these films don’t have the budget for that sort of thing, all we get is three guys and a few plucky teenagers.

My notes contain two important hastily scribbled phrases – “people are really stupid” and “I really hate teenagers”. The Dad of the family, the federal guy, takes a spectacular amount of crap from his kids for trying to save the day; and despite tons of “seriously you guys, stay away from the water” advice, people still swim in their pools and park themselves on toilets without a care in the world. Also, everyone seems to be petrified of the lampreys, but whenever anyone attacks them, they always succeed, which calls into question the toughness of these fishy bastards.

This film is surprisingly tolerable. There’s some decently gross special effects, a little nod to the classic Peter Jackson film “Brain Dead”, quite a few decent lines and funny moments, and no real weak spots in the acting. Apart from a bit of a lull in the middle, some occasionally ropey CGI and a slight oddity with the timeline near the end, I’d have no problems recommending this. The best movie in Animal Planet’s history! (a line for the DVD release, there).

Rating: thumbs up

 

PS – for a much less kind (but much better written) review than mine, the Knobbyverse is the place to go – check out their review here.

Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into The Future (1985)

The sign of a good satire can, occasionally, be seen as a sign of failure. Watching it 30 years later, and it seems a little tame; the reason being, not that it lacked bite then, but that reality has become so horrible that if you’d tried to make satire about what it’s actually like today, 30 years ago, you’d have been laughed out of every TV station in the land.

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Everyone of a certain age will have some memory of Max Headroom. He was incredibly culturally ubiquitous for a while there, with several TV shows, famous advertising campaigns and a distinct enough visual look to “inspire” a million lame parodies. The character’s career path is an interesting one – the character was created to front a music video / interview show, which got odder and odder through the run of its two series on British TV; then there was two series of a show created by the Brits for American TV (with an almost entirely American cast, set in the USA), which was a dystopian drama and ran for two more series. This film was created to be a backstory for the music video show, and is similar to the later show, being a dystopian fiction. Confused yet?

Edison Carter is a reporter for Channel 23, according to his producer the most popular reporter in the world, and a decent man, devoted to the truth and exposing corruption among the rich and powerful. Unfortunately, he’s a hair’s breadth from stumbling on a huge conspiracy involving his own station and “blipverts”. Blipverts are 30 second adverts compressed to three seconds, and the technology behind them has made Channel 23 no.1. The one small problem is if you’re a couch potato, then something about the blipvert will set off a chain reaction in your brain which causes you to blow up. Their creator is a precocious teenager who, it turns out, is a great deal more evil than even the evil network executives, which is a nice touch.

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As Carter gets closer to the truth, we see more and more of their world – TV stations being run out of beat-up old transit vans, crushing poverty, kidnapping people to sell their bodies to spare-part shops, and an aesthetic which was no doubt forced on them by a very small budget, but ends up looking great (to modern eyes, anyway) – and they also do a great job of recreating the beats of the mystery movie, but with less money and less time (it’s only an hour long).

How does Edison Carter become Max Headroom, I hear you ask? Well, that would be spoiling, but it involves a full-brain download, a very bulky computer and a TV station run by a sad old punk. I’d forgotten the constrant stream of puns which was a Max Headroom show, and he doesn’t disappoint here, despite only being on screen as Max for a few minutes.

For a show designed to just introduce a character, it’s a great deal better than it has any need to be. There are jokes all over the place, a good sense of design, and because it’s short there’s no time to get bored. If you’re at all interested in 1980s TV, then…you’ve probably already seen this, but if not definitely give it a go.

Rating: thumbs up

Airplane vs. Volcano (2014)

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The Asylum have done it again! After 2012’s “Super Cyclone”, a film that was as clear a parody of their normal output as it’s possible to make, they’ve come out with this, which is laughs from beginning to end. It also cost them, apart from Dean Cain’s contract, zero dollars, being filmed almost entirely on two already existing sets.

But I’ve not even got to the film yet! Before I started watching it, I was wondering “how are they going to get an entire film out of this? If you’re on a plane and see a volcano, fly the other way, job done” but I grossly underestimated the Asylum’s ability to spin gold out of thin air. Everything goes to pot almost immediately in this film, so a normal flight from LA to Hawaii encounters a local manifestation of a global volcanic apocalypse. By the way, I think this film is a proper tie-in to “Apocalypse Pompeii”, as there’s a mention of the other place’s problems right at the end. The Asylum is getting all cross-promotional!

As volcanoes emerge from the ocean, the scene outside the plane transforms into a rather convincing hellscape. Unfortunately for our plane, both pilots almost immediately die, so the passengers have to band together, and unfortunately for the profit margin of the airline, they only seem to have 20 passengers on board (I was hoping for a joke near the end where the camera would pan back along the plane and just see all the people in economy class sat happily reading magazines and watching the in-flight movie, but no such luck).

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THE SET! Now, you may not be as big an Asylum obsessive as me, but eagle-eyed observers will spot the circular control-room set from “The 3 Musketeers” and “Super Cyclone” (and probably a few other films). If anyone from the Asylum reads these reviews, please let me know where it is?

A brief word about the extras. I may not be the world’s biggest fan of the armed forces, but I appreciate that their training will leave them all looking a certain way – fairly big, strong looking, confident in their environment. The extras in the control room all look like…well, me – doughy guys who’d be more at home in an office than a battlefield. And on the plane is a guy who looks like an Aldi Mandy Patinkin, who goes from calm and staring out the window; to being ready to throw someone out of the plane on the orders of the B-plot bad guy; to calmly staring out of the window again a few minutes later.

The B-plot is absolutely bizarre – a guy with a weird indeterminate “foreign” accent who…I’m struggling to think of a motivation for his actions, honestly. He’s just angry and loses his mind almost immediately – he feels like a weird holdover from a previous rewrite. Anyway, as he’s wildly overacting on the plane, we get a similar overactor in the base. One of the army guys then starts loudly questioning the orders of his Colonel, and only gets worse as the film goes on. His non-approved rescue plan causes dozens of people to die, but is he sorry? Is he heck! In fact, his can’t-do attitude actually results in him implausibly being the hero of the day.

There’s just so much good stuff in this film! Dean Cain, just some guy, takes over flying the plane, but thanks to the pilots (who have the codes to the control panel) being dead, the auto-pilot is jammed on meaning his contribution to actually flying the plane is just sitting there looking unhappy. This also answers the “why don’t they just fly away?” conundrum, because the auto-pilot just flies them round in a circle, so they stay in the ring of volcanoes.

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My notes for the last half of this film is just variations on the line “what the hell is happening?” They think the plan is going down because it’s too heavy, so everyone records their big dramatic speeches to their loved ones…but there’s still 30 minutes to go! Every moment for that last third of the film feels like a crescendo, but it keeps getting sillier and sillier, but played with an entirely straight face by everyone. There’s a hint of a budding romance, but when the guy dies the woman is clearly in shot but doesn’t react at all; there’s talk of a prop plane which can go through the dust clouds, but we don’t see the prop plane til a minute before the end of the film.

After a quick blast of “haha all our friends are dead” the film just sort of stops. I cannot recommend this film highly enough. It’s ridiculous from beginning to end, and is really really entertaining. Get a group of friends and a few drinks and have yourself a fine time.

Rating: thumbs up

Seattle Superstorm (2012)

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America has too many scientists. Want to know how I know this? Well, in just about every movie we’ve reviewed for this site, when some weird disaster happens, there’s always a scientist with an intimate knowledge of the situation within 500 yards of ground zero.

I got excited for a second with this one, because it started right in the middle of the action, and the action looked good. But then I realised who I was dealing with here – SyFy Channel, who never met a nondescript room they didn’t fill with people looking busy pretending to work for some government agency or other. So we go back 9 hours and witness a chain of moderately implausible events that cause a super storm to almost wipe Seattle off the map. Yay, I guess?

A new family is coming together. Dad is an brilliant scientist (of course); his soon to be wife is fairly high up in the Army; her teenage daughter is an environmental activist; and his teenage son is an idiot. Seriously, every single line out of his stupid mouth is about how the daughter is stupid and gas-guzzling cars are the best and the environment is lame, and by the ten minute mark I was praying for a lump of the Seattle Space Needle to fall on his head. They all witness a fragment of some…thing, not a meteor probably…hitting the local market, so are right there for all the big developments. The guy in charge of the federal disaster management group is more bothered about protecting tourism in Seattle than he is about saving lives, so can our heroes save the day without his help?

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You really don’t need me to answer that question. One day they’ll do a film where the good guys fail completely and it will be glorious, but today is not that day. They really weren’t trying when they made this, they probably got the rights to film the Space Needle and went “we need to write a film around this, now!” The special effects are garbage, there’s some properly rotten acting, and how the Army was able to take over the scene in Seattle, within minutes, indicates either extremely lazy writing or that they have way too many members of the Armed Forces in the USA.

Ona Grauer, who had a fairly large role on one of the Stargate series (and a smaller part in “Supernatural”), and Esai Morales, who was on “Caprica”, indicate that this is an in-house production. And they’re by far the biggest names in the cast, as well. Still, the list of nonentities is far from the worst of this film’s problems…

When they had a whispered conversation about tricking the Disaster Management boss, only he was five feet away from them in quiet room, I mentally checked out of this one. If they’re not going to bother, why should I? Anyway, the message of this film is that if you’re having family troubles, put yourself in the centre of a potentially catastrophic disaster and just sort of hang around.

Rating: thumbs down

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Breadcrumb Trail (2014)

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Full disclosure – the album which is the main subject of this documentary, “Spiderland” by Slint, is probably my favourite album ever. I’m predisposed to being interested in this, and if you’re just a documentary fan or a curious music fan, I’d probably suggest listening to some of their music beforehand.

Slint came out of the rich alternative music scene of Louisville, Kentucky in the 1980s, and we’re treated to many of the fliers that we music fans know and love, with hideously named bands, written out as a weird gothic scribble, poorly photocopied. Happy times! At the bottom of these bills starts appearing bands containing one or more of the people who went on to form Slint – Britt Walford, Brian McMahan, David Pajo and Ethan Buckler (Buckler was replaced by Todd Brashear after their first album). Britt and Brian were friends from school, from the age of 11, and the thing that’s surprising to even a long-term fan like me is how young they were when they made all this amazing music.

The documentary covers their relatively short and amazing career. Producer Steve Albini (probably most famous for recording “In Utero” by Nirvana) was on hand for their first album, and everyone is remarkably honest about how his ideas were not great for it, how it doesn’t sound as good as it could, etc. Then there’s tales of college and the rather odd antics of Britt before we get to the creation of “Spiderland”, which appears to materialise out of thin air but is actually the result of endless practice and improvisational sessions in the basement of ma and pa Walford. They are the real stars of the film, by the way, a couple of extremely understanding and supportive parents who don’t mind that their home address was printed on the back of the “Spiderland” album cover, and seem immensely proud that something their son created has inspired so much fan mail and adoration from round the world.

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In terms of how it’s shot, it’s pretty standard, with talking heads interspersed with archive footage, and the occasional bit of washed out super-8-looking film accompanying songs. But there’s stuff in there for the fan which will intrigue – even though they’ve worked together regularly down the years and are currently reformed and playing shows, they’re all filmed separately with the exception of a tiny section of Brian McMahan and Todd Brashear reminiscing about an early tour. Also, Brian McMahan’s brother and Britt Walford are interviewed in the same spot (if the wall behind them is any indicator) but everyone else seems to be in their own home.

The talking heads, all friends or colleagues of the band, all seem astonished at how good “Spiderland” was, with the biggest name being James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem (who also tells a story about a post-Slint Britt getting a job baking erotic cakes). And they’re right, of course, as my first paragraph may have clued you in on. But the band themselves are wonderfully self-deprecating just by their presence – normal looking guys who don’t have any sense of the dark moodiness of the record, and of the almost cult-like worship of it. They’re all just pleased they got to make music with their friends, even if their rather odd personality mix eventually drove them apart.

There may be more exciting stories to tell about music and the people who make it, but there will be very few stories about the creation of better music than Slint made. We get a flavour of a time and place, an insight into one rather unusual and brilliant musician (Britt), several rather normal but equally brilliant musicians (the rest of the band), and the music is absolutely fantastic.

Rating: thumbs up

Trailer Trash: Wish I Was Here

Zach Braff starred as JD, the likeable Doctor in popular American sitcom ‘Scrubs’. Although the show went on too long, and perhaps outstayed its welcome, Braff didn’t want to be stuck in TV land and wanted to make movies (this was just before Hollywood actors decided they didn’t want to be in movies anymore and got back into TV shows). He wrote and directed ‘Garden State’ and also starred in the film, essentially playing himself. World weary, looking for love, fogged down by Anti-D’s. ‘Garden State’ is marmite for many. Some loved the cuteness, that oft-quoted line about The Shins; others saw it as a pretentious bag of shite. Me, I kinda like Braff, he brings a sense of neurotic vulnerability to the screen, evidently influenced by Woody Allen and not too dissimilar to the likes of Michael Cera and more recently Jesse Eisenberg.

‘Garden State’ was ten years ago, and since then Braff hasn’t been on many people’s radar. That was until he announced a few years ago that he would be making a plea to his fans for financial support on Kickstarter. The millionaire actor asked for two million dollars. Worldview Entertainment added several more million to the budget. I suppose the question people must have asked themselves before donating money to the Kickstarter campaign is this – do I want to see another Zach Braff film? Evidently the man still had a lot of fans because the project quickly hit its fundraising target.

Critics wondered why Braff didn’t finance the movie himself. Braff argued that he wanted to maintain creative control. This was his vision. But is it the film his fans want to see? The sales pitch was more or less if you liked ‘Garden State’, you will like this.

‘Scrubs’ is now a forgotten footnote in sitcom TV history, we now like ‘Community’ and ‘Parks and Recreation’, Lena Dunham is probably now this generation’s equivalent to Zach Braff. The teens who mimicked their first forays into love from ‘Garden State’ moments may well have moved on. The people who tweeted and complained about the initial Kickstarter campaign have likely turned their ire onto new targets. This week it is probably aimed towards Macklemore dressing up like a Jewish stereotype.

So what does the trailer for ‘Wish I Was Here’ tell us? Braff still likes sweetly optimistic mildly euphoric indie rock. The character, no doubt partly based on himself, is now older with a family and responsibilities. Kate Hudson plays his wife and he has two wise cracking adorable kids. The trailer shows us that Braff gets a lot of bad news, financial woes, his Father seems to be dying, he has a wayward younger brother. We’re bombarded with familiar faces, Jim Parsons is in the film, so his Braff’s buddy Donald Faison. Overall the trailer seems to suggest that this film is mostly clichéd Californian nothingness, a vague story about life’s cruel lessons.

It seems odd after watching the trailer four or five times I can’t help but wondering about what the money has been used for, how many million does it cost to get Hudson and rising stars like Josh Gad to feature in your film? What the hell has all this money been spent on? At one point Zach Braff test drives an Aston Martin along a sunny coastal road. Was this little gauche detail deliberately included to get the critics to re-bite and once again attack this project, just to whip up a little hype and publicity?

I look forward to seeing how ‘Wish I Was Here’ is marketed up to its release date in July. This trailer has left me undecided as to whether or not I want to go see it.

– RJW

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The Wind Rises (2013)

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Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki

My favourite thing about ‘The Wind Rises’ is the sound effects. The ghastly whooshing sound the devastating earthquake makes, the sound of the group ripping apart. A fire roars through the town, pushed by an ominous wind. The animation itself is peerless, classic Miyazaki, detailed and magnificent, but the sound. I hadn’t had my ears tingled so much in the cinema. I’m not big on Studio Ghibli, I’ve caught a few of Miyazaki’s films, admired the beauty and cleverness, but I never listened properly. The film scores high on sound alone.

The Wind Rises’ tells the story of Jiro Horikoshi, a pioneering engineer who designed planes; several of his blueprints were manufactured into fighter planes for the Japanese war effort during the Second World War. For all the WW2 stereotypes of the Japanese military as kamikazes and sadists, the film reveals the finesse and ingenuity that enabled the country to recover from the cost of war. The film ends at a key point, and Horikoshi’s cartoon self doesn’t get to reflect upon the devastation caused by his death machines for all that long. Horikoshi in real life didn’t see the war as being beneficial for Japan, and four years before it ended predicted that participating in the war would be catastrophic to the Land of the Rising Sun.

As a short-sighted speccy I related to the young Jiro having his dreams dashed, he can’t be a pilot because he can see for millimetres rather than miles, but he comes to believe that he can be the best God damn aircraft designer on the planet. His idol is Giovanni Caproni, the Italian designer, and Jiro meets him in his dreams. Together the master and the apprentice jump aboard elaborate zeppelin bi-plane flying fortresses and have wonderful conversations.

The film jumps quickly into Jiro’s later teenage years at Tokyo University. Whilst on board a train an earthquake hits, it’s really a harrowing scene, Miyazaki’s recreation of a natural hell. There’s a love story that emerges from the ruins, Jiro falls for Naoko, a girl who he helped during the quake. Naoko is bed ridden by tuberculosis, and whilst Jiro continues to pursue his career as a plane designer she spends time recuperating in hospital. Though he loves Naoko, there’s conflict, because Jiro is also a man in love with his dreams. Whilst Naoko lies beside him, he holds her hand, and using his free hand he sketches through the night. Feeling a little stressed, he begins to smoke a cigarette, next door to the woman who he loves with chronic tuberculosis.

Nit-picking aside the film is a triumph, a delight. It manages to make aircraft engineering exhilarating. ‘The Wind Rises’ is playing in Picture House cinemas up and down the UK. Treat yourself to an overpriced cappuccino served by a disinterested film student and marvel at this movie.

– RJW
8/10

The Wind Rises on IMDB

Project X (2012)

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Directed by: Nima Nourizadeh

‘Project X’ was a film I’d put off watching for some time. The trailer suggested it was a found footage American lad movie. Although this is the kind of film I’ve grudgingly adored over, reminding me of adventures from my own lad years when I would frequently puke a vodka and red bull rainbow into a kebab tray every other week, somehow these films get harder to get watch as I become more decrepit. ‘Animal House’, the first ‘American Pie’ film, ‘Road Trip’, ‘Old School’ and ‘Superbad’. They don’t make em’ like they used to. I shake my zimmer frame and bite down on my false teeth at the youth of today.

Critics have labelled the film misogynistic, crude and suggested the lead characters lack any redeemable qualities whatsoever. But more so then any of these type of films I think ‘Project X’ accurately reflects a teenage boys mind-set, more so then even the classics did for my generation. Putting it bluntly it was all about pussy and pints. Aged seventeen I had a one track mind like the rest, and in my social group I was supposedly the sensible shy and sensitive one.

The film is shot through the eyes of a teenage boy; therefore inevitably it will be clunge central. There is no fiercely defiant female character; in fact there is no defined female character whatsoever. The kooky tomboy best friend goes down like all the rest. It’s bleak, but that’s the way it is.

Unsurprisingly the hedonistic chaos has proved popular with thousands of young folk who after watching this movie have responded to a random Facebook invite, turned up to the party and trashed somebody’s house without a second thought, because you know, like, #YOLO.

Directed by Nima Nourizadeh, a visionary in producing iconic mid-noughties music videos such as Hot Chip’s ‘Over and Over’ and Santigold’s ‘L.E.S. Artistes’; any hope of art house flair seems to be diluted by Todd Phillip’s influence as a producer. Now, I like a fair chunk of Phillip’s work, but I see little evidence of Nourizadeh’s work here, he seems rather overshadowed. Several great Hollywood directors have directed Music Videos, most notably David Fincher, and you can see elements of his work that can be traced back to those days where he infiltrated MTV. Aerosmith’s ‘Janie’s Got A Gun’ has a ‘Se7en’ vibe for example. But scenes here don’t seem all that different from what you might’ve seen in ‘The Hangover’ franchise, particularly when all breaks loose towards the end as Molly is well and truly popped.

Thomas, Costa, JB and Dax are the Jim, Kevin, Oz and Finch of their time. And though they share that American high school lad’s desire for legendary status by throwing a helluva party; they also reflect the self-absorbed me generation. Thomas is easily led, the son of two wealthy parents, Costa is the obnoxious irresponsible one, JB is the sensitive overweight geek and Dax is the weirdo. All of them are teenage idiots. So was I when I was there age.

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The real stars of this film are Everett and Tyler, the two overenthusiastic younger kids who act as security for the house party. They provide the same brand of light relief that lapsed authority figures that Seth Rogan and Bill Hader gave us in ‘Superbad’. They provide most of the laughs, but maybe a lot of the jokes just went over my head. I’m think I’m probably now too old to really appreciate this shit…

– RJW
4/10

Project X on IMDB